Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cambodia is Magical

Photos: Ed Decker and Tony Lisle; Susan Hagadorn; Charley Todd and his adopted grandson.

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Cambodia Diary - 2008 - Final Blog Entry

Thank goodness I got to the airport early. It's a mob scene at the EVA ticket counter as folks have been left stranded since typhoon Wong raged across the Pacific yesterday. All EVA airways flights connect through their hub in Taiwan and most of the island has been shut down due to the storm. As I wait in the endless check-in line, I have plenty of time to reflect upon my ten days in Cambodia.

I first think of the local people I have met and then my thoughts drift to the tireless NGO (non-government organization) crusaders who have spent time with me. Susan Hagadorn, Charley Todd and Tony Lisle -- all of whom are nothing short of magical.

You heard about Susan during our wild-ride to Kep and then again when we were in Kompot visiting the small family farm she helps subsidize. What I did not tell you about this amazing woman is that she has also uprooted her life in the US to remain here in order to provide much needed strategic planning to help Cambodian's rebuild their social infra-structure. Susan also operates the amazing Butterflies Garden Restaurant in Siem Riep Here you can dine in a beautiful garden as butterflies rest lazily on your shoulder or fly freely from flower to flower. Susan hires local children to bring these stunning creatures to her garden. With some of the best food in town, the restaurant itself is set up as a venture to train young locals and provide them with gainful employment in the hospitality industry. Even more amazing is that Susan lets them run the place as if it were their own. By offering decent salaries and a profit-sharing program she has instilled a pride of ownership that empowers her employees. They are now entrepreneurial members of their community. Magical.

Charley Todd changed my mind about Rosé wine at my first dinner in Phnom Penh. I believed all Rosé to be sweet and syrupy. Once the cork was popped on a French version of this blend my taste buds were transformed forever. Besides Charley having this extraordinary insight about good wine, he is the Executive Director of the Cambodia Living Arts Project -- The mission of this project is to support the post Khmer Rouge revival of Cambodian traditional art forms and to inspire contemporary artistic expression. Charley told me about an opera, "When Elephants Weep", premiering in December 2008, a new children's book being written by Chath Pier Sath (who you met in my previous posting from Kep), a new film written and directed by Cambodia Living Arts Founder, Arn Chorn-Pond, a youth music tour playing this month at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, traditional dance troupes, arts education classes, a new recording studio nearly completed, and a long list of inspiring arts projects in the pipeline. Like Susan, Charley also helps support a local family in ways that extend beyond charity and facilitate independence. Magical.

Finally, there is Tony Lisle, Country Coordinator for Cambodia UNAIDS. A whirlwind of energy, fountain of knowledge, and a unwavering man of committment. As we dined together at the legendary Foreign Correspondents Club - - I listened closely as he passionately told of his work to control the spread of and ultimately eradicate HIV here. The good news is that the Cambodian government has embraced HIV prevention and education in a manner that connects to the local culture. While there is still much work to be done, things seem to be moving in the right direction. However, a formidable challenge is the local sex industry. With so many Cambodian's earning as little as $100 a month, sex is a sure thing that many can deploy to make ends meet. Hints of carnal energy are evident throughout Phnom Penh: when you hire a taxi, shop the market place, tour the sites, and even just stroll through town. Getting the HIV prevention word out, dispensing clean needles and distributing condoms is a persistent challenge.

As we chat, Tony's voice suddenly rises with heightened emotion. He is describing a recently diagnosed Cambodian friend who has late stage HIV. A pervasive fear about early testing still exists here so for many, opportunistic infections take hold and are often irreversible. Treatment for acute conditions are not always available in Cambodia. Tony has arranged for his friend to be airlifted to a hospital in Bangkok yet sadly, I learn the next afternoon, the man succumbed just hours before transport was to occur. As he does day in and day out, Tony uses every available resource at his disposal to help. True to life, sometimes time is not on your side. Yet, he never gives up, he just works harder. Magical.

After almost an hour, it's my turn at the ticket counter. My seat has been given away. I don't panic, I know exactly what to do. Luckily, I have some extra cash and I slide it across the counter. I am handed a boarding pass. I am on my way home. Magical.

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