It was noon on the second day of their Angkor Wat experience. Lydia pushed back her sunglasses to see Ta Prohm more carefully. Even though it was not yet the hottest season, the atmosphere was close and vibrated with the glare of the midday sun and the sound of crickets. Song had really enjoyed the stories and the historical details that Radha had entranced her with as they explored the main temples. Lydia’s personal favourite was this temple which had been left in the state in which it had been first discovered, with the jungle encroaching in on all sides and crumbling walls being overgrown by lithe, whispering trees. As she walked through one of the enclosures she stood back and took a photo of a massive tree root that was pressing down on the enclosure’s gallery. There was a fascinating symbolism that appealed to her. Nature was breaking down what was man-made and temporary, and civilisation was being crushed by a rampant wildness.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lydia could see yet another child worker approaching. This particular child was a wan-looking girl with limp hair who looked as though she was about seven or eight, but Lydia guessed she was around the same age as Song as most Cambodian children were a lot less physically developed than their Western counterparts. Dispensing with the usual Cambodian grin, the girl pulled on Lydia’s hand rather sharply. ‘You want buy books about Cambodia? Very good, yes. Only $1.’
‘No thanks,’ Lydia replied in Khmer, yanking her hand away. The books were all travel guides about Cambodia and other books of interest to tourists regarding the horrors of the Killing Fields and the Pol Pot era and were extremely cheap because they were photocopies, much like those you could buy in any of the markets in Phnom Penh. So far, Cambodia had managed to evade all international copyright laws, and this included DVDs and books, and the Westerners who lived in and visited the country tended to support this thriving black market for one of two reasons: either because the products were bottom-of-the-barrel prices or because there was no other option for consumers who wanted these products.
The girl put her hand on her stomach and looked imploringly at Lydia; she wasn’t going to give up easily. ‘Please, I hungry!’ While this stark statement was true of many street kids in Cambodia, Lydia pushed back the pinpricks of guilt. She knew that the sad reality was that this child was being manipulated by adults for their profit. If it were true that she was hungry, it would be better to give her some food rather than money, which would end up in the hands of someone with more power and less concern.
‘Would you like to play with me for the rest of the afternoon?’ Lydia was startled as she’d not been aware of Song’s approach.
It seemed as though the girl was just as surprised, not by her approach but by her suggestion. ‘Play?’ she said in Khmer. ‘I have to sell at least ten books this afternoon or… I haven’t got time to play.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said the irresistible Song, her eyes dancing. ‘I’ll help you sell the rest of the books, too.’
‘Will you now?’ Lydia wasn’t sure that this was such a good idea.
‘It’s ok, Aunty. I know what to do!’ Song wouldn’t give up and Lydia decided to throw caution to the wind and let the girls have some fun together. That would probably be better medicine for this waif than anything else.
It turned out that Song’s method of playing was actually a way of combining play with work. With Song taking the lead, the two girls, Song and Daneat, accosted potential customers with a rather unusual selling ploy – dancing! Lydia had no idea where Song had picked up this style: she would advance on the tourists and entertain them with a bouncy, leg-intensive dancing style reminiscent of Irish dancing, while Daneat would leave her book tray to one side and sway and swerve around Song. It was not the most choreographically elegant of dances, but the tourists were amused by it as it was so unexpected in this cultural context. Several tourists didn’t buy any books from Daneat but they gave generously, from $5 to $20 a dance. Radha and Lydia stayed as far away as possible from the girls, which was for the best as their barely suppressed hysterical laughter would hardly have aided their efforts.
Breathless and giggling, the girls counted their pickings in the corner of Ta Prohm at around five in the afternoon. The total cost was $115 – an absolute fortune for a simple child seller.
‘Perhaps you could keep half of your earnings today rather than giving it to your employers?’ suggested Radha to Daneat with a sideways glance and a wink. Daneat’s default stern expression returned and she cocked her head up from the fistful of notes without saying anything, probably afraid of what might happen if she was found out. Softening like butter at the edges, she responded with an ironic, ‘I couldn’t!’ while clapping her hands in glee.
‘Save your money,’ Song said, ‘and come to Phnom Penh to live.’
Lydia stepped in, uneasy with the way the conversation was going. ‘Phnom Penh might not be the best place for her, Song.’ She didn’t know what the best option was. It seemed pointless the child having all this money if she wasn’t going to be able to do anything fruitful with it.
‘Please, Aunty, she could live with us!’
Not wanting to seem as though she was rejecting the child, but at the same time annoyed with Song’s over-enthusiasm for putting her in this position, Lydia chewed her bottom lip and responded, ‘We might love to have Daneat with us, but her father and mother would be sad to see her go.’
‘I don’t have a mother or father,’ said Daneat matter-of-factly.
‘Who is taking care of you, then?’
‘I take care of myself. I give my earnings to my aunty, but she lets me do what I like.’
Lydia didn’t doubt that this was true. It was yet another sad story of Cambodian child poverty that would be repeated all over the country. She felt a hollow kicking inside mixed with an elemental rising-up. There was no way she could take in another ‘waif and stray’ under the conditions of her organisation, and she didn’t even know if she wanted to. She was quite content with her life with Radha and Song, and although some might consider this selfish, she didn’t want that to change.
While she was racking her brains about how to proceed, Radha interjected with a helpful deferment. ‘We can take your contact details and ask around about organisations and people who can help you. What do you want to do with your life? Never mind Song – she’s easily excited.’ Song’s chin twitched and Radha squeezed her hand affectionately.
Never having been asked such a question before, Daneat didn’t know how to answer immediately, but when her answer came it was simple and unaffected: ‘I want to get a good education and have a nice family.’ She looked up, eyes wide and tentative.