My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Shame on me that I cannot tell you the name of the man in this photo. We met in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia in South-East Asia. I was walking along the boulevard beside the Mekong River when I saw him and approached. I do not give money to beggars – thousands of children work the streets in Phnom Penh and keep little of the money they are given by tourists. Yet, this man was not begging. I noticed immediately that he was in business.
I returned his smile and said hello in Khmer. I took off my sandals and stepped up onto the bathroom weight scale. The man leaned forward, putting out one thin arm to balance himself, and read off the numbers upside down from the scale. Then he peered up at me with a grin and told me my weight in kilograms in Khmer. When I looked puzzled, he laughed and held up the fingers of his right hand for me to show me my weight.
I thanked him and asked him the price; I gave him 10 times what he asked and held the banknotes out to him in both hands in a gesture of respect. (In Asia, even business cards are exchanged with both hands.) He took the US $1 bill and pushed it down into the waistband of his shorts.
We thanked each other again and said goodbye. He waved as I walked away. In all the horrors I have witnessed in Africa, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India and elsewhere in Cambodia, this businessman beside the Mekong is one of the greatest examples of quiet dignity I have ever met.
In many ways Cambodia is a savage country – everyone scrambling over everyone else to get enough to survive and those who already have plenty doing their best to take from everyone else. Yet here, one morning on the main boulevard, one man even less fortunate than most in his country was earning his living with an extraordinary dignity, joy, even optimism.
He had made no sign highlighting his disabilities or whatever horrors may have caused them – polio, a landmine or torture – just a smile and friendly wave to a stranger. No talk of obstacles, or disadvantages or what society might owe him. Self-respect. Self-empowerment. Obstacles overcome. Joy maintained. Life accepted.
© Dennison Berwick 2007. This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.