Two students were walking by me today, and one said, “I hate being poor. I need to stop drinking so much.”
They both laughed, but I immediately thought back to these photos from the Tonle Sap, in Cambodia – a massive lake that supports the whole country with fish and water. Because the lake expands and contracts based on rainfall over the seasons, many of the communities are built to move and float – houses are completely mobile and houseboats rock with the wake of passing water taxis and ferries.
The man in this photo was up to his waist in brackish water, sorting out some fishing nets; behind him are massive pens. Inside the pens: crocodiles, which are bred and raised for their skins. The water was so muddy that it appeared to be solid with silt; the only indication of its liquidity was the ease with which it rippled when a boat passed, the man moved his body, or the crocodiles shifted their weight inside the pens and caused the sides to shudder, tails and claws rasping against the boards, a scuffle occasionally breaking out.
And this man was in a small rowboat, with a strange oar, crouched in the front – or is it the back? He had a few bags of goods behind him, which might have the sum of his worldly possessions. As we passed, he gave our captain a dirty look, as the wake from the boat made it more difficult to manage his small wooden craft. And he was far older than me – he must have lived through the Khmer Rouge, Year Zero, and the atrocities that occurred afterward, a hell I can’t even imagine.
I didn’t come out of the trip romanticizing poverty; if anything, I came away from it with an appreciation for how poor some people are, how hard their lives can be, and how utterly fortunate I am. I wonder if that’s actually why some Westerners romanticize poverty – because it makes us realize how lucky we are in relation to others, which makes us feel happy, an emotion which we then project onto the less fortunate – because if we’re happier because of their poverty, surely they must be as well?
And those students – if too much drinking is making them feel poor, they’ve been far luckier than most of the other people in the world.