Part 3: The Saint of the Deported
Tuesday is a concession to our children: we head to the Phnom Penh Water Park to swim. The water park, on Pochentong Road, is relatively new. It features a swimming pool, water slides, a tube ride, a "beach" with artificial waves, and, according to the signs at the entrance, safely filtered water. There are few people there, and we are the only foreigners.
After a couple hours we summon a tuk-tuk for the trip home. The tuk-tuk is essentially a small wagon grafted on to the rear end of a motorcycle. Long popular in Thailand, they were until recent years rare in Cambodia, where the cyclo and the scooter were the preferred mini-taxis.
When we are about halfway home, we get diverted by the police. Cambodia's renowned Water Festival is underway, and there are so many people heading to the river that unapproved traffic is being re-routed. This apparently includes tuk-tuks, so we're forced to change to motorcycle taxis for the remainder of the ride. We ride three-up on the scooters the rest of the way home.
The popularity of the Water Festival is, to me, something of a mystery. The festival brings massive crowds to the waterfront, and I have an aversion to large groups of people. Beyond that, however, the centerpiece of the entire event - the canoe races - just doesn't strike a chord. Sure, those are some long boats. And yeah, that's a whole bunch of guys, rowing pretty fast. But I have no reason to care who wins. Maybe if I knew some of the racers it would be different: put a Khmer Rouge in one boat and Sam Rainsy in another, and I'll know who to cheer for.
In the evening, we take a short ride around Phnom Penh in the back of a friend's pickup truck. We stop to visit one of their relatives, who has a business making artificial feet. The abundance of landmines in Cambodia has resulted in a horrifying number of amputees, changing the very landscape: in the same way that water carves canyons in the land, hidden explosives have carved the population.
One consequence of this tragedy is that Cambodians have acquired significant expertise in the construction of artificial limbs. Our host notes proudly that his feet are now being exported to other countries, since the quality is excellent; they're cheap and durable. He holds up a sample as I take his picture: the man with three feet.
Driving around the city, one is struck by the sudden differences from one street to the next. Turn off the main roads, and you may find yourself bouncing in darkness down an unlit, rutted dirt alleyway, lined by crude shacks on both sides. Turn back to the main road, and you are suddenly awash in the bright neon and glowing flourescent lights of a new department store.
The following morning, we head north out of the city toward Oudong. At one time the capital of Cambodia, Oudong is popular mainly for its mountaintop temple. The drive takes about an hour. If you want to reach the top, be prepared to climb lots of steps. Have a good supply of small-denomination Cambodian currency ready; as with many such destinations, the approach to the temple will be lined with beggars. You'll also probably have an entourage of helpful children, whether you want them or not: they will follow you all the way up, fanning you and offering tidbits of information about the temple and the customs.
At the beginning of the ascent, we purchase incense and lotus blossoms to lay at the alter of the temple. Halfway up, however, a monkey steals the lotus stems right out of Sean's hand.
The view from the temple is impressive. The landscape below is dotted with forest, rice fields, and the occasional stupa.
Back in Phnom Penh in the afternoon, we visit a man named Bill Herod. For years, Herod has worked tirelessly to... to do what, exactly? I'm looking for a concise way to put it, and the most accurate rendition is too simple to be eloquent: He does good things.
For at least a decade, Herod has done whatever needed to be done, which wasn't being done by anyone else. He is generally regarded as the father of the Internet in Cambodia, having brought the first Internet connection to Phnom Penh in 1997.
Herod's current project is the Returnee Integration Support Program (http://rispcambodia.org/). In 2002, the United States began deporting resident alien Cambodians who had been convicted of felonies. As Herod points out, this is not especially unusual: virtually any country in the world will deport criminals to their home country. What is unique in the case of Cambodian deportees is that many of them have no tie whatsoever to Cambodia. They may have spent years in refugee camps in Thailand, then come to America as children. As refugees, they were eligible for citizenship, but many never bothered to apply. Instead, they remained resident aliens. Some cannot speak Khmer, and have no family and no friends in Cambodia.
Shortly after the deportations began, Herod discussed the difficulties and dangers faced the returnees -- and in some cases, the dangers posed to others by the returnees -- with representatives from several NGOs. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done... but no one particularly wanted to be the one to have to do it. In the end, it was Herod who took the initiative.
Herod is hardly a bleeding heart; he makes no excuses and does not preach. His easygoing manner, however, is deceptive. Faced with a problem, his natural impulse is to do something to alleviate it.
As of November 2005, there are about 1400 Cambodians facing deportation. Herod's hope is that the current policy will be amended to include a case-by-case review. A shoplifter is dealt with in the same manner as a murderer. Without a review process, the policy at times becomes Kafkaesque. The Christian Science Monitor reported that one man was deported for trying to visit his children in violation of a restraining order that had been obtained by his wife. (For details see http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0121/p08s01-wosc.html) CNN cited the case of another man - whose parents had both been murdered by the Khmer Rouge - who had a wife and two young children in Houston, and a job as a construction supervisor. He was arrested for indecent exposure for urinating on the job site. After violating his parole, he served four years in prison, and was then deported. (Details at http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/southeast/11/19/cambodia.returnees/ and http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/features/issues/summer03/strangers.php)
In such cases, the word deported does not convey the magnitude of the punishment. They lose their homes. They lose their families. They lose their life savings. They lose everything, and they are exiled to a country that they do not know... and this can occur after they have already served the sentences for their crimes.
Herod's facility provides lodging for new returnees, providing them with a haven until they can establish themselves in what is, for many of them, an alien land. The building is also a guest house and an internet cafe; this, hopefully, will help to offset some of the group's expenses.
On the way out, I notice two signs which say something about Herod's nature. The first states that drugs are not allowed on the grounds. "If you want a second warning," it concludes, "read this again." The second sign is quite different: it is a flyer seeking information on a young British man, last seen at a nearby bar. The man had disappeared more than a year ago. There was no particular reason why his disappearance should have been Herod's concern. And yet Herod had met with the man's parents, and the flyer was still prominently displayed. In a way, it seems symbolic of Herod's approach to everything: Do what you can. Hold out hope.
This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Princess of Cambodia
Part Two: Banishing Shadows
Part Three: The Saint of the Deported
Part Four: Trips Taken and Not Taken
Part Five: Spare Days
Part Six: North to the Temples
Part Seven: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
Part Eight: Changed City
Part Nine: The Eight Hundred and Nine Stairs