Let me just say, I like kids. I may not HAVE kids of my own, but I do like spending time with them. And some of my fondest memories from our trips involve kids. In late 2004, we were fortunate enough to visit Cambodia and Vietnam, two countries that have experienced some truly horrible wars. Vietnam is well ahead of Cambodia in terms of recovery; indeed Cambodia is the poorest country I have ever visited thus far (and it's where my hubby managed to get typhoid fever due to a vaccine mix-up, and from where I brought home a stubborn amoeba christened "Amelia"! Because we are rich foreigners, we didn't die from these illnesses, unlike a lot of Cambodians.)
Yet despite such grinding poverty, the bloody history, disease and malnutrition, the kids still manage to be kids. They know how to make do without much, yet they still smile. They play. They're beautiful! This is one of my favourite trip photos ever, simply because it reminds me of a lovely day with some really special little people:
We visited a small Buddhist temple (wat) in Siem Reap (where Angor Wat is) where they run a school, among other things. As we toured around it, all of these little kids just attached themselves to me. The fought gently over who got to hold my hands. They didn't ask for a thing; they were just enjoying my walking around and laughing with the tall foreign chick (Camboians are not the tallest people on the planet.) I did take many digital photos of them, with permission, which would have gone on all day if we hadn't had to leave. We made a modest donation to the school as well. I just felt so fortunate to be in the presence of these wonderful kids.
All of the children on our travels seem to love seeing photos of themselves, even if it's just an image on the back of a digicam.
Hmmm, I somehow can't see something like this happening in Canada: stranger shows up at school and walks around holding hands with the kids. (Don't worry, there were plenty of monks and other adults at the wat. You can't walk in and snatch up a kid.) I was just enchanted by these little ones. And if you want to contrast childhood in our country to childhood in a poor neighbourhood in Cambodia, this says a lot:
This is a memorial stupa containing the skulls and bones of just a tiny fraction of the Cambodians murdered in the Killing Fields, and it's right on the grounds of the wat. The kids play around it every day without a second thought. Death has touched everyone in Cambodia, and they don't hide it away like they do in North America. I do think this is a much healthier attitude. Death is, after all, a part of life. It's just unfortunate that there have been so many senseless and unnatural deaths in the recent history of Cambodia. Old landmines still litter the countryside and blow off limbs with alarming regularity. I hope the future is much brighter for this magical country. They deserve peace and happiness and prosperity.
On another walk around the back roads of Siem Reap, we had another sweet encounter. Two giggling little girls spied us from the window of their modest home. They ran out, grabbed my hands, (poor Gordon, no such luck, although his beard regularly fascinates kids on our travels) kissed them, and ran back inside giggling. Okay, so maybe this wouldn't be street-safe behaviour in Toronto, but I just loved it. They were full of fun and innocence, those two little girls.
And here we have Phu Quoc (talk about a peaceful island paradise!) Vietnam, where we stopped to have some lemonade and ended up giving English lessons to a bunch of school kids and the older girl who ran the lemonade stand. They study English in school:
Again, they loved the digital camera. I printed out the photos when I got home and mailed them back, but who knows if they ever arrived? It was a real treat spending an hour with these children. They thought our sunglasses were very interesting and everyone took turns trying them on.
When I meet children like these, kids who don't have much yet still manage to smile and be playful kids, I think about North American children. Of course there are plenty of wonderful kids here, but there are also plenty of kids here who have everything they could ever want, and yet it's still not enough. Exactly the same can be said for Western adults. If there is one thing that travelling has really brought home to me, it is that things don't make people happy. Simple, I know, and one doesn't want to boil it all down to the "happy poor" stereotype. I'm not saying that living a grindingly-poor life in Phnom Penh is something to aspire to. We all need a certain amount of food and shelter, and you know, not having a war is always nice. But I do know that I hear a LOT of whining in Canada, and I see a lot of people feeling sorry for themselves because they can't buy this and they can't buy that, and God help them if they don't have the latest plasma TV, blah blah blah...
I think that, in our society, we have by and large lost touch with what's important in life, and it's a great shame. In countries like Cambodia, where whole families were wiped out in an instant, death has touched everyone, and so I think there is a greater appreciation for life. Whatever it is, getting outside North America and seeing how the rest of the world lives had been a real education for me, and it makes me realize how lucky I am to have what I have. It also makes me realize that I don't need a lot to be happy, and that the smaller the footprint I leave on this world, the better it will be for everyone. I'm nowhere near where I could be in that regard, but it's food for thought.