As we step out of the car at the end of the red dirt road at the top of the mountain, I hear Ethan say, “Oh, my God!” I follow his pointing finger across muddy puddles to a river running fast and thick. Seven local children, four of them naked, one in ragged blue shorts, and two in underwear play at swimming across this flooded menace.
Their smiles are at odds with the danger of the river, this is a game. The boy in the blue shorts, no more than six years old, is halfway up the branchless tree trunk, the slick bark gripped by his muscular feet. He has tied a vine to the split branch above him, and in his sucess, pumps the air with his fist and grins over at me. Ethan and Bodhi run to the river to watch. It is September outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, height of the monsoon season, where the floodwaters rise and fall over ten meters as the earth strains to contain the deluge.
My boys walk toward the bank, unsure if they are allowed to join, Ethan’s eyes shining with curiosity. “Ethan, Ethan, Don’t go in. Don’t get near the water. It’s dangerous.” I say, with as much authority as I can muster. The glee of the kids shouting for their friend, emerging dripping from a short float down the rapid which pounds in the center of the river does not do much to support my statement. The water can kill you.The first rule is, Don’t make another victim.
“But go ahead and make friends,” I call after them, walking slower, wondering if I should stand down water of the group, knowing I am being silly, obviously these children can swim, this is their daily play, this monster of a flood their friend.
The oldest boy, maybe 13, takes the end of the vine and throws himself into the raging brown churning water. My heart leaps as the boy jumps in, the Swift Water Rescue Certified American Wilderness First Responder and medical insurance carrier is appalled and scared. Don’t they know what flood waters can do? That this water is to be feared and avoided? Don’t they know that water, only six inches deep, moving at this speed, can sweep a strong man off his feet and cary him faster down stream than we could ever run on the banks? What would it do to this young boy?
Ethan hoots on the bank at the boy, Bodhi stands shyly behind his brother, unsure. The boy floats at a ferry angle to the opposite bank, letting the vine become taught. He shouts to his friends, and they shout back, laughing. The youngest ones, naked and tanned dark brown laugh back at him, leaping around in their excitement, anxious to take their turn.
The boy across the river faces upstream, holding the vine tight and lets the current swing him into the middle of the river, waves big enough to surf in a kayak slap him in the face. He swings his feet underneath him, propelling himself against something on the river’s bottom, and begins to swing toward the safety of our bank. I can not reconcile the laughing friends playing in the sunshine with what should look like a dramatic and dangerous rescue scenario of someone’s beloved son.
The boy releases the vine and floats perfectly into the deep eddy below the tree, grinning in victory. Cheers raise from the bank, and the next child, squirming with excitement, dances with impatience for the vine to be hauled out of the river by the tree climber, and handed to him. The older boy climbs the bank, satisfied, and tired. The rest of the children run up and down, looking over the situation, deciding where to jump in, what line to take. They are waving and smiling and gesturing to Ethan, who looks over his shoulder at me. I look at the water. Ethan is a strong swimmer. But only 50 feet away the water turns white from bank to bank and goes sharply around a corner. In my mind’s eye, I can see his small feet, his brown knees flung into the air as my boy disappears from sight. I shake my head gently at him, but gesture for him to play on the bank. “We will swim at the waterfall, baby.” I say. He smiles, accepting. My heart relaxes a little in my chest.
We spend the rest of the morning tromping around the river and the local shrines, our new friends in tow. Eventually, the girls join the boys, now that the boys are finished playing in the river, and produce two Lemurs out of a purple Dora the Explorer backpack. One thing ubiquitous in our journeys around South East Asia: all merchandise for children is branded, plastic, cheap and bright, everything from the non DOT approved motorcycle helmets to slippers, shirts, journals for drawing, shorts, everything. Angry Birds glare at us from the seas of incredibly cheap, bright clothing when we go to the supermarket to try to replace the boy’s underwear. Ethan shrugs and takes what’s available. Bodhi is offended. “It’s all for babies.” he says.
The girl holds her hands out to Bodhi and he, afraid of the girl, because he is afraid of people he does not know in general, is charmed by the creature. Half monkey half ferret, its long nose snuffles him while its round eyes gaze up at his. He holds his hands out and the lemur scampers across and climbs up his shoulder, burrowing in his hair. The girl laughs and Bodhi laughs with her, feeling the tiny feet of the exotic creature and the silky fur.
I look at the scene for a moment. None of the children have asked us for anything. They don’t have much, they are dirty and barefoot, and the clothes they’ve pulled on are dirty and torn. Why they aren’t begging is confusing me. We arrived by car, we are tourists, we have what they lack.
After playing all morning with the kids, we climb in the car to go to Beng Malea, a temple falling down, unrestored, and being swallowed by the jungle. I ask our guide, Thom, if we can give our donuts to the kids. He looks at me. “Yes, but Kate, how do we give one donut to eight kids?” I look at him, unsure if he is trying to tell me politely not to encourage begging, if what I’ve asked is wrong or offensive.
“You want to give?” he asks. I nod. The boys are in the car, their noses stuck in their kindles already, ready for the next drive. I am ashamed for a moment, but also glad we had this encounter. They boys are unaware of the level of poverty, they played with the kids like kids, walking, exploring, sharing. I’m caught again. How do I explain the disparity in lifestyle without making my boys feel nothing but guilt? How do I nurture gratitude and appreciation for what they have, and a desire to share their bounty? Bodhi is prone to paralyzing guilt, which helps no one, making him only retreat further into himself.
He also appears not to see the difference between himself and other children, dirty or clean. He notices rich kids, in Aspen, where we live in the winter, and feels disparity between himself and them, but not kids of his own socio economic rank (which fluctuates with the seasons) and below. I want him to know that not everyone has the bounty he has, the same way the boys above him in privilege should not take their bounty for granted. Im stuck in my own predicament.
Thom comes to my rescue. “Okay, Kate. I do it for you. When you share, share, but make sure you give some for all.” Thom, having become my teacher, takes the donuts and walks to the back of the car. He begins to tear pieces off of the donut, and each child reaches patiently for a piece. They do not fight, or argue, but receive the delicate treat with stoicism, laughing as the sugar hits their tongue. Thom saves a piece for himself and eats it, making the kids exclaim.
“Thom!” I say, appalled.
He grins at me. “What? No breakfast for me!” he laughs. We get back in the car. “When I eat with them they feel part of the group with me.” he says, more serious.
At this point in our journey, I still don’t know that Thom grew up as the reign of the Khmer Ruge was fading, that food in his nine-person family was not always available, that he has walked to school every day, that his family sacrificed for a year to buy a bicycle so he could go to University where he studied history. At this point in our journey, I still think Khmer is a bad word, rather than a word that means “Cambodian” and that all Cambodian people are Khmer people. At this point in our journey, I know that I am ignorant, but I do not know just how incredibly ignorant I am.