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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An Ode to Da

When I was born and you held me in your arms, you just thirty one years old then, did it cross your mind that one day we would be sitting on opposite sides of the world emailing each other logistics, moulding out plans for an adventure? I can picture you now sitting in your study on the battered PC in the backarse of Ireland, a V of a frown etched between your brow, typing painfully slow, one letter at a time. Me, thousands of miles away, lying on my bed scratching my insect bites typing a reply on my laptop, somewhere lost in Vietnam.

All those years, all those abstract ideas flickering to life in our minds but fading out before they really got a chance to catch fire. But here we are finally, me twenty three, you fifty four, and finally we have committed. It’s going to be so tough, you are going to drive me nuts trying to over plan everything, fretting about the gear and the bikes, and you will get frustrated with me, with my slow pace, when I moan that my body aches, and when I want to wild camp, or befriend the rabbis ridden dogs…  but holy shit what an adventure it will be!

How lucky am I?

Who has the time nowadays to even while away an afternoon talking with their Da, laughing with him, telling him about their lives, asking advice, sharing funny stories… just the two of them?

Who gets to do that?

Now, we have four whole weeks in front of us, just us two.

Did you ever think, I’ve got three daughters and no sons perhaps all is lost?

Did you ever think, when I was six sitting on the stairs in the middle of the night in hysterics because I couldn’t sleep in my own bed, that one day we would be considering doing this?

Or did you think when I was seventeen when you were carrying me home paralytic drunk from the Meadowlands after Ciara’s eighteenth that we would be undertaking something along these lines?

We’ve come a long way from playing catch on the bales of hay in the back field, from shooting hoops on the tarmac outside the house, from summer evenings spent whacking tennis balls back and forth in the golf links, from coaching my soccer and football teams, from walking Rascal in the long grass in the woods across the road, from running laps of the GAA pitch to train for triathlons, from bodyboarding alongside me while I tried to surf in the baltic winter swell off the shores of Achill Island. Sport has always been our thing. Sport has always brought us together.

And now, I get to quit my job. I get to throw all my clothes, make up and hoarded trinkets in the bin. And I get to board a bus to Hanoi to meet my Daddy after not seeing him for seven months and cycle the length of Vietnam with him.

And already I know it will fluctuate between moments of pure brilliance that we will never forget and moments of horror when we will question what the hell we signed up for, but regardless I must repeat… holy shit what an adventure it will be!

“Every day, life tempts and teases us to settle for mediocrity.” – Sophie Radcliffe, Adventurer.

But I will continue to resist and I will continue to defy.

Because I am your daughter, and that’s how you raised me to be.

Interview with Derek Cullen – Cycling solo across Africa

Tired of the monotony of everyday life, 32 year old Irishman Derek Cullen mounted an old bike and began an epic unsupported cycle across Africa. It is a story with the potential to inspire the ordinary person, to break down the very shackles that we confine ourselves to.  I, myself really wanted to interview him, as I am well short of a few Irish adventurers to look up to. And he is every bit the stereotype (the good one) :  the pale skin, the ginger beard, the easy warm character, the sense of humour and of course he is much more modest than he needs to be. This interview, I hope, will make you smile, as it did to me,  and maybe plant a tiny thought into your mind; if he can do it, then why can I not do it too?

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1.What is your current location?

Arusha, Tanzania – exactly half way between the start point Cape Town & Cairo.

2.What type of bike are you ridding?

Trek820 – it’s nothing fancy, 13 years old, has 23 gears and god knows how many previous owners.

3.What have you packed in your panniers?

Clothes, cooking gear, sleeping bag, tent, cameras, water – anything you’d need to survive a wilderness area.

4.What books have you brought with you to entertain you in the evenings?

Arabian Sands, Adrift, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air – are you seeing the trend? Mostly adventure stories about ridiculously lonesome journeys!

5.How are you navigating?

Map and compass, to be honest it would be harder to go the wrong way – there’s not many roads down here. I’ve got the distance wrong several times but who cares, I just pitch the tent behind a bush and carry on the next morning.

6.What distance are you covering each day?

Usually between 60 – 100km. The most covered in a day was 160km, the least 20km (exhausted). I travel very slowly even against bicycle standards, I like to spend more time anywhere that’s cool.

7.What does your diet consist of on the road?

On the bike – bananas, chocolate, biscuits, water, water, water. Off the bike – two minute noodles, beans, rice, heaps of local food (god knows what some of the meat really is). You eat like a horse doing this and literally give up being fussy.

8.What was your cycling experience like before you embarked on this massive trip?

Believe it or not – none. I was never a fan of cycling as strange as that may sound – it’s just the mode in which I seek adventure! My brother likes to tell people about how I struggled to cycle to his house last year in Ireland, I barely made it home – it was a 10km ride.

9.Have you discovered anything about your character, about who you are as a person?

Yeah completely, I realised the world didn’t revolve around me for a start – that was disappointing! It has changed me in ways I never thought imaginable, facing fears and taking on such a big challenge has brought huge confidence and a lot of humility. I genuinely feel a much “better person” now than ever before.

10.Does the joy outweigh the suffering on the road?

Every. Single. Time.

There are pretty depressing times, especially the aspect of being alone so long, for so often – but you get over that. Three words – Cycling with Giraffes.  I can’t forget that people are living hard lives back home, I’m very lucky to be where I am.

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11. As you make progress, has the fear and anxiety you have mentioned before become more manageable or are you still dealing with it on a daily basis?

It may sound too good to be true but the anxiety has all but disappeared.  I spent a lot of time worrying at the beginning but the anxieties proved to be “false concerns” every time – I literally stopped bothering to worry about what never seemed to happen anyway! I still feel the fear of course, that’s a healthy concern to have and I don’t think I’ll ever get over the worry of having Hyenas or lions around my tent.

12. How are you finding using social media and a blog to document your trip? Is it a motivator not to quit or does it take away a little from the adventure?

A lot of work goes into it for sure but it’s worth it for the chance of sharing this experience with someone. Also, writing fills a lot of spare time that is usually spent alone.

13. I am allowed stereotype you here because I am also Irish, but how are you not burnt alive with the heat?!

Yeah it’s kinda hot alright, I got heat exhaustion in the lower Namibia Desert which involved not having the energy to roll over and two days of falling asleep. That was enough reason to be careful in the future. I wear a wide brimmed hat (which looks stupid, I know) and keep putting sun cream on the arms – everything else stays covered while cycling. Yes, I have a farmers tan.

Speaking of stereotypes, I’ve had less than 15 bottles of beer in 7 months – beat that Ireland!

14. How do you make yourself get up and ride again the next day after having a shit day (aka how are you keeping your head in the right place)?

That’s been difficult, I doubt anyone could properly understand just how hard this gets when you spend so much time alone. I keep mentioning being alone but it’s the most influential factor of the trip each day and for staying motivated. The answer is, some days I just do and some days I just don’t – I just stay where I am until the mood has passed.

In general, I keep my head together by finding meaning in everything that happens. No matter how bad it gets, there is always a positive way to look at it. Looking down from the top of a mountain with the bicycle is an empowering feeling but it never feels like that at the time of cycling uphill to get there.

15. Is the journey harder than you thought, or is it living up to your expectations?

Harder yes but not for the reasons I would have thought prior. Physically, it is tough but manageable. Mentally, it can be a right battle. The trip has exceeded anything I could have imagined, it is the single most profound experience in my thirty two years and has definitely changed my outlook on life.

16. Is the stereotypical image of Africa of a poverty stricken and dangerous continent holding true?

Poverty, yes at times but what many people don’t realise is that most Africans are happy with their conditions – they still live traditionally and get by with what they have. It’s wrong of the western world to think of Africans as unprivileged for not having the same standard of living. If you ask me, the simple life being led in these parts has resulted in a community that is much richer and far more content than the complicated world we live in. Mobile phones are everywhere you go now, it disappoints me to see this in Africa too.

Africa is no more dangerous than London, New York, Dublin or Rome. If anything people here are more friendly. The danger associated with Africa is derived from western media and peoples natural feeling to fear the unknown.

17. Why are you doing it, what was the trigger?

My life was crap!!

I was so bored, I wasn’t happy with work, my social life was average, I felt I wasn’t growing or doing what I really wanted to do. Nobody needs to feel this way, it’s a choice really.

I genuinely thought if there was any real meaning to life, it had to be out there to experience but I needed to “go out there” first in order to find out.

18. How are you coping with being alone for so many hours each day?

It can be quite depressing but mostly a great experience. You learn to be your best friend in a situation like this – I really needed that, to gain a better opinion and respect for myself.

19. You are obviously fit by now – 6,000km in. Is the actual physical cycle itself no longer the hard part?

Yes and no. Physically, it gets harder over time with the constant strain on the body but by then you have learnt to just get on with it so it cancels it out somewhat. Being alone and keeping a sane mental state is by far the biggest challenge.

20. What are the descents/downhill’s like?

Elation – to the point of feeling crazy and screaming random words before realising the locals are watching….and continuing on anyway!

Along with “being tied down” and having kids (thinking ahead!) I’ve already no doubt they will be the happiest memories I will ever have – it’s been worth the risk.

Follow Derek’s journey via his website, Twitter or Facebook page.