Cambodia

Money or the Milk?

A boy, dirty shorts, tatty tee-shirt, no shoes. He’s perhaps seven years old and carrying a big, black, empty plastic bag. Scavenging for recyclable rubbish, in scorching heat. He should be in school. He takes no notice of me.
 
I’m in the shade and the coffee shop staff have turned on a fan. I order a strawberry frappe, cool and sweet.

Life’s hard for many young Cambodian kids. (The is not the boy from the story below)

 

The boy looks up at me the moment the frappe arrives. We make eye contact, he looks quickly away. He’s not wary, or scared, he just needs to continue his quest.
 
From the gutter he finds a plastic water bottle and from the bushes a beer can. He stuffs them into his bag. Then he turns, looks up again and I motion him over. He’s hesitant, but finally comes.
 
I try to hand him the frappe, but he doesn’t take it. He’s thinking of asking for money instead, I imagine. Yes, a little money would be better.
 
But then he takes the drink, with a nod not a smile, and scampers off in the direction from which he came.
 
Minutes later he walks on by with his grandmother, whose pushing a heavy cart, and his older brother. The brother suffers from Kwashiorkor. He’s sipping the strawberry milk. The brothers and the grandmother look across at me, but their faces are blank. The grandmother looks beaten; she’s too old for this kind of work, the boys too young.
 
It would have been better to have given both money and the drink, I decide. But it’s too late, they’ve gone. They’ll be working for more than a few more hours yet.
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