A short story dedicated to a woman whose name I know not, but whose courage and spirit changed my life forever It was the 12th of May 2015, the beginning of the rainy season in Cambodia. I considered myself an exceedingly lucky person. I was working my way around the globe, one country at a time with little direction. You see, I floated through life being guided by signs, and these signs made most of my decisions for me. All I had to do was be optimistic, open minded, active and alert.
And so it was with great thanks to these meaningful coincidences that I found myself in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. I was staying at a charming little guesthouse down by the beach called The Gypsies. The Gypsies had a terrace on the first floor which overlooked the street below; it was an area where tuk tuk drivers parked and waited to attract customers. It was also the entrance to the beach and to the nightlife, which made it a very busy location. It was the perfect spot for my favorite hobby, people watching.
I had just checked into the guesthouse and was warned by the delightful owners that heavy rains were expected for the next three days. Luckily, I was used to a heavy shower in the late afternoon; it had become as regular as clockwork over the past few weeks. With this in mind, I didn’t plan anything. I had enjoyed a rewarding yet exhausting month of volunteer work before arriving in Sihanoukville, and I saw this as a good opportunity to relax and reboot. It would be perfect — three gorgeous days of resting, reading and listening to the rain.
The next day I woke early and went for a walk to the beach. On my way I passed a petite lady collecting recyclable rubbish off the street. She was picking up discarded plastic bottles and drink cans, and placing them in a large carrier bag. She was no more than five feet tall and very thin. From a distance she almost looked child-like but from her face I could see she was aged. Her hair was wrapped up on her head, and she wore a floor-length stripy dress. It is common in this country for poor people to collect street litter. They take it to a recycling yard where they can weigh it and sell it. They receive a pittance for their work, but still it is enough to buy a bowl of rice.
After a stroll along Serenity beach, I’d noticed angry black clouds making there way over toward the area. I turned around and made my way back to The Gypsies. It was almost time to sit and watch the torrential rain storm on the terrace as I sipped a cappuccino— my idea of heaven.
As I turned off the beach and onto the street, I noticed the lady in the stripy dress again. She was on a traffic island in the middle of the street which was situated just outside of The Gypsies. She had two huge bags filled with recyclables, and was covering them with a piece of tarpaulin. Then I noticed she had a second piece of tarpaulin and was using it to cover a carrier bag which looked like it had clothes in it. She also had a bag with books, which she kept by her side.
I deeply admired this lady for both her determination and pride in her work. She had chosen one of the busiest areas to collect litter and she was there hard at work each morning. This lady collected the litter left by the party goers from the night before. I noticed she even had a sweeping brush and was hiding that under the cover too. I was moved by her care and regard for the things around her, despite the fact that she had so little. I had no idea of just how much time she actually spent on the concrete island in the middle of the street.
Another aspect of this individual’s life that fascinates me is that she collects other people’s rubbish to survive. She needs our “junk” to swap for pennies to be able to buy food. These bottles and cans are tossed aside by thousands of people everyday, useless waste thrown into the gutters. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.
That night, I decided I’d go out in the morning to collect trash for her. I would take a bin liner with me and collect all the trash I saw. That would be a huge help to her.
The next morning, I set off. Two hours later I returned with a full bag. The lady in the stripy dress was sitting on the island. I handed her my bin liner of recyclables. Her face lit up with the deepest gratitude. We were unable to converse with words, but this lady’s warm smile said it all. She held her hands in a prayer like position and bowed her head, I mirrored the same respectful gesture back to her, walked away, smiling both inside and out.
And so, like the day before, the black storm clouds approached. I headed for my favourite spot on the terrace. When the waitress came over, I asked about the lady in the stripy dress — how long she had been working from that spot and how late she stays. The waitress gave an answer I wasn’t expecting… “The lady in the stripy dress lives there, you will see her morning, noon and night because that is her home. She sleeps under that huge piece of tarpaulin. At sunrise, she ties the tarpaulin to the metal post in the middle of the island to block out the sunlight. She lays behind it to sleep when the sun is too bright and uses the same piece of tarpaulin to keep her belongings dry when it rains. She has a carrier bag containing stripy dresses and changes her dress each day. She cleans up the area when the tuk tuk drivers leave with her sweeping brush. She has no family, her whole life is there in the middle of the street.”
I sat stunned as I watched over the street for a while. Her whole world was right there in the middle of the road. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this lady was homeless yet she owned a sweeping brush. Once again, my eyes were fixed upon the lady in the stripey dress. She was covering her belongings, preparing for the downfall. She hadn’t quite finished covering them up as the rains began. She laughed with a mixture of panic and excitement much like a child as the rain splashed down on her tiny back. She grabbed her little bag of books and ran to a shelter on the opposite side of the road, smiling at the people passing by, and thrilled by the rain. She laughed as tourists were drenched by the rain as they ran past her.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain”. She had learned to dance in the rain, despite the hardships life had dealt her.
The lady took a crate from the sidewalk and used it as a seat. For the next few hours she sat reading. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I have no idea what she was reading but she smiled and laughed her way through the book. It was marvellous, this lady epitomised the strength of the human spirit. The lady in the stripy dress is a shining example to us all.