Cambodia Chapter 2
Gentle Readers: This is the second of a two part series.
The first of which was printed here a week ago titled Cambodia, Chapter One.
CAMBODIA Chapter Two
I did not meet the boys for lunch the next day or the day after that. I was in no mood to make ha-ha or to listen to jokes and laughter, in no mood at all. I wandered along the riverside. I was in front of The Royal Palace with its red tiled roofs and dazzling gold trim.
There was a small park thick with green grass. Four monks walked by in saffron-orange colored robes holding bright yellow umbrellas against the sun. It was a stunningly beautiful country- unless you took a few steps further and saw the grinding poverty, the crime and the filth.
A small voice in my head said ‘I love you.’ It was the girl in the pink dress calling out to me.
I heard it again, in a tiny child's voice. ‘I love you.’
Well, of course. Of course I was loosing my marbles. It was the only thing here that seemed perfectly reasonable.
There was a tug on my trouser leg. I looked down. There was a diminutive boy about eight or nine years old tugging on my trousers.
‘I love you.’
‘What? What did you say?’
‘I love you. I go hotel you.’
I was dreaming; the nightmare had started again. The boy clasped his tiny hand around my fingers and I jerked away as if I had been touched with a hot iron. Here I was- a grown man, married and divorced, working in New York City, traveling the world and I hadn't the slightest idea of how to behave or what to do.
I flagged down a passing cyclo. We climbed aboard and the driver peddled slowly towards my hotel.
I was self-conscious and very uncomfortable. Any minute now someone would shout pedophile. Point at me and scream, ‘That man’s a pedophile.’ But no one paid any attention to us.
I stopped at a small food stand near the hotel and ordered two plates of fried rice and two orange sodas.
The boy ate his in minutes. I pushed my plate over and he polished that off too. The boy might be small but he sure could eat. What’s next? A treat for him I thought. I called to the waiter- ‘ice cream’.
The boy looked up. ‘Me yum-yum you?’
My stomach knotted and a pain filled my chest. Ice cream and yum-yum were slang for oral sex in Cambodia.
What degradation had been forced on this boy? What horrors had he seen in a life too young to have even begun?
I had to act- do something to save him.
I grabbed his hand and dragged him to the hotel lobby. There was a nice Chinese lady behind the desk.
She would help me.
‘I have to rescue this boy. I have to take him some place.’
She nodded her head to the stairs leading to my room. ‘Go ahead.’
Jesus Christ, was everybody nuts in this country? There was a phone on the counter. I grabbed the receiver without asking and stabbed in Jack's number. He said that there might be a French lady up on Street 566 near Boeung Kak Lake that took in street kids.
Off we went in a rented car. The driver rode slowly as we searched for the place. It was a street of high walls and iron gates. We spotted a sign on one metal gate. It said Alliance Françoise. We jumped out and I pounded on the gate with the heel of my fist. Nothing happened.
I noticed a small buzzer set into the wall. I leaned on it until I heard a metal bolt shoot back.
The door opened and a small blonde-haired lady with a sun-tanned ferret like face peered out at me.
Behind her I could see a pale yellow house looking faintly French Colonial. Children played with an old truck tire on the front lawn.
‘Are you the lady that takes in orphans?’
‘I have no room.’
And with that, unbelievably, she slid the door shut in my face.
I pushed the damn thing back before she could shoot the bolt home.
‘What would it take for you to adopt this boy?’ I said.
She stared at me with silent impatience.
Let me put it another way I thought. ‘How much would it cost?’
She seemed to consider this. ‘How long?’
I wanted to say forever-until he grows up-ten years. But I said, ‘Two years.’
I would be sure to be back by then. I would see to it that he was alright.
That seemed reasonable enough. ‘Take him. I will be right back with the money.’
‘No, not until you bring the money- American dollars.’
The car was still there. The one good thing about Phnom Penh was that you could go anywhere in the city for two bucks and if you went out for a long dinner the driver would sit and patiently wait for you so he could gain another two dollars for the trip back.
We drove to the Cambodian Commercial Bank on Monivong and I took out a thousand dollars on my credit card. On the way back we stopped at the Central Market, a huge yellow Art Deco building that sold everything: electronics, watches, gold jewelry, clothing, paperback books and souvenirs.
The sidewalks were covered with food stands selling rice, noodles, roasted black spiders as big as the back of your hand and small birds, deep fried that you ate whole, beak, legs and guts included. Limb-less beggars held out their hats and accosted everyone.
I bought the boy four t-shirts, four pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, sneakers and sandals. He wasn’t impressed. The only thing that caught his eye was a battery powered toy car running along the sidewalk. I bought that and he held the box to his chest with both arms. It was the only time that I had seen him smile. I bought five shirts with collars and buttons. They were used but clean and ironed. The Salvation Army donated bales of clothing for the poor of Cambodia but it only got as far as the docks, bought by merchants to be sold on street stands like these. On the way out as a last minute thought I filled a big plastic bag with fruit: bananas, mangosteens and rambuttans.
I dropped the boy off and counted eight crisp new one-hundred dollar bills into the ladies hand.
‘Will you send him to school?’ I had some extra cash just in case.
‘I teach them here.’
Okay, good. Everything would be alright. I said goodbye but they hardly noticed. No one said thank you.
But everything was wonderful. I felt as if I had achieved something. I had saved a life.
Three months later, there was a story in The New York Times. America had halted all adoptions from Cambodia and France had followed suit. An agency there was buying babies for sixty dollars and selling them for ten or twelve thousand. Business was so brisk that Cambodians were scouring the countryside and buying babies for thirty dollars and selling them to the agency for sixty dollars. There was a photograph of the owner of the agency being led away in handcuffs by the police. It was the French lady that I had given the eight-hundred dollars to. She had been charged with human trafficking.
She said that she had given all of the money to local charities- for the children and listed a half dozen names. But there weren’t any such charities. She had just made the names up. The police held her for two weeks and had to release her; no mother would come forward to testify. They were all afraid that they would have to give back their sixty dollars- a fortune in this poor country.
I wondered what had become of the children playing in the front yard, jumping on the old tire.
Too old to be adopted- they were nothing more than props-decorations like the neatly trimmed hedges that bordered the house.
I tried not to think about my boy. The boy that I had adopted only for a day.
I did not wonder what had happened to him.
I already knew.
The newspaper story was just a grim postscript to a long sordid tale.
Three days after I had placed the boy I was on my way to the airport, riding through Phnom Penh, looking out the window of the hired car.
Then I saw him. I saw the boy.
He was holding hands with a fat white man in short pants. Each one of the man's legs seemed to be larger than the boy himself. The man wore a t-shirt over his large torso and faded blue tattoos snaked up his arms.
‘Stop! Stop the car,’ I hollered. I startled the driver and he slammed on the brakes throwing me against the front seat. I jerked on the door handle, flung open the door and ran to the boy.
‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you in school?’ I shouted.
‘What you want?’ the man said in a guttural, thickly- accented voice.
‘I want the boy. That’s what I want!’ I hollered. I was crazed now, totally crazed, off the deep end, bonkers.
‘I want the boy! I want the boy!’ I screamed at him.
I bent over to take the boy in my arms. I didn’t see it coming. I had no idea what happened. WHAM. The man punched me in the side of the head and I fell over, unconscious, my skull smashing into the hard cement sidewalk.
One minute I was reaching for the boy and the next minute I was lying quite still. I thought I saw the sky and vacantly wondered what I was doing here.
My driver leaned over me, blocking my vision. ‘Airport, airport.’ he said. He got behind me, put his hands under my arms and pushed me into a sitting position. The man and the boy were long gone. I vomited and sour yellow bile ran down the front of my shirt. I staggered to my feet and stumbled to the car. The back door was still open and when I went to sit down, I fell face forward onto the back seat. The driver shoved my feet in, slammed the door and off we went. Thank God, one of us still has some sense I thought. I ungenerously speculated that he might have been worried about not receiving the seven dollar fare if we didn’t make it to the airport.
I pushed myself up and felt the back of my head. My hair was matted, thick with blood. My hand came away sticky and wet with bits of grit from the sidewalk. I wiped my hand on the seat and gingerly touched the side of my face. It was already puffed and swollen. My left eye was closing fast.
I took a deep breath and then I started to cry. I cried louder and longer than I had ever cried before.
I cried great gasping sobs of sheer frustration. Sheer frustration and despair.
My chest heaved and the car filled with my uncontrollable wailing- drowning out the radio.
I cried until I lost my breath, gurgling and gasping for air and then I cried even more, letting it all come out.
I must have been a pitiful sight. What would the Thai Airways counter clerk think? I was beyond caring.
I was beyond caring about anything and I continued to cry all the way to the airport.
‘You’re alright’, the driver said. ‘You’re alright. You’re alright.’
He thought that I was crying for myself
and I was
I was crying for myself
and I was crying for the boy
and I was crying for Cambodia………
That is truly horrible.