I watch them ride away. Livi and Ava on their bikes, Nina on the back of Jillisa’s moto. Our sweet friend has offered to hang out with our girlies so Gabe and I can go on a date. I take a deep breath and walk back through the gate. I start to lock it and put the palm of my hand against it instead. “Please, sweet Jesus, protect my babies. Amen.”
I walk back up to our apartment on the third floor. Gabe finishes his shower. We head back downstairs for our date. My first time on the back of the moto. I have no helmet, but we won’t be going that fast.
I climb on. Everything is okay. We start moving. Still okay. The roads aren’t very crowded (it’s Khmer New Year), and Gabe picks up speed. I’m not okay. I am not really afraid; I just can’t stop picturing what it will feel like if we crash and I fall off. It will hurt. A lot.
I’ve done this sort of thing for as long as I can remember. Standing on a balcony, I look down and imagine what it would feel like if I fell (or jumped). Riding the swings at the zoo, I imagine what it will feel like when the chains break and I hit the cement from 20 feet in the air.
I can’t relax and enjoy the ride.
I am uneasy.
Nothing is open on this, the biggest holiday of the year. We head to the moaht-tonle (riverfront). A friend told us that restaurants will stay open there, because that’s where all the tourists are. And, by tourists, she means men who have come to Cambodia for sex.
The riverfront makes me very uneasy.
No, this is an understatement. It makes me feel sad and angry and hopeless and furious and all twisted up inside. Why is this world so evil? Why do these men do this? Why do people have to be so poor, that this is even an option for them, to sell themselves, to sell their children?
We park the moto on the street in front of a restaurant and are immediately accosted by P, a young man we know. He is selling books and reminds us that the last time we saw him we promised to buy a book from him. This is not true. He tells us what he’s been up to, that he has a sponsor, he tells us about a trip to another city and that the hotel room cost this much and the dinner cost this much. We never know when he’s lying or telling the truth.
His English is impeccable. It always has been, ever since we met him three years ago. He wants a Khmer New Year gift. How about money for a Coke? “I’ll buy you a Coke,” Gabe says. We walk down to his mom’s drink stand on the corner. Drinks are $1. We somehow get roped into buying Mirindas (a kind of pop) for his two girl cousins as well. They are all selling things–books, bracelets, scarves, purses. We say we don’t need anything. We chat for a bit. We say good-bye.
We eat at an outdoor restaurant called Deja Vu. Appropriate. Because I have had this feeling so many times before. An older white man and a very young Khmer girl are at the table across from us. They are drinking their beers, barely talking. I want to rescue her. I want to glare at him, maybe spit at him, tell him this is NOT OKAY.
I try hard to keep my eyes down, to not look at all the old, stubbly, paunchy white men sitting alone. My default is to believe they are sex tourists, most likely pedophiles. I hate that my default is most likely correct.
I say a silent prayer. It doesn’t help.
P’s 13-year-old cousin approaches our table. She tries her very hardest to get me to buy something from her. She has many little tricks and is very persuasive. I find creative ways to turn her down. I know that buying something from her will not help anything. I ask her questions about herself. She answers carefully.
Gabe says there is only one thing he needs. Jesus. Preah Jesu. She says she’s never heard of that. But she grins.
Finally, exasperated, she gives up on us. We eat our food and leave.
We ride the moto to Wat Phnom. I feel a little less uneasy. We park and walk around. There are vendors selling things, bright decorations, music playing, people standing at the top of the steps of the Wat, buying small birds and releasing them into the air as an offering to Buddha.
It feels like we are at the Asian Festival back in Columbus. Except we are actually in Asia.
I feel uneasy.
I stop. I close my eyes and pray. “Jesus, be with these people. Draw near to this country. Shine your light in this dark land. Jesus, we need you. We need you. Please come.”
I open my eyes. I see a girl I recognize. She has played soccer with our girls. She sees me and smiles briefly. She is running with three boys. I don’t know her story. I want to. I hope she is safe. I hope no one has hurt her.
We walk some more. “Look,” Gabe says, pointing to a young boy (maybe 8? 10?) holding a sleeping baby in one arm, a bottle in the other. He looks so weary. He sits down on the concrete curb. The few-months-old baby is out cold. Maybe he’s just tired, or maybe he’s been drugged. Drugging babies so they are easier to lug around and beg with is common. Two young men hand the boy small bills.
I want to cry.
It’s hot. We’re thirsty. We buy a cold pomegranate tea. Gabe drinks half the bottle in one swig. I hold it for him while he gets out his camera. I take a drink. I sit on an empty bench while Gabe snaps a photo of a deflated Bugs Bunny balloon. A tiny little person waddles up to me. He’s maybe 2 years old. He takes my bottle (while I’m still holding it) and puts it up to his lips (the lid is on). I smile and hand it to him. He takes the lid off and gulps the rest down.
Oh, I hope he’s okay. I hope he gets enough to eat. I pray for him.
It takes five seconds to figure out why that bench was empty. It’s directly in the glaring hot sun. We move.
We get a text from a friend that a dear Khmer friend of ours has just unexpectedly lost her mother. My breath catches. My heart pounds. I feel so sad. This is supposed to be a time of great, great celebration and fun with family. This is not supposed to happen.
I pray for her. I ask God to hold her tight.
We sit on another bench and, for the next 30 minutes, we (and, by we, I mean Gabe) strike up conversations with police officers and anyone with a camera and anyone who shows any interest in us whatsoever. Gabe tells everyone (in broken Khmer) that we have lived here three months, where our house is, that we’re Khmer students, how old we are.
It is adorable. And, for once, I don’t feel uneasy. This feels right. I chime in. I remember words. This is fun.
I take pictures of him with his new “friends.” (I’m really awful about adding photos to my wordy posts, but you can see all the pics of our afternoon on Instagram.)
One policeman in particular is giddy about Gabe’s attempt to speak Khmer. He says Gabe is very good for just being here three months. We laugh and joke, then he has to get back to work.
We decide this has been a fun date, and we’re ready to head home. On the way back, I don’t feel fear (well, maybe a twinge now and again). I am able to redirect my thoughts, to think about the breeze and my arms around Gabe and the fact that WE LIVE IN CAMBODIA instead of replaying and replaying a gruesome moto wreck that has only ever happened in my mind.
We get home. The house is quiet. Warm, but there’s a breeze. I read a book. I can’t stop thinking about the uneasiness.
So I blog about it.