Today, my life changed. In a small village, if you can even call it that, outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I saw, or rather, experienced, something that unfortunately very few people like me will ever allow themselves to see. Humanity stared me in the eyes today and begged me to change, and I think I have no choice but to listen.
After a week of touring around Thailand, we traveled to Cambodia for a short visit to see Angkor Wat – the majestic 13th century temple which could be considered one of the wonders of the world, if it isn’t officially one already. But visiting the temple this morning did nothing to my spirit compared to our ‘leisurely’ boat ride around a nearby lake. I expected this to be one of the cheesier moments of the day, seeing as how our vacation has been mostly planned by travel agents and local tour guides and I tend to assume that there is an implied degree of forced touristy appeal to some of the activities that they plan for the average visitor. But what I had low expectations for turned out to be one of the most shocking and important experiences of my life. We drove through Siem Reap, through the outskirts of the city (which are mostly straw huts on dirt ground), and out to the dock of a very small and very impoverished fishing village on the edge of the lake. The four of us, and the many other tourists around us, hopped on our personal boat and took a ride around the lake. The final destination was a slow and sobering drive through a floating community of Vietnamese fishermen and their families living out of decrepit boats. This was the slums. I have been to Colombia and I have seen poverty, but I have never seen it like this. This will haunt and inspire me for the rest of my life.
Each family had their own boat, which was essentially just something that floated that they could stand on. A boat is an overstatement. They were floating huts, like the ones we saw outside Siem Reap, but much worse, and on water. This was a village. They had pig pens floating on water, ducks in floating cages, “shops”, a mechanic, even a school, and all of this was floating down a long stretch of water and flooded trees and bushes. They lived here because apparently the fishing (and thus chance of survival) was better here than in their hometowns in Vietnam. This was better than what they had! A woman held her child over the edge of their home so he could defecate into the water… the same water that another child was bathing in not too far away, the same water that served as a gigantic floating trash can for all of their debris – the same water that provided their food and all of their life.
We stopped for a moment because our tour guide, a man with a very big heart and only good intentions, wanted us to drink some champagne that he brought especially for us so that we could enjoy our afternoon. I nearly barfed. He pulled out his nice champagne bottles and a bottle of Taittinger champagne which he kept in the ice cooler along with bottled water, sodas, and a plethora of fruit for our enjoyment, and he served us each a glass. I felt my 4 course lunch creeping back up my esophagus as quickly as I felt the tears forming in my eyes. And after a half-hearted “toast” (to what?), we spotted a small canoe with three small children, one of whom was holding a snake around her neck. We had not seen the worst of it yet and our touristy excitement kicked in, so we summoned them over so that a few of us could take a picture with the snake in exchange for a dollar. We soon learned that this was not the first child-with-snake act we would find during our afternoon with reality, as about four other boats with snake-children pulled up as soon as they saw us stop for the first. We didn’t want any more snake pictures, but hearing the heart wrenching “Madam, please, one dolla” over and over again made us willingly give away many “one dolla’s” for the rest of the afternoon.
After the snake, I chugged my champagne in one horrible gulp because I didn’t want to waste it nor did I want to offend the tour guide, but I hated myself for drinking it and I wanted to spit it in everyone’s face (everyone in my boat, that is). We proceeded through the village, floating through as we took photos like crazy, in awe of what we were seeing, but taking too many photos to really process where we were. It wasn’t until we stopped for the supposed “Cat Fish and Crocodile Attraction” that reality really started to sink in. Our tour guide thought we might enjoy seeing some local cat fish and crocodiles, so we stopped at another floating stop, this one made specifically for idiots like us. He eagerly called us over to look at the amazing cat fish; it was disgusting. It was a small cat fish farm, meaning a small contained space in the river with filthy water and so many cat fish in it that you weren’t even sure if there was any water in their container at all. It was a black slippery mess and it was incredibly sad. But that seemed like paradise compared to what we saw next. We approached the crocodile pit cautiously, not knowing what to expect, and certainly not expecting to find a huge pit filled to the brim with crocodile piled upon crocodile, piled upon another layer of crocodiles, covered in flies, warts, and fighting for the dead fish floating around them. I have never seen animals treated so horribly. They were just laying there and we weren’t sure if they were alive or dead until one struggled from underneath another to grab a dead fish that floated near its mouth. My sister and I stared in shock and again, my lunch begged to come out from where it entered. And what really put us both over the edge was another tourist, like us only EVIL, who took a long bamboo stick lying nearby and decided to poke a group of the crocodiles to see what they would do. She poked, and naturally the first one snapped as crocodiles will do, but when her squeal and giggle passed, she continued to poke and poke, making them all very angry, uncomfortable, and forcing them to move to another part of the croc pile. My sister and I yelled at her to stop, but she didn’t hear and continued. When she was over it, she dropped the stick and walked away, laughing. I like to think that everyone gets what they deserve eventually and I’d like to think that some day she will fall in a croc pit and the crocs will poke her over and over again, with their teeth, and it will not be pretty.
After that, and after the taxidermy baby crocodiles posed for eternity in supremely humiliating poses (for sale, of course, to tourists like us and that stupid lady), and after seeing what a crocodile bag really looks like, we all crawled into our boat again, tail between our legs, and got ready to head back. But not before being approached by more than a dozen children in little metal containers used as boats (fit only for a small child) begging us for money and food. We handed out some of the fruit we had, but our boat started the engine and we were about to leave. A few children clung to the side of our boat, begging desperately and I wasn’t sure if I should photograph them, wave, cry, or ignore. My emotions were a wreck and I didn’t know how to handle these children. The last one clung on, looked at me so desperately, and begged “yum yums?” I scrambled around for some food, but I couldn’t find it in time, and she was forced to let go of the boat and float away in our wake. I cried in silence the rest of the way back. No more photos. Just silence. From all of us.
Our boat pulled into the dock and I was nearly shaking. We took our bag of fruit, our cameras, our purses, and all of our filthy excess and stepped back onto land through what felt like a portal from dream to reality… or reality to dream? I’m not entirely sure. As we walked back to the car, I came across a gorgeous little girl in red pajamas and I stopped to photograph her. As I walked away, she yelled out “one dolla!” and I had no money and I’ve become accustomed to ignoring a lot of beggars from my many trips to Colombia, so I continued walking, though feeling incredibly guilty. She ran after me and I decided I had to give something, so I asked my mom if she had anything and she didn’t, but she had fruit, and she was handing it out to the children that had swarmed around her. I gave my little red pajama girl some fruit and before we knew it, my sister, my mom and I were surrounded by children with their hands out, begging for food. We were talking with them kindly, smiling, and handing them nectarines and other local fruits that I’ve never heard of before. But things got rowdy very quickly when a girl reached in our bag and grabbed a ton of fruit and ran off. The others followed her lead, and within seconds, the bag had been ripped out of our hands and they were fighting for whatever “yum yums” they could get. We took that as a sign that our slow and deliberate delivery of food was no longer working, so we left them with the bag and stepped into the van to drive back to the hotel. The drive back was the longest drive in the world. The air was thick and the lumps in our throats were big enough to see from a mile away. Nothing can ever be the same.
Today has been tattooed onto my memory forever, and I am happy to have it that way. I never want to forget what I saw today – only a short glimpse into what 99% of the planet lives every day of their lives. I felt sick taking a shower after, feeling so filthy and fortunate while so many people, not so far away from where I sit right now, are starving, begging for food, pooping in their drinking water, and sleeping in hammocks in the open air where malaria and dengue fever abound. This injustice is beyond me, but I can’t go on knowing what I know and not make a change. Health and education. Those are the keys to release them from their slum prison. Those people are born into a world that is not too different from the world that those crocodiles live in and someone has to do something to make things right. Might as well be me.