No shit, there I was: sitting half drunk in a flyblown Tiki Bar half a mile down a dirt track along the banks of the Preaek Tuek Chhu River, using chopsticks to feed pineapple chunks to a fifteen year-old prostitute. If you don’t want to hear the back story to that, then you may want to turn off the computer right now and go back to Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul.
My job at that time was to fly out to places like Cambodia prior to the US government spending humanitarian aid money on things like schools and wells, and examine the arrangements in order to ensure that we hadn’t unwittingly agreed to build a library at the bottom of a rice paddy or some such nonsense. It paid well and, as you will see, it was interesting work.
After what seemed like an eternity sitting on planes and in airports I met the rest of my team in Phnom Penh and we took a van down to the city of Kampot – near where we were going to be working and also near very little else of interest. It was there that we met the Cambodian General – neither a sinister nor an ill-humored man, but you don’t get to be a General in the Cambodian Army without having seen some serious shit, and he looked it. I liked him immediately.
Anyway, the General decided that we should all go out to dinner together to bond, prior to beginning negotiations. His aides and mine all piled into a van and we drove off into the darkness, turning off Highway 3 a couple miles outside of town and down a dirt track lined on both sides by chain link fence and concertina wire. Just as I began to visualize arrows whistling out of the underbrush, we pulled up to a restaurant with neither a name nor a Wikitravel page.
The valet parked our van next to some palm trees and the host led us to the grand table underneath the main pavilion. Torches and strings of lights pushed back the jungle darkness, extraordinarily foul water gurgled by at the river bank and a hundred feet away across an empty dance floor a 90 lb. singer in a black dress made for a Barbie doll screeched along to K-Pop on a Karaoke machine. We sat and ordered a slew of shrimp and oyster dishes and were immediately brought big glasses, each with a chunk of ice the size of your fist, which a hovering waitress filled with more booze every time the liquid dropped below the “A” in “Angkor.”
The food arrived and was delicious, as it always is when you’d rather not know how it was prepared*. Just as we were about to dig in in earnest, though, the restaurant staff came and bade everyone stand up. We spread out so that they could slide more seats in between us, and down sat about a dozen young women, who would periodically get up one at a time to go sing on stage.
My interpreter stayed seated to my left, but on my right arm I now had a girl aged, at most, fifteen. For those lechers among my audience, I want to stress as strongly as I possibly can that I don’t mean fifteen as in “nineteen but she looks young does she work in porn,” but as in seriously, no shit, “Jesus, that girl literally is not old enough to babysit.” She had crooked teeth and a mole on her face and was wearing a glittered halter top and about three fingers of black skirt. Every time I looked over, I found her staring at me with a crooked, vacant smile that made me wonder if she was doing it while I wasn’t looking or was just quick when I looked her way. I felt as if I should make conversation, but I spoke no Khmer and all she ever said to me was “Sorry, I go sing now” when it was her turn, accompanied by a disconcerting squeeze on the leg.
Now, I am not such a square as to believe that these girls were sitting there because we were such interesting people (I know I’m not). But I was pretty sure I recognized the standard “we act like you’re hot stuff until you quit spending money” hostess club racket, and since we were already purchasing nickel-a-can beer as fast as we could consume it, there was no way we were going to get conned into anything worse. Furthermore, the food was superb and most importantly, I had a job to do. I ignored my guest, tried to drink faster than the waitress could fill the glass and set about trying to trick my companions into eating hot peppers by eating them myself and pretending that they were delicious.
This story is not meant to gross out even the most squeamish, so I’m going to be perfectly frank and open about what happened next. Which is: I had to pee. I excused myself, stood up with the kind of confidence that stems from the knowledge that your legs will betray you if you show the slightest hesitation, and strode off for the bathroom, which was really just a grass hut with a couple of urinals draining directly into the water behind the restaurant.
I stood in the stall, doing my business, when I heard footsteps enter the building and a short, older man walked up and stood a food behind me, his face inches from the small of my back.
“You like girl?” he asked, quietly but firmly.
I knew what was going on, but I had to pee and wasn’t about to stop.
“Oh, yes, very nice.” I replied mid-stream.
‘You take home, twenty dollar.”
“Oh, no, that really won’t be necessary.”
“You like girl! You take home, TWENTY DOLLAR!”
“No, thank you.”
“You take home?
It was outrageously farcical and awkward, and only became more so when I finished and returned to the restaurant with the pimp following about ten feet behind, still loudly pointing out his competitive prices. He cut it out as I got back to the table and sat down.
I laughed to myself for a minute and then looked over at the girl, who was still smiling dumbly. Jesus, I thought through a fog. Your life must be a nightmare. Behind that lobotomy smile, was she secretly terrified that I was going to take her somewhere and rape her, having paid $20 for the privilege? Was she resigned to what she thought would happen? Afraid she’d be beaten if she didn’t turn a trick? Jealous of the older hookers? Plumb retarded? Shit, who the fuck knew. There was nothing I could do about it no matter what, but suddenly I couldn’t just ignore her anymore.
There was half a plate of pineapple on the table in front of me, the detritus of what had once been a decorative fruit arrangement. Not entirely sure why I was doing it, I picked some up and gave it to her. She hadn’t eaten a bite all evening. She took it, broke her smile for a moment and ate, bowed unconsciously, and went back to her routine. It seemed like the human thing to do; the exact opposite of what I would have done if I’d just bought her in the bathroom like a concierge towel. I have no idea if she took it that way.
We finished our meal and waddled out to the van and back to the hotel. The next day I got out of the same van at the prospective site of a new school building and watched all of the local kids circle around me at the five-meter standoff that’s customary among small children come to see the Rich American who’s going to fix their road / school / soccer field in a PR-friendly gesture that won’t get anyone out of a sweatshop, stop a foreign-funded civil war or bring back anyone’s amputated foot. You can’t make the world a better place as long as there are people living in it, and you’d usually be a fool to try. Sometimes being human means a token gesture.
* e.g. at every county fair in the history of Ohio.