Cambodia – a brief respite from my life in Vietnam

We stepped foot into Cambodia. Five of us, the original five, all such different people forced together through circumstance and found that we fit together. Three Canadians, one South African and me. The first night we partied hard, free of Vietnam, of work. We were young and reckless once more. In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, here for one night only to gulp long island ice teas and one dollar beers. To sway to the music underneath a canopy of fairy lights on a roof top bar.

A six hour bus to Sihanoukville, to the beach. I gazed out the dusty pane with heavy eyelids… and it was there that I fell in love with a country for the first time since my own beloved Eire. Head resting against the window I watched the world go by, watching the landscape morph from flat plains to towering hills, from dessert to jungle, from turquoise bath water to open sewers. I saw the blood orange moon, the houses built on stilts, the red dirt paths, the kids running and laughing, playing barefoot soccer… young and wild and free.

Such a simple life. A hard but happy life.

I am jealous of them , they are jealous of me.

How can such polar opposite worlds exist simultaneously? The Western world and the developing world, seemingly oblivious to one another’s woes.

Could I live this life, after growing up on the privileged side? Could I really be poor, not the kind of poor that we already say we are, but real poverty. Could I give up all my possessions, relinquish the internet and work as a labourer?  Eat slower, live slower, appreciate the little things in life once more. Family, the beauty of a sunrise, the texture of the ground beneath your bare feet.  Laugh sporadically and cathartically, work with my hands, draw sweat. Find joy in the feeling of a shower after a hard day’s work, the feeling of calluses forming on your hands and feet, in the satisfying but relentless itch of a mosquito bite, the peel of a sunburn. Every second playing out as if in slow motion.

We escaped to the island of Koh Rong, to Long Beach a forty-five minute climb over a vertical collage of rocks and then a straight drop back down the other side. Sweat pumping and heart pulsing between my ears I progressed slowly, the effort cleansing me of my over indulgent past few days… to emerge onto paradise. No postcards, no film, no tourist advertisement could do this justice. It was like being high, all your senses attuned to the magic unfolding around you, high on life. The sand like fluffy flour sifting between our toes, the water rippling clear and turquoise. We wrapped hammocks around spare trees to camp for the night. Another first for me, but encompassing everything I have ever dreamed up of for myself. Only other youthful hippies to share its floured shores for the night, all packing for one night, but staying forever.

Watching the magic of bioluminescence explode around me during a late night swim, sparkling plankton lighting up the dark waters beneath my hands. Gathering wood, lighting a campfire and dozing off beside it. Fleeing to our hammocks when the buckets of rain and lighting start hailing down upon us. Rising and stretching in the morning air, gathering our belongings swiftly and power walking back along the beach to catch a boat to reality in a typhoon. Laughing out loud at my luck, it hasn’t rained in four months here, but the day I come, typically the tarp is yanked free and the water unleashed. Wading out to the old wooden boat, body fully submerged in the rocking tide, bags held high over our heads. Tossing them carelessly on board and scrambling awkwardly in after them for a bumpy ride back to the central hub.

The days blurring together, a mash up of bed bugs and insect bites, we looked like we had chicken pox. Chronic diarrhoea and vomiting for three days in squat toilets with no flush and no toilet roll, “character building” my Ma and Da would say.  I can’t shave my legs because it’s like a cacophony of sores  kissing my skin. I can’t shower too often because the communal ones are usually covered in shit and when I do its under cold spurts of water that I have to psych myself up to put my head under. Highs and lows. Cambodia you have not been kind to my body but you have freed my mind. I think if I shimmy a few steps left of paradise I could find an oasis of real life that is more my style and while away my days here contently.

But I can’t stay in paradise forever. A trip to The Killing Fields see’s to that, pulling us back to reality, shaking us into the present after one by one we succumbed to tiredness and grumpiness with the passing days, with the constant company. Opening our eyes to real suffering, real problems. What Cambodia went through, genocide and now poverty and my utter inadequacy or inability to do something about it. Am I who I want to be yet? Still I disappoint myself. It’s all so fake, white people’s paradise, the white’s working the easy jobs in the bars etc, while the local people unclog the booze and drug induced puke smeared toilets, clean the rooms, man the boats, collect the rubbish left behind by the white partiers as they continue to blaze a trail of destruction though their chosen holiday destinations.

The world is a funny place. It both baffles  and awes me frequently.

So much still to do. So much still to learn.

But I’m starting to grow weary, I’m starting to miss home. My family, my old friends. I have turned the final corner in my journey, but I can’t pack it in yet, I’m so close. Home is in sight, three more months, three months brimming with so much potential. The preparations are under way, two more weeks of work, of selling the last of my possessions, of having a routine, of lie ins and a steady income.

Da is coming… two more weeks until we cycle the length of Vietnam…

“You can’t fall if you don’t climb, but there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground.” – Unknown.

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“Those that ask the question will never understand the answer. Those that understand the answer will never ask the question.”

I am still not fully satisfied.

Why is it that I can’t be content with a 9-5, with good friends, good food, a great family, an income. Why do I want to suffer? Why do I crave mud, sweat and tears above all else? Why do I want to feel hardship? Why do I think this way when so many others don’t?

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This constant search for adrenaline, this search for freedom is exhausting. Nothing I do blots out this scalding desire to be more, to do something reckless, scary… something epic. I don’t have a concrete plan, I don’t have any money. But I don’t think I ever will. I am 23, I have no commitments, no offers of jobs or internships, no credit card debts, no loans, no boyfriend, no kids. Therefore I have no excuse. No reason to be doing nothing. Technically I am free, yet I have never felt free, all I hear are rules, rules rules, how to act, how to dress,… so much bullshit. This is why I need an adventure.

I know I’m not alone, others like me are out there, others that get it. Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said: “Those that ask the question will never understand the answer. Those that understand the answer will never ask the question.” That is it. That’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten as to why I am this way, why I live the way I live. It can’t be explained in words.

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My life is by no means boring. I spent Christmas abroad in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. I ate a curry for Christmas dinner and skyped my family while they opened their presents and narrated the humdrum of goings on, of who got what. I rang in the New Year with three brilliant Canadians in Hanoi. The next day I boarded a plane to the Philippines for my cousins wedding.

I stayed in a four and a half star, gem of a resort with its own private beach, two pools, an all you can eat breakfast buffet but all I felt was eerily concious of the people who are living mere yards away on the breadline in galvanised sheds with dirt floors. And they were the most polite and kind people I have ever met. I was uncomfortable, I felt guilty as I gorged myself. This is not me, this is not who I am. I like lying on the ground when I’ve eating too much, sitting on the edges of pavements, wearing out a pair of boots so much that my mam has to throw them out on the sly, eating seven bowls of cereal in a day so i won’t have to buy food.

But I got to see the grown ups, the Irish, my brilliant family. Some who I never felt quite in sync with before to discover a common interest; a bid for the Seven Summits, a recklessness to backflip off a banana boat, to rent jet ski’s, to parasail…A family all hailing from rural Ireland, flying in from their adopted homes in New Zealand, Australia, Doha, and London to celebrate the unification of two family’s and two cultures, the Filipinos and the Irish. Seeing my Mammy and my auntie Ann after months. The two of them halves of a whole, black and white, providing comfort and a good kick up the arse when required. Snorkelling, kayaking, jet skiing, hobie cat sailing in the luke warm waters of the South China Sea. Finally letting myself relax and be content to laze away a day or two on the beach, drinking and stuffing my face.

But it was a temporary respite from my ever restless consciousness, it came to an end and I had to return to Vietnam upset, tired of flights and layovers and crappy buses. So I handed in my notice, just so as I could feel like I was in motion, like I was making progress and I began the countdown.

Four weeks until the Lunar New Year and Cambodia.

Eight weeks until Da comes and the pedalling begins.

Thirteen weeks until the cycle ends and then who knows what…

It’s all figured out until April 17th, the date Da fly’s home. After that I have no further plans, no nuggets of knowledge or ideas, no money, no return flight, nada. And it really is a scary feeling.

I’ve always had some vague, fuzzy idea of the next step but this time the horizon is blank, scarily blank. I chose a year of teaching abroad to put off the inevitable decision. I thought within a year of bought time, surely I will have figured it out by then… but maybe not knowing the next step, what I will do or where I will be a week from now or even a day from now is the key, that is after all the very essence of adventure, and that is exactly what I keep saying that I am seeking.

I leave you with an extract from an article by journalist George Monbiot, something I reread every now and then when my resolves are starting to sway and I’m tempted to pack it all in and go home.”When faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the “necrophiliac” world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be. Your peers might at first look down on you: poor Nina, she’s twenty-six and she still doesn’t own a car. But those who have put wealth and power above life are living in the world of death, in which the living put their tombstones – their framed certificates signifying acceptance to that world – on their walls. Remember that even the editor of the Times, for all his income and prestige, is still a functionary, who must still take orders from his boss. He has less freedom than we do, and being the editor of the Times is as good as it gets.” (From: http://www.monbiot.com/career-advice/)

Just think about it.

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