It started, as so many things in Cambodia often do, with Angry Birds.
There I sat, under the blush of clouds that seemed to appear only because it was my day off, attempting to roast my skin to a deeper brown under the rays of the singular Southeast Asian sun, the singular rays, at least I hoped, so strong that they would penetrate my bikini-clad body even as they were fully obscured by the darkening sky.
My bathing suit was skimpy and neon green. The Bong Beach House had permitted me to utilize one of their sunbeds for a few hours, even though all I ordered, and all I intended to order, was one mango shake. They knew this about me, I'd done it before, but if they minded, they kept it to themselves. I also didn't complain when it took an hour to arrive, after the waiter had a nap in a nearby hammock.
My sunglasses were on, my body exposed in a manner most impolite for the Khmer culture I'd begun to adapt. My iPad was up and pixelating forth with freebie Bong Beach wifi. Today, more than another day, I was a tourist. Alone, lazy, exhausted, broke and swallowing each moment as the greedy gift it was.
"Chur," a small voice whispered in my ear, "Is it you?"
I whirled around and immediately recognized him, a seven year old boy from the project with otter black eyes and a radiant smile of only one perfect tooth. The rest had rotted into speckled points, bits of beer glass, giving him and so many others the look of impish vampires. The most joyous vampires you'll ever meet.
With him were two of his friends, and they were, of course, working the beach. Perhaps word had gotten out when I'd kept the first miscreant's secret, as he rifled through trash that day just a week before, with the animal mask we made together still affixed to his little head. Perhaps, I was now known as the Chur who would let them be who they were. The one that understood that no matter how many rules we imposed, that they would always buck against them the moment we turned our backs. Though their love for us was big, maybe even bigger than our love for them, which to me is a love so vast that I understand, even as I am experiencing it, that it is precious and I shall never feel it again. Though their love for us is big, their hunger and poverty is much bigger, and they will do whatever they must do to survive.
The boys were working the beach, and they were filthy. They recognized me and came to me. They whispered to me until they were sure, and when they were, their voices rang out.
"Game, we can play?"
And then together, in a chorus, "Angry Birds!"
I surrendered my device immediately, to the kids, to the sand. I monitored their playing as I hid myself under a sarong, in what I hoped was a teacherly shift in my appearance. Other travelers, Europeans perhaps, gawked. They looked at me with bewilderment. Their eyes chastised me for my oblivious idiocy.
Give these urchins your iPad? They said, without saying. These stealers, these beggars? Stupid American, how dumb you must be.
The Khmer staff at Bong looked at me in the same way. They tried to shoo the kids away, but I cut them off with a devastatingly official look.
"I have them," I said without saying. "They are mine, and this iPad is theirs."
We played together for two hours. Two hours that I taught them English, helped their aim, chided them, encouraged them, joked with them as they manhandled my tablet. But they also took turns cleaning it of the sand they accidentally dumped on it, and wiping the smeary screen with the rags off of their backs, all the while smiling through their blackened gums. We fix, they said. We help?
I poured my bottled water into their thirsty mouths and then I saw the injuries on the first boy's leg. It was a bloody, angry mess. A deep cut from scratching and playing that if untended, would be overcome by infection in a matter of days. I marched him to the sea and sat with him as the warm salty current soothed him, and I hoped, disinfected him.
Soon after, one of his friends came running towards us. I looked upwards to the beach where the third boy was both defeating level upon level of the game while keeping a watchful eye on my bag so that no one who needed money as desperately as he did, would steal it from me.
This second boy, slighter, shyer, the tips of his bangs bleached by the sun, nodded at me.
"What, you want to swim?" I asked, somewhat irritably, as I was tending to the first boy.
It was then he raised his shorts up to reveal a series of oozing, festering pustules that nearly held the circumference of his thigh. Whatever was wrong with the first boy, the second was tenfold worse. I nearly vomited at the sight, and then swallowed it back down and took his hand as well, pulling him into the surf.
And there we remained for a time, cleaning their wounds the only way we could. I mopped at them with dry towels and was pleased to see the pus forming on both, and the maroon circles begin to soften. I wanted so badly to touch near them and see the level of the boys' pain, if it was a bone beyond the skin that was broken.
But we have been told some of the children are sick. They or their brothers or mothers may have malaria, tuberculosis, and most harrowing of all, HIV.
I would not be able to treat them, truly, safely, without gloves and disinfectant, clean gauze and pain tablets, warm boiled water and creams, bandages and books for then to read while this work was done so that they would stay still through the pain of it all.
Like so many other days, I improvised the best that I could. Knowing that by the time I could reach a doctor or even my massive first aid kit that my dad had bought for me, left useless back in my dorm, that in the time it would take me to get these needful things, the boys would be long gone.
So I stayed with them, getting them out of work for a little while, letting the ocean heal them a little while, knowing it was not enough, but it was all I had.
Knowing that on the first day back at the compound I would march both boys straight to the administrators, demanding their medical histories and urging treatment and a visit from a professional.
This is why I am for a moment nicknamed Dr. Hillary. This is why for four hours, I administered first aid when I should have been teaching classes, under the watchful eye of the closest thing we have to a nurse, who when I pulled the boy with the sores against his will into her care, merely smiled as she looked them over.
"My, how well he's healed!"
I was, for a bit, at a loss, as I often am here. "This is healed?"
She spoke to him in stern, rapid-fire Khmer, never the while letting her beaming smile fall from me.
"Oh yes, much worse before. He so clumsy. He get bite and then he fall and then he pick and pick. But now? Is good. Much better. We no need doctor."
"No?" I asked cautiously.
"No," she repeated. "But now they all want you to fix them." And then she pointed to the door where a gang of six were awaiting me and only me.
Dr. Hillary. Kind of has a ring to it...