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Monday, February 14, 2005


It is 7:40 Monday morning, and in about fifty minutes I have to leave for the first morning back at school, and a very long day to follow (I have accupuncture treatments on my shoulder this evening, and as the Chinese medicine section of the hospital is always very crowded on Monday night, I suspect I won't get home until near ten). I will try, though, before I leave, to give you some impressions of Cambodia...
I'll start with Phonm Penh and the hectic traffic, with tuk-tuks, three-wheeled bicycle taxis, tourist buses and vans, cars, and motorbikes all vying for space on the riverfront road, all of them honking, their unmuffled engines growling, and then people dodging their ways across the street or along the sidewalk. Speaking of dodging traffic when walking along the sidewalk, also the necessity of avoiding beggars sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, breast-feeding undernourished babies, the children selling boot-legged copies of Lonely Planet guides and various histories of Cambodia or flowers, and the tuk-tuk drivers sitting around with friends or leaning against their tuk tuk, asking you where you want to go. Against this backdrop, riverside cafes catering to Western taste buds, filled with foreigners eating food that 90 percent of Cambodians could not afford, drinking cheap drinks that would still cost the average Cambodian a percentage of their monthly earnings to buy. This is not to mention the overweight, aging white men with beautiful young women massaging their arms or hands or back, fawning over them...perhaps the most disturbing sight of all, really...
Away from the riverfront, many of the roads in disrepair, buildings once handsome, stately, now fading and crumbling...the new buildings, and the homes of the rich, though, looking as if they would be more at home on the streets of Paris. Children in the streets, playing in their barefeet, amidst the piles of rubbish built up on the sidewalks, the adults too often sitting on steps in front of shops, or hiding in the shade of an awning, doing nothing much of anything. Also the market places, filled with flies and colors and butchered meats and fish...stacks of fruit and vegetables, $5 North Face bags, $2 silk scarves and skirts, people getting their hair cut and their nails polished, people eating, pharmaceutical products, etc etc...
More things that will stick with me: The taste of dust, from riding in the back of a tuk-tuk while visiting the temples at Angkor and when heading out to see the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, the unrelenting heat of the sun, the colors at Angkor and in Phnom Penh, the shadows and light...
Of course, I will also remember the hassle of our boat ride up to Siem Reap, and then sitting in a plane on the tarmac for over an hour, waiting for some VIP to be welcomed by the press (this is when we were waiting to fly back to PP from Siem Reap), boiling in the late afternoon heat as there was no AC on the plane.
A visit to Cambodia (so many places in this part of the world, really) has the power to raise a lot of troubling questions at least it did for me.
First there are the beggars, most of them either children or victims of land mines. The children are usually dressed in rags, their hair a mess, their eyes big and dark and broken. The one that I will remember followed Natalia and I for about a half KM on Saturday night as we walked along the riverfront, saying over and over "Mister, mister," occasionally hitting me on the arm or pulling my arm hair...her hair was a tangled mess and it seemed there were a few flies that swarmed around her head, or perhaps I was just superimposing that detail, a memory of the poverty we saw near Tomle Sap when we arrived at Siem Reap...anyway, I did not give her any money. Why not? I keep asking myself this question, and I asked myself many times in relation to other kids as well...Was it because her eyes were half-closed and reminded me of the phrase "Dead Zone," that she looked as if she was on some kind of drug? Was it because I suspected that if I gave her money, she would just take it back to some adult who was exploiting her for his own monetary gain (yes, this happens), or was it because I was raised in a culture where to say no to a beggar, to turn your head from their trouble is something of an automatic reaction? Was it that there are too many beggars in Phonm Penh, that if you give something to one, then five more will be around you within seconds, or is it that I am selfish? I did give some money to some kids, and more importantly, shared some food with kids, but still...and then there is the problem of sex slavery in Cambodia (well, in many more places, but since I was just there...)
There were some excellent stories in the NY Times recently by Nicolas Kristof about sex slavery in Cambodia, follow-up stories to ones written about a year ago, about two girls he had bought out of slavery. If you can, find them in the NY Times archives - they were published in January, and are very enlightening. Anyway, there was a "Karoake" Bar next to the first hotel we stayed in, and it was quite obvious there was a lot more than singing going on there. As we walked along the riverside in the evenings, I could not help but think that most of the women we walked past, the young women no older than 14 or 15 were prostitutes...Were they all? I don't know, but enough of them no doubt were...and the sight of them with men in their fifties and sixties, twenty or forty pounds overweight - I'm sorry, I'm pretty open-minded about a lot of things, and I believe that love strikes in odd places at strange times, but the picture of those men with those girls - what makes it even worse is the instinctive thought that the girls are using the men just as the men are using them...and perhaps this is true to some small extent, but you look at the girls' lives and wonder what other options do they have? Some are sure to exist, but in their youth, can they see any of those options, and can they know the dangers of what they are doing, both physically and mentally? Judging by the amount of women and children with AIDS in Cambodia, it would seem the answer is no.
One of the things about traveling is that we take it for granted that we will be leaving. We are dropping in on the lives of a people for a few days, a week, a few weeks, months even, but in the end we are leaving. We have our comfortable lives to return to, and to those lives, we bring stories of the things we see, the beauty, the poverty, the misery, the people. We walk past the wood shacks and the unhygenic markets, the crumbling buildings and lives, and we take it in like it is some kind of outdoor museum and at the end of the night we return to our 12 -50 dollar rooms with Satellite TV and AC, eat meals that we consider cheap, surrounded by other foreigners, served by people who could never afford to eat the food they are serving and we talk about all the terrible things we have seen, or about the lives we will soon return to. When we do return to those lives, our memories of the trip fade, but the lives of those in the place we visited go on, the impoverished lives, the poor who see new foreign faces every day, and must again do whatever they can to make a dollar.


Anonymous Natalia said...

We seemed to have been "touched" by the same things, sex slavery, poverty, the kids, the dirt, the beggars... I asked myself the same question as why we didn't give money to the beggars... I don't believe there's a proper answer as I still don't know how to cope with those situations.

12:18 PM  

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