Monday, June 25, 2007

What country am I in?

As we watched the sun begin to rise over one of the seven built wonders of the world, Angkor Wat, the serenity was broken by a group of college students. A professor enthusiastically gave instructions: “Okay, we’ll stay here until 6:30. Until then, feel free to wander. You can get some good shots over by that lake.” A girl turned to her friend, “So…which wat (temple) is this?” I rolled my eyes as if she had just asked, “So…which wall is this,” while standing before a certain Chinese wonder. And then Blaine told me to be nice. There are actually a lot of wats close to Angkor that are often called by the same name. Besides, I’ve been there: “So…which palace is this?” “So…that’s the king?” “So…when is lunch?”

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Play Dough Rings

We were walking up a hill. She was there on the path stretching out her hand. When we walked back down after the sun had set, she was still there, twirling her fingers in the dirt, staring up at the stream of tourists. She had a cup or a bowl, I can’t really remember, holding a few coins. I do remember that it was dark, and that I walked past her with a feeling of helplessness. It was a conscious decision, not giving money to any child. I’m still not sure it was the right one, but the books told me it made things worse not better, feeding an industry of child labor that should not exist. So I looked away and walked down the hill, sure that no child should be ignored that way.

Then it was an uneasy dance every time. How do I extract myself quickly from the young hawkers of postcards and trinkets? “You are seven,” I wanted to explain. “You are too young to be working, too young to be begging, too young to be talking to strangers alone.” I did try that once. “I can’t,” I said as she showed me a cold water bottle, and then a stack of postcards, and then a book on Angkor Wat, hoping something would catch my attention.” “I can’t,” I said, “You are too young to be selling things to me when you should be learning things in school.” “You can,” she argued, “If you want to you can.” I turned away from that crowd of little girls too, unable to offer anything but incomprehensible moral arguments.

Every meal was a new set of children circling close to our table, bobbing in and out as restaurant owners shooed them away. Blaine and I would stare at each other sadly, unable to focus on any conversation as we feebly tried to ignore the memorized sales pitch. This time it was two little boys who watched me buy a card from a woman in a wheelchair. Angry at my purchase from his competition, one little boy swatted at the woman. Clearly used to squirrelly little boys, she pulled out a sharp rock and batted towards his chest. The other little boy just pointed to the first boy, then to his head, as he whispered, “He’s cra-see.”

Really, he was just angry at a world that ignores him. That tells him he is not worth attention or time. That looks on him with pity and refuses to help him. Big eyes and a sad face sometimes win him a dollar or two, so the corners of his mouth turn down. His eyes plead. And he is angry.

That was it. I couldn’t ignore anymore. I was prepared with mini containers of play dough, but somehow these kids seemed too old for it. They looked young, but they talked like little used car salesmen. It was almost scary, thinking about engaging these kids instead of walking purposefully away. And then I kicked myself. Because scary is sitting on the side of the road in the dark as strangers hurry past acting like you don’t exist. Scary is not handing a child a toy and asking how old he is. No, you can’t eat it. Look, here’s how you make a snake. Wow, that looks great. You are ten? You cannot be ten, you look five. Is that Mickey Mouse on your shirt? Kids in California like Mickey Mouse, too. Suddenly these used car salesmen forgot what they were selling.

It always took less time to interact. Even when the play dough ran out, it took less time to ask kid questions, and get kid answers, than it did to ignore and try to walk away. I admit to being bothered by it. To feeling like these constant demands for money were cutting into my vacation. Then I remembered, or was reminded, that I was only being confronted with something that always exists. In my world, I don’t have to listen to children begging, because I’m too far away to hear them.

She picked out the pink play dough, prying off the lid with determination. She followed us around the temple ruins for a bit, ducking behind stones and popping out again, finally settling on a rock to examine her new treasure. As we walked away, I laughed at her handiwork, five tiny pink play dough rings with more in the works. And she laughed, too.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Before I try to write the million words it will take to unravel the last two weeks of traveling, I thought I’d give some of the musical highlights of our journey through Cambodia and Vietnam. Things started off well enough. The cab ride to the airport featured the international (translation: American) station. I’ve been away from the US long enough to appreciate any music with English lyrics. So Beyonce at 5 am? Sure, I’ll sing to that.

There was the taxi driver in Saigon who made us sing Hotel California. The Eagles had no idea what power their words would hold over South East Asians for decades to come. The first time a street vendor said, “Ohhh, where you from? Ohhh, California…Hotel California!” I thought it was hilarious. He knows the song, how random and fun! It turns out, everyone knows the song. But I don’t think we’ll ever top the rendition we offered in that cab, when the driver belted out the chorus with us as he swerved through the streets of Saigon.

And we won’t soon forget the mid-80’s soft rock tunes played for us on the two hour trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Apparently “Michael Learns to Rock” is experiencing a major comeback in Asia. Our bus driver put the album on repeat. There is just some music you should never be forced to learn by heart.

There were also the cell phone ring tones, which remain one of the great cultural mysteries in my mind. It seems that “Happy Birthday” is to Vietnam what “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is to Thailand, which is to say, it is the ring tone of every third person in the country. Our boat tour guide broke apart from the crowd, choosing a tune that threw me back to eighth grade every time his phone rang: Vengaboy’s creatively titled hit “Boom Boom Boom Boom.” The Vietnamese man who sat next to us on the plane played us his full ring tone--a sappy song called “I’m Proud of You.” Not the ring I would have paired with a forty year old business man, but like I said, cultural mysteries.

The best had to be the trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We recognized the tune, but the words were in Khmer. “Is this…”Play That Funky Music (White Boy)”?” And it was. The music video karaoke version. A young Cambodian pop star danced on the screen as a psychedelic snail floated in the background. Blaine and I just stared. “But why a snail?” I asked. “But why this song?” She asked. And then we shook our heads and sang the chorus in English.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This Way

My family often mocks a deep observation I made when I was eight or nine that "every road leads somewhere." Well, Cambodia lives by my philosophy, and offers helpful road markings to help you find your way...somewhere.