Counting my blessings in Cambodia
As I stood in front of five young girls crammed onto a mattress in an outdoor garage, evidently sharing a mutual fear of who they would fall victim to next, I was overcome by obscure clarity. I never would have thought I’d stumbled across an illegal prostitution operation, let alone at age 20, somewhere in Cambodia. The man sitting on the far right end of the garage in a plastic chair with a pistol in his holster—accompanied by a mixed-breed dog, smoking the butt end of his cigarette—was not the source of my uneasiness, nor was his cocky smirk that said more than his silence did. In fact, that uneasiness was rooted in something that didn’t exist in the room at all, and undoubtedly, could never be physical in any sense.
Before coming to terms with the situation in front of me, I was endlessly filled with anger. Anger towards the tuk-tuk driver who brought us here as a fun detour between bars, anger towards the ever-so-smug man in the corner, and anger towards life itself for failing the five young girls along the way. As my friends and I looked at each other, desperately needing to leave this place, I scrambled through my pockets looking for all the loose money I could find. I handed out the few dollars I found and waved gently and unsurely as we left the garage.
Cambodia is a world unto itself. The once-communist country is filled with citizens who have gone through some of the most excruciating wartimes the world has seen. Landmines still surround Siem Reap and poverty is the basis of everyday life. Never before have I been in a place where I could motorcycle my way across villages, spend an evening in a hot air balloon, and get the offer of shooting a living cow in the same day. Needless to say, even as some of these things are exciting and adventurous, these are still the realities of the daily life of Cambodians.
Yet the depressing nature of my experience in Cambodia didn’t define the mentality of its people. Touring Siem Reap, I came across families who spent the entirety of their lives on one tropical farm, inherited generationally. Their day-to-day was governed by survival and maintaining food, cattle, and good health for the entire family. Life looked deceivingly simple, at least from the comfort of my shoes. (Simplicity is indeed complex and more existentially rigorous than anything I may experience.) And even as I nursed these thoughts, never was there a moment that these villagers stopped smiling. They were filled with joy, watching as their kids ran around in circles and giving all they could offer to me.
My uneasiness from Cambodia followed me through Bangkok, Thailand—a much busier city, every inch of which tried to hustle its way through our wallets—and other cities, and continued to haunt me all the way home. Back in Hong Kong, sitting at a club table, watching as champagne was poured, surrounded by smiles and laughter, I sat in despondent thought about the girls sitting in that garage. I was in a place surrounded by guys in suits who only cared far enough as the next drink and girls who walked like they had something to prove, stalked by predatory suits and insecurities.
I’m never cured of my pessimism towards life and I would never want anyone to see what I came to see that week, but now I’m in a position of a clearer perspective. In a way, my pessimism becomes snobbish even, a privilege that only shows how spoiled I am. I now use these experiences as therapy, of sorts. It’s a reminder and a testament to my own life that there is no time to feel bad for yourself.
As I write this, I’m in Japan. My experience in this city is far different from the one prior and more luxurious, without a doubt. I’m now sitting on the 34th floor of a hotel in the middle of Tokyo, drinking a Moscow Mule and watching the piano man play “The Girl from Ipanema.”
I watch on as older couples indulge in scallops and bottles of wine.
I FaceTime my sister, who just won the Karate Pan American Championships in Panama.
I call my parents, who are exploring Milan on a job retreat.
I think about those five girls who are, right now, lying on that mattress praying for a better day.
Count your blessings; your problems can only be so extensive.
Our “Postcards” series features stories from Syracuse University students exploring other parts of the world. Kuba Wasowicz is a junior studying communications and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. This semester, he is studying in Hong Kong — keep an eye out for his Postcard every month!