Thursday, February 3, 2011

I'll Take Canadian Prime Ministers for $5, Alex

I'm sitting on a patio at a crossroads in downtown Siem Reap, Cambodia. Up and down the French colonial avenues stretching away from my vantage point are antique stores, art shops, restaurants, and a dozen other venues for tourists to part with their hard currency.
At this particular location, my son is engaging in one of the newest extraction methods, 'fish massage'. His feet are dunked in a tank of fish, which nibble at the dead skin. It's supposed to be good for something. 30 minutes, three bucks.
I sit with my back to the procedure, just glad to be out of the tropical sun for half an hour. The streets are mostly quiet, as the tourists are still at nearby Angkor Wat, getting shaken down by locals for postcard money.
As I wave away another insistent tuk-tuk driver, the 14-year-old manager of the fish tank slides down beside me.
“So where you from?” he asks. I tell him Canada.
“Ah,” he says. “Capital: Ottawa. Prime Minister: Stephen Harper. Population: 32 million.”
I'm reasonably impressed, and ask him where he learned it. He says in school.
“So what grade are you in?” I ask.
He's not, he's had to leave. He tells me he has to work, raise money to put his younger siblings in school.
And what about his parents?
“They are not around,” he says sadly, looking away from me.
The great thing about travel is meeting new and interesting people from around the world. To get a glimpse of other life experiences, other's circumstances.
The bad thing is you never know which ones of them are full of shit.
This young man goes on to tell me how he basically works for tips at the fish shop- the tank owners take the three dollar fee, and he and his two buddies earn what they can from customer's charity. It's all all a little too perfect, a little too maudlin. But the kid plays it pretty well.
So when my son's time is up, and only two of the minnows have died from eating his feet, I slip the young lad an extra $5 US. I make sure the owner doesn't see.
Because you know, he had to take the effort to memorize the information- even if he has done it for every other country for every other tourist in the world. Hell, I'll give any Cambodian who can name our prime minister $5- and $20 for the leader of the opposition... old... uh... what's his name?

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