We walked through the far northeast corner of Cambodia along a sandy trail through overhanging crops and scattered huts. We met an old man with ripples of veins on skinny, wrinkled legs. He came up from behind and passed us on the path. He had walked ten hours from his home. He sought a small village ahead with his teenaged daughter and young thigh-high son, who dangled a roll-your-own cigarette from his lips. Another long day on a sunburnt path that kept going and going behind us, all the way to Laos if the inclination arose. Jerry took the man’s photo, then the three continued on. The girl changed clothes in two steps and a twirl; off with one sarong, into another, a flash of undies, a peek at the bra, on with a bright green shirt the color of rice in an incandescent afternoon. Presto. She was dressed for town.
When we reached the village, I plopped my dirty self on a snack stand and bought neon-colored sodas, each 2,000 riel, 50 cents. Corn chips, 400 riel, 10 cents. A triangular pouch of candy, 200 riel, 5 cents. We ate and drank our goodies, then spotted the old man again. Father and daughter were cleaning the yard across the road, trimming trees, dragging branches to a pile. They worked for food. They had walked the ten hours to town because they had nothing to eat.
We asked if they had any money.
Jerry extended the man 1,000 riel as payment for the photo he had taken. The man examined the tattered note and handed it to his daughter in confusion. He asked what it was.
One thousand riel, Jerry said. Twenty-five cents.
That pleased the father and daughter immensely, and they bowed in gratitude.
Buy rice, we told them. One thousand riel, it would buy two pounds. Then we said goodbye. We crossed the river by boat, 1,000 riel for both of us, 25 cents. We bought coffee, 1,000 riel a glass, 25 cents. We purchased water, 1,000 riel, 25 cents.
One thousand riel, 25 cents. The man hadn’t known.