Her smile still haunts me. Two teeth in a wrinkled, brown face in a body bent double from years of working in the rice fields. Leaning on a wooden stick, her hands outstretched, begging for anything we could give. She was soaked to the skin after standing in a pouring rainstorm for two hours on the dirt road leading up to the Phnom Tameo wildlife refuge, 18 miles southeast of Phnom Penh.
She was one of dozens of people – an old woman amongst many children, most of whom were handicapped and struggling. They were lining the road to the 30-minute drive which led to the animal park. We were told that they came from the city on weekends in the hope of gathering a few Riel from visitors who took pity on their plight.
And take pity we did. How could you not? Here we were, four comfortable westerners from across the world where we live in a world of plenty, spending $30 on a day’s tuktuk ride to the park. How could we close our eyes and our hearts to people who had broken arms, crippled backs and unseeing eyes and whose sole hope lay in the kindness of strangers?
What started as an outing to the zoo turned into something so much more.
The wild tigers, eagles, bears and elephants we saw were magnificent but they paled in significance to the impact of the sight of so many desperate humans to which we were exposed.
And, every time we handed over a small offering to a person on the road, the same thing happened. They smiled. Wrinkled faces softened, tiny brown eyes sparkled and old men bowed their heads in gratitude.
As we drove along, humbled by the sight, we asked ourselves “What do they have to smile about?” But every time, they smiled.
Many of them stood with vacant stares as cars and motos passed by their outstretched hands. But when one placed a banknote into the palm of a hand, their eyes shone brightly with their good fortune, and their embracing stares remained fixed on us as we continued down the road and along the seemingly endless row of humanity’s most unfortunate.
There were simply too many to give to all, no matter how small the gift. So we chose those who appeared to be in most need and felt humbled by their acknowledgement of the good fortune of a gift from a stranger.
Tackling Cambodian’s poverty, even the tiny slice that lined the road before us, felt like trying to drain an ocean with a straw. Our meager efforts left us empty, dissatisfied and depressed. It also left us guilty for living lives filled with plenty and still, like Oliver Twist, asking for more.
On our way back, our tuktuk driver, Sam On, made an unscheduled stop on the way back to Phnom Penh. He wanted us to see his home.
It came as no big surprise as we’d befriended him and his family shortly after arriving in Cambodia and, several weeks ago, hosted them in our apartment for a feast of curry, rice, shrimp and various local dishes. This was his turn to reciprocate.
We pulled into a driveway and walked with him as he tentatively wove a path through an alleyway in a city suburb. His eight-year-old son stood naked ahead of us as he poured buckets of water over his body and giggled as we said hello. Sam On led us into a doorway where his pretty wife greeted us in their home – a dark room half the size of our bedroom, one tiny window with bars and a thin linoleum floor.
They beckoned us to sit on the straw floor mat, brought us bottles of cold water and plugged in two floor fans to cool us. Sam On apologized they had nothing to give us and told how he lived here with his wife, two children and younger brother and was saving to build a house on a plot of land he’d bought five years earlier. It was his dream to build this house and was hoping to save the $4,000 he needed in the next year.
After we spent a few minutes awkwardly socializing with his family, Sam On whisked us away to see his land. Driving through a garbage-strewn alleyway off the main street, he pulled up in front of a tiny sandy heap. A space smaller than the space I used to park my car back home. This was his land. This was the place where he hoped to be able to create a home for his family.
Our hearts ached for him and for the people we’d seen on the road to the animal refuge. Gentle, kind souls who reached out to us and lived lives so far removed from our own existence. A silence descended upon us as we drove the rest of the way home, trying to digest and find some semblance of reason in the experiences of the day.
As for Sam On – He smiled.