Treading water in an ocean of poverty
Her smile still haunts me. Two teeth in a wrinkled, brown face in a body bent double from years of working in the rice fields. Leaning on a wooden stick, her hands outstretched, begging for anything we could give. Soaked to the skin after standing in a pouring rainstorm for two hours on the dirt road leading up to the Phnom Tameo wildlife refuge, 18 miles southeast of Phnom Penh.
She was one of dozens. An old woman amidst children; most of whom were handicapped and struggling. All lining the road to the 30-minute drive which led to the animal park. They came from the city on weekends, we were told, in hope of gathering a few Riel from visitors who took pity on their plight.
It had started as an outing to the zoo and turned into something so much more.
And, every time we handed over a small offering to a person on the road, the same thing happened. They smiled. Wrinkled faces softened, tiny brown eyes sparkled and old men bowed their heads in gratitude.
Many looked with vacant stares as cars eased by their outstretched hands. And when one placed a note into the palm of an outstretched hand, their eyes shone brightly with their good fortune, and their embracing stares remained fixed on us as we continued down the road.
On our way back, our tuktuk driver, Som On, made an unscheduled stop on the way back to Phnom Penh. He wanted us to see his home
We pulled into a driveway and walked with him as he tentatively wove a path through an alleyway in a city suburb. His eight-year-old son stood naked ahead of us as he poured buckets of water over his body and Sam On led us into a dark room half the size of our bedroom, one tiny window with bars and a thin linoleum floor.
Our hearts ached for him and for the people we'd seen on the road to the animal refuge. Gentle, kind souls who reached out to us and lived lives so far removed from our existence. A silence descended upon us as we drove the rest of the way home, trying to digest and find some semblance of reason in the experiences of the day.
As for Sam On - He smiled.