by Greg M.
A boy in an Angry Birds t-shirt and underpants stands at my elbow as I work, clapping his hands in my face and giggling hysterically. I have an urge to pull him into the mud-filled pit. My parents have spent a chunk of their inheritance from my grandfather sending me to Cambodia in search of a college essay. I’m afraid this essay isn’t what they had in mind.
The service project is taking place at a school in Phnom Penh. We spend the week building bamboo soccer goals, refinishing and repairing desks, and digging a hole for a new septic tank. It’s fun, rewarding, and I enjoy everything about our work at the elementary school, except for one small detail…the children.
Wherever I go, a boy named Wait seems to follow. He wears the same filthy, green boxers all week, and he never goes anywhere without a soccer ball that looks a hundred years old. Unlike the rest of the kids, Wait has no interest in helping, instead preferring to stand around and crowd me while I work, and talking non-stop. He knows more English than any of the other kids—about ten words’ worth, two of which are “Land Rover.”
The small, crowded streets of Phnom Penh are congested with motorbikes, tuk tuks, and so many luxury SUVs I lose count. Cars are not simply transportation to the Cambodians, I’m told, but status symbols. In this way Phnom Penh is no different from New York, Washington, DC, or any other gridlocked city where bicycles might be more practical.
Try telling this kid Wait he should get a bike instead of a Land Rover. Or that he should go bug one of my cohorts instead of me. Everyone else plays soccer with the kids. I don’t really feel like embarrassing myself in front of a bunch of children. I’m six feet tall, yet only 125 pounds. My dad jokes that I should play football because I could weave between the other team.
On our last day Wait still hasn’t given up hope. He’s by my side, kicking around his ball, keeping up the monologue about the Land Rover in a mix of in Khmer and English. “Land Rover, blah, blah, a blue one…” I’ve heard this story fifty times a day for five days, but something he says lodges in my brain: blue. I stop shoveling.
An old memory pops into my head—me by our driveway, loading up my toy truck with nuts and bolts and other junk, wheeling it around. My dad’s shiny bright blue Mustang is parked there. I had never known anything more beautiful. I was six years old, and everything good in the world was right there before me, in my own front yard.
Then I’m back in Phnom Penh, ankle-deep in gravel and grey muck. Wait is standing there looking at me, silent. Almost break time, I tell myself. I put down my shovel, and he smiles. I nod toward the soccer field.