Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Profiles in Transit: Pau Thom

Siem Reap, Cambodia
"Hey lady, where you from?" echoed off the buildings on either side of the narrow alleyway as I turned down it and two boys no more than ten years old fell into step with me. Used to the rhythm of this exchange after two days in Siem Reap, I said "The U.S. - California" and kept walking, knowing they'd keep pace.

Sure enough, the boy who'd greeted me rattled off President Obama's name, the U.S. and California capital cities, (former) Governor Schwarzeneggar's name and even a couple of quotes from the Terminator movies. I laughed and kept walking.

"Hey lady, I remember you, I talked to you yesterday!" the boy said, unexpectedly. I stopped and looked at him, then smiled. "You're right, I remember you too!"

"So today you buy my postcards, eh? Yesterday no, but today yes?" I looked at the cards but realized I had bought the same set the day before outside Angkor Wat's Ta Prohm, from a girl no more than five years old who broke my heart when she said she hoped I would buy her postcards because she wanted to go to school.

"I'm sorry, I already have these ones," I said, feeling regretful and wondering if I should buy a second set - I genuinely liked this kid.

After a brief pause, he said, "I'm still hungry today, maybe you could buy me some food instead?" My heart cracked again and, after my own brief pause to consider the idea, I said, "Sure, what do you want to eat?"

"This way, I'll show you," he said, leading me down another alley and making me momentarily consider the potential folly of following a stranger - even a friendly, juvenile one - through the streets of a Southeast Asian city I didn't know particularly well.

"My name is Pau Thom," he said, practically skipping as his friend and I walked alongside, "what's yours?"

"Jessalyn," I answered, pronouncing it slowly.

The Siem Reap alleyway Pau led me down
(which, consequently, I'd taken a photo of an
hour earlier) in search of his favorite chicken amok.
"Jessalyn," he repeated (more accurately than most Americans, to be honest) "Okay, now I remember your name and we can play! I remember you when you go back to California."

I laughed and restrained the urge to rumple his hair as I would have done to my niece. "And I'll remember you whenever I think about Siem Reap."

We grinned at each other as we crossed a street and approached a small restaurant with tarps pieced together serving as a roof and a plastic-coated menu sitting on a rickety pedestal outside. Pau flipped through it, then pointed to a chicken amok dish. "That's what I want to eat."

"Okay," I said and asked the waitress to bring him an order of the dish, along with a Coke when he said that was what he wanted to drink. Pau's friend slipped away before I could ask what he wanted, but Pau got settled at a table and I paid the waitress for his meal (which cost all of $3.00, U.S.). He looked small and more than a little lost at the four-person table by himself, completely out of his element - happy about it in some ways, since he was clearly hungry, but not quite sure what to do with himself while he waited for his meal. I wanted to sit and keep him company but was already past the time I should have been heading back to my guesthouse to finish packing and head to the airport, so instead I told him I had to leave. He gave me his crooked, sunny smile and waved, "Bye, Jessalyn-California!"

I smiled and waved back, murmuring "Bye Pau," knowing I was leaving a little piece of my heart behind as I walked away, but glad to carry the memory of that crooked smile and sunny disposition with me as I moved on.

There are hundreds of children in the same position as Pau on the streets of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, not to mention thousands throughout the rest of Cambodia. Some of them are bitter after years of watching foreigners come and go who are never hungry and don't lack for anything; most of them are resigned; and some of them, like Pau, are cheerful despite the hardships they face and, whether they know it or not, bring smiles to the faces of the people they interact with every day. Some people may question my decision to buy Pau a meal and that's fine - for me, it was a way to help that didn't involve simply handing over money (which, once I'd declined to buy his postcards, he didn't ask for anyway), since that's something I try not to do. Pau made my day significantly brighter and I hope that I was able to do the same for him in some measure.

My one regret is that I didn't get a picture of that cheerful, charmingly crooked smile of his. I'm still painfully shy when it comes to asking people I meet while traveling if I can take their picture and, while it doesn't affect my memories, it does have an impact on the degree to which I can share those memories with you. Hopefully by the next time I meet someone like Pau, I'll have overcome my shyness enough to ask if I can take a quick snapshot to remember them by.


Heather said...

I have a few tears in my eyes imagining Pau. I haven't been in your position but once, and I know I would have a hard time saying no day, after day. Glad he's part of your experience now :-)

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Aw, Heather, I'm glad his story touched you as much as it did me. :-) Any time I get to spend a few minutes with someone like Pau on the road, it makes me remember wherever the exchange takes place just a little more fondly.

Andrea said...

That's such a sweet story. We've loved all the kids we've met in South America so far...they are so happy and curious. Sometimes their condition can break your heart though.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Andrea! It is so tough to watch kids in situations like Pau's cope with the difficulties of just getting by. Knowing when and how it's appropriate to help is one of the things I struggle most with when I travel.


hi jessalyn! it's 3.41AM in singapore and i am reading your blog! i quite love it :) and yours is quite a journey! i was in siem reap too a few months ago travelling mostly alone but with friends picked up along the way (we were a group of five by the end of it and it was great!)
once i read the first sentence of this post i had to read on! i've been on the receiving end of "hey lady" too! so many times! and each kid is as witty as the next. i travel with a little frog and they always love it, i hope it makes them smile and that would mean more to me than just giving them money (we can't know for sure but i doubt they get to keep those dollars). and soon they were all calling me 'lady frog'.

are you still travelling now?


Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Mel, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post - and I love that you became "lady frog" in Siem Reap, that's too cute! I hope you enjoyed that area as much as I did, I really wish I could have stayed longer.

I'm a grad student in Australia at the moment so I'm traveling as I can during school breaks, rather than full-time. This trip to Southeast Asia was during our April break this year, I had a quick week in Australia's Northern Territory in June and I'm heading to New Zealand for most of December once this semester finishes up. I'm not sure yet what my travel plans are for next year, but I definitely want to get to a few more new places!

How long were/are you on the road for? Is Singapore home, or are you just passing through?


i work and live here in SG! the universe works in strange ways, i was meant to set off on wandering indefinitely after i graduated from school (march this year) but while on a road trip in malaysia , the company where i work now called me up and offered me a job. (i must add that at this point i was on a hill in melaka and there was a busker playing 'Let it Be' and i love that song, it always finds me wherever i go!) and so now i'm working in a news agency, and travelling when i get breaks! i have a long break coming up in november and haven't any idea what to do with it! 18 days!

maybe we'll meet someday :D it's a small world!

mel :)

rayyan haries said...

That is a very vivid memory that I believe you'll remember for the rest of your life.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I agree, I'll never forget Pau - and if I ever make it back to Siem Reap, I'm sure I'll be looking for him around every corner.