Wednesday, May 18, 2005

THE PEPSI GIRLS

I walked by them again yesterday -- the Pepsi Girls.

I call them that because they are the ones who line the streets at almost each and every corner, glumly sitting before an array of Pepsi and 7-Up bottles filled with what is obviously not any kind of soda known to man. Said substance is yellow and greasy and the glass from the bottles often catches the glare of the midday sun, snatches it, giving both the liquid inside and the bottles themselves a vivid, almost pristine glow.

(Notice I said 'soda' a few sentences back. Canadians NEVER say soda; only Americans do. Canadians just say 'pop'. And why is that? In the fifties, it was called 'soda pop', right? So why did the Yanks grab the 'soda' and the Canucks grab the 'pop'? Who decides these kind of linguistic rights? I'm trying to a be man of the people, all people, so I'm including both phrases here.)

No, gasoline is what's in the bottles. These little make-shift stands are where the motodops stop to fill up their bikes. (There are gas stations in Phnom Penh, yes, but they're usually for the big cars driven by the corrupt government officials.)

And usually, almost always, it's the girls doing the selling -- young girls, teenage girls, sitting under the hot Cambodian sun hour after hour, day after day, their heads wrapped in kromas to keep out the sun. (Does that actually work?)

I don't drive a moto. If I need to get somewhere, I just hold up my hand and a moto will stop and take me for a ride. (Both literally, and, sometimes, monetarily, too.) There's no reason on earth for me to buy gasoline from them.

And yet, sometimes I feel like giving them money. The Pepsi girls. Why shouldn't I? I sometimes give money to homeless people, beggars, wandering children. Why shouldn't I give a little bit of cash to these young ladies that are wasting their teenage years trying to support their families?

Living in a country like Cambodia is a test of one's altruism. A test of one's sanity, too. You can't give to everyone, so, if you are inclined to give, you have to choose. And even this process of deliberation, this conscious decision to give to person A but not to person B, to judge who is the poorer, the weakest, the neediest, this whole process sickens me, in some ways, gnaws away at my sense of self. These girls need an education; they need a future. They do not need a few stray dollars from a guilt-ridden westerner.

It is guilt that compels us, isn't it? Whether it's money for the tsunami-victims, or money for the Pepsi girls, it's all wrapped up in a big-red ribbon of guilt. I have what they do not; I am full while they are empty. This is not right, so I must give.

I will see the Pepsi Girls again. (I see them every day.) They're not looking for money from me; I don't have a bike, or a car, or any need for a bottle of gasoline, so their all-too-freuent glares at me are stares that they would give any foreigner. They are not looking for hand-outs.

But still, the urge. To prove that I'm a good person. To prove that I'm a caring person. To prove that I will give while others do not.

A human urge, yes, but a selfish one?

I'm not sure.

But I'm not sure that it matters, either.

Whether I give or not, whether my coin greases their palms or not, the Pepsi Girls will still be crouched on their plastic stools tomorrow, or the day after that, or a week from now, or a decade from now.

Either them, or their younger sisters.

Or, in time, their daughters.

The only real difference will be the shape and colour of the Pepsi logo gracing each and every bottle.

A trivial but strangely heartbreaking thought:

Pepsi's logo doesn't change all that often -- only once every twenty, thirty years, right?

Right now, at this very instant, for reasons I can't quite articulate but that seem perfectly natural and appropriate (to me), that little fact saddens me.

It saddens me a lot.

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