“Buy my book… hey mister, buy my book!”
Chasing me up the stony dirt road was Ahn. Barefoot, torn trousers showing scarred knees, his older brother’s ripped and dirty hand-me-down shirt and a posse of sales assistants hot on his heels. We were by now desensitised to the obvious poverty and the cuteness of their grubby cheeky little faces. This scenario had played out a countless number of times this week and we had managed in most cases to avoid engagement. We continued towards Ta Prohm with eyes forward and unaltered pace.
Catching up, Ahn swung around the front of us blocking our forward path. Stepping off to our left we attempted to motion around him. Too late, a sales assistant had made her position, blocking our escape with outstretched arms, clutching at her variety of Angkor Wat fridge magnets. I pivoted and lurched towards our left catching the look of fear in a fellow traveller’s eyes, but as quick as it was open the escape route was closed down by two of Ahn’s 6 year old disciples, grappling at lukewarm cans of cola and sweaty plastic bottles of water. It was then we felt the wave of reinforcements cut off our retreat, their hands pawing at the back of our shorts and tugging on our backpacks. The jig was up, we were trapped.
Ahn our head captor was 10 years old and obviously small for his age. Without hesitation he repeated his mantra “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.” With precision he displayed his wares, from Pol Pot to the history of the Khmer empire. I wasn’t about to be bullied into buying souvenirs I didn’t want by a 10 year old and began politely negotiating our escape. But like a true professional, Ahn had already sized me up.
“What you name? You Australian?
“Yes, you know Australia?
“Melbourne or Sydney?
“Melbourne” I answered. Ahn grinned
“Australia, population 22 million, land area 7.6 million kilometres square, capital city Canberra, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd… Kevin 07.”
I had seen this building rapport routine before. The Marketing 101 lessons I had been subjected to in countries like Egypt usually consisted of a standard rehearsal of rudimentary cultural icons that for Australians ranged from the current Prime Minister to Red Kangaroos, Ned Kelly or Captain Cook. This 10 year old boy was next levelling it.
I looked at Ahn narrowing my eyes. He looked back at me, narrowing his. “What if I said I was from …. um, England?”
Ahn propped his eyes towards the sky as if in thought. “England, capital London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, area 130,000 kilometres squared…. “ I cut him off.
“Capital Madrid” Ahn replied almost immediately.
“Estoy apprendiendo Espanol por seis or siete somanas” I responded by testing out some of my Spanish on him.
“Muy Bien” he replied “Hablas bien espanol” This kid was incredible.
“Parlez-vous parles francais?”
“Oui, tu parles mal” he said informing me I obviously do not.
“Capital of Finland?”
“Helsinki” he shot back rising to my challenges.
A little girl who looked younger than the rest tugged at my shirt, clutching at a single fridge magnet. “If you don’t know the capital of Madagascar will you buy from me?”
I crouched down to her “Ha ha do you know the capital of Madagascar?”
“Yes it is Antananarivo, now you must buy from me” She stumbled across the sentence in the cutest way.
“Ok little girl, I’ll do you a deal, if you can tell me the capital of South Africa I will buy your magnet.” She growled at me, a long low guttural growl, stomped her foot and started to walk away muttering that I was a bad man.
“What is wrong with her?” I asked Ahn.
“You are trying to trick her and she didn’t like it.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“She knows South Africa has three capitals. Pretoria is the Executive capital, Bloemfontein is judicial and Cape Town legislative.”
I looked at Ahn in astonishment and called the little girl back. Ahn eventually released us from our captive state and allowed us to continue on our way. The sun beat down heavy on us as we continued walking the dusty trail. My backpack heavier with two bottles of water, a magnet from each of the children and of course Ahn’s book.
I passed Ahn an hour or two later, he was engaged in some banter with a couple of German tourists… in German of course. He looked over at me and gave me a wry smile. The young girl by his side tugging at the German’s shirt sleeve, asking “Do you know the capital of Madagascar?”