Cambodia, January 14, 2000
I rode with a Cambodian baby who peed on my pack!
Cambodia is poor, and I mean dirt poor. On the road between the Thai border and Siem Reap, I watched little kids play in muddy pools, trying to catch that night's supper with fishnets and bamboo traps. Their houses, not much more than shacks really, were lucky to sport an open well out front or a few anemic oxen out back. All the little kids looked happy, like the little fellow to the left, even though most were a little skinny and definitely had worms of various sorts after messing around in manure-laced water all their lives.
Not that you could blame the kids for playing in the mud, they didn't have much else to do. No TV, computers, or even telephones adorned the homes, and school was a luxury for those kids that didn't have to work to keep food on the table.
With such hard lives, the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in Southeast Asia at 90 deaths per 1,000 births. This must explain how intensely everyone dotes on kids. See that tyke at left? He was sitting up front with his mom, although she paid for a seat in the back with her husband, because no one, including I, would let the driver charge her more or ride in the back.
On the way, he had fun, nursing from his mom as we sped down the roads, laughing and giggling with the big bumps, and peeing when and wherever he wanted to (no, not on me, but my pack). I'd say he was a happy kid, like the majority of kids (and adults) that I saw, not knowing how amazingly poor he was. Even so, with such joy, in his life and his manner, I'm not sure he'd want to trade places with any "rich" kid from the West. There is an amazing happiness and freedom when you don't own a thing.
They do own something new now. As I was rooting through my pack, looking for paper to write notes on with an English reading and writing (but not speaking!) kid in the back, she took my photos out to look at. Being so poor, Cambodians are very communal. You don't have a massive personal property complex if you've never really had anything, and so the Cambodians will take everything you have, pass it around, and hand it back after a good look-over.
You'd think I had little alien creatures the way they studies the random collection of Hong Kong photos I'd placed in my day-planner. Each shot was studied and pantomime questions asked. In the end, the kid I was writing with in the back kept a shot of me eating cheeze balls as I took a chairlift to the Great Wall in China, and the mom took a photo of Hong Kong's skyline. I know she'll be looking at it in wonder, amazed that people could build and live in such a place (she noted the tiny bits of green in the urban jungle immediately) while I'm not really sure what the kid will do with my photo.
If anyone sees that photo of me again, I'd like to hear about it. I will always wonder where it will end up with that Cambodian kid.