The little boy’s face in front of me is smeared with dirt, coupled with snot. But, he doesn’t care. Instead, he pushes his tiny, dark face closer to me. Closer to my lens, and smiles big.
I turn the camera towards him, displaying his chubby little face for him to see and he erupts in a fit of giggles, delighted at seeing his image on the display.
As I move from him and towards other children surrounding me in this dusty village in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province, he follows me, jumping into every photo I take and then standing there after, waiting anxiously for me to turn my camera around so he can see his face once again.
Ratanakiri is far off the tourist path (for the most part). It is a bumpy ride 11-hour ride from Phnom Penh, and an even more tretchreous 16-hour drive on mostly dirt roads from Siem Reap. Unexpectedly, I find myself in this village, which has a fine layer of rust-covered dirt blanketing everything from the trees on the side of the roads to the quickly put-together wooden homes on stilts to even the people, including me.
Armed with a bag of clothing and snacks to give to the children, it is only a matter of moments before my boss and I (who are here on an entirely different mission) are surrounded by the village’s children.
For an hour, we snap photos of them before we head out and stop in another village.
As night falls and my boss meets with someone, I wander off towards a small group of kids. They run around me, laughing, mimicking my movements. At one point, I crouch to the ground with them and place my hands over my mouth, over my ears and then, over my eyes. They do the same.
Speak no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.
I sit and stare at them as they follow my lead, marveling at the lives they lead. There is no electricity in this village. There are no iPads, no televisions, barely a radio. Instead, these children live with nature. They live a far simpler life than the children I have met in my days. And, it is a beautiful thing.
I find myself back in these two villages a month later, as we are en route to rescue elephants. Once again, the children crowd us, fighting to see my camera, to play with my iPhone. And, once again, I feel this sense of peace come over me as I sit and am reminded of the little things in my childhood that would make me happy: afternoons sitting outside with my friends, dancing into the sunset, simple moments of nature.
Despite their dire conditions, despite the fact these children will never know Facebook, or Twitter, or likely Gangam Style, they are happy. Even living in poverty, these children sparkle and exude a warmth I feel very rarely with little ones.
Here are their moments:
It makes me wonder: if kids in first world countries who have those iPads, the cell phones, the video games, could come here and see how these children live, I wonder if the next generation would be different?