Standing in the ramshackle Aranyaprathet bus station, I watched the last bus to Phnom Penh leave without me. How did I get so unlucky?
I’d needed to arrive in Phnom Penh in the evening, for a meeting with the Thai embassy in the morning, the last opening before Songkran holidays. My Thai visa was necessary to start work next week.
My mind raced a thousand miles a minute through the possibilities. I would lose the job offer, most certainly go broke, and then need to give up and go home. Everyone was right – I should have gone home when my trip was up, instead of staying and trying to start anew in Bangkok. Why was life so unfair?
leaving Michigan for Thailand 3 months earlier
I glanced at the crumpled blue ticket I had purchased earlier – now useless – and at the small group of other stranded travelers.
My tears were interrupted as Alan, the Cambodian man who had sold me the ticket, strode into the almost empty station.
What was he doing here? Was I scammed? He spoke to the service attendant, then walked to our little group of desolate and despondent travelers. He smiled nervously and and ran a hand through his shorn black hair, “There is a problem with the bus. It left.”
The Israeli man in our group immediately jumped up. “You tricked us! You robbed us! You are a thief and we are stranded!”
Alan’s smile faded. His eyes flashed. “I am not! I am an honest man, and I will help you.” He gestured towards a beat up green sedan waiting at the entrance. “I will drive you to another bus station. Myself. You will all get the bus there.”
We looked at each other in a second of disbelief, before quickly grabbing our packs and stuffing them into the trunk of the green car.
Along the way, Alan insisted on stopping to buy us beers. He clarified that he owned the tour company from which he had sold us the tickets, and he felt responsible. His business and his integrity meant everything to him, he explained.
The crowded vehicle, warm with travel weary bodies and rank with stinking backpacks, seemed to take much longer than an hour to reach the grey, dreary bus town. When it finally arrived, we all felt a bit tipsy and more than a bit ready to get out.
After retrieving our packs and shaking out cramps, we began to say goodbye to Alan. He insisted again on buying us snacks and beers, against our resistance.
As we sat in rickety red chairs at a makeshift table, drinking beers and slurping noodles, any bit of sun finally disappeared into the thick grey clouds. Adam motioned towards a trash heap across the street.
“I used to live there.”
We looked at each other awkwardly, unsure how to respond.
“They tore your house down?” the Australian eventually asked, uneasily.
“No,” Adam replied firmly, “I lived on the street. There.” He pointed at a curb, covered in crumpled papers, silvery snack packs, and plastic bags, next to the bus station.
We remained silent. I didn’t know what to say. Alan continued.
“I lived on the street alone, since I was a child. Sometimes people would give me money or food. I saved up money, and every time I had two dollars, I bought English lessons one at a time.”
The weight of this knowledge, the cost of an education to him and the pricelessness of mine, sat heavy on my stomach and made it impossible to continue eating as he spoke. I listened intently, as did my new friends.
“Eventually, I could speak enough English to start working. I drove buses for a tour company.”
Though enthralled in the story, this break gave us the opportunity to chime in with small murmured encouragements. “That’s great.” “Wow.” “Good for you!”
“I worked very hard, I worked very long, and after time I had my own tour company.” He paused.
“I have been very lucky in my life.”
This statement sobered me.
We sat in silence for a minute, four twenty-somethings from so-called “first world” countries, with our infinite opportunities, our excellent educations, and the ability to do pretty much whatever we want. I could never think of myself or my life in the same way again. Alan’s story had burned my ignorance and privilege shamefully into my conscious.
We rose slowly, thanked Alan again, and picked up our heavy backpacks. Mine seemed heavier than before, now aware that I carried a pack full of more stuff for a trip than many people even owned at all.
After waving goodbye, we walked into the street in unison, all pausing as we stepped across the curb that was once a man’s home.