One year forward

I am sitting, as I do every once in a while, reading back through my blog and poring over countless numbers of photos from Cambodia. It’s super easy to get lost in my thoughts, taking a few minutes to place myself in reality and understand that all this time has passed since then.

Except this time it’s a little more special; it’s been one exact year since we returned home in fact. An entire year since we walked out on our lives and had to focus on rebuilding our old ones back home. A year since tuk tuks were our form of daily transport and we ate rice three times a day. A year since we have seen the children.

The passage of time has been a huge vortex. In some ways, it feels like only yesterday that Lexi and I  were crying our eyes out as the plane landed back in England (and as Kian pretended not to be associated with us). The tangibility of sitting speechless and shaking in a Costa Coffee on the journey back home from Heathrow feels like a recent memory, having no real clue about what was happening or what was about to happen.

Then again, Cambodia feels impossibly far away (in no way helped by the fact that the huge world map in my bedroom illustrates the physical enormity of it’s distance). We are no longer there. People move on. The children have, our Cambodian friends have, and so have we. Sometimes I completely forget about details of our year until Lexi reminds me. I think how on earth could I have forgotten one child’s name, when before we were so familiar with every intricacy of their personality.

It was two years ago that we set out on this journey, three if you count the initial journeys up to that little Scottish Island which started everything off. Rarely do I now get that harmless but excruciating question: ‘How was Cambodia?’. For me, the only way that the perpetual passing of time and this painful distance can be spun into a positive is that in no way do I feel I have lost the person I became during that year. This constant fear which has played out in the back of my mind since returning has never materialised. I understand that to many this might seem silly; how on earth can an experience like this be forgotten? But with the onset of new challenges, and the process of slowly taking things like hot showers and Topshop for granted, I have sometimes worried about losing my way.

Certain things have helped me maintain my bearings. Firstly, and most importantly, have been the people around me. Lexi and I still come as a pair and I don’t think we will ever be without each other. To be able to vicariously relive our Cambodia experiences through each other, but also share our ongoing post-Cambodia lives, has made adapting to being home much easier than I could ever imagine.

I am beholden to my family and friends that have been there for me when I have cried in the pub because I have forgotten how to hold a social conversation which doesn’t mention the word ‘Cambodia’, or have hugged me when I have those pretentious ‘gap yah’ wobbles where I complain about my spending of money or my life being too hedonistic. Aware that all of this makes me sound completely selfish, I must say that I am so grateful to all of these people for accommodating me back into their lives. A year is a long time to be away, and it was a long and hard lesson to learn that a lot has gone on without you.

I think University was the perfectly logical next step, acting as wonderful ground for me to continue to develop and enjoy my independence. Studying Social Policy is a joy, and means that I can continue to engage with the real world. It has taught me that I can never be still and should always be aware of the inequalities that disadvantage so many people. In Leeds I have made strong friendships, people who are like minded and people who are different to me. But for the first time in my life I feel in awe of my friends; I am surrounded by so many people who I can be completely myself with, so many good people doing good things.

Sure, there have been difficulties in getting to where I am now. It was hard when people’s eyes would start to glaze over at the mention of Cambodia. My year was suddenly reduced to funny anecdotes to bring up in conversation. After a year of enormous satisfaction, seeing the children make progress every day, it is difficult when days are mundane, and the most productive thing I do is a shop at Morrisons. But this is real life now, un-ending time stretching out before me as opposed to neatly compartmentalised months with a clear ending date. It seems true what people say about the best things  happening in time periods that were destined to end. The only thing I can do is accept my future whole-heartedly, appreciating my fortune and continuing to take a little bit of Cambodia with me every day.

 

Chum Reap Lear

Travelling is officially over. In a blurry couple of weeks, we have lugged our rucksacks through seven new cities, several dismal dorm rooms, and countless methods of transport.

Now we’re in Cambodia, and we’ve made it to the point where we can count the days left of our gap year on one hand. My world is jumbled up and surreal and terrifying. The only thing I’m sure of is that I’m ready to go home.

Chiang Mai

In a completely different universe to the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, the North was a little wonder. Chiang mai was such a gem of a city. It is cool (literally cool, I had to buy a coat) and littered with mist-shrouded mountains. In comparison to Vietnam, the people were warm and our time was relatively hassle-free.

Lexi and I were enthralled by the huge and sprawling Sunday walking street market. We began a love affair with Thai food and in a cooking course I made a Panang Curry which was hands down the best thing I’ve ever eaten. We visited an elephant jungle sanctuary which was an experience most can only dream about. To spend a whole day patting, feeding, swimming with, chasing and chucking mud on a bunch of energetic and happy elephants was unreal. Elephants are such worthy creatures and I left them feeling ridiculously lucky.

Pai

We spend a weekend venturing out to a small town called Pai with Charlotte and Esme. The journey to this little hippie gathering in the jungle was pretty horrendous; hair-pin curves in the road and a wildly travel sick child on our bus was not the best combination. Pai was stunning and resonated more with the Swiss alps than Asia. We did some outdoorsy stuff and spontaneously hiked in a canyon, climbed a dangerously slippy waterfall, and went to a natural hot springs pool.

Travelling was a good way for me to see how radically different Cambodia’s neighbouring countries are in every way possible. We didn’t waste any time and tried to make the most out of everything thrown at us. But if anything, having time away has made my love of Cambodia burn even stronger. To hear people speak Khmer on our plane from Bangkok was amazing, and already, my mouth aches from smiling since being here. It’s going to be hard to leave and say yet another set of goodbyes.

This year has been tough and has stretched myself and Lexi to extremes. It’s also been hugely fulfilling. It sounds clichéd but the past year has helped me not only to find my feet, but also to be sure of the ground beneath me. I can go home feeling more comfortable with who I am and the choices that I make. I understand now the freedom that comes with being privileged, so when I am England I will carry with me an awareness of how lucky I am and the responsibility to be wise and humble. Firstly, I couldn’t have done it without my beautiful and headstrong best friend. Lexi and I will always have this shared experience to look back on. But I also couldn’t have done it without everyone who donated, helped me with fundraising, wrote to me throughout the year and those who have given so much support and love. I am eternally grateful. So that is all from this blog for now, and I really do appreciate everybody that has been reading it and keeping up with my time in Cambodia.

Chum Reap Lear!

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Vietnam

Today is our last day in Vietnam and we are half way through travelling. Two more weeks of exploring and eating and laughing and living out of a rucksack before going home to England, and life couldn’t feel more surreal…

Ho Chi Minh City

This was mine and Lexi’s first stop in Vietnam, immediately indicating that this intoxicating and strange country couldn’t be more different to Cambodia. For us, Vietnam has a lot to live up to. We are Cambodia devotees and at any mention of it, our ears prick up and hearts pang. For the record, I did try to come here with an open mind, but I also had reservations. I wondered how a richer and more developed country could maintain the respect and friendliness that makes Cambodia so special (and the best).

As our bus pulled into HCMC, the first thing we laid eyes upon was a headless dog being spit roasted on the street. The big city is crazy, there are millions and millions of people that you can’t escape from wherever you go. But despite the chaos, we did some people watching and slowly started to see that everyone is just normal and going about their business. Ho Chi Minh is home to ambitious and fashionable young people, happy families with adorable babies, toothless and frustrated old women. After seeing this, I began to embrace rather than grit my teeth at what I had perceived as the rude or pushy traits of the Vietnamese people.

So Lexi and me began to explore this completely new world, being proud that we view travelling as an opportunity to make the absolute most out of every day. We went up a skyscraper to see the intense city from above, visited the war museum to try to understand the hugely confusing and futile fighting that happened in Vietnam before, and spent time enjoying the green parks (something we never had in Cambodia). We ate Pho, marvelled at incense filled Taoist temples and annoyed several moto drivers with our flailing attempts at crossing roads. I felt inept because we were outside of our Cambodian comfort zone (I suck at Vietnamese and can’t get my head around using the Dong currency).

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Nha Trang

We then got the train to Nha Trang, a town about 6 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. The train took us through lush green fields and mountains, which is a massive visual change from the dusty orange of rural Cambodia. I sadly had to sit next to Lexi, who was hyperventilating throughout the entire journey because of the precarious rocking of the ‘death train’ (I didn’t notice).

There is really only one thing to do in Nha Trang, and I had no complaints. We lay on the hot beach all day, occasionally moving to eat or turn over in the sun. Here it felt that we were on holiday for the first time, the children another chapter in our lives, and we both started to unwind.

From Nha Trang we got the hellish sleeper bus to Hoi An, which is a fair distance going upwards into Vietnam. I woke up several times in a panic as the bus veered round steep cliff faces giving a glimpse of imminent death in the sea below. One reason that I have been loving travelling is that after a few days we move onto the next place. After lingering (obviously in a good way) in one place for the whole year, it’s refreshing to change scenery.

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Hoi An

I genuinely couldn’t believe it when I saw the streets of Hoi An for the first time. Losing my bearings in rows of stunning buildings and under magical lanterns became such a beautiful thing to do. The next best thing to happen to us was two becoming four, when we saw the lovely faces of our friends Charlotte and Esme again as they finished work at their project in Cambodia soon after us.

There are a lack of attractions in Hoi An, but having nothing to do was a blessing. It gave us the chance to laze about and wander around the town that was pretty much made for Instagram. We rode bikes around, spent hours having conversations over long lunches and top class Vietnamese coffee (it was a dream), and ended up all four of us in the basket boat of an old man singing national anthems on the river.

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Hue

It’s not really worth mentioning Hue and we were thankful that it was just an overnight stop off on our journey to North Vietnam. We felt mislead when we discovered that the city was more of a mismatch of average restaurants and dismal streets rather than a must-see highlight. I dragged everyone around the world heritage imperial city, but it was really a load of run down ruins.

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Hanoi

So Lexi, Charlotte, Esme and me got ourselves to Hue train station. Little did we realise what we’d got ourselves in for as we boarded the sleeper train to Hanoi for the painful fourteen hour journey. With stiff backs and sleepy eyes we were thrown into Hanoi. After seeing so many Vietnamese towns in quick succession, the capital seemed characterless and a bit similar to the moto chaos and crammed shops of Ho Chi Minh. The best thing we did here was our boat ride around Halong Bay. Google it if you want to. The rocky islands covered in jurrassic jungle are unreal, with the mist making everything so dramatic and peaceful in a sinister way.

Vietnam has been an entirely new world, and although it’s been so interesting to learn about, it’s also been a stressful experience. We’ve encountered quite a lot of hostility and sometimes have really felt that we are annoying and unwelcome Westerners. When trying to rationalise this, I’ve been thinking about two things. Firstly, we haven’t actually got to know any Vietnamese people. Unlike our understanding of Cambodian people, we don’t know about the culture or what behaviour is like beneath the surface of the busy roads and tired street sellers. In addition, there could be an element of history in general Vietnamese attitudes towards us. After being subject to so much destruction and being walked all over by American aggression, it’s perhaps easier to see why tourists aren’t so popular.

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Onwards and upwards

Two years ago I came across the Project Trust stall at a careers fair. Something in me began ticking and one thing quickly led to the next. Soon I was fundraising and telling my friends that that I was going to be a volunteer in a country called Cambodia, somewhere I knew nothing about. Yesterday, I looked into the little faces of the children and hugged them for the final time. Lexi and I held hands as we walked away from our home, driving away from waving and crying figures until they became pinpricks on the horizon.

For the last couple of weeks, I had been feeling pressure to make every day spent with the children matter. This had left me all over the place; it’s impossible to make every single moment memorable and special, particularly in an environment as volatile as Group Home. Realising that this was too unsettling a way for me to live, I tried to relax. I resigned to just talking to the children, cherishing their beautiful chattering and following them around the house.

Something pretty horrible happened just before we were due to leave the Home. Our relationship with the NGO that we have been working for hasn’t been without difficulty throughout the year, but problems had mounted meaning that we had to leave Group Home one week early. Lexi and I were in no way ready, and the children were stressed by this sudden revelation. At the time, the prospect of our early departure was heartbreaking and we both thought it the end of the world that we couldn’t leave our children in a dignified and deserved way. But through support from our steadfast families and Project Trust, we gained clarity of thought and maintained the mantra that the children are and have always been our priority. If we had to leave them early, we would respect that, because this year has taught us that we must adjust to what can’t be changed. We decided to hold a farewell party for the children which happened yesterday, the last thing that we could do for them as volunteers.

I am grateful for something that I found time to do before the chaos of leaving changed everything. A brilliant person sent me some sunflower seeds (and Mars bars) in the post. One morning, I asked some of the boys to choose a good place and dig a flower bed. As we were putting the seeds into the ground, I broached the topic of us leaving. They were a bit concerned and asked if we were coming back. With wet eyes I said that when the sunflowers grow, they can look at them and think about our time together. I’m so glad that I managed to do this, and I remember that the friend who sent me the seeds once told me that ‘From little acorns grow big trees’.

Our leaving party was humbling but immensely difficult. It was hard to hold it together whilst being given presents and handwritten notes, being presented with a good luck speech on behalf of all 30 children by an older boy, and trying to say individual goodbyes to all of the little people I love so deeply. Lexi and I felt thankful; I was surrounded in love which is a remarkable indication of the capacity of the children’s hearts. Where they come from backgrounds of negligence, and where they have grown up in a life where they don’t receive constant and reliable love, they are still full of love and willing to let us see and feel it. The farewell became emotionally heightened when the taxi arrived and we had to say our final goodbye. We were in floods of tears and some of the children were distraught. Usually when they are crying, we are able to comfort them. But this time we had to turn our backs which might have been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to and it has left me with overwhelming guilt. Some of the younger children were disconcerted by our tears and cried because they were confused. Sitting in the taxi we clutched the teddy bears we had just been given and an air of sadness took hold of us. Yet we also felt relief and freedom, from now we will try to move onwards and upwards.

So far, Lexi and me have spent today in bed together, not being sure how to cope or begin our holiday. But rather that mourning the things that I’ll desperately miss, we’ve been happily reminiscing about the children. I think leaving felt right to both us and I am ridiculously proud of what we’ve accomplished. My heart is bursting with admiration for Lexi, who has managed to keep going when not many people could summon the same inner strength. Like forlorn parents, we have been reading the children’s farewell letters to us with fresh eyes, and laughing at the surprise ‘I miss you’ videos that they left on our cameras.

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‘Wrapping up month’

We have less than three weeks left at Group Home. At this moment in time, I have absolutely no idea how I am supposed to feel. The knowledge that, in a matter of days, I’ll be packing up my entire life into a rucksack and walking away from the children that I’ve spent the last ten months with is really difficult for me to comprehend. There is no protocol for this and in all honesty, I don’t know how to cope; in the back of my head there has always been a voice saying ‘I will do this until the end’. This mindset has been so fundamental in giving both Lexi and me the strength to get to where we are now. But it is wearing off and leaving me feeling neither here nor there.

I came to Cambodia as a teenager who was quite reserved and reticent, being unsure about my place in the world. Living here has thrown me into a way of life that requires me to have maturity, be emotionally tough, and pushed me to come out of my shell.  I feel like I have had a glimpse of something profound and special, which has opened doors in my mind and helped me to form strong friendships. Not only have I grown into my own skin more, but somehow, the endless days of hard work and new experiences that Lexi and I have been through seem to have amounted to normality. Cambodia has become my second home; never before could I have imagined to gain such a deep impression of a place and it’s people.

The concept of going back to England and picking up my old life is incredibly scary. I’ll be saying goodbye to a huge part of my life, and the truth is that I have no idea where home is anymore. This being said, there is no way Lexi and I could summon the capacity within us to stay at Group Home for much longer. I think that I’m mentally ready to move on and weave what I’ve learned from both the children and myself in this country into my own future.

We have been trying to live our lives to the full at the moment; June has been a month of aiming to make the most out of our remaining time in Cambodia. We took a weekend away in Kampot, which is accurately described by something I read there: ‘God practiced first on heaven and then created Kampot’. I can’t remember a time where I felt so much unadulterated freedom and happiness; for the whole time Lexi and me couldn’t keep the stupid smiles from our faces. It is a beautiful old colonial town which lazily sits on the river. I can’t put my finger on what it was, but one good thing happened after another and Kampot became my favourite place in Cambodia. Maybe it was the sunset boat cruise. Or going to a pepper farm. Or walking on Kep’s sandy beaches. Or the amazing Kampot pepper crab we ate…

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Kampong Chhnang is our own town, and we have been trying to see as much of it as possible before leaving. To gain a greater understanding of the childrens’ lives, we arranged to visit their primary and secondary schools. It was completely eye opening; where Group Home is our entire world, it definitely isn’t theirs. It was strange to see where they spend every day, but we were captivated to learn about the education system here. In particular, we were impressed by the teaching and respect in the primary school (some of our children weren’t too impressed to see that we simply can’t leave them alone and we had followed them to school). And during a restless lunch time this week, Lexi and I wandered to the local temple and sat on its deserted floor, gaining some peaceful moments to ourselves in front of the huge and reassuring Buddha.

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The coming days will be a big challenge, but I will try my best to leave the Home in a way that I can look back on with pride and happiness. I’m not sure how I will round up teaching, and leave behind the worthwhile satisfaction and confidence boost that comes with it. But we are looking forward to our ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, our month long holiday of travel that is waiting for us on the horizon.

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Too much svay

For some reason, it’s nearly the end of May. Our year away has this distorting effect of making us feel like we have spent an absolute eternity in Cambodia, and at the same time allowing the days to slip through our fingers.

Firstly, I need to talk about the most important thing. The rain! It’s come back, steadily but surely, cooling us down and giving tiny bits of life to the thirsty and dusty ground. There are two things that have been a consequence of this. 1. Crazy, crazy amounts of mango (svay). It has suddenly become available and it is so ripe that when combined with chili salt, it is literally something else. 2. It has been making me feel nostalgic, because the last time it rained was when we first arrived at our project in the height of the wet season. It’s strange to be reminded of those novel, emotionally charged days.

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Quite a weeks ago now, Lexi, her lovely visiting grandparents, and myself spent a week in Siem Reap.Throughout the year, I have been building up a mental picture of the town that houses the biggest and probably the most famous temples in the world. The children have often asked about our plans to visit with a sense of longing; Our Cambodian friends have referred to Angkor Wat as a ‘Once in a lifetime’ visiting opportunity. I thought that Siem Reap was vastly different to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital and the city that we have grown used to. Siem Reap is much smaller, and for obvious reasons far more touristy. Angkor Wat was stunning and impressive; Whilst going from temple to temple, I found the idea of it being so ridiculously old difficult to comprehend. Intricate carvings and corridors make life 1000 years ago seem impossible. We went at sunrise to see the sun come up behind the temples as it does in all of the postcards, but after waiting for an hour, we realised that it was already light…  More of a ‘sun appearance’ that ‘sunrise’ (Lexi ‘Is that it?!’).

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It was good for us to experience Siem Reap with Lexi’s grandparents. They did a great job of making me feel like part of the family, and gave us two a different perspective (and the chance to be pretentious show offs about our Cambodian knowledge).

Annoyingly, teaching is going really well for me. Annoying because it seems to have taken me until May to find the knack and get the most out of everyone’s time in the classroom. My class of little ones still has it’s moments, but there is progress every day and I think where we are now is a real achievement compared to the classroom dramas and disruption that used to happen daily. Since the older children have left, my relatively new class of twelve and thirteen-year-olds has also been going upwards. One of the caregivers sits in (I am eternally grateful) and participates (I’ve caught her revising at lunch time) and the enthusiasm of the children makes it a lot more easier and enjoyable for me.

This month hasn’t been without difficulty, however. It’s fair to say that it has been emotionally exhausting. With every ‘down’, we are left questioning how strong we are and how much it takes for a person to give up. Mainly, it is respect, or lack of, that makes things tough. It’s a problem that is bigger than us, and affects us deeply. I’m coming to terms with what we can’t change; If we had another year at Group Home, perhaps a continuation of our tirade on respectful behavior (citizenship sessions, translated talks, meetings, new strategies) would make a real difference. When we are faced with rudeness or our instructions aren’t followed or we aren’t listened to, in ‘darker moments’ it can feel like we aren’t getting anything back from what we put in. I’m not trying to say that we do everything we do here to get a ‘thank you’, but we also aren’t here to be treated badly or abused. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the children are only small, so it’s not fair to expect too much of them. Besides, many of them have a beautiful moral compass. But it’s a shame to realise that authority in Group Home realistically requires age and threats, two things that Lexi and I don’t have.

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I guess that in our short time left here, we can’t let these issues defeat us. We’ve got to remember that although they might not always show it, the children do benefit from us being there, and our presence and contribution adds a lot of value to their lives. If you’re still here, below are some nice pictures from World Earth Day, a global citizenship day that Lexi and me decided to mark at Group Home last week.

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Thinking about being happy

At the moment, happiness for me is watching a twelve year old girl struggling to breathe because she cannot contain her laughter. It’s seeing the face of our blind and deaf boy light up after I blow on his nose. It is when a 16 year old boy with learning difficulties put his arm around me as he explains the difference between a mango and a coconut. Or it’s Lexi’s sigh of relief when we shut the bedroom door and make a cup of tea when our very long working day has finally finished.

I think happiness is about retaining optimism and sharing in the joy of other people. In such an intense project, our environment is always forcing us to be inward looking. I find that I’m constantly questioning myself and how I deal with situations and respond to things. I’m learning that you have to take life as it comes and make your own happiness. Sometimes I make mistakes or the children can be as annoying as anything or we get frustrated that things aren’t working the way we would like or expect them to. But the only thing that matters to me is the fact that I am here, and that I love these children so much that sometimes I miss a breath with loving them too much. When things are difficult, which is often the case, I’m finding that if you smile first, people will smile with you.