Saturday, May 31, 2008

A New NGO and Baseball in the Jungle

I’m baaacck!

My goodness, I feel like just left Siem Reap and here I am back again. Well, actually, I guess I did just leave.

I arrived in Phnom Penh Wednesday morning and called my friend, the judge, whose been helping us work through the miasma of officialdom, here in Cambodia. He asked me if I thought I was going to have the new demining NGO registered in May? My first thought was, “oh boy, we got the NGO registration!” Then I read the text message he sent me a second time and had second thoughts.

I was wrong.

As I was landing in Phnom Penh, the official registration for Cambodian Self Help Demining was being delivered. CSHD is now an official NGO in Cambodia. We were afraid it would take us a lot longer. It’s taken some NGOs over a year. We got it done in less than 90 days. A remarkable feat, and one that was a real group effort.

NOW we need to finish getting the demining certificate from CMAA. We’re working on that and I will be here until early July to push, pull, and help where I can. CMAA is being thorough and complete on their review of our submission and I can’t ask for more.

And what else am I doing you might wonder? Well, I came a bit earlier than planned so that I could be spend some time with some real interesting blokes…Royal Australian Engineers from the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearing Team. Three of them are here right now helping Aki Ra: Bomber, who I’ve written about before, Mac and Marty. They all served in Vietnam and they’ve been here for about a month working with Aki Ra to get CSHD up and running. Just some amazing guys, and I am honored to be able to work with them.

As you know, if you’ve been reading this epistle, I met Joe Cook from Cambodian Baseball and got a donation of balls (190) from the Angels and t-shirts (90) from the Dodgers. I packed them all up in 2 duffle bags and carted them off to LAX earlier this week. Now if you’ve been reading the paper you know that the airlines have been looking for any way they can to boost revenues, and overweight bags has been a godsend. Not only did I have 3 bags to check (you get 2), but the equipment bags were each 20 pounds overweight. I was just a bit nervous as I hauled them off my cart and put them on the scale. I saw dollar signs in the eyes of the ticket agent until I told her they were donations from the USA to the baseball players of Cambodia. Thanks goodness baseball is popular in Taiwan, and I was flying the national airline. Cost me $100 extra. Not so bad.

I got to deliver the baseball equipment on Thursday morning to the Cambodian National Baseball Team. I needn’t have worried how we should find each other. One of the guys wore his uniform. It was supplied by MLB and looks just like a Dodger visiting uniform, except it says Cambodia across the chest. Looked pretty good. They had a ball and glove sitting on top of the bags. They saw that too and when I tossed the ball to the them they caught it just like a pro. The young man in the uniform was a pitcher. No curve ball yet, but he can throw it fast.

In 2 weeks I get to help with a tournament. Should be quite the time.

More as it happens.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why We Do This and Who We Are

Well, I'm back to the jungle on Monday. Lots to do and lots to accomplish. We are most of the way to getting CSHD registered, and I've been working with CMAA on the certification process while I've been home.

I arrive in Phnom Penh on Wednesday morning, have some meetings there and then head to Siem Reap on Thursday for more meetings and hopefully some time in the 'bush' with Aki Ra.

I thought I would post the following excerpt from our brochure. I hope you all can take a moment and read it, and remember why we are doing this:


The man's son was injured when he went into the rice field with some soldiers, who often had children walk ahead of them so they could clear the field of mines. The children didn't know they were in danger. The boy stepped on a landmine and remembers being blown into the air by the explosion. His friends tried to carry him, but couldn’t. They found his father who quickly realized his son’s leg was badly injured and needed removing. He used his son’s clothes as bandages to stop the bleeding. He stuffed a piece of cloth in his mouth to stifle his screams of pain, then he cut off his leg with a wood saw.

His son was six years old.

Aki Ras’s story

I first heard of Aki Ra when a friend raised enough money to buy him a metal detector so he wouldn’t have to search for landmines by hand. It’s amazing that after clearing over 50,000 landmines he still has all his limbs and digits. I was intrigued by this remarkable man who was raised in the wars of Cambodia and fought with both the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese armies. I traveled to Cambodia in 2003 to visit his museum, and talk with him about his life.

Aki Ra isn’t sure when he was born, but he has information from an old teacher who thinks he was born in 1973. Both of his parents were killed in the infamous Killing Fields of Cambodia. His father was a teacher, a serious crime in the days of the Khmer Rouge. He was given the job of constructing roads and became ill. He was given pills made from rabbit droppings and an IV made from contaminated river water. Getting sicker, the Khmer Rouge gave him a bowl of soup and he began to recover. Accused of lying about being ill, they took him away and killed him as punishment. His mother collected sewage from the houses to be used as fertilizer. One day she called out to an old man to “be careful” as he was about to fall and spill his bowl of soup. For this act of “leadership” she was sent away to school, from which no one ever returned.

At the age of 5 Aki Ra was orphaned and conscripted into the Khmer Rouge Army. He learned how to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers, and make simple bombs. He received his first gun and began actively fighting with the Khmer army at the ripe old age of 10. The fact that Aki Ra survived the Cambodian Wars and the Killing Fields is no small miracle. What he has done with his life since then is remarkable and restored my faith in humankind.

When the United Nations eventually sent a peace keeping force to Cambodia they hired Aki Ra to help clear landmines. When they left, Aki Ra had “found his trade”. He clears landmines. He clears them quickly and he clears them for free.

To help support his work he opened the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Siem Reap; near the entrance to Angkor Wat. In it he displays some of the 50,000+ de-activated mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) he has removed in the years since he began his work. He can’t charge admission, he can only collect donations and sell t-shirts. Through the dedicated work of a Canadian charity he’s been able to open a new, modern Museum that was fully certified by the Cambodian government in 2008.

While working to remove the landmines and UXO’s, Aki Ra collected children who had been abandoned to the street and whose families could not support them. To date he has adopted nearly two dozen kids, many maimed by those very devices he designed and planted. And which he now has dedicated his life to remove.
She was carrying her baby son while running from a Vietnamese bombing mission. Both were injured by shrapnel. Her son lost his arm below the elbow. Having no money for a doctor, they paid three dogs for his surgery. The family had no money to raise him, so they sent him to live with Aki Ra in 2003. He wants to be a teacher.
Another boy lost his hand and an eye when the 652A mine he picked up exploded. His parents removed the metal fragments from his eyes by hand and carried him on a bed for 12 hours until they reached the nearest hospital. They heard of Aki Ra and asked him to take their son in as one of his charges. They knew he had a better chance at life with Aki Ra than at home. He never saw his parents again. He wants to be a boxer.

These heartrending stories go on forever. There isn’t a person in Cambodia who didn’t lose a family member or an entire family. The Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. In 1978 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. By then they had murdered millions, nearly half the population of the country. There were 14 doctors left alive in Cambodia. There were no teachers.

We’ve led a charmed life. Stories like Aki Ra’s are the things we read about in novels or watch on the screen. But these aren't characters in a story. They are real people. Leading desperately hard lives.

Cambodian Self Help Demining
After meeting Aki Ra I knew there was something we could do to help him in his work.

Aki Ra is establishing a new, all Cambodian demining organization to continue his dream of “making my country safe for my people.” Cambodian Self Help Demining will be certified by the Cambodian government, meet all international standards, and will concentrate on clearing mines and UXOs in low priority villages throughout Cambodia; places that would not otherwise be visited by the larger international organizations for years. He has requests from villages all over Cambodia to clear mines and UXOs from their fields. We, the Landmine Relief Fund, have agreed to assist Aki Ra by raising the funds he needs to accomplish his work. The task is daunting. We’re asking you to help.

Let's help Aki Ra make Cambodia safe so we can't read any more of these stories!

Our budget for 2008 is $60,000 for equipment and $32,000 for salaries in the first 12months. We can't do it without your help. So help all you can.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart,


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Batter Up!

He tripped a landmine when he was a boy and has lived with shrapnel in his back ever since.

Two of his cousins were killed by landmines.

His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

He, his mother and two sisters escaped when he was 8 years old. They ran and hid for three days before finally making it to the Thai border and freedom. Four years later he made it to the United States.

He arrived 25 years ago today.

He fell in love with baseball as a boy and it became his passion. He decided to take it home and introduce it to his country. The only problem he had was finding an area large enough for a baseball diamond that wasn’t mined.

Cambodia had never seen baseball before Joe Cook ‘brought it home.’

I read about Joe in the LA Times and gave him a call last week. We talked for almost 30 minutes tonite. On June 21 and 22nd Cambodian Baseball is having Baseball Carnival in Kampang Chnam a little town about 6 hours from Siem Reap, between Batambang and Phnom Penh.

They want me to pitch. Problem is … they’ve never seen me pitch.

Maybe I can find something else to do.

I asked Joe what they need. Man, they need just about everything. And I do mean everything, but mostly gloves, cleats, and balls. Balls are the most important because if you hit one out of the park, you might get killed trying to get it back. There are still some 5,000,000 mines left littering the countryside. It’s pretty clean around Kampong Chnam, but there is no such thing as 100%. Aki Ra tells me that all the time.

Joe and I are going to get together in June and I’ll see what I can do to help during the Carnival.

I’ll also take over what I can. I’ve contacted both the Dodgers and Angels and asked for a box or two of balls. Hope I hear back before I leave.

Oh yeah, Joe got fired. Seems he spends too much time helping his Khmer friends.

Do what you can, when you can.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

We Can Help in Burma

The terrible situation is Burma calls out to all of us to do what we can.

Project Enlighten, a sister organization of ours, has put together a program to assist, and already has Lisa McCoy on the ground to manage the assistance.

Asad Rahman sent out the following appeal, and we repeat it here:

Dear friends and family-

Project Enlighten has sent PE Team member & Burma Education Coordinator Lisa McCoy to Mae Sot on the Thai/Burma border this morning!

Our focus is to raise $10,000 this week to help aid in the massive relief effort. We desperately need your valued donations!!

We are coordinating with organizations on the Thai-Burma border that are assisting in the delivery of desperately needed supplies, food and medicine. The groups are comprised of and run by local Burmese, whom are effectively providing aid. Our partners in the region are offering their assistance without administrative costs; therefore 100% of the money given goes towards direct and immediate aid to the cyclone survivors!

Lisa will be on the ground in Mae Sot assuring accountability of all funds raised!

You know how desperate the situation is, children and families are dying hourly due to lack of basic supplies, WE have an opportunity to save lives and help those in an otherwise hopeless situation. Again our goal is to raise $10,000 this week! Will you forgo a basic pleasure like a dinner at your favorite restaurant this week to save a life?

Help us raise money, Help us raise HOPE!

Utmost respect.


To donate to Project Enlighten's Burmese Relief Efforts, click on the following link and then click on the PayPal button.



Thursday, May 1, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggidy Jog

Where in the world should I begin?

Since the last time I posted so much has happened I just don’t know where to start. So let’s just start where we left off last time.

Sau and I were planning on visiting another old temple site last week, but as it was my final few daze in Cambodia it just never happened. There were so many things to do I just didn’t have time to get them all done and still do some sight seeing.

Aki Ra, Hourt and their new baby, Meta, needed to get passports so they could travel to Canada and the US this summer. All this needed to be done in Phnom Penh, so I had made bus reservations for them and myself. Becky was coming along as she wanted to buy a new car, having sold her old Toyota earlier this month. Aki Ra got a hold of me a couple of days before we left and said he’d rather drive to Phnom Penh in the truck. No problem; I cancelled the bus tickets and planned on the 5 of us driving.

Oh, what a surprise I had coming.

On Tuesday I checked out of the Green Town Guest House and told Ming, my host, I would be coming back on June 6. He said he’d hold me a room. About 7:30 Hourt, Aki Ra, Amatek and Mine came over to pick Becky and I up. We were going back to their house and load up what we all needed, drop the kids off and head to PP. That was the general drift I got. When we got back to Aki Ra and Hourt’s it looked like the Greyhound Bus Station. People were everywhere. I knew most of them, but not all. I was introduced to Hourt’s mother and father, her grandmother some cousins (I think), her sister, and some friends of Aki Ra’s. Senghour and several folks from the Museum were on hand as was Uncle Rain. I thought that was a pretty big group just to send us off on a 3-day trip to Phnom Penh.

Then they all brought out their luggage and climbed into Aki Ra’s pickup truck. We had 7 in the cab, 10 in the bed of the truck and Senghour sat on the roof. 18 people in a mid sized pickup.

Oh yeah, we also had 3 fighting roosters in bags, all the luggage and a cooler full of food and water.

And a 6-8 hour drive.

But you know what? It was a blast. This is what I came for, and this is what I got. A real taste of n Cambodia. No a/c buses. No big groups of barangs with an English speaking guide. No chilled towelletes. Just a bunch of friends going on an adventure. They were going to get the passports, buy Becky’s car, drop me off at the airport, and then head for the beach! Only a couple had ever seen the ocean; but they were all as excited as any tourist anywhere to be heading on vacation.

The a/c quit working about 30 minutes out of Siem Reap. It just couldn’t keep up with the load. We averaged about 35-45mph. The temperature was pushing 95, and the humidity was a comfortable 65%. If you are a fan of steam baths, with no chance to rinse, you would have loved it.

My leg went to sleep somewhere around hour number 2. Since there were 3 of us in the front of the cab, I had to hang my arm out the window. As my sunscreen was in my bag somewhere, I now have a deeply tanned (and peeling) right arm, and a lightly tanned left.

About 4 hours into our trip we stopped for lunch at a little roadside rest area. We had fruit, water, and bread. Aki Ra and the boys let the fighting cocks out of their bags and they pecked around at the insects and cuddled up to the kids. I figured these things would go after each other and anyone who came near them, but no, they were as mild as Clark Kent.

We got to Phnom Penh somewhere around 3pm I guess. The Tonley Sop River divides the town in 2 and there is only one bridge, and it’s always crowded. It took us a while to work our way to the hotel, the Cozyna, located right on Sisowath Quay, the riverfront. As we drove down the street we got some very amused looks from the locals, and as we pulled up in front of the hotel one of the bellman asked if we were ‘just coming in from the countryside?’ We all sorta giggled and said “yeah, take our bags inside”. That took a little while.

That night we all sort of went our separate ways and met up the next morning. It took about 2 hours to get all the work done for Aki Ra and Hourt’s passports. We went to lunch and then headed out to look for used cars. Now looking for used cars in Phnom Penh is sort of like looking for used cars in LA, except they are not sold by new car dealers. There are 2 or 3 ‘auto rows’ in Phnom Penh dedicated just to used vehicles.

It’s real hard to find a 2-3 year old used car in Cambodia. Most people keep their cars for 5-6 years and just beat the hell out of them. The roads are just now beginning to get paved and graded around the coutryside, so you can imagine the beating a car can take. We were looking for a midsized SUV, preferably a Toytoa 4Runner, for around $15,000. We found out pretty early that our choices were going to be in the 10 year old range, somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000. We could get a newer car, but the price jumped significantly. We’d talked to Becky’s insurance agent and he’d given us an idea on what we should pay, so we knew we weren’t getting hosed on the price.

I asked what kind of warranty came with the vehicle, just to see what kind of answer I would get. The salesman said, ‘I promise it’s not stolen.’ Good enough for us.

We found a car that looked like it met Becky’s needs, a 1997 Toyota 4Runner with about 70,000 miles on it. It had originally been sold by a dealer in North Carolina and still had the service record in the glove box. I was pretty adamant about having a mechanic look at the car. The salesman said he’d put it on a lift and let us look underneath, which he did. Everyone oo’d and ahh’ed, pointed and discussed what they saw. It looked just like the underside of an SUV to me. Then we took it to a friend’s mechanic and had him hook it up to the computer. Everything looked fine so Becky made arrangements to buy it the next morning.

At 9am we met the salesman at the bank. Becky took out the money, paid for the car, and signed the docs. We took it to the DMV for its emissions test (yep they need a smog cert in Cambodia) and got the registration filed. After making sure the car was insured with AEG, we headed back to the hotel.

Now the departure was much less impressive than our arrival. With two cars, there were only 9 people in the truck and no one on the roof. I stayed at the Cozyma as my plane left the following day and the rest headed off to Sihanoukville for a bit of a holiday. They road the ‘big blue banana’ swam in the ocean, ate crab, and had a blast from what I understand.

I headed back home to Jill and Mikki and some much needed R&R.

I return on June 4.

More from the Jungle as it happens.