We lay on our beach towels dreaming under the sunlit trees. This was our recovery day, from discovering secluded beaches, hiking through tropical forests and snorkeling off tiny islands.
J: See that man.
I prop myself up on my towel. A European man, overweight with dark hair and in his late thirties is trudging by, dressed in a red T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap. Behind him walks a slight, young Cambodian boy, between 10-13 years old.
J: They’ve been together for the past two days,
Once you see them you can’t unsee them. It’s a small island and a smaller village. Invariably the quiet pair will materialize, laboriously walking through the sand, unnoticed by the young travelers playing in the sun. I point them out to another island friend, M.
M: Ahh that’s sick. Ah I hate seeing that stuff, or hearing about it. Man, I don’t want to think about it!
He storms off.
The one thing worse than being a pedophile in paradise is being a downer.
There is no police presence on the island. Guesthouses don’t ask to see any I.D. Local men lounge about in comfy chairs, bare bodied and bored, drinking or arm-wrestling while waiting for their next boat tour hire. Out-of-money travelers sleep on the pier undisturbed. Nobody forms an authority and everybody does what they want. This is the hidden utopia on the edge of civilization, with all its freedom and all its danger.
I go online and write down the hotline number for Child Safe Cambodia, but then don’t know what to tell them. There is a man on the island who I’m sure has hired a child prostitute for the week?
J: Let’s follow them. Maybe we can get a moment to talk to the boy, or even listen to them talk. If they both talk the same language, then maybe they are related.
Me: And maybe we can find the guesthouse they are staying at.
We try to follow them but lose them. Another day J sneaks up enough to overhear the boy speaking French.
Me: Okay, so maybe he is a child living in Europe. Right?
Neither of us looks convinced, but almost want to believe it in the face of our impotency to stop anything worse. From the moment J pointed them out we had taken to eyeballing the man. He knew we were watching.
Soon the day to leave arrived. I was preparing to get the ferry when they walked past. His eyes went to the backpack on my back. A look of relief crossed his face and perhaps even a little triumph.
In that moment I knew that all our speculations were real and yet none substantial. I still can’t pick up the phone and report a look of triumph on a no-name man at a no-name guesthouse on a tiny island in Cambodia.