Anata- live today and see what tomorrow brings
The twisted nature of life. I visit a country made famous by both beauty and atrocity. Many come here to see the temples of Angkor Wat, the ancient place of worship for the kings and gods. But when visitors walk the streets of this city not even the blind could forgo seeing the scars left by a war fought to kill these very same idols. Who has not heard of the bloodlust of the Khmer Rouge, of Pol Pot and the Killing Fields?
And even today, as tourists begin to once again roam these streets, the scars of those deaths are still everywhere to be seen. And to average travelers it is all just apart of the show. Maimed men with missing members, blinded, deformed, sit on the corners playing music with signs before them to evoke sympathy from passing tourists: I lost my legs to a landmine (these signs will say), I do not want to beg but I cannot work. Others go from table to table in the cafes, selling books about the war which they, even many years later, are the living victims of. And always we feel that guilt that grips the stomach, knowing full well that if that bone-shattering shrapnel that dismembered this man was reassembled, on it somewhere would bare the mark, MADE IN THE USA.
On one afternoon we sat in a park by the river, speaking with a Japanese traveler who paid his way selling jewelry. As we sat there a swarm of kids came running up to us. When Isabel offered them the food she was throwing away, a ferocity took over them as they pushed and fought with each other over the scraps. As they turned to me and the meal that I still ate, their ferocity turned to hunger and despair, the practiced look of a beggar that does not make their hunger any less real. But then, when the food was gone and there was nothing left to beg, their expressions changed once again to the smiles of youth. But when I offered my mandolin to one of the children for him to play, he looked at his own hands, covered in dirt just like his barefeet and his face, and he was afraid to accept it, believing he was too dirty to hold something that nice. And his eyes were sad.
Before long we each had three children sitting on our laps, per chance the closest thing to an embrace these lonely orphans had known in their lives. For these were different and lowlier than any of the beggar children of the tourist infested streets. I do not think the locals allowed these little destitutes to prowl over there. No, these children would know a suffering far worse than many of their countrymen. Their skin was blackened and scarred, their clothes were as dirty as their bodies and barely recognizable as pant, shirt or dress. Snot crusted under their nose with no mother for them to wipe it away. Somehow I ended up with them crawling on my back and I took to picking them up and swinging them in the air. Whenever I put one down there were two more waiting for their turn. And during all this the local Khmer looked on with trouble in their eyes, though I do not know if their derision was directed at us or the children that bothered their livelihood.
That night Isabel dragged met to a cocktail class which taught the recipes of local variations on drinks. It was at a bar called the Old Wood House, owned by a Frenchman and his Khmer wife. The class was nowhere as interesting as the conversation we had with the wife’s younger sister. It was not her words that told her tale as much as her energy. She radiated with a joy that was so out of touch with the dire circumstances of her life. Lala was 25 with two children from a man who left her to care for them while he went out with other women to drink. If her culture allowed her to, I believe she would have left him. But she also knew that few Cambodian men would take her, for she already had two children and was old by local standards. However, working for her French brother-in-law and encountering so many western women, Lala’s eyes had been opened to a new world of values and lifestyles that came hand-in-hand with tourism. She had been changed. In her eyes could be seen the spark that will grow into the flame of a new idea of womanhood that is spreading across this world. I have seen this flame in the eyes of strong, young women all over the world. From Morocco to Central Asia, America to Cambodia, across the globe there is a generation of women who have seen another path than the one their societies’ have designed for them, they have seen it and they will take it. If the socialism and fascism and all the ideologies of the 20th Century were man’s revolutions to make a better world, than now it is women’s turn. Let us pray they do a better job than we did, the world cannot afford their failure.
The evening ended but not without one of the subtle jabs to the conscious that grounds us back into the time and space that we inhabit. Lala told us the story of her walk to work that morning, and she did it with a smile and air of normalcy that showed just how different our two worlds were from each other. As she was passing by a dumpster she saw the body of a newborn, its birth fluids its only protection against the cold predawn air. She brought the baby to the hospital but it was too late. Another life lost to a world that could barely support those already living. As she told her story my mind was drawn back to those children who had clung to my arms earlier that day. The cruel realist in my soul asks the question, which child had the worse fate, and my compassionate side answers neither, and both.