I was walking down the street in my grimy part of town when this little street girl approached me. She was dirty, barefoot walking on the street of broken glass and garbage, holding a baby in a filthy rag wrapped around her shoulder. She put on a big smile and asked me if I had a few thousand Reil to spare (about 50 cents.) Conditioned by the all-day siege of tuk tuk drivers, beggars, and street hustlers trying to sell stuff, my first reaction was an adamant “no.” But then she put her hand to her mouth like she was hungry, not just wanted money.
“You want food? Are you hungry?” I asked, stopping in my tracks.
“Yes! Yes!” she said, and even the big brown eyed baby looked optimistic.
So I said, “Come on, I’ll buy you something to eat,” and motioned down the street where there was an outdoor food stand. She motioned to her friends on the street – two other dirty little girls who were out there begging with her. Street kids usually work in packs so when one sees a tourist with his wallet open feeling generous, they quickly approach and try to get a little handout, too. So now our party of 4 walked down the street, the girls smiling and laughing but then checking their enthusiasm, looking up at my face to make sure I was serious and we were really going to get them something to eat. Another little friend approached and they put on pouts and big eyes when they asked if she could come, too. Sure, why the hell not – 5 plates of food should only cost $10 or so and I’d still have plenty for a meal and a few beers.
I aimed for the food stand but they tugged at my arm and pointed to a corner store.
“You want to get food in there, instead?”
“Yes, please,” said the spokesperson of the group, the only one who could speak a little broken English.
Sure, no problem, so we walked into the little convenience store, much to the chagrin of the lady behind the counter. The store was stocked with the usual items that would be any normal kid’s dream; potato chips, ice cream, and chocolate bars. The kids danced up and down the aisles taking it all in, then congregated around the end of one aisle, in deep discussions. I went over and asked what they wanted and they handed me a package of 8 metal tins wrapped in plastic, as if to get my approval.
“What’s this? Don’t you want candy or something?” I asked.
“It’s for my little sister. For her to eat,” the girl said.
“How much is it?” I asked, looking for the price tag.
“Three dollars,” she said, reciting the cost from memory because it was unmarked.
“Sure thing, whatever you want.”
The girl bounced the baby up and down and she smiled bigger than the moon. I really looked at them for the first time. In the light of the store I could see that it wasn’t a baby at all she held, but a toddler. Her head was slightly too big and her tiny arms, rickety as they reached out and grabbed my finger and held on.
“How old is she?” I asked her big sister.
“She’s 2.” I thought she was a 1-year old baby but realized she was just malnourished.
“And you?” I guessed she was 8.
The big sister had the best smile you’ve ever seen but past that she looked rough; greasy unkempt hair, bruises and marks all over her unwashed body, and some sort of circular scars on her face and neck. Was it a skin infection? Cigarette burns? Unfortunately, that’s all too common for street kids, as adults purposely scar them because it will evoke sympathy and then send them out to beg but then take all their earnings.
“Ok, each of you could get one thing and then meet me at the front to pay.”
They acted like any other preteen girls – laughing as they deliberated, changing their minds, running back and forth, and generally being silly. Finally, they approached the front register and put their food items of choice on the counter.
They were all tins of baby formula.
“What is this? This is what you all want?” I asked.
“Yes, please.” She explained that they could drink the enriched baby formula like a meal replacement and it would fill them up and provide nutrition more than anything else they might chose. When given the choice to buy any candy, sweet, or snack food in the store, these hungry street kids opted for calories that could keep them alive.
I was shocked but they waited patiently with big smiles of appreciation, high fiving me one by one as the worker rang them up. It came to $15, half of my birthday beer and dinner money for the night.
What did $15 mean to me? What does it mean to them? How opulent my regular life where a nice meal in a restaurant isn’t even remarkable, when a birthday celebration is a foregone conclusion, not a luxury I really appreciated. These girls begged in the streets all day, never went to school, never had been to a doctor, lived in squalor, and looked half their age from malnutrition, yet would never experience what I considered even a typical meal.
I looked at the cash in my hand. Fuck it, this wasn’t OK with me.
“Wait a second,” I told the worker, and the little girl’s hearts rose up in their throats, suddenly horrified that I ‘d changed my mind about paying that much money.
“They’re all getting candy, too,” I told the worker, and pointed to a rack of chocolate near the register. “Go ahead and pick whatever you want and we’ll get both,” I told the girls.
They jumped up and down, ecstatic, and ran over to look everything over and chose. They came back all holding the same thing – heart-shaped boxes of gourmet Valentines Day chocolates. Damn, they have some good taste for street kids! But a promise is a promise so we put it on the counter and the worker added it up and I paid, $28 in total.
The girls thanked me in Khmer or English when possible, proudly displaying their new treasure trove of sustenance as I snapped this photo.
We parted ways on the street after more smiles and warm goodbyes, the baby sister not wanting to let go of my finger. I walked down the street toward the bar. No dinner for me, just enough for one beer. They disappeared the other way into the busy neon street, stopping only to put their hands out to tourists, walking away with heart shaped boxes of chocolate, walking away carrying my heart, and for a second there the looked like any other happy little kids.
I walked into the bar and ordered a beer and drank it, slowly. When it was done, I paid with my last $2 and left to go home. It was the best birthday beer I’ve ever had.