Saturday, June 9, 2012

Cambodian Orphanage: Smiles All around

I wrote this on my phone two days into my trip to Cambodia...

Man, these kids can smile!

I'm talking glued on, make your face sore kind of smile. They smile while doing the dirty work of preparing bags for mushrooms to grow--one of their only sources of income. They smile while studying and learning. They eagerly raise hands to answer questions. I think I grew out of that phase by age six...
In comparison to what I seemingly have, they have nothing. And yet they smile, they laugh, they dance, and they play. There is no hint or sign that they are missing out on my entertainment or living essentials.

I'm left to think: what am I doing wrong?

For all that I have, I don't think I've shown the amount of genuine, true happiness in a month that these kids live every day.

They have no x-box, no computer games, and almost no prospects for the future.

They have a couple of beat up sports balls for entertainment. I've spent the hours in between my sight seeing, research, and interviews, joining in their play and their work.

You know what? I've spent a lot of time smiling. A ton. My face hurts I've smiled so much. A part of me wants to stay forever and  de-jade-ify myself.

My greatest worry about returning home is letting myself slip back into my normal routine. It never made me smile this much.

I was never this person before. I laughed when people mentioned these types of experiences, dismissing them out of hand.

What was I thinking?

I'm standing in extreme humidity, sweat running down my back, the sun scorching hot, the bottoms of my feet charring on the rough concrete.

A dozen kids, from 4 to 15 stand around me laughing, shouting in heavy accents, ”You monkey! You monkey!”

Ordinarily I think I would've been too tired, too hot. Today though, I growled and smiled. ”Me big monkey. Soon, you monkey!” And I swipe the ball that was thrown inches too low over my head.
An adorable little girl breaks into a fit of giggles. ”Oh no! Me monkey now!”

I tickle her before taking her spot in the circle around her.

At least I'll get a chance to breathe!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Holy Ground

I think those who know me will agree that, despite whatever narcissistic musings and rants I may go on, fundamentally, I’m not a pusher or worshiper of intense, meaningful moments. I'm not prone to looking off into a sunset with glazed eyes whilst pondering the deep, meaningful nature of a butterfly passing by (don't get me wrong, I stare plenty, and I'll hint at epic thoughts, but I’m usually pondering the true nature of the filling inside a Twinkie or some such).

I guess I’m just saying, deep, life-altering experiences have always been in the Bible or stuck in someone else's sentimental log-book.  I've been stuck in the cold, harsh, and often dull reality of a paradigm that's formed, more than anything, out of a need to satisfy my boredom.

I only explain this to preface an experience that will no doubt come across overly-sentimental and almost preachy in nature. That stated: you have been warned!

Before going to Cambodia, Dean Ellis (my kind mentor who recruited me to write the book) mentioned in passing that he believed this would be an experience that would fundamentally change my life and how I view the world, forever. A part of me scoffed at this notion while a part of me skeptically hoped he was right. I suppose it will take a lot more time to see how these experiences settle into the fiber that is me before any real judgment on the matter can be rendered.

At about five o'clock in the evening, standing on a muddy grass embankment, overlooking miles of rich, green rice fields with rain-laden clouds hanging low in the sky, I had the opportunity to listen to a women recount in painful and poignant detail many of her experiences during the Cambodian genocides of the 70's.

While listening to her stories I couldn’t help but be moved, not because the tragedy of it all, but by who she was. Perhaps I’m jaded or simply a negative person, but I find it difficult to be moved to think someone is extraordinary due to having survived difficult circumstances. Hardships find us all at some point—though I won’t pretend most of us ever have to handle anything to the degree she experienced. I don't particularly believe surviving, simply making it through the tough times, makes someone special. To me, it means they held on. Admirable, definitely, but it’s to be hoped that we’d all do that, at the least. What we do after hardships, who we become and what we do as a result of those tough times, say more for a person's character than surviving ever could.

Perhaps my beliefs on such matters are why I was so moved as I listened to the heart-wrenching and tragic stories of this woman's life.

It wasn't the awful stories of countless friends and family members being brutally slaughtered or the hardships of her daily life... Those are sad stories, tragic stories, but this woman was so much more than someone to pity or to praise for simply hanging on.

As she looked across the fields, which by some have been labeled 'the killing fields,' the first and only tear during the telling of her story appeared while she recounted the last time she saw her father before he died.

Something about seeing another person’s emotions has a way of boiling my own to the surface. At that moment I think I began to understand why this woman became who she is today and why I admire her.

Many people survived the atrocities that took place in Cambodia during the 70's, but she grew and became something so much more as a person because of them.

This woman now runs an orphanage which is much more than the name implies. Using her own meager means, she struggles and scrapes by, trying to provide chances for dozens of kids and adult workers who would otherwise be stuck in lives of abject poverty with no hope of escaping.

It’s an absolute miracle that she’s been able to make this place work. She told me dozens of stories about when the money just wasn't there to pay for so many people to eat, to pay the rent on the building, and yet she persevered and struggled, set up internship opportunities so the kids could get an education, learn English, and prepare for college. The list of things this woman has done, and the challenges she went through to accomplish them, are astounding.

I have heard very few stories of people who have struggled so much for so long to obtain something for someone else. She has dedicated her life, not to her personal gain—she could have long since been rich if she kept her money for herself—but to the gains and potential gains of others. It’s not like she’s some rich philanthropist, tossing pocket change at a problem that touched her heart strings. She’s a bad month from living in the gutter. This is who she is. She gives everything she has, not just what’s convenient.

I am in awe.

Perhaps something inside me will never be the same. I hope so.

As she stared across the fields, finishing her story, Dean solemnly bowed his head and said, “This place, this is holy ground.”

I stopped and pondered what he said, trying to decide how to process the statement.

I’ve heard such things said before about areas where people have died, where atrocities have occurred. Such statements have never sat well with me. Perhaps the place is holy, but not because the evils which took place there, not because of the lives lost. I don’t believe a graveyard is inherently holy. No, if this is holy ground it is but because the type of person those experiences forged.

It took me a while to decide if I was okay with his statement. I thought and pondered. I stared meaningfully off into a dying sunset in a foreign land, surrounded by the squalor of third-world conditions.

The air felt as alive as the greenery that dotted the landscape. Several people stood nearby, tears in their eyes. They’d all been in the camp. They’d all experienced a living hell I can barely imagine but which I now have to attempt to capture in my own, meager and lacking words. It did not take long to see that each of these people is incredible in so many ways. They lacked selfishness and so many of the concerns so common in my everyday life.

I have no doubts.

Is this a holy place? Yes… I’m inclined to agree.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The "Why" of My Trip To Cambodia

I've gotten several question lately about why I went to Cambodia. I figured I probably ought to explain!

A few months back I was asked if I'd be willing to write a book to help raise money for an orphanage in Cambodia. The book follows the lives of two women who survived the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge Regime under Pol Pot in Cambodia during the 1970's. Incidentally, these women went on to start an orphanage that is taking care of some of the most amazing kids I've ever met.

The women themselves are nothing short of saints or angels here on earth. 

Below is a rough draft of the beginning of the book. Feel free to give it a gander and see what I've been working on!

From My Empty Stomach (Rough Draft)

In 1968, King Sihanouk of Cambodia mandated that all government officials serve as members of the army reserve to counter a growing insurgence of civil unrest. People met in the forests and in secret buildings in the cities, organizing an uprising to overthrow their King.

Over the course of the next two years the country was thrown into chaos. Infrastructure was destroyed by rioting demonstrators. They burned down government offices, broke into private businesses and looted shops, stores, and anything that crossed their paths.

They screamed their anger and defiance of King Sihanouk, demanding he leave his throne so they could re-shape their country how they saw fit. In the process they slowly destroyed the country around them.

From the destruction of their protests rose the Khmer Rouge, a group of black-clad militants bearing guns and had bandoliers of ammo slung across their bodies.


At the beginning of the rebellion Botevy was just a small girl, the oldest of six children—three girls and three boys. She was born in 1961, at Prash Ponlear, Kom Pong Ro district, in the Svay Rieng province of Cambodia, next to the border of Vietnam. Her father, by the King’s mandate, was drafted into the military and became a general in camp of Pursat. He was called to fight the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian army gathered near her home to deal with the rising insurgency.


The sun hung low over the horizon, casting a golden glow across the endless green rice fields of the Svay Rieng province in Cambodia, and peeking through the windows of Botevy’s home. Her father sat at his desk in his military uniform, his back straight, pen in hand as it danced quickly across the page before him.

Botevy tentatively stepped forward. “What are you writing?” she asked.

Without stopping, he explained, “A letter to your cousins and their families. There’s going to be a very big fight tonight and it won’t be safe. I’m telling them what to do.”

“Men with guns like ours are coming?” They had a large cannon set up in the front yard. Her home had become an impromptu military headquarters for the area. While most buildings nearby were formed of grass thatch, sticks, and bamboo, their home was constructed of thick concrete and surrounded by concrete walls. The choice to headquarter there was logical from all points, especially given her father’s position as General.

“Men with guns,” he nodded. “But not like ours. Smaller.”

She pondered what he said for a moment before asking, “What do they need to do?”

He stopped writing and set aside his pen for a moment. He turned to face her. “Do you remember what we did?”

Botevy’s face scrunched up as she thought. “We put our things in the ground?”

“Exactly!” he said with a smile, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Just like we did, they need to hide their valuables, bury them in the ground where nobody can find them.” He gave her a bare smile and turned back to the page he was working on and continued writing.

He was a kind man, with stark features less weathered than most of his countrymen due to spending most of his time inside a classroom as a teacher as opposed to out in the elements, working the fields or doing construction. He was mostly bald and thin, and had lately seemed weighed down by the stresses of the rebellion he’d been drafted to fight against.

“Please, go find your mother for me,” he said. “I’m sending the family to stay with her uncle tonight, out in the country.”

Botevy nodded, practicing a solemn face like the one she’d seen her father wearing so much lately, and ran off to find her mother.


Several hours later, the whole family, minus her father, was gathered at her uncle’s house. The sun had since set and stars shown bright and clear across the unpolluted sky. The air was humid and hot in the rainy reason, even in the dark, and mosquitos and other bugs fairly filled the air.

The house they were in was small. Much too small for the number of people clustered in and round it, but they had little choice. Botevy wouldn’t complain. Besides, she got to be around her cousins. They talked in whispers about the forthcoming danger, what they thought might happen, often boasting about what incredible feats their fathers or brothers might accomplish.

The family camaraderie was interrupted when gun shots rang out across the rice fields, over the meandering dirt roads and through stands of bamboo and palm trees.

Botevy, along with a few of her cousins, ran from the house to see what was happening. Adults yelled at them, but the words were lost on the wind and in the din of the fighting.

Silhouetted by moonlight, a large man stood on the dirt road between several of the nearby village homes, partially obscured by the thick foliage, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Everyone, run to the pond. Hide beneath the bamboo!” He continued to scream this over and over, standing in plain sight, despite the spark and bang of guns fired nearby.

Botevy ran back to her family with her cousins and relayed what she’d heard, then quickly grabbed one of her little brothers and sisters in each hand. Her other siblings and several cousins followed her lead. They crouched low, fearing stray bullets, and whisked their way across the yard, pausing by the road, daring a glance both ways before darting across.

The stands of bamboo that lined the pond were only a few dozen feet away, swaying in a light breeze as if they were carefree and oblivious to the violence that had erupted nearby. Botevy, the siblings she’d brought along, and several cousins skittered between the thickets and rushed to hide in the small track of dirt beside the swelled banks of the pond.

The sound of gunfire had grown to deafening pops by now, and streams of iridescent light streaked above, firing in a dozen different directions. Occasionally men cried out in pain an there were thumps and grunts as bullets found their homes in human flesh.

Most of the children cried or whimpered. Botevy did her best to quiet them. She was the oldest, after all, at least of the children who’d made it to the pond. Several adults from the village huddled nearby, doing what they could as well, but it was her job to lead by example. She put on a brave face.

Somewhere in the darkness she heard her mother call out. “Avy! Avy! Where are you?”

“We’re at the pond, mom!” Botevy called back. A part of her wanted to rush to her mom, to bring her to where they sat, but she was paralyzed by fear and held back by the adults of the village.

Though the distance between the pond and the house was no more than several hundred feet, minutes passed without a sign of her mother. Fear built up inside and her terror was realized as a loud wail of pain broke the air. “Oh, oh… Help. Help me! I… I’ve been shot...” Botevy’s mother’s said. He voice undulated between shriek and desperate whisper, as if she’d lost all control. Over the broken fragments of her mother’s pleas came the high-pitched wail of her baby brother, just an infant, no doubt being carried in his mother’s arms.

Botevy began to rise, despite the bullets streaking overhead.

“Don’t move,” one of the large men of the village said, leveling a stare at Botevy. “I’ll go get them.”

Botevy reluctantly crouched back down and sat anxiously as the man rose from the protection of the bamboo.

By now there were more than ten people huddled by the pond’s edge. They all looked on intently as the man crawled toward the sound of Botevy’s mom and the crying baby.

Thinking was difficult. Beside the pained cries of her mother and baby brother, and all the worries that entailed, the children around her also cried and whimpered. All these noises combined with the sound of the gunfight to make for a deafening cacophony. In that moment, Botevy wanted to cover her ears, curl up and pretend the world didn’t exist. But she couldn’t, not yet. The children needed help and reassurance.

Just as she thought this, Botevy’s grandfather turned and hushed them. “You must be quiet,” he said softly, but firmly. “If you are not quiet we cannot help your mother, do you understand?”

Sodden eyes and tear-streaked faces nodded back to the weathered old man. Botevy used her hands to cover the mouths of the youngest, quieting them because they did not understand. Soon the group quieted to a dull whimper.

A few moments stretched out like an eternity as they waited. Eventually the man returned with Botevy’s mother and baby brother. There was blood. So much blood. It drenched the lower half of her brother’s body and stained her mother’s clothes.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” her mother said. “We’ll be okay.”

Given the amount of blood it was hard to believe. But the nearby adults all rushed in to help. They cleaned off her mother and brother. A bullet had gone through her baby brother’s leg and lodged into her mother’s hand. Painful and bloody… but not deadly. Someone retrieved a medicinal wrap and wound it about both of the injuries.

They waited out the darkness under the shelter of the bamboo, often jumping and flinching at the sound of each shot. But after a while even that terror wore to a dull threat, and exhaustion slowly took the children. They dropped off, one by one, to sleep.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Adventures in Cambodia: Episode #1

Adventures in CambodiaEpisode #1: Don’t Teach Them to Punch

*Quick contextual note - I spent a good deal of time at an orphanage while in Cambodia. These experiences relate to my experiences with those incredible children.*

I like mixed martial arts. In my opinion, no other sport quite grasps the contest of skill, careful technique, and willpower like two guys trying to make sure they aren't the one that ends up a broken, bloody mess on the ground at the end of the contest.

So, naturally, when I saw the orphan kids in Cambodia drop into a Muay Thai stance and begin throwing air punches and kicks, I had to join in.

My first order of business was to carefully correct their stances, showing them how to shift their hips to get the most power from a punch—literally. It was like my own little martial arts school. Thirty-some-odd children crouched in position on burning hot pavement in ninety-percent humidity, throwing, slowly at first, then at full speed, punches with practiced technique.

Memo to self: When surrounded by roughly thirty orphan kids, don't let even one show you how hard they can hit.

I made that mistake my first day in Cambodia. It started with one punch. Then the pack mentality kicked in. After all, nobody likes to feel left out! Kids from four to eighteen decided they needed to show me how strong they were, how well they’d internalized my lesson. Sweet and innocent little girls pounced like pumas, viciously pummeling my abs while the older boys did their best to make my arms go numb.

I smiled. I took it. I mean, I’d volunteered for this. I couldn't complain. Of course, that was when I thought it was a one-time occurrence. I hadn't realized all the kids would take to the behavior as some special novelty and decide it would make an excellent greeting and a funny action to do in passing for the duration of my stay.

Well, the cat was out of the bag, as the saying goes. Might as well embrace it! I smiled and flexed and let them wail away at me, never admitting just how hard some of the older boys could hit. After all, these kids don’t live a sedentary life, stuck inside playing X-Box all day or staring at computer screen. They work to help support the orphanage. Every muscle in their bodies gets regular use. The muscles I dedicate to working out they use with practical application. For them, it’s not one hour in a gym. It’s a life-style. And even though they are by no means big, they’re definitely in shape.


So the kids obviously had some knowledge of Muay Thai, our little session proved as much. Well, they also had an enthusiasm for WWE style wrestling which became apparent in their mock fights, announcer, ref and all. But much to my dismay they had absolutely no knowledge of Jiu Jitsu, my favorite discipline. That just wouldn't do.
Step in teacher Brandon.

Memo to self #2: Don't teach kids how to do a proper choke hold... Let alone three or four styles of chokes along with arm bars and other bone breaking, ligament tearing moves.

Given new bodily harm knowledge, I'd suddenly created several dozen young assassins anxious to test their new-found abilities at every turn.

Oh no... What have I done?

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or so I’ve heard. I guess I'll be impervious to pain now. I can’t complain about that!

But it wasn’t my pain that caused me to worry. Naturally the kids had to test their skills on one another. Suddenly I found myself running around, stopping ten year olds from breaking arms and making each other pass out.

Congratulations Brandon, you volunteered for a full time job of saving little kids from serious bodily harm. What happens when you leave? Probably should have thought that through…


I say all this as if I might go back and change what I'd done. Like I’d go back and approached the situation differently. But truthfully, I probably wouldn't. As painful and tiring as I made things for myself (and ignoring the potential dangers of my lessons), these experiences are MY special connection with a bunch of incredible kids. With such a special group of individuals, there is nothing I'd rather have than my own trademark interaction to be remembered by. Even if it ends with a few bruises.


Memo to self #3: In the future, when in the company of a bunch of kids—be they orphans or local youth—bring a ball or teach a musical instrument or something. :-)