After ten days of teaching in classrooms, drawing cartoons, tutoring English, pushing swings, riding bikes too small for me, picking up from school, playing in the rain and watching TV while intertwined in a human pile, I finally felt comfortable taking my camera out of my room and clicking photographs of the kids I lived with. I guess I had the luxury of time on this leg to experience first and document later, but there were so many moments I wished I had captured digitally up until this point. But that was not the point. With only two days remaining in my Palm Tree experience, my place at the orphanage had solidified as much as it could in that span of time. I prioritized the friendships above the visual memories and even the written records because that was the sole reason for making this detour to Cambodia. It wasn't to be a white knight and put up a barrier between the kids and myself.
I didn't want to muddy my intentions for being at Palm Tree by pulling out my wallet and strutting the streets like Daddy Warbucks. There's no doubt I have enough personally to donate, but the trick is finding the right time and purpose that reflects my heart's place. All this travel made me ultra-sensitive in the act of gift-giving and honoring the dignity of the gift-receiver.
Spending multiple days eating next to these kids, filling up with rice and anchovy-sized fish on occasion, I realized my concern centered on their basic needs, like nutrition. One day, while walking outside the orphanage's salmon walls, I passed a small mart that sold apples. It took a lot of gestures, poor attempts at speaking Khmer, the involvement of passing Palm Tree children, and smiles to make the vendor understand what I wanted: 100 apples at her best price for the kids down the street.
The cost was $12.
I wanted the act of distribution to be as anti-climactic as possible and asked the cook to put them on their dinner plates. Of course, Cambodians cannot help but be grateful, appreciative and polite, and every child approached our little pagoda during dinner to thank me with a bow that displayed a sense of formality so easy and natural to them.
Evan reminded me of a market down the street that would offer a better selection of fruit and possibly better prices. I took three or four little boys with me the next day (and by took, I mean as I walked towards the orphanage gate, they ran up to see if they could tag along on the mini-adventure, skipping and holding my hand the whole way). As I took every step with such care as to avoid mud and piles of trash, the boys romped around without shoes (as they preferred to be) like we were in a field of marshmallows.
A lady with a heaping pile of green oranges caught my eye, and I sent young Vishna to discuss a sale of 100 juicy orbs. After getting a price quote, he came over to ask for roughly $10, and I gave him the equivalent in Cambodian riel. The vendor began packing her massive bag full and a few nearby ladies offered her their hands in the counting.
A few minutes passed, and Vishna came back with three more dollars because she realized she overcharged. One look at the vendor, and I felt this subtle moment of sweetness and good standing in their community. It was an honest view into a seemingly rough city most foreigners can only hope to glimpse.
$7 for 100 oranges. And to think I've bought a cocktail for more than that.