Alberta at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia Photo by Jules Atkins

“If I tell you the capital of your province, the capital of your country, the population of your country and the name of your prime minister, then will you buy my postcards?”

She was maybe 10 years old, no less ragged than the rest of the kids who roam the temple grounds at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, trying to sell postcards and trinkets to tourists. But she was different: A wily entrepreneur, she had an angle, and she knew how to use it.

When she came up to us, postcards in hand, we were eating soup at one of the food stalls in the temple grounds. She opened a pack of 10 postcards and shuffled through them distractedly, looking neither at them nor at us. Her eyes were already scanning the other tables, searching for other potential customers. Although I wasn’t particularly interested in buying them, I was intrigued by the girl, so I asked her “how much?”

She looked us up and down, assessing the size of our pocketbooks. “Two dollars,” she said. “Two dollars for all 10.”

There are many kids selling and begging on the streets of Cambodia. Photo by Jules Atkins

“I thought they were a dollar,” I countered, and thus began our unusual “negotiation.”

“What country are you from?” she asked. Her English was perfect — no missing articles or prepositions, no “accent.” And I knew she likely spoke French, German and possibly several other languages just as well — whatever language tourists speak.

“Canada” I said. By this time I was looking at the postcards.

“What province?” she asked. “British Columbia,” I responded, surprised that she actually knew that Canada was divided into provinces rather than states.

She knew she had me hooked, and popped her question. “Will you buy my cards if I tell you the capital of your province, the capital of your country, the population of your country and the name of your prime minister?”

Of course I would, if not because I wanted them, then simply because such initiative deserves reward.

She struck a pose worthy of any stage, and started her recitation.

“The capital of Canada is Ottawa. The capital of British Columbia is Victoria. The population of Canada is 34 million.  [I didn’t know that!] And the Prime Minister of Canada is Stephen Harper.”  [I wish I didn’t know that.] That was good enough for me, but she wasn’t finished yet.

“The capital of Ontario is Toronto, and the capital of Quebec is Quebec City.” All in perfect  English.

Then she asked, “What is the capital of Alberta?”

Was this a trick question? Was she testing me? I hesitated. Was it Calgary or Edmonton? “Edmonton,” my husband responded.

Apparently the question had a purpose. Upon hearing the answer, that little wisp of a girl spirited a notebook and pen out of the folds of her skirt. She leafed quickly through the pages, all of which were filled with lists in neat Khmer writing. She found the one she was looking for — the one headed “Canada.”

She asked me to repeat the words “Alberta” and “Edmonton” so she could get them right. I broke them down into syllables, repeating “Al-ber-ta” and “Ed-mon-ton” several times as she wrote. She wrote them in English and in Khmer. We went on to Sa-skat-chew-an and Re-gi-na and Man-it-o-ba and Win-ni-peg. She repeated the sounds after me, determined to get them right.

Kids are motivated by hunger and poverty. Photo by Jules Atkins

I gave her the $2, but what I really wanted was to give her an opportunity she will likely never have — an opportunity to have a house and three square meals, to play with other kids, to go to school. Such a bright and motivated child, she could do anything. And, yet, here she is at Angkor Wat, another ragged urchin, selling postcards.

Cambodia is full of kids like this, selling and begging on the streets and at the tourist attractions. Most of what they get goes to their adult “handlers,” who sit somewhere just out of sight. It’s easy to control them: they are motivated by hunger and poverty.

The magnitude of the problem of poverty and the legions of hungry street kids in Cambodia competes for ascendancy and indelible memories, in tourists’ minds, with the awesome magnitude and splendor of temples like Angkor Wat. Such contradictory images: It’s a struggle to hold them both in one’s mind.

I will remember Angkor Wat as one of the most amazing archeological sites, one of the wonders of the world. But I will also remember that little girl, whose name I did not ask. For me she will represent all of the beggar children we saw in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China. As an aid to memory, I’ll give her a name: I’ll call her “Alberta.”

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