Sang Ly is an optimist at heart. This fact is notable because not only does she make her home on Stung Meanchey, the largest public waste dump in Cambodia, but she also has a chronically ill toddler, Nisay, who is a constant worry. The irony of Sang Ly's existence is that the dump is making her child ill, but it is also the source of the money which gives her family a living.
Stung Meanchey covers about 100 acres and constantly emits toxic gases and deadly smoke. In addition, there are roving gangs, and one gang member attacks Sang Ly's husband, Ki Lim, who pokes through the dump each day looking for recyclables he can sell for cash to buy food. The family lives in a three-sided shanty on the dump.
Here's the amazing thing: home is home. Ki Lim doesn't want anything to change because he is at least able to predict the general course of his life on the dump. Sang Ly has dear friends at the dump and her mother lives nearby. They survived Pol Pot and they know things could be worse. There is, however, one person who gives them real trouble. Her name is Sopeap Sin and she is the rent collector.
Even the shanty has to be paid for, and Sopeap Sin rarely accepts excuses for late payments because, terrible as it is, others wait for a spot on the trash heap. Dump denizens call Sopeap Sin “The Cow” and everyone loathes her.
One day, the rent collector is present when Sang Ly is showing Nisay a book retrieved from the trash. Sang Ly, of course, cannot read, nor can anybody she knows, but she sees from the way that Sopeap Sin is looking at the pages that she is following the lines of print. So, Sang Ly utters the words that will forever change her life and the lives of those she loves: “Will you teach me to read?”
One would think that living at Stung Meanchey would erase all possibilities of hope or redemption, but Sang Ly finds one and Sopeap Sin finds the other. At one point, Sang Ly muses, “Sometimes broken things deserve to be repaired.” She was talking about a clock, but the philosophy also applies to her son, her life and, most of all, the rent collector.
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