Thursday, December 11, 2008
Seth and I were talking over dinner about how we could tell people about what we’ve been doing, and at the same time give them entirely the wrong impression. And yet these stories are worth telling, because they are integral parts of this trip.
Last night we stood on a street corner talking with a drug dealer. Our tuk-tuk driver was late (or we were early), and this guy in a baby-blue jacket with white furry trim starts asking us if we want any marijuana, or coke. “Coca-Cola, maybe,” I said, smirking. He laughed. Seth and I started talking with him about his work: how many customers a night (6-8), who buys (mostly Westerners), how long he’s there (all night long--thus the coat; sleeps during the day); what and how he sells. Eventually we wandered off to find our driver.
Two nights before, Athena (of Transitions Global) took us on a tour of the trade. We went for drinks at a girlie bar, where mostly western men go for drinks and to hang out with girls, and potentially to take them back to their hotel. It was a relatively sleezy joint, with girls who, as Athena pointed out, were frequently the leftover or washed-up brothel workers. With the big western men, the little Asian women reminded me of rootbeer popsicles for some reason.
We then proceeded across the street to another bar, where we noticed a sign on the guards’ desk that read, “Please leave all guns with guards.” Inside there were probably 40 girls packed in the bar, talking with customers. We took a seat at a booth, and immediately there were 4 girls lined up at our booth, welcoming us and asking about our drinks order. We ordered dinner, and since the girls were there, I started talking with one girl who spoke good English. We talked about her life, about why she worked there, about her family and their poverty. She was an intelligent, sweet girl, who had worked for an NGO working with orphans as a volunteer, and then learned accounting there as well. But the pay was not good, and culturally she was obligated to help provide for her family. So she started working as a waitress at these bars, where she earns $40/month, and makes up the rest with the men who take her home. In doing so, she’s enabling her brother to go to college. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade to me.
Toward the end of the tour, we drove through the Gray Buildings (also dubbed ‘Anarchy‘ by the locals), the infamous brothel slum. A number of the girls living at the shelter we’ve been working with grew up there. Driving by after dark, you see lines of girls sitting and standing, and groups of thugs (’gangsters’ is how our local friends describe them) sitting nearby. As we rolled slowly along, a young man hopped up from the ground, ran across the street, and called out to Seth, “You want lady tonight, sir?”
“No lady tonight, thanks,” Seth replied.
I’ve been waiting to tell someone that all week.
So, conversations with pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers have constituted a fair amount of our experience here. We’ve both also struck up friendships with a number of the tuk-tuk drivers on our street, and have enjoyed talking with them about their lives and families and dreams. And we have had the privilege of working with the staff and girls at the transitional home, who also have amazing stories, including how they lived through the nightmare of the Khmer Ruge. (One of the women told us the story of how she talked a soldier out of killing her. The number of stories she can tell of facing death and escaping are amazing.)
Finally, I must mention how in awe we are of the women we’ve met who are pouring their lives into their work here. They’ve started and run amazing programs to help women and girls wanting to get out of (or who have been rescued from) sex slavery. We’ve met with Helen of Chab Dai, Ruth of Daughters of Cambodia, Kristen of World Hope, all Christians who pour all their energies into this work, but also have a vision for (and are succeeding at) working themselves out of jobs. Their vision is to train local people to do what they are doing, to run shelters, start sustainable small businesses, to train counselors and advocates, to work with government on legislative issues, etc etc. Their hard work and sweet spirits are truly humbling to behold.
Visit my website to view more of my editorial and humanitarian photography.