Unlike Laos, which lulled me into a peaceful stupor, Cambodia was demanding and raw, a country of mind-boggling, head-turning contradiction: of dark and light, beauty and horror, life and death. In the few days I was there, I managed to experience many emotional highs and lows -- really, there was hardly an experience that elicited a safe middle-of-the-road response. Even more jarring were my constant confrontations with my own prejudices and presumptions. It was emotionally draining, and ultimately with all the stressors involved, I became physically sick.
One of my most memorable days in Siem Riep, Cambodia was the day I visited an orphanage with Arlene -- this is true even among the chaos and illness that engulfed me that day.
As soon as we arrived at the orphanage, we were greeted by a crowd of curious faces. The children were of various ages, from two-year old toddlers to eighteen year-olds. They slept eight to ten to a bed. Since school was an expense, the children rotated between morning and afternoon attendance. The rest of the day was spent in "classes" at the orphanage.
Within the course of a day, Arlene and I worked with 20-25 children in art class. We taught English and answered questions about our homes. In the late afternoon, two medical students from Belgium (regulars at this orphanage) joined us and brought water balloons. The children went wild! We played with them in the adjacent grassy field, piggy-backing, jumproping, and racing until the sky grew orange.
The emotions I felt during the departure from the orphanage lingered after that day and will likely stay with me for years to come. Our goodbyes were met with a mob of hugs -- and not the kind of hug we as Americans give to strangers and even to our friends (i.e., hugs that create, respect, or are indicative of some space between individuals). These embraces were hungry for attachment, for love; they clung. And there were many of them, at the same time.
It was overwhelming, and soon I felt the burn of tears in my eyes. I was thankful for the cloak of night.