It didn’t take long to get outside of the city. Before I knew it our Land Cruiser was bouncing down bumpy red dirt roads and it felt more like we were in Northern Arizona than South East Asia. We drove past dilapidated road side stalls, reminiscent of the ones you see on the Navajo reservation. It didn’t look like anyone was selling anything, but crowds of smiling faces congregated around each stall. We drove on, weaving around motorbikes, pedestrians and bicycles as I tried to shake off the 26 hours of trans continental travel that loomed over me like a heavy fog.
After a few minutes we turned off the road and drove beneath a large yellow archway to head up a long gravel driveway. Lush gardens lined the driveway. Coconut palms stretched skyward and flower beds covered the ground. Bougainvilleas, Jasmines, Gardenias and several other colorful blooms welcomed us as we drove inside. Before us stood a large building, painted in a comforting yellow tone with dark green shutters. It felt like we had just entered a sanctuary.
As we approached, I noticed three beautiful young women standing in a row directly in front of building. They stood in a straight line, waiting for us, like monks in front of a storefront silently waiting for their morning alms. Each girl wore a matching t-shirt, pants and flip-flops. They had perfectly styled hair and makeup. They could have easily passed as sorority sisters getting ready for their next panhellenic event.
We got out of the car and got ready to endow the first set of bicycles. Ellen and I approached the girls with three donor cards in hand. We all exchanged nervous smiles and hellos. I looked down at the card in my hand and saw a picture of myself, Ryan, Ryan’s Dad and Granny and Papa. It was the picture Ryan’s mom took of us when they came out to support me at Dirty Kanza last summer. I was about to give away the bike Ryan’s parents donated in my honor. As I talked to Sinoun I had to fight back tears and the frog in my throat as I explained who was in the picture and who had purchased a bike for her. I was overwhelmed.
Obviously, the three girls weren’t monks or sorority sisters. They wore matching t-shirts because they were all students at Vimean Beauty + Salon, an economic empowerment project established in collaboration with the Cambodian NGO AFESIP. The program helps to reintegrate young women into independent life. The three young women we had just given bikes to were survivors of human-trafficking or sex slavery.
After all three girls got their picture taken for their donors we took a short ride together around the campus. We rode down the gravel driveway and back onto the red dirt road, sharing laughs and smiles along the way. With each pedal stroke, my nervous energy disappeared and was replaced with peace. Everything felt good, and it was only the beginning.