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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Resilient Siem Reap

“Hey lady, ten postcards one dollar!”

I look down as I walk and sure enough Molly is still following me.

“You see,” she declares proudly, shuffling through the souvenirs. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. You buy from me!”

Molly is four years old. She’s wearing a red bandanna tied around her wavy black hair, a long white tee shirt, and nothing else. For a moment, I pretend she doesn’t exist. After all, it’s easier that way.

You see, my Cambodia is the land of endless rice paddies, Angkor Wat, noodle soup, and the delightful bamboo railway. Looking down at Molly forces me to acknowledge another Cambodia, her Cambodia: welcome to the country of land mines, genocide, child slaves, and extreme poverty and desperation.

“You buy from me!”

I shake my head, smiling softly.

No Molly, I think to myself. What I will do is take you home, where ever that is, put on your shoes, if you have any, drop you off at school, if you even attend one, and pray for a better life for you. One not consumed with begging and pain and poverty.

I don’t do any of those things though. Instead, I kneel down and fix her bandanna that has untied on the side of her head.

“Where did you learn to count so well?”

Molly drops the postcards into her basket, and her smiles widens.

I wonder, who is Sally? I wonder if Molly was taught to count to 10 just so she could stand outside Angkor Wat, a temple that has endured genocide, civil war, and hundreds of years of life on this tumultuous planet, just so she could beg for one dollar.

“Well, you are a very smart girl,” I say, my brain and heart trying to reconcile the disparity in this world between the have and have nots.

Molly smiles again but suddenly it falters.

“You no buy from me?” she asks, chewing on her lip.

For a fleeting moment, I toy with the idea that she’s been taught how to pout but I dismiss the thought at once. No, written clear across Molly’s face is genuine, child like despair. At four years old, Molly understands all too well that money means food in her belly, clothes on her back, and a roof over her head. Studying Molly, in her disheveled state, I cannot tell who told her to stand outside this temple and beg. I pray that it was her family, and that thought makes me sick. But, it’s so much better than the alternative.

“I’ll tell you what though,” I say, lifting her chin to look into her face. “Why don’t we get two ice cream cones?”

It settles my churning stomach that ice cream causes Molly to forget all about her job. She skips over to the booth with me and chows down happily on her strawberry ice cream bar. For a few moments today, she can be a four year old child.

“Bye bye,” Molly says as she runs to the garbage can, her basket in hand, to prey on two Japanese tourists.

“Bye bye!” I yell at her retreating form, but she doesn’t even turn around.

I try to enjoy To Keo, one of many temples littered around Siem Reap, but my mind won’t move beyond Molly. I’ve grappled with personal responsibility countless times since coming to Asia. How can we spend our money so it helps locals? How do we avoid the seedy underbelly of these developing nations?

Frankly, anyone with their eyes wide open will have a hard time allowing themselves to enjoy Cambodia. It feels innately wrong to derive pleasure from visiting a country where so many of its citizens live in desperation. But I didn’t come to Cambodia to enjoy it. I didn’t come here so I could sew a Cambodian flag on my backpack and say, “I’ve been there.“

I came for a reality check.

And I got one.

Shivers run down my spine as I listen to an elderly woman explain to me how her father was ripped from their home in the middle of the night, tied to a tree in their backyard, and bludgeoned to death.

“Do you want me to show you?” she asks, indicating with her hands.

I shake my head.

I can’t even stomach the thought.

This isn’t a movie, this isn’t make believe; this is her life, her memory, her reality.

“Why?” is all I can say.

“He was too outspoken.”

She doesn’t look sad. It takes me a minute to place her expression: stoic resignation. She’s come to terms with the fact that 30 years ago, a crazed man killed nearly 20 percent of the population while trying to create a peasant society. Grounds for execution were wearing glasses, being educated, or speaking a foreign language.

My legs are jello as we walk away from the cafe. It had been her family's home but after Phnom Pehn was emptied, its inhabitants forced to march to the country side to work the fields, she was the only one to return.

Many homes remained abandoned because entire families had been wiped out and there was simply no one left to return home. Most of these dwellings had been converted to cafes or shops. Some had plaques commemorating those who had lived there and lost their lives.

I watch as a European tourist walks up to a plaque along side a ceramic store and makes a goofy face for the camera. All I can think is she has missed the point entirely. How can one stand in a spot where lives were torn apart in such an evil way and feel nothing at all?

I find myself paranoid as I continue my walk across the river; every where I look I see people with missing limbs, children begging, and impossibly young Cambodian women and girls with older European and American men. I’m overwhelmed to the point I don’t leave our room for a whole day.

During that day, I read The Children of the Killing Fields and find courage to face the outside world again. Cambodians are resilient people; they lived through civil war, genocide, mass starvation, and then rebuilt their world. Sure, some darkness persists: when walking through the border, signs plead foreigners to respect children. It’s not an easy reality to face, but it demands respect. I figure the best way I can respect their strength is to come face to face with it. So, with that in mind, I head down to the river to people watch.

Poised on the bench, what I see is a hard reality to accept but one I came to witness nonetheless.

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