“Hello, hello,” an older boy rushed up to me, beaming. “What’s your name? Where are you from?” He had a big gap where his two front teeth were missing but his English was excellent.
I told him and asked him his name.
“Hello, Kirsten,” I'm impressed. I’ve had native English speakers mangle my name more. He smiled, looking me straight in the eye. There was something about him. I smiled, this young lad was charm on wheels. “My name is John. Will you buy from me? My mother makes beautiful things.”
To my left, plastic sheets were laid out on the ground and were covered in luminous silks. John gestured to one of the makeshift ‘stalls’. At the other 'stalls' older women looked up at me, saw John had me cornered and looked away, resigned already to defeat.
I shook my head. We were just starting out, I explained. “But I have to come back this way,” I assured him.
‘You’ll buy from me, though. No one else,” he pressed. I shrugged noncommittally and we rushed on.
The silk ‘factory’ was rustic but productive and by the time Q had finished his explanations, I felt I understood the process.
Silk thread costs about $US 45 in the market. On the way out we passed the ubiquitous gift shop. They had a lot of beautiful things but I walked on.
As we headed back to the boat we passed a healthy looking black dog trotting down the street. "Black dogs are very expensive in Cambodia," Q mused. "Oh yes, in traditional medicine, the blood of a black dog is used as a cure for the measles. You mix it with coconut water and drink it. This is why black dogs are so expensive! When I had the measles my mother didn't have enough money for the blood of the dog so she put an earthworm in coconut water but she didn't tell me. Later, when I was better, she told me and I ran from the room crying!"
John rushed up to me at the top of the hill. “Hello, Kirsten. Have you come to buy?” A smile split his face. “These are all mine. Scarves, table runners, tablecloths.” He pointed to each pile in turn.
“Why aren’t you in school?” I wondered aloud.
“Oh, I go to school in the afternoon. I only have one year left before I go to University.”
One year left? He looked about 12. “How old are you?”
“I’m sixteen.” Oops.
We start to haggle over prices, I was sure I could get a better deal on volume. He put up a fight, "My mother made all these. It’s a lot of work." He radiated righteous indignation. "And I need the money for university.”
I’m ashamed, he's only asking $US20 for a tablecloth, $US10 for a table runner. I've just watched a woman persevere with a loom. What's wrong with me?
I deflect. “What will you take at university?”
“I want to be a teacher.” He puffed out his chest and rose to his full height of about 5'5" (We were nose to nose).
Oh dear. Q has told us that teachers are shockingly poorly paid. I felt like blurting out 'Oh, for heavens sake - go into sales - you'd be wonderful.' But for once, my internal editor kicked in and I kept my opinions to myself. “I’m sure you’ll be a very good teacher.”
John looked thrilled.
In the end I picked three pieces, a tablecloth, table runner and scarf – it came to $US38. I handed him $US40. He panicked at giving change and threw in another scarf, a brilliant pink I’d had my eye on before. “There,” he said. “$US40.”
We shook hands. We were both pleased.
Photos: R. Marion
COMING UP NEXT: Forgiving Does Not Mean Forgetting