A beautifully told, inspiring true story of one woman’s volunteer experiences at an orphanage in rural Cambodia—a book that embodies the belief that love, compassion, and generosity of spirit can overcome even the most fearsome of obstacles.
Gail Gutradt was at a crossroads in her life when she learned of the Wat Opot Children’s Community. Begun with just fifty dollars in the pocket of Wayne Dale Matthysse, a former Marine Corps medic in Vietnam, Wat Opot, a temple complex nestled among Cambodia’s verdant rice paddies, was once a haunted scrubland that became a place of healing and respite where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS could live outside of fear or judgment, and find a new family—a place that Gutradt calls “a workshop for souls.”
Disarming, funny, deeply moving, In a Rocket Made of Ice gathers the stories of children saved and changed by this very special place, and of one woman’s transformation in trying to help them. With wry perceptiveness and stunning humanity and humor, this courageous, surprising, and evocative memoir etches the people of Wat Opot forever on your heart.
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Gail Gutradt has volunteered at the Wat Opot Children’s Community in Cambodia since 2005. Her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in the Japan-based Kyoto Journal, as well as in the Utne Reader and Ashé Journal. Her first Kyoto Journal article, “The Things We’ve Gone Through Together,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Shhhhhh. Listen. Sita is waking the day.
Sita turns on her portable radio the moment she wakes up. She raises the volume as high as it will go, way past the point of distortion, then twists the dial back and forth searching for something that pleases her: the trailing melodies of Buddhist mantras, a marching band playing the national anthem of the Kingdom of Cambodia, karaoke tunes, monks chanting, more mantras, marching, karaoke, monks and on and on and back again.
I open my eyes. It is still dark outside, and only the dim differentiation of wall from ceiling, sky from wall, barely perceptible through the pink mosquito net, shows where my single window looks out onto the world. In the distance a rooster crows weakly, sounding cross. Is it too early for him as well?
A wandering many-voiced chant arises from the Buddhist temple next door, the morning prayers of young and aged monks. One dog barks. From across the way another answers.
Sita is playing a Western song now with lyrics in Khmer. Her cheap speakers crackle under the strain.
A gecko begins chirping on the stucco wall.
On the porch outside my room Wayne is still a snoring mountain. His mosquito net is tucked into the black fleece blanket on his bed. Wayne says he sleeps outdoors so he can hear the children when they cry, and manages to sleep, often uneasily, through noises less urgent.
Somewhere in the children’s quarters a baby cries out from a dream and is comforted. Wayne rolls over and draws his body upright, dangling his feet over the side of the bed. He wears yesterday’s black trousers, dried mud still on the cuffs from working in the garden. The crying has stopped now so he sits quietly, wrapped in his blanket, collecting his thoughts for the day, breathing himself awake, perhaps praying. A pair of small feet drop over the other side of the bed and stumble off toward the bathrooms behind our house. Mister Phirun, at nine years old the oldest boy with AIDS, sometimes wets the bed. None of the boys wants to sleep with Phirun, so Wayne lets him crawl in with him sometimes when he is worried or lonely. Wayne wakes up often during the night and he will carry Phirun out to the yard, hold him at arm’s length to drain and return him to bed without waking him.
Wayne calls all the kids Mister or Miss, especially the very little ones who run around with no pants. It is a matter of respect for the children but also on occasion affords much-needed comic relief, as in “Mister Vantha! Where are your shorts?”
The children begin to wander in from their various sleeping quarters, gathering near the bathrooms outside my window. They are still half asleep, most of them, and sit in dazed solitary silence on the bamboo slat bed next to the wall in the manner of small children softly awoken, holding their toothbrushes and soap and waiting their turn in the bathroom. Their towels are draped about their shoulders or dangling unconsciously from their hands. Now and then a little one nods off to sleep as he waits, and his towel drops to the ground and he draws his bare shoulders in and up against the morning dampness and hugs himself and looks even smaller than before.
Now Sita squats by the faucet outside her woven mat house and draws a little water to wash herself. She wears a worn flowered sarong hastily tucked in above her breasts, and her hair tumbles uncombed about her neck and shoulders. In spite of the radio, in spite of the insects and the chirping gecko and the whispers of children, in spite of dogs and roosters and monks chanting, the air has until this moment still possessed the integrity of night. But when Sita opens the tap her simple gesture signals the onset of the day’s activities, because somewhere else Mr. Sary has opened the valve that allows water to flow down from the holding tanks on the roof and the water hits Sita’s plastic bucket with a noise like a string of small firecrackers. In the bathroom next door I hear the cistern beginning to fill and the children splashing about, giggling and whispering, washing themselves modestly under their clothes.
Sita has lived here, on and off, for six years, her residency interrupted by a series of transgressions, petty thefts and infractions that have made her at times unpopular with her fellow residents and unwelcome in the community. Each time she has left and failed to make a life for herself in the outside world Sita has returned, tentatively at first, testing the boundaries, subtly insinuating herself, promising that she has mended her ways, until finally Wayne’s resolution fails and he persuades the other women to allow Sita to move her few belongings back into her small house.
As with nearly everyone here, her life has been a series of the setbacks and rejections, catastrophes and abandonments, that beset people infected with HIV/AIDS the world over. Such stories abound, every imaginable permutation of sorrow and many that are unimaginable. Sita’s own story includes elements not uncommon: an abusive father, a lover who impregnated her and infected her with the HIV virus, then the death of her baby and beatings from her family and, when her illness became public knowledge, a village that tormented her and made of her a pariah. Perhaps like many poor women she has sometimes been forced into prostitution, at least informally, to feed herself. Wayne considers these things when he advocates for her in the community, and the others relent because, after all, Sita’s life has not been so different from their own.
The daylight has begun to come up now and Sita emerges from her house, dressed for the day, and begins sweeping the pounded dirt courtyard, bent over her short broom. Her dusty sarong has been properly tied, falling in a modest pleat from her waist. She wears a black blouse with panels of openwork lace, a garment that hints of the dressier ensemble it may have been part of before being sold as surplus from the sweatshops of Phnom Penh. Her high cheekbones, full mouth and high forehead give her a face that might be called sculpted rather than pretty, with a trace of knowing irony in her eyebrows. Yet I have seen her transform, and once, when she was clearly smitten by a young volunteer, she became girlish: radiant and unguarded and wonderfully soft. I could see then the beauty Sita had been and the wife and mother she might have been and the passionate woman she can be.
She moves aside a grass mat barrier to reveal a small space adjoining her house. It is no more than eight feet on a side and forms a tiny walled garden on one side of which Sita has planted pink, orange and red zinnias. Once the garden was open, but the bony cows that are allowed to graze freely in the dry season, topping Wayne’s young mango trees and eating whatever else they can find, made a meal of Sita’s flowers. So she has enclosed it, a hidden jewel, radiant in a dusty world. It is her refuge, her pride and her testament, like her radio that blares forth its witness every morning to the world and declares before Heaven, “Yes. I am still here. Listen! I am alive!”
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