Plastic

Share on

2016 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST

Broken needles, conflagration, sunglasses, scavenging children, bleached tresses, Cambodia, vermin, ocean exposure, spontaneous games & rules of outreach.


Thida follows with measured steps, fifteen behind. It’s her first afternoon here, and she’s darker from the sun than all the other kids. Her teeth are pristine, square. Her sharp eyes—amber‐inflected brown—have bright whites. She sings to herself, talks a blue storm in Khmer and wears my fake Gucci glasses. She circles back to me and we slap our hands together in a game she makes up as we go. It makes no sense—left, right, right, center, right, center, left, left—and she sniggers with delight when I inevitably make mistakes. Her friend’s mother has streaked Thida’s shortish hair with bleaching agents, giving her the look of California highlights, a trend popular with parents who want their kids to be recognized as cool, which Thida is.

Thida is five years old and lives in the Sihanoukville dump in Cambodia. The reason her friend’s mother has done the hair bleaching is because Thida has no mother. Her father lives in garbage, drunk all day, kicking Thida when she wakes him to ask for food for her four‐year‐old brother, who huddles in a corner of the dump. There, he frees debris so he can bury himself in the ashy sand and cry, not bothering to swat at the flies collecting around his bony wrists and feet. There are better places, without rats or bugs, but those spots are on fire, with snakes of black dust coiling through the air. The stench of the dump is not only from rotting food, soiled clothes and chemical afterbirth, but also of the forever‐burning tires, which make an untenable condition into an unlivable one.

Yet Thida lives. She scavenges for items in the dump village. There is a chief of the village, and each family has responsibilities. Thida bears the burden of providing for her family. She’s done so for a long time; when asked, she can’t remember when she hasn’t. She’s never been to school and she’s resigned to the reality that she never will. Recently she’s been outfitted with rubber boots and no longer has to pick glass or broken needles from her yellow feet. The cracked soles of an old woman are the feet with which Thida takes her small steps.


There are better places, without rats or bugs, but those spots are on fire, with snakes of black dust coiling through the air.


The children barter garbage so that their parents may eat. Cambodians of all economic types greatly value their parents’ well being. If the parents eat, then the children do. The parents of the dump children are young always, and sometimes have HIV. They’re often alcoholics and frequently disappear. Or the parents themselves are second and third generation on the dump, a by-product of rote cycle, and can’t get themselves, let alone their families, out. Many don’t bother to try

The kids work days and nights. When asked what the best thing they found is, they move like a school of fish. Their eyes flash and they shout a resounding chorus of “Plastic!”

It’s got many uses and it can be traded for riel or food to pay for new materials for their homes.

When asked what the worst thing is, the kids scatter. After a time, one answers, looking away from the interpreter. He spears at a pile of branches with his wooden stick with the bent nail in it, his way of collecting.

“Dead baby.” He stabs at a new mound, long picked over by the time he is able to reach it.

Compass Rose

Today, we take them on a field trip to the ocean, where Thida and the other kids learn to swim in our arms. Stripped down to underwear or fully nude, there’s no shame among the intermingling; they lost any they had long ago. Though, as a teacher, I still cover everything up. I’m weaker than ever, but I carry as many kids as I can. Their little hands claw into my arms and some accidentally kick me in the stomach. Lately, I fantasize more about sleeping than sex and drugs combined.

“Aye!” The kids squeal when their feet hit the cold ocean. The burnt-rubber smell from the dump leaves their skin. Some whose skin was very dark in the morning is lighter now—more attractive, according to Cambodian beauty standards, where those who must be outside in most societies protect their skin with gloves, turtlenecks and long pants. With the dump washed away, the children’s initial shyness rinses off too. They play; they sneak up on the volunteers and wrap around adult legs, dragging us down one by one. They take turns with water goggles, staring and sighing at them, undone by the most magic piece of plastic they’ve met yet.

When it’s Thida’s turn, she’s considerate, letting others stand close as she puts her protected eyes in the water. Once she feels her head get wet, she shrieks. No one from the dump has ever seen the ocean before, including Thida. Today is the day they’re not in fire.


Recently she’s been outfitted with rubber boots and no longer has to pick glass or broken needles from her yellow feet. The cracked soles of an old woman are the feet with which Thida takes her small steps.


The aim of the program is to increase the frequency of the dump kids’ visits to six a week, but for now it’s the first weekly. After the swim, back at the center, they’re fed more rice than they’ve seen in a month. They don’t know from bathrooms, and after showers they stand naked in a crooked line as we dry them. We wrap them in fluffy red towels and comb lice from their hair. The regular beach kids hang back, taking turns hoarding toys in a preemptive strike.

I take a half hour with one girl’s cascade of hair, a blissed-out grin on her face as I pull the tangles out. I hold a section with three fingers away from her scalp so that when I attack the knots she won’t feel the rip. The first time I do it she looks at me in quiet shock. She must not be used to getting her hair brushed without pain. She cocks her head and winks at the other girls, the beach girls, watching her. When I’m done, she bows. I tentatively bow back and she runs away.

Soon, Thida is again slapping at me to borrow my sunglasses while we play rounds of her nonsensical game. It’s another fiery day, and the humidity makes us damp even before we do this for twenty minutes, me losing each time.

During the last one, miraculously, I get the sequence right.

“Aye! Aye!” Thida jumps for us both. I lean forward and make up a chant of my own.

Thida’s the best

Thida won’t stop

Thida always wins

’Cause Thida’s on top!

I repeat it eleven times. By the end, Thida is shouting along with me, matching the sounds, and jumping higher.

“You win! What does Thida win?”

She stretches her smile wide; her teeth are a dentist’s dream, better than any of the beach kids by far. At the dump, Thida makes sure to always brush her teeth. She throws her arms around my head and I bend to her, a flower to the sun. She rips the glasses off my head and puts them on her little face again.

“Fashion model!” I say. “Walk the runway.”

She juts a hip out and lopes forward, pointing the fingers on both hands and waving her arms back and forth. She sashays and then takes another lap around the picnic tables while the other volunteers and I clean up the last of the lunch dishes.


They take turns with water goggles, staring and sighing at them, undone by the most magic piece of plastic they’ve met yet.


Thida runs to show the other kids the glasses. One tries them on and Thida snatches them away. These are not like the goggles; Thida will not share these even for a minute. I should get another pair from the street vendor. This one is surely gone. I selected them a week earlier from a hanging tray around a vendor’s neck. He promised they were the best fake Gucci ever made. I inspected them, knowing what I knew from years of taking care of my mentor Anna’s designer glasses, studying the sculpted logos as I cleaned or repaired them. Though Anna thought Gucci ugly and ostentatious, she had a large collection of dark Armani lenses. She wore them constantly the last days when I was her assistant at the magazine. I can still see her sunglassed face, the alien lenses floating above, her head a balloon and her body invisible, approaching my desk and rapping her thin knuckles and gold ring on the handle of my telephone.

“We’re going to lunch,” she’d announced.

We walked the two blocks to Grand Central in silence save for the tapping of our shoes. It was then that I was certain I was being given the axe, and Anna feared so much for my emotional outburst that she intended to do it at the train station— ostensibly so I could drag my sorry ass to my parents’ home on the Metro-North line back to Southeast. Last stop on the train and the exact way I’d come in. Above, painted on the enormous blue-green ceiling of the station, was a map of constellations. The stars linking them were made of recessed halogen bulbs, some dimmer than others.

After I ordered the chicken salad and she ordered nothing, I tore the bread to pieces before eating it entirely. I drank my water and waited for the ice inside of the glass to melt in order to drink that. She didn’t sip hers.

When she took off her glasses, her eyes were small, without makeup and pink like a rabbit’s. My fear fell away. Surely she wouldn’t be crying if she were firing me. This was something worse.

“You’re firing me,” I said anyway, and she smiled before her face rumpled again. She shook her hair a few degrees. It was this movement, imperceptible to others, that showed me. Between the two of us leaving, it wouldn’t be me. Our journey together ended that day. Only a year later, she had taken her own life and I had moved to Cambodia.


“You have no idea what they’ll do to each other outside of here to get those. They’ll beat each other up; they’ll rob one another as they sleep. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. And I bloody hope you never have to.”


Behind me, Effie laughs her high laugh. “Right-o, Hillary, make sure you get those back.”

“Can’t she have them?”

Effie lowers a stack of plates. “Come on, Hillary. You know the answer to this. No gifts.”

“But it’s nothing.” I motion to Thida, at the far corner of the compound, holding the glasses over her eyes in both hands.

“Are you planning to give everyone a pair of glasses?”

“Well.”

“And once you buy them for everyone here, you’ll buy them for the rest on the street so when they’re out, it’s all equal?”

“I’m not sure.”

Effie lifts a hand to her temple as if a migraine’s coming on. “You have no idea what they’ll do to each other outside of here to get those. They’ll beat each other up; they’ll rob one another as they sleep. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. And I bloody hope you never have to.”

“But.”

Effie marches over to the crowd and opens her hand to Thida. Thida shoots a look at me and I raise my shoulders in a theatrical shrug as if to indicate, Effie’s the boss.

Thida slowly hands the glasses to Effie and Effie marches them back to me. “Don’t bring them out next week.”

“Where are you next week?”

“Back to Nepal.”

“Did you have a chance to look at my outline?” I think of the books I printed, in her trash. A last grab at an alternate reality I wish were true.

“Not yet. It’s too busy for that. Now put these in your bag, please.”

I take the glasses into the office and then mop the floor. Though I can’t see her, to my left I hear Thida repeating the sounds I taught her. The best. Thida’s on top. By the time I’m done, all the kids have left the grounds and there is no one to play with.

On the walk home, my feet slap the asphalt and I slip the glasses from my bag and inspect them. The same amber as Thida’s eyes—that’s why they look so great on her little face. That and the blonde highlights.

A pickup truck with fifteen people in the bed speeds up on the road and passes me in a rush of dust and screeching horn. Startled, I drop the glasses into the black road, where a tuk-tuk and two motos run them over in quick succession. I hear it before I see it; the cheap plastic snaps clean through. I take a step toward them when another tuk-tuk lurches past, popping the right lens into the air, scattering the glasses, no good to anyone now. They settle in with the other trash on the street and I walk home.


Hillary Kaylor has written for Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine and New York Magazine and has been published on sites such as The Huffington Post, Gawker and MSN. She is a finalist for Glimmer Train’s “Best Start” award and a two-time finalist for the UCLA James Kirkwood Creative Writing Award. “Plastic” is a non-fiction essay from her upcoming travel memoir about Cambodia called Things Not Meant for You. She can be reached at hillaryckaylor@gmail.com.

Lead image: Matt Hoffman

Share on

Submit a comment