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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Vagabond Tales: Lunch on Guilty Beach, Cambodia

by Kyle Ellison (RSS feed)
Lunch on Guilty Beach was a tough meal to swallow

If you look on a map of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, you'll find beaches such as Victory Beach and Independence Beach, but you'll find no such place as Guilty Beach. Regardless of what a map might say, unofficially, every beach in Cambodia is Guilty Beach.

Guilty Beach is not just a Cambodian phenomenon, but rather a global destination that can be found along coastlines the world over. It's in Los Cabos, Mexico, in the shadow of the famous Cabo arch. It's in Jaco, Costa Rica, backed up by sagging palm trees and world class surf. It's in Asilah, Morocco; it's in Mabul, Malaysia. Guilty Beach is every beach in the world where those unfortunate individuals living well below the poverty line--many of them children--work the beach in the hope of squeaking out much less than a living; most likely, they're just trying to make that night's dinner.

While beach merchants and scam artists can often be viewed as hawkers selling goods you would never want, Guilty Beach, Cambodia is thusly labeled because here it is different. Children don't prod you to buy some fake sunglasses--they simply ask for a bite of your food. Men don't sell knockoff jewelry for extra beer money. Rather, children sell bracelets while carrying their infant brother in their arms because their parents are too sick, or worse, dead.

Guilty Beach is thusly named because I no longer want that $2 plate of fried noodles, or that $1 can of beer. How can I accept that $2 plate of food when I just told an 11 year-old girl I didn't want her $2 bracelet? Then to eat it in front of her, as her eyes fail to flinch from the fried fare before me.

So why not buy the $2 bracelet? Why not donate my meal? Because the sad reality is knowing you cannot help them all; that there are no amount of bracelets that will heal this heart wrenching dilemma. Furthermore, the precedent set by rewarding begging can be far more disastrous than the apparent problems you're trying to prevent.

Finally, it's a somber truth knowing that these innocent faces, with bulging stomachs and bulging eyes, are merely working for someone above them, whether it's family or otherwise. The average tourist won't buy sliced mango from a fully grown man, but they'll open up their wallet for a child. And sadly, everyone knows it. These are merely conscripted child soldiers in a brutal reality of poverty and survival.

"They tell us to say that," the little girl confesses. She has just asked us to "open our hearts by opening our wallets." It's a heavy line that's been proven to work.

How do you deny an 11 year-old girl of $2 while she holds an infant and tries not to cry? How do you not look at all of them, 20 or 30 deep, wishing you could buy all of their bracelets so they can go play in the water like all 9 and 11 year-olds should?

Even if you buy them from two, three, or eight different children, eventually you have to tell one no, and is their pain dampened any by the fact you just helped the eight previous? The guilt is nonetheless the same. A line intrinsically must be drawn somewhere, but that line never gets any less painful, or justifiable. We gave the girl $1 for a smaller bracelet, and she left despondently, a sense of failure in her face. Nobody wins in this game.

Even more, who am I that you should even feel the need to beg to me? I don't deserve this phony pedestal you place me upon. I don't deserve this plate of food you lust after. I don't deserve to sit on this beach, in this comfortable chair, and lead an easier life than you.

Lunch on Guilty Beach was a tough meal to swallow.

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