Saturday, February 11, 2012

Half Light

My first night in Sihanoukville was my introduction to the art of begging in Cambodia. I'd met a trio of other travelers at a food cart en route to the night market, negotiating their own temperaments as the som tam vendor pummeled together hot chilis, savory spices, bright herbs and a whole black crab in the shell (optional) under her pestle.

We sat on blue or red plastic chairs in the half light of the food stalls. All of Southeast Asia swims in the milky pallor of compact fluorescence. Vietnamese shops and larger markets are as bright as an atomic blast, either as a sign of relative wealth or by the intensity of their desire for it. Cambodia, by contrast, is a twilight.

It's like being in an aquarium, or a morgue. And an odd adjustment to a westerner used to incandescents and their primordial association with the glow of candles, the warmth of the sun.

The waitress shouted my companion’s order to a cook clattering in a dim stainless steel cubicle at the back of the stall.

We poured glasses of very weak tea from the pitcher on the table. We waited out the appearance of a number of dishes that were decidedly not the plate of chicken and steamed rice my friend ordered. 

My fellow traveler and the Cambodian proprietress chattered parallel English/Khmer monologues about the order in question. I opened the styrofoam container of som tam I'd taken from the cart at the roundabout and peeled the plastic sheath from my chopsticks.

Every few minutes a child approached, appearing like a wraithe out of the darkness. Disembodied faces floated just above the level of the tabletops. They were like dust devils, their skin, eyes and hair the same muted shade of ochre, liked they’d been rolled in the red earth you see in the country. They slacked their faces and uttered pleas without moving the corners of their mouths. They stayed as far from smiling as they could.

Sometimes a mother would be there, clutching a young child in her arms. You never saw her approach. It was as if she never actually moved, unable to spare the extraneous movement, fatigued beyond compare. But there she was, her face a few feet above you muttering a request for money.

I learned to be stern with these children, leaning in as I said "No", my animation in inverse proportion to their torpor. They would linger, little fingers on table edge, then turn their whole bodies slowly away, as if rotating on an axis.

When we'd had our fill of chicken and rice and spicy papaya and tea we pushed back our chairs, rising into the illumination, closer to the bulbs suspended under the tenting, like we were swimming to the surface of some ocean.

As soon as we were up, the children massed around the table, streaking from the far edges of the market stalls to survey the cast off scraps abandoned at the table. One wrapped a glass with both hands and drained the dregs of tea and melted ice. Another opened the styrofoam box which had contained shredded papaya and peanuts and delight, but was now full of tissues used to catch my nose, streaming from a cold and the unrelenting spice disintegrating in a puddle of spent citrus.

They quickly picked over the site and dispersed, leaving empty plates even emptier of a few grains of rice.

This is hunger. This is ingenuity and life at its most pure.

In the face of bad odds, these children play a part, the simple energy in them bent into the shape of beggary. They find their sustenance through this art, plying a trade of heart strings and pity. 

And we say no, or we give them something, trying to negotiate the formula of fish and fishing poles and wondering at how we got our pockets stuffed in the first place.

This is life at its most simple, which is only ever dimly lit.

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