Pen Vendor

Phnom Penh
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
October 24, 2008

Rain started pouring down as the bus pulled into the city. There was no depot as such: passengers were let out next to stalls outside the central marketplace.

I darted through traffic to try to find somewhere to stay dry. I ducked into the first business I reached. Looking around I found myself inside a restaurant with signs in both Chinese and Khmer. It was mid-afternoon; I had yet to take lunch. This place would be as good as any to wait the rain out.

Not long after my order arrived, the rain tapered off. Around the same time, I noticed a woman outside the restaurant. She was offering something to the people sitting at tables beneath the awning. From the distance I couldn't be sure, but it looked like she was selling pens.

I don't know why--I didn't need a pen--but I immediately hoped that she would enter the restaurant and come my way.

I don't usually have a soft spot for beggars or hawkers--either at home or on the road. I had just spent my past days touring the temples of Angkor where I refused dozens of persistent offers. Around the temples, vendors--mostly young girls--hounded any tourist they could to buy something. The first asking price for scarves was one U.S. dollar. Sets of postcards went at 10 for a buck. I refused them all. Sometimes I carried the conversation on politely. Sometimes I just remained silent, ignoring the child, knowing that they would quickly chase after whoever came along next. Not that they couldn't use the money. Not that I couldn't send postcards.

I'm not sure why I felt compelled to buy this time.

"Come this way," I beckoned the pen vendor over mentally.

When it was still unclear whether she was going to step inside the restaurant I realized how focused I was. More mental commands came rapidly: "Come over here. No, don't head down the street! You'll make a sale with me."

The pen vendor eventually did wander into the restaurant though didn't look my way. There was no clear path through from her side of the restaurant to the other. Several tables divided where I sat from where she stood.

She repeatedly held out her boxes, now offering them to the restaurant workers. They didn't seem bothered by her hawking her wares inside their place of business. Neither did they express any interest in buying a pen themselves.

Eventually she did make her way through the chairs and tables to where I sat. From that first, distant glance I suspected these were common pens from China. Seeing them up-close confirmed my hunch. I was hoping that she might have some fountain pens; I could carve the nib into a shape suitable for calligraphy.

There were no fountain pens. I settled on a squat ball-point which I reasoned might come in handy when filling out forms at border crossings and when checking into hotels. She asked twice the price any shop back in China would. I didn't quibble, I just paid her what she asked.

I'm still reflecting on why I so intently wanted to buy a pen from this woman. So often while on the road I'm in the opposite situation, being persistently peddled things I don't want (e.g. scarves and postcards.)

Maybe it was a reaction to to the aggressive souvenir sellers around Angkor: supporting a street vendor who wasn't targeting foreigners. Maybe it was because what I've seen of the country this past week has opened my eyes to how desperately poor the people of Cambodia are. Maybe it was just on account of the heavy rainfall.

Whatever my rationale, I now have a new ball-point pen and she now has one U.S. dollar.