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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About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
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!”
Table of Contents
Foreword Dr. Paul Farmer ix
Author's Note xiii
Part 1 Sanctuary
1 Sita 3
2 A Workshop for Souls 6
3 Family Pictures 12
4 Exit, with Cookie 18
5 Miss Srey Mom: Those We Are Given to Love 25
6 Boys with Barbies 33
7 Opening the Gates 36
8 Ants-in-a-Line Village 46
9 Walls 51
10 Pesei 55
11 Chaos Theory Dominoes 63
12 Mister Ouen 64
13 Yei 72
14 "She Died Like This…" 77
15 Up the Mountain 78
16 An Exclusive Club 81
17 Singing Kites 83
Part 2 Transformations
18 Pilgrimage 95
19 Wayne 110
20 Volunteers 143
Part 3 Confusions
21 The Rapture 155
22 "We Did Not Know You" 163
23 "Go, and See!" 166
24 Hunting Frogs, Hunting Rats 177
25 Pagoda Boys 188
26 The Dance 191
27 A Seventy-Two-Year-Old Grandmother 198
28 A House with High Walls 199
29 And Yet… 204
30 Leaving, Returning 218
Part 4 Mysteries
31 Calling the Soul 241
Part 5 Departures
32 How It Was 257
33 Return to Wat Opot 259
34 The Cries of Children 266
35 Rice in Your Ear 270
36 Fund-Raising 272
37 "Sometimes I Hope It Not Rain" 278
38 Geewa: In His Own Words 285
39 Kangho's Brother Does Not Believe in Yoga 294
40 Turning Points 297
41 Sweeping the Temple 306
42 In a Rocket Made of Ice 313
Reading Group Guide
The questions and topics that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Gail Gutradt’s In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot, a book about one woman’s journey to a community in Cambodia where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS find love, compassion, and family.
1. One of the first things you see as you open In A Rocket Made of Ice is a full-page photograph of children running toward you on a road. Does the art and photography woven throughout the book affect how you imagine what it might be like to live in Wat Opot? If so, how?
2. Dr. Paul Farmer, an expert in global health issues (whose story was told in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains), acknowledges in the foreword to In A Rocket Made of Ice “the limitations of a visitor’s ability to care for the chronically ill, the unintended consequences of well-meaning projects and the often-agonizing moral dilemmas involved in caring for the sick and dying when certain resources are scarce” (x). What does he mean by this, vis-à-vis what follows in Gutradt’s account of the challenges of sustaining Wat Opot?
3. There are numerous moments in the book where limited resources were of particular issue for Wayne Dale Matthysse, the cofounder of Wat Opot, and all the volunteers. What role does money play in this book, including Gutradt’s own decisions about fund-raising among people she knows? How do the volunteers provide other kinds of healing and care above and beyond these scarce resources?
4. How do the author’s own experiences with illness—first her mother’s and then her own—shape her decision to volunteer in Cambodia? And how do they form her as a person, including her impression of the preciousness of life? How do she and the children at Wat Opot learn from each other about being brave in the face of the death of loved ones, and the possibility of one’s own death?
5. Gutradt describes her American friends’ reactions to her first five-month-long trip to Cambodia as dubious, if not shocked. What were some of the author’s own fears about what would await her there (143)? And what would your own anxieties—and hopes—be about living in such a place for an extended period of time?
6. How do rituals—both religious and nonreligious—affect how the people of Wat Opot contend with and feel about death? How does the Cambodian attitude toward death, as portrayed in this book, differ from how we think about and portray it in the United States? What role do the different religions among the denizens of Wat Opot and the surrounding communities play in general, in the book?
7. Among the many children we meet at Wat Opot is a boy called Pesei, who over the course of Gutradt’s trips there grows up and makes several significant contributions to the community, including his painting of the Welcoming Mural (shown on 242). What does his story represent about the ability of his and future generations of children to “grow up with AIDS,” and to live happy and productive lives with the illness?
8. Discuss the meaning of the book’s title (316). Why do you think the author only revealed it near the very end?
9. Gutradt’s attempt to capture life at Wat Opot includes the words of the kids themselves. How did hearing the voices of the children directly affect your involvement in the story?
10. What does Gutradt learn from Srey Mom (chapter 5) about what she can give the children most easily? Consider and discuss her statement that “there are so many children. It is hard for them to always have to share everything, never to be first, never to get enough” (28).
11. Being at Wat Opot introduces Gutradt to the responsibilities of caring for children, and of parenthood, as she never had children of her own. What are some of her reactions to and misgivings about the children’s wide-ranging personalities, and how does she evaluate her own performance as a mother figure? Consider what she says when she’s preparing for her second trip: “Deep down I also felt that I wasn’t very good at being with the children. Too often I would just do the wrong thing, or try too hard and muck things up” (155). To what extent do you feel this self-doubt is universal among parents?
12. How does the author use humor in the book, both in telling the children’s stories and describing her own lessons and experiences?
13. What are some specific aspects of Cambodian culture—from a race and gender point of view, to financial and other challenges of education in the developing world—that exacerbate the complications arising from HIV/AIDS? Consider the story of the seventy-two-year-old grandmother (chapter 27), or yei, as an example.
14. How does the transformation of Wat Opot from a hospice into a community reflect the advancement of medical care (with antiretroviral drugs, etc.) for HIV/AIDS in Cambodia? What does it mean that the community now “heals the spirits of these children so that they can manifest [their] vibrant, living energy” (145)?
15. Chapter 19 is devoted almost entirely to Wayne and explores his background as a Marine Corps medic in Vietnam, including the moment when he witnessed the death of an innocent fourteen-year-old boy. How did that experience, and his experiences with his own religious upbringing, lead him to found the community at Wat Opot?
16. Wayne’s dedication to his work is tremendous, but it faces constant obstacles, including health issues of his own. How does Wayne cope with the weight of his decisions at Wat Opot? Do you feel he’s a “hero or a saint,” or something in between (144)? How does his own impression of his work differ from this description, and what role do you think a person’s character plays in the volunteer experience?
17. What does Gutradt’s exchange with the World Food Programme regarding the shipment of rice to Wat Opot suggest about the nature of relief organizations and the impact of bureaucratic obstacles, human error, and luck and chance on their success and efficacy?
18. What and how does Gutradt learn from other volunteers, including both Papa Steve and Rebecca? How do their styles of care giving differ from one another, and from Gutradt’s? What does the book depict of the importance and value of volunteering, for the volunteer as well as for those whom he or she is helping?
19. How does Gutradt’s experience make you feel about travel to the developing world, or other poverty-striken areas, and/or about volunteering yourself? Is this kind of experience something only for the young or are such experiences possible at any age?
A Conversation with Gail Gutradt, Author of In A Rocket Made of Ice
What is the meaning behind the title of your book, In A Rocket Made of Ice?
The title of the book originated from a conversation with one of the children of Wat Opot, a young boy named Sovann. There are so many obstacles these kids have to overcome in their lives: illness, loss, inferior education, social stigma, a high school teacher who has just now discovered that man has reached the moon. But when Sovann proposed flying to the sun in a rocket made of ice (so that it wouldn't burn up), I could see that this inventiveness, this ability to escape the gravity of all these givens, this vast imagination, would allow him and the other children to reach high and far. That night, sitting out by the crematorium, when Sovann made that chance comment, it was a brilliant Aha! moment, a summing up of the whole story, and I knew right then that he had handed me the title of a book I had not yet written. Sovann really is flying right now, getting his master's degree in nursing and helping his siblings get an education and begin their lives outside Wat Opot.
What inspired you to write In A Rocket Made of Ice? Though a memoir, the book is less about your story than it is a depiction of Wat Opot. Did you make a conscious decision to focus on the place rather than on yourself, or did the narrative evolve organically?
I didn't write Rocket as a memoir. What personal information I included is there for a purpose. I just wanted to write about the lives of Wayne and his children, but I thought the reader needed someone to identify with, so they could feel it as it happened, from the initial chaos I felt on arrival, to gradually making more sense of it all, and to a deeper understanding and opening. But I had a larger intention. We are used to outsourcing thingsthe military, the arts, death, competence, even our own goodness. When I went to Cambodia so many people said to me, "Oh, I could never do that. You must be a saint," when really I was the village idiot, totally out of my depth. We set up others as paradigms of virtue, and then delight in finding fault and smashing our idols. And this lets us off the hook, and the real tragedy is that it makes us cynical and disheartened. And we retreat into defeat and don't try anymore. I was trying to show the reader that we are all complex, with strengths and confusions, but that we can try anyway to do our best. And we can learn from our mistakes and let go of our preconceptions, and do a little better over time. And maybe do something in a small way, by concentrating on what is right before our eyes, that one child we've been given to love.
Describe the attitudes of the children of Wat Opot toward their (often terminal) illnesses. Did you find it difficult to describe their hardships without seeming didactic? Was it necessary for you to censor your own emotions at times?
It's difficult to really know the thoughts of others, but Wayne tries to tread lightly so as not to make the kids feel hopeless or discouraged when they are ill. One little boy, just approaching adolescence and beginning to understand the implications of being infected with HIV, came to Wayne one day and said simply, "I don't want to have AIDS anymore!" He was so frustrated by it all. I didn't think about being didactic, just about telling the stories in a way that would allow people to feel the textures of these lives without getting lost in statistics and spread sheets. Did I succeed in that? In writing the book I didn't try to censor my emotions. Just to tell the truth. Sometimes I wept when I was writing, and sometimes I still do when re-reading the manuscript, because they're my children. It was hard, and it was challenging, exhausting, and it was also joyous. It's not so much the difficulty, but how we receive it all into our lives. What people don't understand and sometimes cannot imagine, is the joy.
You write that you initially felt like an outsider during your first few months at Wat Opot. Is there a moment that comes to mind when you realized that you no longer felt this way or was it more of a gradual process of acceptance? Did living amongst so many children ease these feelings of outsiderness?
I think I've felt like an outsider most of my life, so it seemed natural to me. But it felt extraordinary when little Sampeah ran out of the crowd and hugged me the first moment I arrived at Wat Opot.
As you discuss in the book, you were diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2008. How did your illness affect your outlook on the often all-too-short lives of the children of Wat Opot? Alternatively, how did the children's attitudes towards death change your own perspective on life?
Death at Wat Opot is very immediate. Children help care for their dying parents in a way we in the West rarely experience because we mostly outsource dying to professionals and institutions. It is so very real when you sort the bones with your own hands after a cremation and put them into the little urns. What encouraged me was how honestly and openly the children mourned, and then how they went back out to play. How the company of other children, those who had also lost family and friends, seemed to help heal each new child. How what Wayne calls "the things we went through together" create bonds of family. I've tried to keep that lesson in mind in my own life, to allow myself the uncertainties that come with illness, but not to identify with being a "patient" or a "victim," and always, always, to go back out to play. Having this book published, and all the editing and meeting new and talented people, and talking to groups and seeing where it all leads, this has been enormously life-giving and beneficial for me. I first came to Cambodia a few years after Doctors Without Borders had introduced anti-retroviral drugs, so I was not there for the terrible years when there were two or three cremations a day at Wat Opot. But the last time I was there, one little boy was clearly dying. He had had TB in his intestines or stomach and it had recurred, and in spite of his getting the best available care he was clearly waning, and I could see he knew it. It was really hard to watch him become more and more remote, slipping away emotionally and physically. The other children were very kind to him. As Papa Steve shows us, sometimes all you can do is sit by their bedside and cool them with a paper fan.
What do you most want readers to take away from In A Rocket Made of Ice? How did your experiences at Wat Opot change your own sense of "volunteerism"?
Most of all, I want readers to understand, to experience rather, the kindness and compassion and deep love of Wat Opot. There is something very special happening there and I hope they can share that, even if second hand. And to do that I had to speak not only their minds, but to their hearts, by giving them the experience I had, or as close to that as possible, letting them get inside me as I learned what I could. You do not have to be a volunteer for that to express itself through your daily life. There are honest discussions of whether untrained people do more harm than good. But I think Dr. Paul Farmer, who wrote the foreword to the book, put his finger on it when he talks about the value of "accompanying each other through adversity." Someone once asked me whether I worried about creating "abandonment issues" in the children by coming and going. I figure that these kids have already lost parents and siblings, been abandoned by surviving families, ostracized by their villages. In a perfect world there would be Cambodian families ready to welcome them, but that's not what is happening right now. So when I am standing there, with a child sitting in the dust crying, that's not what I am thinking about. I have to just pick up that kid and hold themhow could I not?and let them fall sleep in my lap, and let them know there is someone who cares. Right now. In this moment. For this child. As Wayne once told me, "A day when you hug one child is a good day."
Do you have plans to return to Wat Opot in the future?
I'm doing my darndest to get back there. I talked with my oncologist last week and he's all for it, so if I am still strong enough I hope to return for a month or so early next winter. I'm especially looking forward to it because the book is finished and I can be there without thinking about taking photos or keeping a journal, but just be there simply, with the children, the way I was the first times when I did not know I would be writing a book. The children were very excited to have their stories in a book. They even painted a mural on campus with a rocket flying to the sun, and the title of the book, and lots and lots of stars. Recently the kids sent me a gift, a huge quilt with all their handprints and names on it, Wayne's of course in black. Melinda (Wayne's new second in command) was returning to the States to visit family in Kansas, and brought the quilt top back with her, and her mother's quilting circle finished it. Some of the people in the group had read the book, and Melinda's family had visited Wat Opot, so they all sat around in an old-fashioned quilting bee stitching all their stories and love into the quilt. I was quite overwhelmed when I saw it, and when I wrapped myself up in it, well, I didn't feel like an outsider at all.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very warm, loving, inspiring and easy to read book. Loved it.