Gail Gutradt was at a crossroads in her life when she learned of the Wat Opot Children’s Community. Begun with just $50 in the pocket of Wayne 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.
What that doesn’t make clear is that the prose is stunning and poetic, the subject is horrifying (what else can you call the AIDS orphans of Cambodia?), and the story is a testament to the goodness and greatness of the human soul.
It all finds its centre in Wayne, so let’s start with him. Wayne grew up a conservative Christian community in rural Michigan, joined the Navy, and went to Vietnam as a medic. His experiences there shook his faith and set him on a spiritual journey that culminated, years later, with the establishment of Wat Opot in a village in Takeo province, a hospice and orphanage for the victims of Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and their children.
Wat Opot, and Wayne, are the kind of NGO I can appreciate. They have a reputation for being grass-roots and doing a lot with a little, in an industry (the aid industry) that far too often does a little with a lot. For example:
A wealthy, anonymous donor had offered to build houses for families with AIDS. They were willing to donate five thousand dollars for each house, a fortune in a country where a farmer’s wage averaged a dollar a day. Wayne wrote back that in his opinion five thousand dollar houses would cause problems. It seemed clear to him that the donor, though generous and well-intentioned, had no sense of what money could buy in Cambodia. Such a house would incite envy in the community and bring misfortune to its owner. As soon as it was finished, every relative the family ever had, and many they did not know they had, would want to move in with them, and before long someone would find a way to force the original family to move out. Or perhaps someone from the village, someone with power, would remember a large unpaid debt the family owed and, again, the family would soon find themselves homeless. Wayne suggested the fundraiser tell the donor that he could build a perfectly adequate house for three hundred dollars. But the donor had other ideas and was never heard from again. Still, Wayne was convinced he had done the right thing.
Rocket has a complicated publishing history: available right now is a limited edition from Heian-kyo Media, the publisher of the prestigious Kyoto Journal (the link is to the on-line Journal, you’ll find the link to the book on that page). If you can wait, Random House will be bringing it out in August,but it’s cheaper if you pre-order through Amazon. Attempts are under way to get copies into Cambodia for sale at Monument and at Wat Opot, but there are problems with Customs – but these shall be overcome, and you can ask Monument to keep a copy back for you.