Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Back to Cambodia! 2009... or, the best-planned lays of mice and men...

3 November, 2009, on the plane...

Back to Cambodia! 2009... or, the best-planned lays of mice and men...

Our plane lands in Phnom Penh in 3 hours... how many times have i made this journey over the past 19 years? in all its forms... by plane, by land, even by sea... going back to the vortex, back to the "Heart of Darkness" where so many have struggled and died; Where India meets China - IndoChina, a vast karmic swirling over millenia of human history, along the banks of the mighty Mekong River, where cultures have met and clashed and mingled, where "elephants have fought and trampled the grass" of the common people over untold generations.

This trip is special. It was conceived to be the "royal welcome home!" for Ms. Lauryn Galindo, my hanai sister, who spent the past 3 years as a political prisoner of the Bush Regime. Lauryn was put in prison and her home confiscated by Homeland Security and the Treasury Department for... what crime? In truth, for "blowing the whistle" on the people in Cambodia who were trafficking in stolen baby girls - and who had close links to President George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the "Religious Right." That this could happen to one so pure of spirit and dedicated to service as Lauryn, after so many years of service to the most vulnerable children and women of Cambodia. Presiding over the adoption of almost 1,000 orphaned "waiting children, and channelling uncountable dollars into aid programs in Cambodia to educate women and support families and communities, she was like Mother Theresa - with better hair! Dancing Hula and wearing only silk and jewels, she "kept her eyes on the prize" as instructed by her Tibetan Lama and dedicated herself to getting children out of the orphanages before they either died or worse - were sold into slavery of the cruelest kinds. for years she labored to save the lives of these children, at great risk and hardship.

But then Lauryn's mother, Grandma Lou (Louise Smith) was in increasingly failing health, and it came time for her for move from Seattle to Hawaii where Lauryn could look after her while also caring for another 95-year-old lady, June. So as Lauryn's birthday approached, 29 October, it because necessary for her to cancel her Cambodia trip. But by then, so many people were signed on for this journey, that i decided to carry on and continue to Cambodia. After all, it was the 19th anniversary of our getting the first children adopted from Cambodia, and it coincided with the annual Water Festival and Boat Races which i had personally helped the President of Cambodia re-start 19 years earlier, in 1990, after a 17-year hiatus due to the war in Southeast Asia... Also, it would be an opportunity to prepare for the 20th anniversary next year, when we could do it RIGHT, including many more people who have been waiting for an opportunity to return.

We would make this journey as part of Airline Ambassadors International, accompanied by more of our returning adoptees, now grown and educated and ready to participate in this work of healing the planet.

Grandmr Lou arrived in Hawaii quite ill, suffering from neglect in Seattle at the hands of people who said "Why bother with that abdominal CT scan - she's so old, even if we found something wrong we wouldn't do anything about it anyway!" So by the time she required emergency surgery in the middle of the night a few weeks after arriving in Hawaii, she was so debilitated that she died 2 days later... from a simple hernia repair. Her intestines had become permanently stuck in an inguinal hernia - which required a simple repair. It's likely that she would have survived quite nicely if she had had the surgery when the symptoms first appeared months earlier in Seattle while she was still strong.

She died on Lauryn's birthday. I flew straight to Kona to be with Lauryn, arriving a few hours after Grandma Lou died. I spent the next 48 hours with Lauryn, saying goodbye to Lou's "earthly vessel" which had served her so well for almost 95 years. Her mind was clear and bright until the end, and her spirit strong and cheerful. she was a lovely person, an Army nurse, the widow of an Army Colonel.

19 years earlier, at the age of 76, Grandma Lou had hopped on a plane to Cambodia to help Lauryn and me move 30 Khmer orphans from Phnom Penh through Bangkok and on to their adoptive families in the USA. She arrived in Bangkok in late 1990 and immediately had an infant thrust in her arms, and for the next 2 weeks presided over rooms in Bangkok's Reno Hoel where all the children transited, the "kids from Hell" flying to the "relative Heaven" of their adoptive families. At 76! What a trooper!!! That was Grandma Lou. I am honored to have known her. Grandmother of Thousands.

While her body was still in the morgue at Kona Hospital, we anointed her with fragrant oils and placed around her the flowers of the Champa tree - the exquisite tropical magnolia, the only flower that the Cambodian Goddess Dancers wear in their hair. Barbara prayed the Tibetan prayers and Alana, who cared for her in her final weeks, and Lauryn and I prayed and caressed her hair and her hands and said goodbye to the precious Mommy. we are all grateful that Lauryn could be with her at the moment of death.

I wish i could have been with my own mother when she died. I had said goodbye to my own mother's body 9 months earlier in California, also in the morgue, with Cambodian family, 2 doctors and a nurse from my refugee-camp days, lighting incense and candles. Dr. Kathryn Elizabeth Campbell Susott, MD, met an unfortunate end, forced from her home of 15 years by my mentally ill brother and his money-hungry new wife, into a locked Alzheimer's ward where she died 19 days later of abuse and neglect, pleading for her life, while i was barred from being with her by a court order... but that's another story for another blog. Suffice it to say that i promised to sue everyone involved in hastening her demise and keeping me from her, and i always try to keep my promises.

So on THIS trip, Dawn Mardya Millay represents for me the fruit of my labors: born with a cleft face which required numerous surgeries, raised in Maine by a single mom in a household of adopted siblings, several of them blind or with even more serious challenges, now a graduate of the prestigious New England School of Photography in Boston, a world-class photographer who has already journeys to Greece and Guatemala, documenting masterfully with compelling visuals. (for a treat, visit www.mmillayphotography.com)

"Mardy" was one of the first 10 children to be adopted from Cambodia in early 1990. When I arrived in January 1990, the Viet Namese had just exited the country after a 10-year occupation (having liberated it from the Khmer-rouge rein of horror 1975-1979 when up to 3 million of Cambodia's 8 million people perished through execution, forced labor, starvation, and disease.

Mark Kam Sung, the filmmaker, accompanied me in 1990 on my first excursion into Cambodia, one of our team of 2 journalists and 2 other doctors. On that trip, i was presented by Mme. Vaddey, the director of the Nutrition Center Orphanage in Phnom Penh, with the first 10 orphans whom we wanted to match with families longing to adopt children. Mme. Vaddey told us that (Kam's other journeys and films, website)

Receiving me at the airport today will be one of my all-time best friends, "Lady By", Mme. Eng By Pheng. She was one of half a million Khmer refugees who in 1979 massed at the Thai-Cambodian border, seeking food and medicine and to be reunited with famiy after the horror of the Communist years. of these, 30,000 were forced at gunpoint over remote jungle cliffs back from the Thai border into Cambodia. "Lady By", with a baby on her back and a baby in her belly, was one of the survivors, and I met her in the Khao I-Dang Holding Center for Illegal Aliens, at the time the largest Cambodian city in the world and the largest refugee camp (125,000 souls). Working together in the Pubic health of this huge camp, we became fast friends forever. After raising her daughters in the USA and having a successful career in research, she has returned to Cambodia to make a life and to teach.

Lim Huy (Bou Ming Ty), a young man i met first in 1979 when he was an orphan starving on the border, having watched helplessly as his mother starved to death in a Khmer-Rouge hospital. He grew up in Paris, became an optician, married a lovely Khmer woman whose family he has set up in an auto-repair business in Cambodia. before my own mother's terrible death, his was the saddest story i'd ever heard. Now he and i share a bond i never expected, having been unable to save our dear mothers.

Christy and Harold, young retirees seeking to make a difference and coming to check things out in Cambodia in case it "captures" them as it has so many.

I came to Cambodia for the misery and illness and trauma - and i stayed for the beauty and the joy and the HOPE... now, all these years later, my refugee friends are returning, the adoptees are returning, and i can savor the sweet rewards of having helped a few people regain their lives and grow into people who can help me in my life's work.

My godson Chris Grace and his friend, newly graduated from college, on their adventure through Asia.

Robbie, on his second visit to Cambodia. he joined us on 2007 when we brought a film crew to Cambodia to investigate why Auntie Lauryn is a hero in Cambodia, awarded gold medals for her service to the children, and what happens to abandoned children if the orphanages cannot afford to receive them since adoptions to the USA were halted following the Bush/Ashcroft caper which put Lauryn in prison. Sophea/her mom, her girlfriends, etc

So i may hit the ground running - going straight to the river for a pass or two in the canoe as they paddle upstream past the 2 million people jamming the riverbanks between racing heats.... to reprise my favorite role, the "Neak raum kandal Tuk!" the 'person who dances in the middle of the boat", usually a man in his wife's dress clowning for the spectators who throw fruit and cheers to encourage the paddlers. a couple more hours of calm, and then... thrust into the limelight again! the adulation my reward to my year of commitment to Cambodia's children, a sure cure for my "attention-deficit", giving me enough nourishing attention to last for however many years until my next joyous wild ride!

Airline Ambassadors International (www.airlineamb.org), for whom I'm the Medical Director - and "Night Clown!" to distinguish myself from the "Other" Medical Director, Dr. Patch Adams, the first Board Member of Airline Ambassadors. I hosted Dr. Patch and 30 clowns to Sri Lanka 3 months after the 2004 tsunami which killed a quarter million people, We circled Sri Lanka in a week, giving people a reason to smile again after having lost their families and their homes. Preparing to meet the clowns at the airport, I learned that on an Airline-Ambassadors clown mission, all the clowns travel in costume, and each one has a character, a persona. I asked myself, did I have a character that consistently makes people laugh? Well, it had to be my "10-foot-tall woman"... and hence was born "the Night Clown"... ( not everyone was amused, including the 2 flight attendants who co-led that mission.. i think they were offended that my "night clown" looked like THEM, and they haven't spoken to me ever since our return.)

So, the Night Clown, "rarely seen in daylight - for good reason!", is about to appear, riding up the Mekong River again in a long dug-out canoe, to the cheers of the crown and maybe even to receive a standing ovation from the Royals in the VIP reviewing stand. (the Boat Races have grown so serious, with 500 boats including from neighboring countries, that the CLOWNS were forgotten... until i came back 3 years ago...

we're landing! Rolling video? let's go! Welcome back to Cambodia!

(PS. Lauryn lost her home in Hanalei, Hawaii, and was imprisoned in the USA for 18 months, followed by 18 months of probation, which ended 6 September, 2009. She had hoped to spend her birthday in Cambodia with people who love and appreciate her, and some who even owe their lives and livelihoods to her. recently, members of the Obama administration have contacted her saying, "we can't understand how this happened to you! We cannot find any evidence of wrongodoing!" .. so this gives us home for Exoneration and Restitution. Keep your fingers crossed! the "Lauryn movie" might have a happy ending, after all! )

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