From her seat in the tuk-tuk, Nita held her palm above her eyes and scanned the roadside. She looked not unlike a game scout on safari. Out here in the middle of a large stretch of barren, dusty land, we could have been scouting for an oasis. The air smelled like spicy wood and baked dirt. The earth hadn’t had a satisfying drink in three long years. Even the fish cried for rain.
We’d been on this country road for what was beginning to feel like too long. On the bright side, I was sweating out my sickness. Still, the more water I drank, the thirstier I felt. Under such dehydrating conditions, how could the local ants manage to produce enough pee for all those kapok fruit snacks?
“We’ll stop here,” Nita said and tapped the driver’s shoulder. A handful of structures sat along one side of the road, all on stilts and slapped together with particle board, sheet metal, and even cardboard boxes.
Another tuk-tuk pulled up behind us with a trailer loaded with bicycles and shoes. Nita had bought them the day before with our money, after she had explained her plan for how we could help a handful of children. On short notice she’d found three old-fashioned bicycles, the kind with wide handlebars and fat seats, and had them tuned up back in Siem Reap.
Nita had decided that these families looked sufficiently needy. We couldn’t argue. Their fields were fallow, and it appeared they owned not much more than a bit of plastic furniture and their huts.
Directly ahead of us a family sat at a table underneath the floor of their house. The mother stood and the children took their positions behind her, peeking out at the white strangers who had stopped at their home unannounced. The father, glassy-eyed, shirtless, and lean, watched us from his hammock next to the table.
Nita spoke in Khmer to the woman and pointed to the bicycles. After a conversation I could only guess at, Nita took a large garbage bag from the driver and opened it before them.
We all stared at its colorful contents. Nita said something else and the children stepped out from behind their mother and cautiously investigated the treasure. They looked at each other and then at their mother, not sure what to do.
Nita took over and fished out a pair of lime green Mickey Mouse flip-flops, which she placed in front of a little girl. Instead of slipping her dusty, drought-toughened feet into the sandals, the girl picked up the shoes and examined Mickey’s three-dimensional head.
Nita then slid a different pair in front of a boy while his father looked on. The child didn’t move. Nita pointed to his feet and said something in Khmer. The father rolled out of his hammock and stood with his chest out, hair mussed, and a cigarette teetering on his lips. He barked an order to the boy and the boy grabbed the shoes.
By this time a crowd of villagers had gathered around us, and Nita, still squat over the bag, matched flip-flop to child, each according to size and sometimes gender. The gaggle of children, now numbering about twenty, were so fixated on the contents of the garbage bag that they didn’t notice the driver as he wheeled the bicycles up to the hut.
Nita rolled a bike over to one of the families. Then she positioned us around it. “I’ll take a picture,” she said, “so you can remember.”
A few feet away a pot of water with tamarind tree leaves and a bit of fish boiled over coals on the ground. Sour soup, Nita called it. This is what the families eat every day, she explained, if they eat at all.
Suddenly, the whole scene hit me as if I were an observer instead of a participant. I could see myself in Nita’s photograph before she even took it: the do-gooder from America who arranges for a few bikes and shoes to be delivered then disappears, making no real difference in these people’s lives.
My oversized, overpriced sunglasses embarrassed me, but I was grateful they hid my eyes. I smiled at the children and acted as if my tears were just more rivulets of pesky sweat. At least we’re really giving them the bikes and shoes, I consoled myself.
On the way over, Nita had told us about a local tour operator known to use families like these as props. They’d bring in the bikes, put everyone in a happy pose, click off a few photos for the tourists, and then leave, taking the gifts with them, unbeknownst, I assume, to their clients.
Now that we had distributed everything, we headed back to our tuk-tuk. I didn’t feel better for our deed, only confused and frustrated by these people’s living conditions.
“Wait, please,” said Nita as she led us to a woman balancing a child on her hip. “Do you know the symptoms of Dengue? This little boy has blisters inside his mouth and a fever. His father had the same thing and died just a few days ago.”
The shirtless boy, maybe four years old, slumped listlessly against his anxious mother. Wisps of sweaty hair fringed his sore, red eyes.
“What will it cost to get him help?” Chris asked.
“Forty American dollars for a visit to the hospital, his medicines, transportation, and some food,” Nita said.
Chris and Mike consulted each other in low voices, then Mike handed over 100,000 riels, all the local currency he had, and Chris pitched in twenty U.S. dollars. Still holding her son, the woman brought her hands together in the prayer position and managed a small bow. I could only imagine what she wanted to tell us. I could see from the swirl of emotions in her eyes that her life had been punctuated by overwhelming grief and fear.
As I watched the mother and son leave with our second driver, I wished I could wave a magic bamboo stick and truly improve the circumstances for everyone there. It felt like we could never do enough, never “fix” things.
Then I thought of a story a friend once told me. It was about a young man at the ocean who’d noticed that the morning tide had left starfish stranded on the shore. Concerned that the sun would dry them out and kill them, he began tossing them back into the water.
An older gentleman came along and asked him what he was doing. The boy explained and the man laughed to himself and said, “Don’t you realize there’s miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You can’t make any difference!”
The boy listened politely then picked up another starfish and tossed it far into the surf. He smiled at the man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
Tomorrow morning Chris, Mike, and I would finally see the much-lauded grandeur and glory of the ancient Angkor Wat temples. But I knew they could never compare to what we had experienced here today.
(The starfish story is one of many adaptions of Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Starthrower.”)