With my 4th trip to Cambodia quickly approaching, I decided to open up my heart and share my journey with friends and family.
It is hard to capture moments in time, but I am hoping that I will be able to share them as they happen here, with you. It doesn't seem long ago when I first traveled to Cambodia...6 years ago on Semester at Sea. It was then...sharing smiles with the Khmer people, laughing with the children who were trying to scam me for my dollars, and holding on for my life as I tore through Cambodia's capital on the back of a moto...that I knew that I would travel back to Cambodia again...and again. I felt I had so much to give back, and I had found the place that I wanted to pay it forward. At that time, though, I had no idea how Cambodia and its people would change my own life...
Serendipitously, when I returned back to school at UF, I was talking with one of Phil's friends about my trip, and he told me about Sustainable Cambodia, an NGO based right out of my home, Gainesville. I quickly contacted Richard and Susan, the directors of Sustainable Cambodia and spent some time working with them in their US-office and then, a month later, left for Cambodia. Landing at the airport in Phnom Penh, tired after a full 24 hours on an airplane, it was everything I remembered it to be...dusty streets, motos blowing past me every which way, and homeless children with outstretched arms.
I was greeted by a man who worked for Sustainable Cambodia who took me to the volunteer house and then a taxi driver who took me on a bumpy 2 hour ride to Pursat, the province I would be working in. There I was met by the smiling faces and open hearts of the children I would be working with. They took me to the house I would be staying in and introduced me to the volunteers who were leaving the very next day. I remember swatting the insects away, so distracted by the buzzing in my ears and bomb-diving at my face that I had difficulty carrying on the conversation, while the seasoned volunteers only stopped to wipe their sweaty foreheads and take a sip of water to cool off. Little did I know, that I would soon be sitting in their seats, welcoming newcomers in the same way they had me.
I spent my 2 months becoming part of a new family, my second family. I remember when it was time for the National Coordinator, Soknay, to take his family vacation to his farm, I was piled into his rickety car with the other volunteer, his wife, and their 2 children. We arrived to his farm, and after a long day of eating (as is the Khmer way), taking in the sights and sounds of the pristine countryside, and getting to know everyone, all of the women (myself included) and children headed to the river for a bath!
My life in Cambodia was simple...I woke up each morning at daybreak to the sound of the roosters, went to the hammock with my flashlight and read my book and waited for my housemate, a Cambodian who was repaying his scholarship with service, to wake up. We then shared breakfast, usually rice porridge and sweet bananas, pineapple, and mango, then headed to the school to teach. I taught English in an open-air classroom to a group of children who absorbed my lessons like sponges and were the most inquisitive bunch I have ever known. They had instilled in them a sense of service I have never known here in the US, always wondering how they could help to make things in their villages and country better, always writing in their essays about how they would give back.
I would on occasion travel to the villages where I was both deeply saddened by the poverty and empowered by the strong wills and giving hearts of the villagers. These are things I carry with me today.
I came back home and started medical school at UF. I don't think a day passed that I didn't think about what I had been a part of in Cambodia, but I was not able to be as active with Sustainable Cambodia as I would have liked because I was in the trenches of medical school. Now, here I am, in my last year of medical school, finally with time to be person that I want to be. I have been able to help to write the Sustainable Cambodia Updates this year, which are a joy...a way for me to reconnect with the people there. If you would like to read the Updates, you can subscribe for free here: http://www.sustainablecambodia.org/signup.asp
And of course...I found time to return to Pursat to work with Sustainable Cambodia. I don't know what this journey will bring, what I will be doing while I am there (since this is a short-term visit, I don't have an assignment), but I know that I will find purpose in whatever work I am doing. ...And now I embark, with you, on my 4th journey, a new journey to Cambodia!