The girl with the pearl

Naked children squeal gleefully, splashing with delighted grins as they run towards us across the muddy waters of the early morning Mekong river. We wave and are rewarded with a dozen high fives.

We chug past wooden stilt dwellings with straw rooves and trimmed branches neatly stacked on the ground alongside, ready to be used as firewood. A father and son squat on flat rocks at the water’s edge, hauling in their enormous fishing net suspended between two long bamboo poles. They’re struggling, but there’s no catch yet.

Daily life goes busily on along the banks as the water flows relentlessly towards the South China sea. Our boatman slows the engine to a rhythmic thud, and steers us towards a rickety bamboo jetty. As I alight unsteadily, I feel a tap on my bare calves, and am about to swat what I think is a mosquito when my eyes open wide: a tiny girl is holding out her clutched hand to me. She turns her wrist and opens her fingers. A tiny pearl nestles in her palm. She wants to share her treasure with me, but I can tell from her expression that I can look but not touch: she wags her finger as she holds her prize close to her chest, and her big brown eyes glitter with pride in the late morning sun. She puts her forefinger to her lips; we have a secret, she and I, and I am enthralled beyond measure by this innocent gesture of trust.

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