A careless promise, a priceless gift

By

He lived deep in the jungles of Cambodia. His black hair fell in all directions from the crown of his head and lay in blunt-ended tufts against the gold-brown skin of his forehead. I don't know his name, but I'll never forget that look in his wide-set, intelligent black eyes.

He was only 8 or 9 years old, but he was in business for himself. He sold cowbells, knives, crossbows and arrows, and guidebooks to tourists who visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, or any of the other vast ancient ruins near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I first saw him from the window of the tour bus my husband and I had taken from Siem Reap to Angkor Thom. He and a half-dozen other youngsters began hawking their wares even before the tourists had descended from the bus. It paid off: He sold a guidebook to one passenger before she had budged from her seat.

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The guidebook was the only good buy he offered. I'd have bought one, too, if I hadn't already purchased one in Bangkok - for twice the price.

The crossbows, knives, and cowbells were not worth a second glance. I shook my head at each of these as he offered them. When I got out of the bus, he presented his wares again. With unequivocal firmness, I said, "No."

To me, souvenirs should be things of artistic beauty or excellent craftsmanship that are representative of and indigenous to the place they are purchased. A souvenir must be genuine, preferably something natives buy and use. For instance, a handsome silk sarong I'd seen worn on the streets of Siem Reap. Fake knives left me cold.

I turned my attention to the guide, who had begun his spiel about the famous Bayon, heart of magnificent Angkor Thom. His introduction concluded, we trooped up the steps and crossed the rough stone terrace to admire the bas reliefs of the galleries.

All through the guide's discourse came the hollow "clap, clap" of the bone cowbells and the sound of small voices, "Buy knife, buy cowbell." The young businessmen had followed us.

It was annoying. We had come thousands of miles to this place. We had come by ship, plane, bus, and foot - at considerable expense. It was hot. I shook my head at the brown, upturned face at my elbow and moved away.

Our guide led us through numerous corridors, up steep stone steps that must have been designed for mountain goats. Every door sill was six inches high and about a foot thick. They reminded me of the bulkheads on the freighter we'd taken from Hong Kong.

At least this maze-wandering will shake off the young merchants, I thought. Dreamer. The youngsters knew every passage, every room, every dark corner of this place. The chant continued: "Buy knife, buy cowbell. Knife only one dollar American."

The same boy who had singled me out at the bus always turned up beside me. "Buy knife," he said in his plaintive voice, his black eyes turned up at me.

I tried to listen to what the guide was saying. "Buy cross-bow. Buy cowbell. One dollar American," the boy said.

My gaze fastened on a wonderfully vital stone carving of the apsara, or dancing girl. How marvelous the design, how remarkable the movement, how beautiful the headdress....

"Buy knife. One dollar."

Desperate, I threw caution to the wind. "Tomorrow!" I cried carelessly. "Maybe tomorrow." I had no sooner said this than I realized my mistake. A crack had appeared in my resistance.

"Noooo," wailed the young Cambodian, pressing his attack. "You buy today, not tomorrow."

I turned away without answering. I would not be bullied into buying useless knives and cowbells. Besides, I had no more room in my suitcase.

The tour ended. We had brought picnic lunches, though, so we lingered behind when the bus left. We bought sodas at a stand and walked over to a shady spot to sit down.

What could be more pleasant than a picnic under a banyan tree here! The crowd had gone. Fawn-colored cows grazed nearby, their real cowbells clap-clapping intermittently, not continuously as in the peddlers' hands. We opened our bag of bananas, French bread, and peanut butter.

I had just spread peanut butter onto the first piece of bread when, "Buy knife. Buy cowbell."

I looked up, straight into those familiar black eyes. "Tomorrow," I said angrily. "I'll be back tomorrow." I instantly knew I had committed myself.

The boy's face darkened with mistrust. Suddenly, it was not only the mistrust of one small brown boy; it was the mistrust of all Asia for the West. The boy's voice was cold and cynical. "You no come back. You fly away to big city far away." He turned from me and walked with great dignity to his bicycle, which he mounted and rode away.

Tomorrow came. I told myself that I would go back to Angkor Thom and would buy the old knife. But I didn't. My husband was interested in taking pictures of Angkor Wat, so we spent the day there. I didn't see the boy the next day, either. That day we met an American engineer and his family stationed in Siem Reap and spent the time sightseeing with them.

The following day, we were to leave in the afternoon. We got up early and hired a motorcycle to take us to Ta Prohm, a gem of a ruin. After Ta Prohm, I told myself, we shall go to Angkor Thom. I shall search out that boy and I shall buy his old knife and maybe a cowbell, too.

I didn't have to wait until we got to Angkor Thom. As we stood in one of the jumbled inner courtyards of Ta Prohm, looking at an ancient doorway caught in the giant roots of a silk-cotton tree growing atop it, a small gold-brown boy appeared, wearing blue shorts and a white shirt. He saw me instantly. His sober face lightened into a broad smile. "You did come back," he stated incredulously.

Now I had to sit on my suitcase to get it shut; for in addition to everything else, it now contained one brown wood sheath inlaid with cheap metal containing a crudely made knife, and one bone cowbell with twin clappers.

But the biggest thing I took home was a memory: a small gold-brown face wearing a very broad smile. For this, I paid no duty, but its value is incalculable.

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