If pressed for details, I can remember everything about that street, the steady chaotic flow of buzzing scooters, tuk-tuk drivers desperate for fares, imploring day trips to the Killing Fields. The red clay soil next to patches of wet green grass, next to solid grey strips of concrete. In the taxis, dusty air forced me to wrap a bandana around my face; the way bank robbers did in old westerns. The grit crunched betwixt my teeth, it dried my throat and curled beneath my fingernails.
Night had fallen on Phnom Penh. Directly across the street from the Tonle Sap River, I sat in a small restaurant, watching the frenzy of scooters gurgle and honk their way past into the darkness. As I waited for a menu, a sliver of a girl, barely ten-years-old approached. Against her hip she heaved a red plastic basket, filled to the brim with knock offs of best selling books and travel guides – photocopied and made to look exactly like their mimicked counterparts. Her sales pitch wasn’t yet finished before more children swarmed down, at least ten in total, a filthy assortment of skinny arms, legs and hands. Some carried not books, but their baby siblings, literally in many cases, babies carrying babies.
Their faces and palms stained by diesel exhaust and the dust of roads destroyed long before, when bombs fell steadily. These were the streets on which they’d all been programmed to sell their goods, lest they risk returning home with nothing, facing only what they’d later describe to me as “trouble”. It was not optional work, nor was it done out of any childish curiosity to play grown up for a day. These children were born grown. Their cynicism tore me, instantly seeing through my weak claims that perhaps tomorrow I would buy a book.
By my second day in Phnom Penh, the children knew my name and I knew many of theirs. They trailed me as I walked down the street, asking me about my home country and whether or not I had any brothers or sisters. They told me what they wanted to be when they grew up, all of which were dreams that I could not bear to hear. They teased me as they teased one another, their sales pitches no longer directed at me.
I was set to leave for Vietnam the following day and so I bought a goodbye gift of chocolate chip cookies and began handing them out. I was quickly surrounded, tiny hands desperately grabbing at the packages. Walking back to my hotel moments later, I was struck by the realization that what I had done had been a hollow, meaningless gesture for my own benefit. I wanted to remember the children as happy. I didn’t want to face the reality of knowing that night and day, year after year, they would be on that same street selling those same books.
Regardless, every last one of them found their way into my mind, a constant reminder that this traveling business, it’s not as simple as boarding a plane and getting your passport stamped. Travel has the intensely powerful ability to place me as deeply into my destination as I wish. Beyond tourism, an opportunity exists, and this opportunity makes no guarantees or promises over what will be found or experienced. It is a letting go of the highest order, a potentially frightening experience that changed me once I allowed it to.
The children taught me that every destination is not necessarily one of idyllic relaxation. The realities faced do not leave. I can no longer think of Cambodia without feeling a kick at my shins or a pinch against my arm. But that’s good. It’s the ignition I need. Travel and living should be the same, that is, the manner in which I live should be the same by which I travel. The opinions I form of the lands I visit should be based on more than weather and the attitudes of shopkeepers, taxi drivers, waiters and the men on trains who check my tickets.
I had accounted for everything in Cambodia – the malaria, the pickpockets, the pistol toting bandits, the landmines. I simply was not prepared for the children. Yes, they were only children, but they leveled me with a force far greater than any of those other things ever could. I now understand that the more effort I make, the deeper I can delve into new places and environments. Within these are the moments: powerful and painful, joyful and unique. Wherever they may be, when I choose to seek them out, I can rest assured that they will not disappear as easily as a suntan, several days after arriving home.
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