“Can you take us to Svay Pak?”*
“Svay Pak, oh yes, Svay Pak.”
“130 Guest House.”
“Yes, yes, no problem.”
We haven’t had much luck with cabs so far. We have paid too much, gotten dropped off at the wrong places, missed a few good ones, and wanted to get out of a few bad ones. As we start the drive from Phnom Penh, I am not feeling confident.
“Welcome to Svay Pak” one sign reads. Another “Good guy go to heaven, bad guy goes to Svay Pak.” We made it. But we cant find our hotel.
Every time the cab slows down or turns down an alley, women approach the car. Music is blaring from the 15 bars that surround us. The red glow from surrounding shops seems to slowly pour into the vehicle. The air conditioning only works if the car is moving. Our driver is starting to lose his mind. “you. don’t. know. hotel!” he mumbles in the front seat. He is right, we have no clue where we are going.
We call our boss and hand the phone to our cab driver.
“Walking street.” We overhear him say.
“Yes, yes, walking street, no problem.”
Three minutes later we stop in front of walking street and the driver gets out. He hands us our bags, we pay him, and there we are, standing in front of one of Cambodia’s largest red light districts, luggage in tow.
A fifty year old man stands across the street, wife in arm, staring into Go-A-Go-Go, iPhone out, recording as the door swings open and closed. His wife stares at the ground.
Every sense is engaged on walking street. Neon lights tear through the darkness, music blares from what seems like every speaker in the eastern hemisphere, each step taken is met with the hands of a prostitute or a salesmen, the smell of cheap beer and seafood sporadically overwhelm, our dry mouths crave a drink.
The words of poet Marie Howe echo in my ear as I search for a language that will explain what I am feeling. “Can we ever really be seen? I think the thing of Jesus, I mean he must have been like this — and Buddha must have been and all these great enlightened ones, he must have been able to really see people, you know?”
Can we ever be seen? Can I take some time to see people while I am here? Can I see the prostitute – as a human being? Can I see the men, young and old, from all the nations of the world that seem to inhabit this street – as human beings? Can I stand in opposition to the ethic of this street (an ethic that says human worth is directly correlated to what is being sold) and still see?
An investigator picks us up and takes us to a hotel. It is nice to put our luggage down.
“You ready to go out? You are going to see nakedness. Get over it. The most important moments you will have on this trip are in conversation.” We walk over to the nearest bar. Kelli. Sam. Covert Investigator. What has happened in the last 10 minutes?
A prostitute comes over to us. Looks at me and says “you have someone, that is nice, see, he does not, and it is not good for a man to be lonely.” The investigator and the prostitute start talking.
She is in her thirties and has come to the big city to work. There is a lot of money in this field, she says. She has three kids, who have a dad that vanished as soon as the third was born, leaving them to fend for themselves.
The investigator tells her he is married. She shifts her body weight, leans in and says “you are married, your wife is a good woman, she is taking care of your family, I won’t sleep with you.”
We walk out of the bar. First night of work done.
Our investigator looks at us, eyes glistening “there I am, in the middle of a go-go bar, and she is trying to protect me.”
The prostitute sees. It is what drives her to work in a bar in the middle of the city. It is also what allows her to take a stand for something she cares about to no end: family.
The investigator sees. It is what drives him into bars, nightclubs, go-go’s, and various pockets of a highly sexualized underworld, at all hours of the day. It is what allows him to take a stand for something he cares about to no end: human dignity.
Seeing inspires us but it also wounds us. For the next two weeks, I am keeping my eyes open and trying to see.
*Dates and locations have been changed for the safety of investigative teams.