Posted by: viaprograms | August 9, 2010

An outing to the Zoo and So Much More

Cambodia volunteer, Gabi Yetter, shares her experience traveling to the Phnom Tamao wildlife
refuge.

Her smile still haunts me. Two teeth in a wrinkled, brown face in a body bent double
from years of working in the rice fields. Leaning on a wooden stick, her hands
outstretched, begging for anything we could give. Soaked to the skin after standing in
a pouring rainstorm for an hour on a dirt road leading up to the Phnom Tamao wildlife
refuge.

She was one of dozens. An old woman amidst a host of children, handicapped and
struggling souls. All lining the road to the 30-minute drive which led to the animal park.
They came from the city on weekends, we were told, in hope of gathering a few Riel
from visitors who took pity on their plight.

And take pity we did. How could we not? Here were we, four comfortable westerners
from across the world, where we live in a world of plenty, spending $30 on a day’s
tuktuk ride to the park. How could we close our eyes and our hearts to people who
had broken arms, crippled backs and unseeing eyes and whose sole hope lay in the
kindness of strangers?

It had started as an outing to the zoo and turned into something so much more.

The wild tigers, eagles, bears and elephants at the refuge were magnificent but they
paled in significance to the impact of the human sights we were exposed to, trapped in
a refuge of their own where there was no help.

And, every time we handed over a small offering to a person on the road, the same
thing happened. They smiled. Wrinkled faces softened, tiny brown eyes sparkled and
old men bowed their heads in gratitude.

As we drove along, humbled by the sight, we asked ourselves “What do they have to
smile about?”.

And every time, they smiled.

Later, our tuktuk driver, Sam On, made an unscheduled stop on the way back to Phnom
Penh. He wanted us to see his home.

We pulled into a driveway and walked with him as he tentatively wove a path through
an alleyway in a city suburb. His 8-year-old son stood naked ahead of us as he poured

buckets of water over his body and giggled as we said hello. Sam On led us through a
doorway where his pretty wife greeted us in their home — a dark room half the size of
our bedroom, one tiny window with bars and a thin linoleum floor.

They beckoned us to sit on the floor mat, brought us bottles of cold water and plugged
in two floor fans to cool us. Sam On apologized they had nothing to give us and told
us he lived here with his wife, two children and younger brother and was saving to build
a house on a plot of land he’d bought five years earlier. It was his dream to build this
house and he was hoping to save the $4,000 he needed in the next year or so.

After we spent a few minutes socializing with his family, Sam On whisked us off to see
his land. Bumping along through a garbage-strewn alleyway off the main street, he
pulled up in front of a tiny sandy heap, tightly sandwiched between two ramshackle
buildings. A space smaller than the space I used to park my car back home. This was
his land. The place he hoped to create a home for his family.

Our hearts ached for him and for the people we’d seen on the road to the animal refuge.
Gentle, kind souls who reached out to us and who lived lives so far removed from our
existence. A silence descended upon us as we drove the rest of the way home, trying to
digest and find some semblance of reason in the experiences of the day.

As for Sam On. He smiled.

Cambodia volunteers Skip and Gabi Yetter enjoy a festive meal with their friend Sam On, a tuktuk driver, and his family.

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