Blog by Sue Wallingford
“Two bracelet for 3 dollar – for you, 2 bracelet for one dollar, you buy, good deal for you.”
If I heard this phrase once I heard it a dozen times while traveling in Cambodia – A well-rehearsed speech in clearly spoken English coming from the mouth of babes as young as 5 years old, while carrying baskets of colorful bracelets, scarves and t-shirts. Everyday, they go work the streets, approaching tourists with the same plea. If you ask more questions, they will tell you they use the money to go to school, and that their moms make their bracelets for them to sell. If you tell them you can’t buy today, they might engage you in a game of rock, paper, scissors to give you even a better deal. If you refuse again, they might go into a sad story about how they haven’t received any money today so they will have to work extra hard the next day. Persistent they are, especially when they sense a person with a bleeding heart….like me.
I struggle with this, and I have tried various ways to abate the pain I feel when I am confronted with these children. I have tried the advice of some Cambodians and have bought more than my share of bracelets, traded chocolate, and other little trinkets in exchange for their goods. I have just handed them dollars to quiet their pleas. I have tried the advise of many NGO’s who work everyday to change the system that perpetuates poverty and turned away, trying to ignore the look of desperation I see on their faces. And, no matter what my response, it breaks my heart every time.
At the same time I am confronted with these children, sometimes while eating a meal in a sidewalk café, I see high rise buildings going up in every direction, Lexus cars amidst the motos and tuk tuks, and fancily dressed people having lively conversations while enjoying a full course meal. And I wonder to my self, “how can this be, how can there be such disparity in the world, and why does it have to be these children that suffer,” while I take my last sip of wine.
These are characteristics of a third world country, sharply differentiated by the ruling wealthy elites and the widespread poverty of the urban shanty-towns, and the underdeveloped countryside. The land of “the have and the have nots.” And, by some chance of luck, or from the eyes of the Cambodians, good Karma, I am one of the “haves,” and I will never have to suffer the pain of poverty that these children wake up to everyday. I feel sad, guilty and helpless and I know I take for granted everything that I have. And still, that doesn’t seem to help.
On my last couple of days in Phnom Penh though, I found something that helped just a little bit.
As usual I was sitting in a café, just having ordered my dinner, when a dark skinned, wide eyed and neatly dressed Cambodian girl approached my table selling bracelets and black-marketed videos. Out of the corner of her eye she is watchful of the restaurant staff, who will likely shoo her away, as she asks me if I want to buy one of her bracelets or videos. I tell her no, that I can’t buy today, and then she pulls out one of the trinkets I had traded with her a couple of days ago. She remembered me, and I hadn’t remembered her. How could I have forgotten those big beautiful eyes and that sweet smile. We talked a little about the day we first met when I gave her and her friends chocolate and trinkets. I discovered she knew how to say more in English then her recited speech. Somewhere in the conversation I asked her if she liked art, and she said yes, but she didn’t get to do it so much. I had packed with me that day a small sketchbook, some watercolors and pencils, so I asked her if she would like to make art now. With a wide smile she said yes, and settled herself on the sidewalk beneath my table and began to paint.
After about 20 minutes of painting she tore out her painting of Angkor Wat and gave it to me, “for you,” she said, and then followed by writing her name in big letters on her art. “Chanty,” now I knew her name, “would you like me to draw something for you?” She nodded, and asked if I would draw a picture of her. “I’ll try,” I said, disclosing that drawing faces was not so easy for me.
Before long, a couple of boys showed up curious as to what we were up too. They asked if they could draw too.
And then more kids showed up and my table was full – kids making drawings and paintings, waiting their turn to have their portrait drawn too!
That evening I came away with many beautiful drawings and paintings and completed 6 portraits! I learned all their names as I looked deeply in their eyes trying to find a likeness in my drawings of them. And even though my skills couldn’t capture their true likeness, they were still proud to have them.
We talked and laughed and made funny faces, and just like any kid, they had to be reminded to be still while I drew. And I didn’t buy one single thing and no one asked me too. The separation from the “haves and the have nots,” was suspended for a time as we all enjoyed being and making art together. It was the best night I had while in Cambodia.
The next evening, my last in Cambodia, Chanty and Lisa showed up at my table again, wondering if I had my art materials with me. Sadly, I didn’t, but I had two empty seats beside me. Together we shared a meal, like friends. It was nice. When it was time for me to leave, Chanty raised her hand high engaging me in her way of saying goodbye, and chanted, “Up high….down low….too slow.”
The second best night in Cambodia.