Treading water in an ocean of poverty

Note: Gabi and I wrote this posting together, as there was simply too much that was too overwhelming for one of us to tackle it alone. Together, I hope we were able to capture some of what turned out to be a day full of haunting images and experiences. – fcy

The midafternoon rain fell in sheets, running off the thatched roof of the raised-platform shack where we sat and into enormous earthen vessels. Rainwater would be saved for later uses, as is nearly everything in Cambodia.

As we sat on a woven mat eating rice, fried chicken, and morning glory fried with the chicken’s internal organs, a blind flutist approached. He played softly in the downpour, led toward us by a little girl of perhaps seven.


Sam On, our friend, tuk tuk driver and invaluable guide, reached into his pocket and fished out a 500 riel note (about 12 cents), which he handed to the little girl. She spoke quietly to the flutist and he played on, following the little girl back into the torrential downpour. Moments later I saw her standing beneath the thick runoff from the roof of a shack 100 yards away, giggling as the water ran from her head down a body already soaked by the rain.

Such images from a trip to the countryside on Sunday – three middle-aged women deep frying an emaciated chicken for us in a wok, the flutist in the steady downpour, children playing in the rain,
beggars by the side of the road, and the bizarre specter of a “dancing elephant” in the animal park, all
punctuated a day in a Cambodia we have thus far not seen that left us speechless, saddened, enlightened, overwhelmed.

We – along with our friends Meagan and Eliza – had headed out for a day trip to the animal
park with Sam On. What began as an outing to the zoo and turned into something much, much more.

First there was the line of beggars standing beside the dirt road from the highway to the game preserve. They stood, respectfully distanced from another, wearing the dingy, ragged clothes that are the poor’s uniform and thus identified themselves as members of the class of unfortunate and forgotten.

We reached out to one, handing her a banknote.

 

Her smile still haunts us. Two teeth in a wrinkled, brown face in a body bent to a 45 degree angle from years of working in the rice fields. Leaning on a wooden stick, leathery hands outstretched, begging for anything we could give. Soaked to the skin after standing in a pouring rainstorm for an hour on a dirt road leading up to the Phnom Tameo wildlife refuge.

 

She was one of dozens, an old woman amidst a host of children, handicapped and struggling souls. All lining the road to the 30-minute drive which led to the animal park. They came from the city on weekends, we were told, in hope of gathering a few Riel from visitors who took pity on their plight.

 

And take pity we did. How could we not? Here were we, four comfortable westerners from across the world, where we live in a world of plenty, spending $30 on a day’s tuktuk ride to the park. How could we close our eyes and our hearts to people who had broken arms, crippled backs and unseeing eyes and whose sole hope lay in the kindness of strangers?

 The wild tigers, eagles, bears and elephants at the refuge were magnificent but they paled in significance to the impact of the human sights we were exposed to, trapped in a refuge of their own where there was no relief, no safety net.

 

And, every time we handed over a small offering to a person on the road, the same thing happened. They smiled. Wrinkled faces softened, tiny brown eyes sparkled and old men bowed their heads in gratitude.

 

As we drove along, humbled by the sight, we asked ourselves “What do they have to smile about?”.

 

Many of them stand with vacant stares as cars and motos ease by their outstretched hands. And when one places a banknote into the palm of an outstretched hand, their eyes shine brightly with their good fortune, and their embracing stares remain fixed on us as we continue down the road and along the
seemingly endless row of humanity’s most unfortunate.

There are simply too many to give to each, no matter how small the gift. So we choose carefully and try to delight when they acknowledge the good fortune of a gift from a stranger.

Tackling Cambodian’s poverty, even the tiny slice that lines the road before us, is like trying to drain an ocean with a straw. Our meager efforts leave us empty, dissatisfied, depressed.

Later, as we made our way back to Phnom Penh, a small market appeared by the side of the road, and the crowd forced traffic to a crawl. Just off the pavement  was an adult  – I truly don’t know whether it was a woman or a man – kneeling in the mud at the market’s entrance, head bowed and hands clasped in a fixed supeh (respectful Cambodian greeting or blessing) as he or she hoped for some small gift from a passerby.

The person’s face was gone, mostly, along with the eyes which once lay in the empty sockets – angry red masses of flesh where once, presumably, rested cheeks and jowls, a chin and a nose, eyebrows and a forehead.

But no longer.

I do n’t know whether the disfiguring was due to a horrible burn accident, chemical exposure, act of war, or some other misfortune that has forever heaped misery on the poor human being. Relegated to begging by a depth of personal loss that our brains cannot fully comprehend, the person was little more than a
body by the side of the road to be pitied and rewarded; ignored and stepped over. As is often the case in circumstances like this, the latter was the norm, the former the exception.

As we ease by in our tuk tuk, we are guilty as charged of flagrant good fortune, and of having every single
thing in the world that this person has been denied. We feel prepared to be sentenced by the court of human fairness and dignity of having so much that even a sightless person would be able to see it with clarity.

There was more.

The delightful young girls who tried to sell us flowers and incense for the ancient wat at the Prasat Taprom Tonle Bati natural and cultural heritage site, then gave up when we realized we weren’t buying and simply tried to give us the flowers “for free, as a cadeaux.” They swarmed around us, hovering closely and peppering us with English phrases far better formed than our awkward Khmer responses.

They gleefully posed for pictures with us, then enthusiastically waved goodbye with wide, beaming smiles as we made our way down the road in Sam On’s tuk tuk.

The gorgeous little girl with the a tshirt emblazoned with an image of Barack Obama and the slogan “Progress” who raced to the side of our tuk tuk to greet the group of foreigners who had stopped by her family’s lakeside concession for a quick look.

Later, Sam On made an unscheduled stop on the way back to Phnom Penh. He wanted us to see his home.

 

We pulled into a driveway and walked with him as he wove a path through an alleyway in a city suburb. His 8-year-old son stood naked ahead of us as he poured buckets of water over his body and giggled as we said hello. Sam On led us through a doorway where his pretty wife greeted us in their home — a dark room half the size of our bedroom with one tiny window with bars on it and a thin linoleum floor.

 

They beckoned us to sit on the floor, brought us bottles of cold water and plugged in two floor fans to cool us.

 

“My family is very poor, and I have nothing to give you,” Sam On apologized, explaining that he shares the room with his wife, two children and younger brother, and is saving to build a house on a plot of land he’d bought five years earlier. It is his dream to build this house and in the next year or so he is hoping to save the $4,000 he needs for construction.

 

After we spent a few minutes socializing with his family, Sam On whisked us off to see his land. Bumping along through a garbage-strewn alleyway off the main street, he pulled up in front of a tiny sandy heap perhaps 30 feet wide and tightly sandwiched between two ramshackle buildings. A space smaller than the space I used to park my car back home. This was his land. The place he hoped to create a home for his family.

 

Our hearts ached for him and for the people we’d seen on the road to the animal refuge. Gentle, kind souls who reached out to us and who lived lives so far removed from our existence. A silence descended upon us as we drove the rest of the way home, trying to digest and find some semblance of reason in the experiences of the day.

 

As for Sam On, tuk tuk driver, father, husband and provider for his entire family, he smiled the smile of a man who is first to reach into his pocket when someone less fortunate walks by.

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