Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 2 – Introduction to Tuit

In the past, we would arrive in Phnom Penh on the 2nd of January and leave for Siem Reap on the 10th , giving Donald enough time to receive permission from the Ministry of Aviation to fly his ultralight. However, last year was different. Those of you who have been following my Cambodian Journal, may remember when we arrived last year, Donald received two bits of disconsoling information from Jean Paul. As I have mentioned more than once, Jean Paul is our best friend in Cambodia but the fatal flaw and one that has only been slightly ameliorated over the years is that Jean Paul speaks very little English and unless it is on a menu, we speak even less French. But Jean Paul can make simple sentences and told Donald, “government no fly and plane no fly” and handed Donald his phone so he could call Eddie to fill in the details.

Apparently, Apsara Authorities, who have control over Angkor Archeology Park had told Eddie he was no longer allowed to fly out of the rice paddy on the road to Bantrei Srei which they had been using since they first set up there in the Spring of 2002 and that the trike has fallen off the trailer and damaged several parts. Stoically, Donald absorbed this news and then on the 8th he received an unexpected phone call from his sister, his brother had died. Donald returned to New York, attended the funeral and the wake, stayed to help the family and returned to Cambodia on January 22. By the time we left Cambodia on February 13 for a trip which would take us to the Kingdom of Arakan in Burma, northeast India, and the Philippines, the plane had been repaired but Aspara”s decision was still in force.

When we returned to Phnom Penh this year, since Donald did not have to deal with the Minister of Aviation or DHL, the experiences of which provided fodder for several years of journal entries, there was no reason to stay so long, especially since we plan to return to Phnom Penh on February 1, check into a long stay hotel and remain there until March 1 when we will travel to Hanoi and explore the northern part of Vietnam. Also, we were anxious to get to Siem Reap because we wanted to see how our young friend Tuit was doing. But who is Tuit?

In the spring of 2002, Donald first brought his ultralight plane to Cambodia to fly for Roland Fletcher”s Greater Angkor Project. At that time, he was allowed to take off and land from the Siem Reap airport, similar to a commercial airline. The airport was a safe and convenient place to park the plane but since he would be flying archeologists as well as students over their areas of interest, he needed to find a landing strip in the countryside, close to the temples and accessible to a road. He and Eddie, his copilot, had been scouring the countryside outside Siem Reap for the perfect place when looking down from five hundred feet above the Angkorian plain, Donald saw a narrow road situated between two paddy fields. Swooping down even closer, they made a pass over the road, actually an expanded paddy dike, scared off a few cows and declared it usable. With one more pass, he lined up the ultralight and came in for a landing. They had found their landing strip, adjacent to the road that led to the temple of Bantrey Srei. Circling above, they must have attracted attention as they were on the ground for only a few minutes when people started to gather around. At that time, Donald and Eddie did not know they had landed in the village of Pom Prei and the people of the village had no idea Donald and Eddie would be returning each January and February for the next eight years.

Even though we did not share a common language, over the years a warm relationship developed between us and the people of the village. When we arrived in early January, they had already harvested their rice and with a lot of extra time on their hands, they would come to the field to visit and to watch what was going on. After all, Donald and Eddie were the “best show in town”. When he was not flying, Donald opened a primitive clinic and patched up their scrapes, burns, and other minor ailments. When a child was ill, we made it possible for that child and his mother to be taken to Angkor Children”s Hospital in Siem Reap. Over the years, several children”s lives were saved, including that of a young woman who was severely burned. Donald was there for several traffic accidents and his ability to administer first aid, to stop the bleeding, discourage anyone from moving the injured person, and calling for help saved a few additional lives.

On designated Sundays, we would come to the field loaded down with clothing, shoes, soap, shampoos and bottles of cooking oil to give away to the people. We did the best we could do but no matter how much we gave away, there never seemed to be enough. When we began, we were helping people who had absolutely not much more than a roof over their heads and a few sacks of rice. Even today, there is still no electricity, the water comes from a well, if they are lucky enough to have one, and for the most part, their only means of transportation is to walk or at best go by bicycle, Even though Siem Reap is only eighteen miles down the road, it might as well be on the moon. It was our pleasure to help these people and I was always troubled by the fact it was not possible to leave anything in place to function for them while we were not there. Then I had the idea, let us send Tuit to school in Siem Reap.

Tuit was only four years old when Donald and Eddie first landed in Pom Prei but as time passed and he became older, he started to hang around them. As he spent time watching and helping out, Donald realized there was something very special about him. Two years ago, he came out to the field with a model of an ultralight he had made from found objects, things discarded in the fields. He would study Donald”s plane, refer back to his model and return the next day with a more refined copy. That winter he continued making and modifying his model until he was satisfied. He surprised them when he showed up with a propeller attached to a battery powered small electric motor and by connecting the proper wires, he made the propeller spin.

One afternoon he picked up a charred stick left over from an earlier fire and began to draw images on a piece of torn cardboard. When Donald approached him, he started pointing to the sky, the ground, and making motions that he understood distance. With a stick, he rendered the paddy field, creating one point perspective on the piece of cardboard. We believed his artistic and mechanical ability was remarkable. Out in the middle of nowhere, without a teacher or anyone to encourage him, not only was he capable but he had the need to express himself. He also helped his family and one afternoon, after forging in the fields, he proudly showed Donald his small collection of toads and grasshoppers. With the appropriate hand motions, Donald was made to understand this was going to be dinner.

When Lorie Carlson from Texas, came to Cambodia for the first time, she, like many other tourists before her, fell in love with the country and the people. But unlike most, she returned to help them. Her tour guide for her first trip was Ponheary Ly, a young woman who had survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. She obviously impressed Lori who returned home, contacted her friends, raised money, quit her job, and in 2006 set up a foundation in Ponheary Ly”s name. Quoting from their brochure, Ponheary ” has made it her life”s mission to locate and be of service to the children of the rural poor in the villages of Siem Reap Province. One by One.” For Ponheary, the challenges faced by Cambodia, especially the poverty, can only be addressed by educating the children.

This foundation works closely with schools and coincidentally runs a program in a school in our village. While traveling through the village of Pom Prei, Lori often saw the ultralight in the field. When she decided she wanted to take a flight, she contacted Eddie only to find out he was no longer able to fly out of the field. Before she contacted Eddie, none of us knew about her or her program. The contact had been made and when I decided I wanted to try to place Tuit in a school in Siem Reap, Eddie contacted her and Ponheary. When they told him no problem they could get him into a school, I was in disbelief, especially since I did not know anything about their program. Nothing happens easily in Cambodia and just because I wanted to find a school did not necessarily mean one would be found. I know Eddie can be charming, but this was just too much to accomplish with one phone call and a personal visit. However, they had a working relationship with Wat Bo school, located very close to the hotel, and they were very happy to be able to place in that school a boy from a village.

Ponheary spoke with the school officials and it was agreed that Tuit could attend the school and he could live on campus with one of the teachers. The only issue remaining was to find out if he wanted to go to school and if his mother would let him go. This led us to another coincidence. Bruce and Kethana Dunnet, she is Khmer and he is from New Zealand, own the Sugar Palm Restaurant, one of the top restaurants in Siem Reap. They have a weekend home on the banks of a small Angkorian pond (trapeang in archeology lingo) located in Pom Prei, close to the field, and since we enjoyed eating there and became friendly with them, Eddie photographed their home from the air. Eddie and I went to their restaurant for dinner and told Kethana about our project. She told us she was friendly with the principal of Tuit”s school and she would contact him and he would contact Tuit and all of us could get together at her place the following Sunday. That Sunday everything went very well. Eddie and I enjoyed a fantastic lunch of traditional Khmer food and when Kethana asked him, Tuit told all of us that he wanted to go to school. Now, we had to find out if Tuit”s mother would let him go and if she would agree how that would affect the family”s finances.

We do not know the details but Tuit”s father is dead which left his mother to raise five children by herself. Tuit is the fourth in line with two older sisters and one older brother. The oldest, a girl, was in an accident when she was young which resulted in a nail being driven through her head. As a result, she was left impaired, requiring constant care. The other sister and the brother are the ones working to support the family. The teacher spoke with the mother and Kethana impressed upon her that Tuit was the future for the family and that if she agreed to allow Tuit to obtain an education her life would be better in the future. From the comfortable vantage point of life in America, it is often hard to realize there are people, like those in Cambodia, who have had very little opportunity to develop a belief in a future, as they have had to struggle just to survive the present. Now that the mother agreed, the school agreed, Tuit was ready to come to Siem Reap and enroll in school. I was most impressed that his mother wanted to see where he would live and it was agreed we would pick them both up and bring them into town on the day he registered at the school.

By this time, Donald had returned from New York and on the designated day, Eddie drove and the three of us went to pick them up. When we arrived, Tuit was waiting for us alongside the road and we realized they lived in a little one room, windowless concrete structure donated by a restaurant in Siem Reap. Mother and son were both dressed in their best clothes and even though his shirt and pants were too small for him, his clothes were clean. A squadron of people had gathered to send him off and before he got into the car, one of the young boys took off his flip flops and gave them to Tuit, as if they had been sharing the same pair of shoes. This was the mother”s first ride in a car and when she became both scared and nauseous, Tuit, who had often driven with Eddie, took her hand and consoled her, after all this was a big adventure for all of us.

Arriving at the school, Tuit and his mother met the principal and the office staff. Even though they were from the countryside, they were treated cordially and I think with respect. After a short conversation, the principal, in broken English, told us that he was now enrolled, leaving me quite excited that this had finally been accomplished. We walked to the back of the school compound and found a concrete building. A teacher and a young man were living there and they were making room for Tuit. His mother looked around and apparently was satisfied with the arrangements. Then it was time for the next event: lunch. We brought them to a restaurant adjacent to the market and with help from the waiter, they ordered lunch, a plate of rice with chicken and both mother and son enjoyed a coca cola. It is not unusual for country people to eat with their fingers and nuances of confusion passed between them until Tuit suggested they eat the food with a spoon and fork.

The next event was a shopping spree in the market. We found a woman selling clothes that also spoke a little English. With her help, Tuit was outfitted for school, a uniform of blue shorts and white shirts along with white sneakers and socks. He also needed clothes for after school. With the sales woman”s help, Tuit understood that he could select whatever he wanted, which led to the selection of one pair of jeans and one shirt. How do you translate that you are on a shopping spree which means more than one item. He was then encouraged to pick out more clothing. All of this was a new experience, especially when I suggested underwear. He had been trying on the pants behind a counter and when he was handed a package of underwear to try on for size, he gave his mother a quizzical look, shrugged as if to say ok I can wear this if you want me to. With the sales woman translating, I told his mother to go around the market and find an outfit, which certainly made her happy. What is necessary to understand is that Tuit never had new clothes in his entire twelve years and he never wore socks or underwear. He never had his own shoes, wore nothing more substantial than a pair of rubber flip flops and now he had his own pair of sneakers. We also bought him a back pack and colored pencils, crayons, and paint along with several pads of paper.

The afternoon of shopping complete, we drove them back to the village. We planned to pick Tuit up the next morning and bring him to school where he would begin his new life. Still not believing this was going to be possible and not ready to believe his mother would actually let him go, I did not want him to return home with all of his new clothes, especially his shoes, as I was afraid it would all be taken from him. I feared the gains in the present would allow them to forget the potentially greater benefits waiting in the future. He did return home in his original clothing and prophetically printed across his t-shirt was the phrase “this is my lucky day”. As for Tuit and the rest of us, it certainly was. But would he be there in the morning to return to Siem Reap, his new school, his new life. Tomorrow would tell.


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