“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
Before I headed to Cambodia, the first third world country I would ever visit, I considered myself a well-traveled person. I knew that I hadn’t seen everything, but I wasn’t exactly expecting to be surprised.
Before I get any further into my delusion, let me tell you, I was so wrong.
My itinerary was set for Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and the most popular tourist destination, Siem Reap. This trip was the prerequisite to starting my job in the States as the Director of Events & Logistics at a humanitarian organization, People for Care & Learning. I would be seeing and experiencing all the different facets of the work that we did, so that I could have context for my job back in Tennessee.
The first few days consisted of navigating through the hustle and bustle of an Asian city (something I’ve come to love after living in China). We made our first stop at the genocide museum. This is where I heard about the Khmer Rouge and the dictator Pol Pot for the first time in my life. Just a few decades ago, nearly 50% of Cambodia’s population died in this evil genocide. That’s one of the worst mass murders to ever exist — in the entire World (Most research puts it between the 4th and 6th worst genocides of all time). That means that now, in 2014, nearly 60% of Cambodians are under the age of 26. That’s an unbelievably young country. While this tragedy from the 70’s brought much pain, it’s now a gold mine of opportunity. This entire country has the chance to change, to bring up leaders with a new mindset. In 20 minutes of touring this museum, that taught me everything my history lessons in school didn’t, I had a new set of lenses to view Cambodia through.
The following day, we traveled seven miles outside of the city to the village of Andong; one of the worst slums in Southeast Asia. This is home to PCL’s biggest project, Build A City. When maintaining poverty in this village was no longer enough, PCL decided to literally rebuild the entire city. Our team was going to be building one of the new houses. After working hard for hours… Okay… 20 minutes in the 113 degree weather — I needed a water break. I ventured over to the worst part of the village, the slum of the slum – if you will. As I jumped from rock to rock to avoid stepping the diseased grey water that they call their streets, I turned the corner and stopped dead in my tracks.
This is what I saw:
And that, that is when I had “my moment.” Two little barefooted girls wrapped their arms around me and laughed as I picked them up to hug them. After stealing as many smiles and as much laugher as I could, I knew I had to get back to work. They followed me as far as they could. The picture of them above is not in a play pen or a jungle gym — that’s their home; wooden slats pieced together, finished off by a straw roof and dirt (sometimes water) floor. This is when I fell in love with Cambodia. These two little girls embodied the beauty, sweet spirit and helplessness of this country. They aren’t helpless simply because they are from Cambodia (because I have seen/met many strong, resilient Cambodians), they are often helpless because they were born, without a choice, in a country where the poverty cycle eats you up and never gives you the chance to get out.
This moment, along with many other moments in Cambodia, burdened me with a sense of responsibility that I had never felt before. I wrote about this feeling of responsibility in another blog post,
“You (Well, I’d say 99.99% of you) are fortunate enough to rarely have to worry about your basic needs being met. You know you have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear and food to eat (and let’s be honest, probably a heck of a lot more than that). Now, we all know that we didn’t pick the life we live, so, for that same reason, shouldn’t we be responsible to help the people who didn’t pick their lives in the slums or their lives without freedom (etc.)? My personal opinion is yes, yes of course. And for those of you who may have differing opinions, we have serious beef.”
Cambodia changed me, and how I view the world. Mark Twain never wrote truer words than in my opening quote — So, if we sit here, comfortably in America, how will we have broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things? Simply put – we won’t. So whether it’s Cambodia or not — get out of your little corner. Get out and see someone who has a life they didn’t deserve, and let it change how you live yours.
This opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer, not of People for Care & Learning.