My sense of being overwhelmed was distracted by her small voice and petite hand in mine. I was thankful for her. Cambodia had hope, even the people of the dump. She walked with me, eagerly asking questions in the English phrases she had learned at school. I saw her take a quick survey of the contents in her other hand–a pack of crackers, a pack of dried fruit, and a toothbrush. She had “made out well,” I thought almost sarcastically. So many had not received anything. “Eat?” she asked, lifting her face and raising her hand. She had nothing. Didn’t she get that? Persistently, she insisted, “Eat.” I told her I would not eat and that these were for her. From my core, I wanted her to know true hope, beyond what existed in her small, hard world. I assured her that Jesus loved her. I wanted her to know. I wanted more than anything for her to know. She did not understand, but I hoped she would someday. She concluded our walk saying, “I love you! How are you?” and ran away. Her question was rhetorical, but it is the one I’d be asking myself for weeks.
This little girl was just one of countless people living a certainty of poverty, more extreme than many comprehend. In a few short days I’d be standing on the silver-plated floor of the palace, covered in a sheet of plain carpet to preserve it; but today I stood on a floor of trash. Rubbish Mountain: hundreds sorting through the smoldering, fly-swarmed garbage of the city dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I walked the road, stepped on the rolling hills of garbage, and was touched by the people who depend on it for their very life. It was more than I could have imagined, and nothing I would have ever wanted to be a reality.
Fifteen minutes . . . poverty, desperation, and survival. It surrounded us. But, for a moment, we were too distracted by childhood bliss in the middle of this desperation. As we approached, little girls grabbed our hands, forming long lines, and drilling us with questions. What is your name? How are you? How old are you? We asked them the same questions, and they answered us readily, many with the cookie-cutter responses they had learned in their classes. I held a “Jena” both on my left and on my right. A few feet away another “Jena” clung to the hand of another team member. One girl responded that she was twenty-four. I never knew someone as tall as my waist could be twenty-four. At the time, their confusion didn’t matter, the only thing that mattered was the clarity with which I began to see their hearts, letting them penetrate to my soul, and impact me for a lifetime. “Do you speak Khmer?” one of them asked. Before I could answer, another girl told her, “No. They speak En-ga-lish.” Without missing a beat, as if they had been cued, all of the little girls in my line of clasped hands broke out into a perfected rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it.” Then, more joined in, as if the joy-filled chorus were contagious. I held the hand of Cambodia’s future. They sang about being happy as they led us to the smoky mountain of garbage, a place of desolation. They were too familiar with this scene. And yet, they found hope. They were hope.
The few families I thought I would see picking through the trash turned into countless people. We didn’t know what to expect. We never could have known what to expect. I stood there wishing that the things I saw were not a reality, and yet there they were, staring me in the face. Individuals scattered across the smoldering garbage, which they depended on for their very life. Here fathers, mothers, and children sorted through the trash–some of it in shambles, some already burning, and some fresh off of a new load from one for the many trucks that plummeted through the narrow pathway that divided the two mountains of trash. A few feet further and I would be ambushed.
We began to hand out what we brought: the shoes, the snacks, the water. I passed them out one-by-one to the gloved hands and masked faces, who spoke desperation through their eyes. Then it happened, I was engulfed. I don’t know how many people surrounded me in that moment. I held the bag of food close to my chest, hoping to serve as many as possible, letting eager hands take whatever was left. It was one of the most overwhelming yet purpose-filled moments of my life. They mobbed us. I didn’t care. Some did. They thought the people were ungrateful. I thought that they had nothing and this was life to them. The small, packaged, consumable, prosperity that passed from my hand to that of a Cambodian working on a pile of garbage began to make me sick. Everything I have is so accessible, ready-made and convenient. Yet here were hundreds whose job description consisted of sorting through other people’s garbage. More than the smell, the flies, or the trash, it made me sick.
This hit home even more as we walked a few miles off, back into the alleyways where many of these people lived everyday of their lives in small huts, made from what could be found. These huts were the size of any American bathroom, elevated on small stilts to protect them from flooding. Here little boys ran over the dirt-clotted-trash pathway in bare feet, oblivious to any condition other than their quest for childhood joy. This was it. This was life for them. All my life I have been a consumer, from the time I lost my tooth and negotiated with the Tooth Fairy, disguised as my Mother, hinting, “I am saving up for a swing set.” Yet, here I was looking into the faces of children who may have their daily life revolutionized by a single pair of shoes so they would not cut their feet on glass or a hypodermic needle.
I stood there pained, when, at the impulse of me reaching for my bag, an aged Cambodian woman looked at me in the eyes with deep desperation and a cup made from her hands. I stood there changed as I saw a mother pull her son out of the path of an agenda-driven garbage truck that had no concern for human life. The boy held his pack of crackers proudly. His mother smiled when he showed her. She smiled a big smiled. They were gold to him. They were hope to her. I stood there enraged by the man I saw strolling through, documenting disparity. He casually snapped pictures on his point-and-shoot, as if this wasn’t tangible or as if it were a tourist attraction. His tight blue jeans, and crisp white button up shirt screamed prosperity, and he was waving it in their faces. “Who’s that guy?” I asked indignantly. “Westerner,” was the one word response. Westerner. This was a title I shared. But I was changing; gaining perspective; and shedding cultural deception, discarding it like the rubbish all around me. Now, it is clearer to me than ever before: if I live my life for the sake of the American dream, I will be asleep to reality.