The Book of the Week is “In a Rocket Made of Ice, Among the Children of Wat Opot” by Gail Gutradt, published in 2013. This ebook is a personal account of a woman who volunteered to assist with caring for children at a precariously funded orphanage in Cambodia, Wat Opot, that specialized in HIV-positive residents.
The author stayed for about five months at a time in the first halves of 2003, 2004 and 2008. She wrote about Cambodian culture, in which there was discrimination not only against people with AIDS, but also against people with dark skin. Skin lighteners sold well because people did not want to be perceived as poor rice farmers. On the occasion when the children were given Barbie dolls and one dark-colored doll, they played with only the former.
Conditions were less than ideal: “…heat, bad water, the risk of contracting malaria or rabies, of catching tuberculosis…” a more common illness than AIDS. Plus, limited technology and education, and groups of boys going on “wildings” in the streets. It was theorized that the AIDS epidemic came to Cambodia in the early 1990’s, when men of various stripes (husbands and truck drivers who visited prostitutes, UN soldiers who went on holiday in Thailand, and Vietnamese military families) spread the disease.
The orphanage’s truly dedicated American director, who had been a medic in the Vietnam War, heroically fed, housed, clothed and medicated all of the residents at Wat Opot. They included some sick adults, and tens of children, some of whom were HIV-positive, who had lost their parents to AIDS. There were many other non-profit groups that claimed to take care of orphaned children, but some had greedy owners who committed fraud or inadequately provided for their charges due to inexperience.
Read the book to learn of the author’s interactions with the children and their caretakers, an unpleasant episode with the World Food Programme, religious observances at Wat Opot, its neighbors, and how some of the children fared as they grew older, or after they left the community.