It was 2003. I was backpacking around Cambodia with three changes of clothes and two pairs of Reef flip-flops inside my REI pack when I first saw it. It was subtle, accepted. I didn’t realize I’d walked into the hornet’s nest, because the hornet’s nest was quiet, polite, and air conditioned.
Apple’s iPhone was first released in 2007, so this was about four years shy of any sort of “smart phone.” To let my parents, back home in Los Angeles, know I was still alive, I would occasionally find an internet cafe, pre-pay for however many minutes I thought it might take to draft an AOL email or two, and click send. My estimations would then fly out of the window as soon as I clicked send and heard that dreadful dial-up screeching sound.
I was traveling with my friend Izzy. We met playing volleyball as undergrads. She was an outside hitter with an arm like a cannon, and I was a shrimpy five foot six inch setter who would put the ball wherever she wanted, so of course we became the best of friends. Izzy grew up in Boulder, Colorado and had traveled a lot more than I had. When she was just seven years old, her parents packed up her and her five siblings, rented an RV, and drove across Europe, homeschooling as they went.
To prepare for our “round the world” adventure (as we liked to call it), we both worked as much as we could. As an undergrad, Izzy was an International Business and Spanish double major, with her sights set on the coffee industry. So she scored a job having something to do with coffee. I was a political science and history double major with a slightly more obscure future, so I was working in a nightclub on the weekends and at REI in Manhattan Beach, selling kayaks, mountain bikes, and synthetic wool socks.
Regardless, neither of us could sell enough raw coffee beans or kayaks to pay for the seven flights, nightly accommodation, daily food (grocery store, not restaurant) or occasional activity.
So, we went with Plan B: ask everybody we know if they know anybody in New Zealand, Australia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan or Israel who might want to take in two rambunctious college grads for a night or two or month.
My family was a bust. Turns out Hibards keep to themselves. But Izzy’s family, probably because of that European RV trip back in the day, seemed to know somebody e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. They even knew a former SWAT guy who had moved with his wife and family from the States to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Seriously. What are the chances of that?
Well, for Izzy, pretty high, because that’s exactly who we stayed with. Apparently, this American family lived in a “good” neighborhood. A number of their neighbors were corrupt government politicians and administrators actively robbing the country blind (not that there was much to take from after Pol Pot), which afforded them enough money to live in this “good” area.
Cambodian definition of a “good” neighborhood: red, clay, dirt road with monsoon-rain carved ruts large enough to drive a “moto” through; fifteen foot cinderblock wall surrounding the property (no rebar); circular razor wire strung atop the cinderblock wall, 24/7 security.
Besides the washed out dirt road, I felt totally comfortable with the compound-like housing situation because it was nearly identical to what we had at my family’s business in South Central Los Angeles (zip code 90002, south of Manchester, 50 feet east of the never safe, never clean Blue Line). My grandfather had started a small manufacturing company in 1949, after he returned from World War II, and by the time I came around, that same little business was smack dab in the middle of the Bloods, the Crips, and two Mexican gangs. We had gangs on all four sides of us. And if I’ve learned anything it’s this: folks don’t build cinderblock walls and string razor wire unless it’s needed.
Well, thanks to the SWAT Team family, Izzy and I scored a free place to crash in Cambodia. I wanted to go to Cambodia for the same reason I went to Dachau, Germany and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in Poland. Adolph Hitler is to Europe as Pol Pot is to Cambodia. Both were energetic Marxist-Leninist Communists.
We spent days walking silently around the “killing fields,” where millions of people were executed by Cambodia’s Communist Party, the Khmer Rouge, and their bodies dumped in mass graves. I remember feeling as though I was going to throw up the entire time. So many pictures, so many victims, so many torture devices, so many graves, so many bodies.
There I was, in 2003, looking at what had happened only a few years before I was born. I knew then socialism and communism were bad news.
One day, Izzy and I left the SWAT Team family’s house in search of an internet cafe. I supposed we needed a break from staring at evil all day every day and needed to process everything by emailing home. We found an internet cafe within walking distance near a road called Russian or Russian Street or something like that. It had enormous old school computers with dial-up internet, wobbly plastic chairs, cheap souveniers (handmade wallets and coin purses), and “air con.”
But that was all a front.
You see, each of those old school computers had a number of pictures of little boys and little girls on them. Something seemed odd. I just wanted to send an AOL email to my parents…so why are there a bunch of pictures of little kids on the desktop of every single computer here? The little girls had a ton of makeup on and were dressed sexy. The boys were dressed up and posed as well. At first I chalked it up to culture. Maybe Cambodians are just fancy? Maybe the kids’ parents owned this place and they were just really proud parents?
Each of those kids were for sale.
Or rent. Or lease. Or whatever you want to call it. Sex slaves. Sex slavery. Human trafficking before anybody was even using the phrase “human trafficking.” The “internet cafe” was a front for “sex tourism.” Over the course of the time I spent in Cambodia, here’s a rough profile of the type of person I observed buying sex with Cambodian kids:
- American men (pedophiles)
- white men
- fat men
- disheveled appearance, sloppy
- poor social skills
It’s important to remember I was 23 years old at the time. I had barely graduated from college. And nobody pulled me off to the side to give me a Sex Slavery 101 Crash Course before I headed off to LAX International Airport to start my World Tour with Izzy from Colorado. This was a sucker punch in the face.
All these years later, even now as I type, I feel like throwing up. It sickens me every single time I think about what I saw. Still. To this very day.
Izzy and I were enjoying lunch at an outdoor cafe in Phnom Penh one day, grossly entertained by nasty catfish jumping out of the brown river water, when the conversation at the table next to us caused us to go silent. Two men (insert pedophile profile listed above), with American accents, were going on and on and on, in great detail, about the sexual experience they had just had. In broad daylight. In the middle of the day. With full voices. Not whispering. They were not ashamed or embarrassed. These socially inept American pedophiles were bragging about what they had just done.
My mouth hung open as the blood drained out of my face and I starred at Izzy. I froze. I was in shock. I was stunned. I was disgusted. I was pissed. I was angry. And why did they have to be from MY country? Why did they have to have MY accent. Those pedophiles were MY fellow Americans.
My time in Cambodia seared my soul.
I eventually returned to the States (with dreadlocks…turns out backpacking can be a bit rough on the appearance) and promised myself I would never forget the faces of the little boys and little girls on the desktop computers at that “internet cafe.” I promised myself I would never let the memory of what I witnessed and all I heard in Cambodia fade away.
No matter how vile, how evil, how horrific, how disgusting, how heartbreaking the road, with a clenched jaw and fire in my belly, I will walk it.
I will fight for justice. I will choose to love. I will be kind. I will extend forgiveness. I will ask for forgiveness. I will not stay home, clicking through channel after channel of mindlessness. And I will not be silent.
As a result, I have found myself in places I didn’t even know existed. I’d been an athlete since I was 4 years old. I was a four-sport athlete in high school. I was a two-sport athlete in college. I didn’t exactly have a lot of idle time on my hands, and certainly didn’t know anything about modern day human trafficking or sex slavery.
I’ve been inside strip clubs, sex clubs, S&M dungeons, brothels, porn conventions, I hang out with prostitutes, and one of my best friends is an ex porn star. And more times than I can count, people ask me “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
I can’t help but smile. “I’m keeping my promise,” I reply.