To Catch a Thief

IMG_0299I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent individual, but then I look back at my life and realize it’s been my secret goal to get taken in every country on earth. I’ve totally handled Asia, and made great strides in Europe and South America. Just this Christmas I bought a Nintendo Switch charging dock for my daughter from what looked to be a legit American website, and was entirely mystified by the arrival of a bizarre toy from China which didn’t belong in the same ballpark as any of my holiday purchases. It took me a bit, but eventually I worked out that this was supposed to be Abby’s charger. Oddly enough I required them to fix their mistake.

“We are sorry. We will give you $30 as compensation.”

This was less than half the cost, and part of a somewhat convoluted message, so at first I thought they were very sorry and wished to give me some sort of credit on top of refunding my money. Nope. $30 too bad so sad. They wanted me to pay the shipping plus profit on the stupid little toy they’d sent in what I now have reason to believe was a deliberate bait and switch.

Many emails later I gave up, and contacted the Visa gift card company I had used to make my purchase, wanting the card credited back. “We’re happy to help, but it will take several weeks.” I gave them everything they asked for, plus any other documentation I had, and soon I received an email saying they needed more information, but neglected to mention what. Emails asking for said information went unanswered, and this week I received notice that I had not complied with their request, therefore my case was closed. Be happy with your $30. I’m counting this as getting taken in both the U.S. and China, and in the future, I’ll think twice about a Visa gift card.

I had a ring stolen too, right out of my jewelry box. It had been a gift, a pretty little ruby of the most beautiful design. It wasn’t big or impressive, selling it would certainly not pay my mortgage or buy our groceries, but I’ve never seen another like it, and wouldn’t spend the money even if I did. It was just gone without any possibility of replacement. I had a pretty solid idea what had happened, but by the time I discovered the theft, it was too late to prove it, so the thief got away clean, or dirty, depending on how you look at it.

I could recount plenty of other incidents, some funny, some not so much, but today I’m thinking of a day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the little tourist town just outside the Angkor Wat Archeological Park, which is one of the must-see places on the planet. The park is all very Indiana Jones. You buy your park pass, and they let you loose on miles and miles of countryside containing numerous ancient temple complexes in various styles and states of repair, one being the famous jungle temple where massive trees grow through intricate stone ruins. It served as a site in the filming of Tomb Raider, but even if you didn’t see the movie, you’ve likely seen a photo or two, perhaps without knowing what you were looking at. We spent almost a week crawling through the various ruins, and from that time to this, my kids look at exotic amusement park attractions and scoff, “We’ve done that for real.”IMG_0218-Edit-Edit

In my office I actually have a painting of one of my favorite places in the park, the Temple with Many Faces. It was painted with a spoon and only cost me $30, the same pitiful amount I got back from the internet cheaters. It’s mostly deep greens, browns, and blacks, with the shock of orange monks’ robes whistling in the stillness. It cost little, and will never be considered important art, but it is one of my treasures and makes me happy every time I look at it. But I actually want to talk about another treasure I found in Cambodia, an encounter with a woman and a baby.

As you can imagine, an attraction like Angkor Wat will naturally bait many tourists, so the adjoining town of Siem Reap does a thriving trade, such a thriving trade that they have their own Hard Rock Café, turning up its nose at the locals, and serving marginal burgers for ridiculous prices. As an aside I’m going to say that living in Asia you can really be jonesing for a good cheeseburger, but those cheeseburgers were highway robbery, not to mention the two hours I’ll never get back. The cheeseburgers aren’t part of my story, just a quarter-note in a minor key.

We were in Cambodia at Christmastime, so here and there a few small artificial Christmas trees sat draped with a little anemic tinsel as the barest nod to the season of charity and good will. Being December, it was hot enough to mess up your bath, but not quite hot enough to cook the ribs in your chest, so the good weather brought the tourists out in force, swarming the bazaars and flooding the streets in open tuk-tuk taxis. Where there are tourists naturally there are thieves, that’s how the story begins.

My family was all together, letting carnivorous fish eat the dead skin from our feet, when a woman came to us holding a baby and begging milk for her child. There were a number of people around, and I believe someone opened a wallet and gave her something, but I don’t remember clearly. She didn’t seem to want the bills offered her, insisting we come with her to the store to buy milk. I do remember that she tagged me immediately, of course she did. I was obviously a mother surrounded by well-fed children who would naturally feel an affinity for another mother in need.

I did feel for her, in fact my heart was in my throat, but I’ve also been to India where we were warned not to give anything to beggars. In India the business of poverty has become a goldmine for organized crime. Beggars have their regular shifts, everyone gets their cut, deformities are a plus, and attractive young women are given drugged babies to dangle in front of people just like me. The first time I walked down the street in Bangalore, a.k.a Bengaluru, I saw the magnitude of poverty and dearly wanted to give money to the young woman who started following me. But my father, who had been there over a year, warned me off. I would draw every eye, he said, and soon I would be thronged by people yelling for money. If anybody got much, someone would follow me home, and the next morning there would be a multitude camped outside the door. In India violence always lurks just under the surface and a crowd can erupt on a dime, like putting a match to toilet paper. He wasn’t kidding. Later I got a taste of it when we were out riding camels and somebody saw us tip one of the boys “helping” our driver, and an even uglier taste when we were caught behind a truck that broke down, blocking the road. Scary stuff, no joke.

A few years later in Siem Reap I looked at the slim, attractive young woman and the curiously still and silent baby on her shoulder. I knew what I was looking at. He was a real child, not a doll, small enough to carry for a long time, and quiet so he was cute rather than annoying, the perfect prop for a pretty good actress. I didn’t have anyone to give me the inside scoop on begging in Cambodia, but I knew I stood at the nexus of scam and genuine poverty. I thought about her all night.

The next day we returned from the park, and my kids hit the pool while I headed out to the bazaar alone, knowing I cared nothing for 99.999% of the bibbles and bobbles spread in colorful glory before me, but enticed to wander anyway because you never know what you may stumble upon. I hate the mall, and grocery shopping is one of life’s soul-sucking necessities, but a third-world bazaar, that’s a horse of a different color, and I’m never too tired to explore.

The woman approached me again, silent baby on her shoulder. I never checked whether it was the same child, but I recognized the woman; no idea whether she recognized me. “Please, I need milk for my baby.” I tried to hand her a few bills, but again she wouldn’t take them. “Please, please, I need milk for my baby.” I knew I was being scammed, but this time I followed her.

Don’t bother rolling your eyes, I’m aware it was stupid. That’s how trafficking happens, so please avoid such idiotic behavior. But right there in that moment, I needed to peek inside her world, and the scam was the price of admission. With me on her hook, she pivoted fast, scurrying through the streets, constantly checking over her shoulder to ensure I was still tugging the line. I did hang back, my eyes sweeping around me, making sure we stayed in populated areas, ready to bolt at the first sign of deserted space. That really wasn’t enough to protect myself, as I said, don’t try this at home.

At last we came to a convenience store, and by the time I had gotten to the counter, she was rushing from the back with a large can of baby formula. “$50, please,” the clerk said. I stared at the clerk and asked her how many times she’d sold the same can that day. She shrugged, but had the decency to look a little shamefaced. The young woman looked at me, half excited, half anxious. The clerk remained bland, embarrassed, but with the same expectant expression all clerks wear at the point of sale. I had a decision to make. $50. More than I had thought to pay for the scam, should I follow through? In the end I did follow through, but I walked away irritated and ashamed of myself. The next day I saw her hustling a foreign couple, and I punished her by mentioning she’d played me the day before. The couple bolted and she turned away in a huff.

I can’t condone what was going on there. That woman was exploiting a child, and probably being exploited herself. I have no idea how many people got a piece of my $50, but the baby, the chief catalyst and reason we all gathered in that convenience store, was going to get zero because he had no voice. From that angle the whole scene was nothing but disgusting. On the other hand, I did want a look behind the curtain, to get a better understanding of a universe that functions concurrent with mine, full of real people and real stories. I had been wanting to look ever since India, and she gave me exactly what I wanted. The poverty that started it all is certainly real, but my money did nothing to change it. The woman and baby both need safety and education, rather than scams and exploitation. Maybe I bought them both dinner, which is a sop to my conscience, but not real assistance. I’m the one who got the education, fifty bucks tuition, and it took some time, but I’ve decided it was cheap at the price.

So much has been stolen in Cambodia. Siem Reap and its environs saw heavy fighting, and served as killing fields for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. There’s a museum, and I couldn’t help but notice that some of those beautiful, ancient temples were pocked with bullet holes. Ask any Cambodian and they’ll fire off “3 years, 8 months, and 13 days,” the exact time the Khmer Rouge kept power, and as long as it took for them to exterminate fully one third of the population. We saw it depicted by the Cambodian Circus, reportedly presented by descendants of murdered Cambodians. There was no big top, and no talking. It all took place in a single room where the performers act out the Before, the Middle, and the After. Makes the loss of my $50 and that ruby ring seem kind of stupid, doesn’t it.

I think it all comes down to perspective, and it’s worth taking a hard look at where we’re standing before we decide how we feel or how to judge our situation. I was sad after losing my ring, and I remember praying that at least the ring would go to someone who really needed it, rather than for drugs or some such. At that moment I was feeling angry and violated, and I needed to ask God for a better story so I could process and protect my own heart. That makes me sound like a better person than I actually am, and I need to point out that no one who knows me would ever mistake me for Saint Paula! I was irritated by that woman in the Cambodian bazaar. In fact, I get mad when I’m cheated, and a few weeks ago I lost my temper and snapped at a store clerk over a misunderstanding. I had no call to do that, and called the store to apologize to her, but I still feel guilty. In that moment I forced my personal frustrations to become part of her story, perhaps stealing her peace for a time that day. I wasn’t fair, and I hope I’ve learned something.

In our lives we will be cheated of many things: rings, money, opportunities, loved ones, the list is far too long to record. But I believe each loss operates as a training ground, a moment of incremental growth to strengthen us for those junctures when our losses peel the skin from our bones and leave us hemorrhaging on the side of the road. I don’t need to tell you mine. You have your own, so you know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t yet know, ask the people of Cambodia.

3 years  8 months  13 days

A loss is actually a crossroads, a moment of choice. Sometimes I take the better part and pray my ring will go to someone in need. Other times I fling my own heart into the depths of the filthy pit, only to realize I still need it, and find myself coming back to dig it out and begin the long, delicate process of scraping the mud from the ventricles. I’m talking about bitterness, not anger. Anger is natural, and it’s healthy to recognize and acknowledge what we feel; see it for what it is, rather than pretending we’re fine and never allowing ourselves to properly take ownership and work through it. It’s also good and right for the thief to be brought to appropriate justice, but we have to be careful here. In our anger, sometimes it’s hard to remember that once justice is served, it may or may not become a major chapter in the thief’s story, but whether it does or not, it can never function as more than a footnote in our own. Only I can decide where my loss will take me, and I’ve discovered that all too often, I rob myself.

That woman in Siem Reap was a thief, but I wish her likeness was painted into my Temple of Many Faces with its jarring shock of orange breaking up the peace. My brush with her showed me more than I wanted to see because she forced me to look hard at myself and ask how far my responsibility extends. She set it all up, and obviously I was a willing participant, but what if I hadn’t been? What if she had been a far more sinister figure who snatched me off the street, stole all I had, and left me for dead. What if my mother had been a victim of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge? What is my responsibility then? Can I still choose my own road, or is that option torn from me by a wicked and vicious creature?

I’ve set up two extremes, an example where my personal responsibility is obvious, and another so buried in bloody layers of horror and injustice that my responsibility is nearly impossible to see. But remember “nearly impossible” is not the same as invisible or nonexistent; therein lies the rub. We can all see our responsibility, if we want to. The real question is, do we want to? Do we really want the power to choose? It’s a frightening obligation.

Christ considered our right to choose so important he gave his life to protect it. He practiced exactly what he preached, and they killed him for it. But even in the worst moments of his suffering, he never relinquished his right to take charge of his own response. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His humble acceptance of personal responsibility allowed him to grow so powerful he burst the seal of death, not only for himself, but for all mankind.

Growth is the treasure of overcoming. We all begin with a small pouch of jewels which we can choose to fling into the pit one at a time until all is lost, or we can follow Christ’s example, gradually expanding our little store until we hold glittering castles flowing with gold, and gems, and barrels of precious, light-giving oil, allowing us to find a path, even in the darkest of places. We have a lifetime to work at it.

Maybe you don’t believe in Christ, or anyone else. No matter. If you are old enough to read my words, chances are you’ve noticed the difference between the eternally bitter victim, and the soul who, in time, finds joy and triumphs over the darkest, most vile circumstances, growing greater than ever before. I know you’ve seen it. I mean, even Hollywood churns out inspirational movies by the score, celebrating the victory of the human spirit over adversity. In other words, celebrating our right to choose our own response.

We have control over no one but ourselves, and a thief will do what a thief will do. I believe all these words to be true, but knowing and living are not always the same thing, so I will be working at this until the day I die. I know this because time and again, as I am forced to come face-to-face with the greatest thief in my life, I am always shocked to discover she looks curiously like me.


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