My daughter Laura and her husband Luke just went to Cambodia as part of their honeymoon tour of Southeast Asia. Both are very interested in places and people far and near, and I await to hear what they saw. In the meantime, I read In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot by Gail Gutradt, the author's observations as a volunteer in a what started as an AIDS hospital but evolved into a home for children orphaned by AIDS. Set between 2005 and 2012, Gutradt saw numerous young Cambodians grow and leave the safety of Wat Opot to join in the effort to rebuild their country. She also saw many children die from AIDS.
Much of the book is about the children who receive shelter, educations, and (if necessary) antiretroviral drugs at Wat Opot. Gutradt tells their various stories from the viewpoint of a caregiver. Readers can not help but feel close to their plights.
Gutradt worked alongside a Wat Opot founder, Wayne Dale Matthysse, who as a medic in the Vietnam War witnessed many atrocities. His work among the poor of Cambodia is in some sense an act of contrition as well as a bold experiment in charity. He is a sort of laid-back Mother Theresa who has thrown off religious proselytizing. Jesus and Buddha get equal billing at the center. Gutradt writes lovingly of Matthysse's work without minimizing the difficult ethical decisions he makes daily.
Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the mass murder of the Pol Pot regime and the worldwide AIDS epidemic. Though antiretroviral drugs have slowed the epidemic and let many Cambodians live somewhat normal lives, the disease is still a grave concern. Cambodia relies on foreign aid to provide AIDS care, but funding is shrinking in the wake of economic recession and greater military spending. Growing resistance to the drug treatments also threatens the current stability.
In a Rocket Made of Ice gives us a thoughtful glance at lives far different from ours with equal doses of hope and concern. It would be an excellent choice for issues-driven book clubs.
Gutradt, Gail. In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot. Alfred A.Knopf, 2014. 322p. ISBN 9780385353472.