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.