“Real” Jobs Are Overrated

How the Rainy Season Saved My LIfe in Cambodia

In too deep

I arrived in Siem Reap in September, choosing cheap airfare over warnings that the rainy season was not the best time to visit Cambodia.  Three feet of water sloshed against my legs, soaking my rolled up linen pants as I hoisted my backpack over my head.  Arriving at my hostel, the owners informed me that crocodiles had gone missing from the farm next door when the flooding broke the gates, and I should be careful when wading through the streets.  I was worried, and beginning to think I should have come in spring, if at all.

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In the year leading up to this moment, I had graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, applied to hundreds of jobs, (along with every other journalism major in the country), waited tables for six months, and finally decided to take an around the world trip with my best friend. Avoiding the realities of “real life” seemed like our best option. We told our parents the economy was sure to be better upon our return, and then we would work hard, pay off our student loans, and focus on being adults.

In the first few months we had many exciting (and a few terrifying) adventures. In the first months we visited friends throughout the Middle East, got lost in China, (at least 10 times), celebrated Eid al-fitr in Indonesia, just barely talked our way into Myanmar, had a blast in Bangkok, connected with nature in Laos, and were inundated with history in Vietnam.  But upon arriving in Cambodia amidst a flood, loose crocodiles, and with our savings dwindling faster than expected, we thought maybe we had gone too far. Maybe it was time we headed home and joined the world of the employed and responsible.

Thinking of ditching your job?
Thinking of ditching your job?

An unexpected revelation

Flood in Siem Reap

Our first night in Cambodia I lay awake for hours listening to the rain and having a mini panic attack. What was I doing with my life? What if we ran out of money? What if I never got a job?  These perils kept me tossing and turning all night, but the next morning, the city surprised me. The streets were still flooded, but crowded with vendors pushing their carts through the water, suspending their goods on ropes and coat hangers as they called out to one another in greeting.  Their laughter as they avoided getting splashed by the few cars that managed to drive by was infectious, and soon I was enjoying slogging through the massive pools of water, shoes strapped to my back, toes feeling the uneven grooves of the road.

Children, small enough that water reached their chests, played a game of soccer involving only their heads and hands. They were as giddy as kids on snow days in Wisconsin, my home state.

Though my friends back home had found decent paying jobs with health insurance and a 401k, did they know the sheer delight a ray of sunshine could bring to a community, or how amazing banana pancakes from a floating cart could taste?

Tuk tuk drivers pedaled through puddles, joking with their passengers about precarious turns, and restaurants welcomed customers to perch atop floating chairs for fish amok and soup. The joyous scene was one that I was not expecting, and will never forget. I was shocked at the constant smiling faces and how happy everyone seemed in the midst of what looked to me like a semi-natural disaster.

As the sun peered out from behind the clouds, my mood brightened, too. Cambodia was becoming my favorite destination, and my worries were fading with every friendly wave, shout, and splash. Though my friends back home had found decent paying jobs with health insurance and a 401k, did they know the sheer delight a ray of sunshine could bring to a community, or how amazing banana pancakes from a floating cart could taste? Probably not.

The spirit of the streets that morning inspired me to make the most of all of life’s moments, even those that don’t seem ideal. Up until this point, I thought I already did that. I took chances, stayed busy, and annoyed my friends with quotes to the effect of, “live like there’s no tomorrow.” It took stepping out of my element to make me realize that yes, I had been taking advantage of life’s opportunities and living out every second while in my comfort zone, but I had no idea what embracing circumstances and creating your own happiness was really about. In Siem Reap, though daily life was hindered by a storm, the crocodiles were still missing, vehicles and buildings were undoubtedly enduring permanent wear, and business was slow, I could not find an unhappy face.

Further realization

Angkor Wat

Later, we made our way to the outskirts of the city, where glossed with rainwater, the temples at Angkor Wat shone brightly. I was struck by their beauty, especially the less restored temples, crumbling but still standing through centuries of wear and tear. In the more elevated, dry areas of the temples, flowers bloomed with unparalleled vibrancy, striking me as a symbol of the city.  To me, these time worn temples and stubborn flowers reflected the people in Cambodia, who have been put through genocide and bombarded with land mines, suffered disease, trafficking, a dilapidated economy, miserable education, and a corrupt government, only to emerge resilient, with an unparalleled kindness and sense of humor. I was humbled and further inspired to live my life this way, never taking a moment for granted and focusing on what I have, instead of what I need.

For once, I was able to stop stressing about the future and really grasp the present.

“It’s in the past,” said a tuk-tuk driver when I asked how he’s not bitter after everything his country has gone through. That was the attitude of everyone we encountered. Smile and move on. Be optimistic. Life is beautiful and might be shorter than you think, so forgive and enjoy every second.

My life was starting to look pretty good. Jobless? Yes, but I was on an extended trip with my best friend and had my whole life to work. Penniless? Getting there, but money can’t put a smile on your face the way drinking fruit juice and singing karaoke with a group of Cambodians can. Happy? Definitely. The happiest I had been in a long time. For once, I was able to stop stressing about the future and really grasp the present.  The people in Cambodia changed my life without even trying. All they had to do to was to follow their daily routine. With bright smiles amidst the rain, they showed me to appreciate the little things. They taught me thankfulness, humility, relaxation, and resourcefulness.

A life of travel

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I never could have received the lessons I gained in Cambodia from behind a desk. Travel became my ultimate form of education and work – from history to current affairs, from languages to simple human compassion – it is a learning experience I would never take back and one can’t get enough of.

Travel became my ultimate form of education and work – from history to current affairs, from languages to simple human compassion – it is a learning experience I would never take back and one can’t get enough of.

Upon returning to the United States a few months later, I opted out of finding a journalism position and instead found a way to work in the places that had touched my heart and opened a new world of travel to me. Not only traveling for entertainment, to see sights and eat amazing food (though of course that has its benefits too!), but also for a cause, to really understand a place and broaden my view of the world while assisting in any area I can. Travel, and Cambodia in particular, changed my life and view of the world forever. If I had visited under dry and sunny circumstances, I would be a different person today.  The rainy season saved my life.

Check out these stories about how travel has impacted their lives:

manifesto - defining your values

Photo credits: SarahDepper, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.


Leave a Comment

  • said at 2014-09-09T05:31:02+0000: A lot of people do not visit Cambodia in rainy seasons but I believe it adds to the charm. Even though its raining, its not enough to stop people from their work. I juts love the place. Plus you get cheap air travel tickets because not many people are inclined to go there in that season. You can see some cheap air travel deals at http://discounthotelflights.com/flights/
  • Worldtravelfamily said at 2014-09-08T14:47:57+0000: I couldn't agree more. Work used to bore me to tears and I had no interest in the glorious graduate career I'd picked. I'm free now and loving life.
  • Andrea Anastasiou said at 2014-09-08T11:42:12+0000: Fantastic post. As someone who quit the 'real world' in favour of a life of travel I can relate ;-)
  • Travel World Heritage said at 2013-04-08T14:59:09+0000: That is pretty deep. My story is kind of the opposite side of the same coin. I graduated an Aerospace Engineer, and to be honest, finding potential work in that field hasn't been difficult. What has been difficult is convincing people back home that my life now, a life influenced heavily by travel, is more enjoyable to me than any of those potential jobs in the states. I teach Enlgish in Korea as I have for the last three years. It is not out of necessity, it is how I choose to live.
  • Anita Mac said at 2013-04-12T15:03:37+0000: There are also people for whom traditional work is not the way for them and I would say, like me, you are in that boat! Love your way with words. Glad that you have made a great life in the way that is best suited for you!One of my former co-workers from my more traditional, corporate life recently stumbled upon my blog. We hadn't spoken in years, and his comment was so awesome - he told me I was doing exactly the right thing I should be doing! I have to say...he's right! And I will say it to you....you made the right choice!
  • Lisa Hlavinka said at 2013-05-20T22:58:01+0000: As someone who graduated with a journalism degree and has worked the 9-5 grind for the past 5 years, I can tell you that you are absolutely doing the right thing. Right now I am looking to freelance for a while so I have more freedom to do exactly what you are doing. :)
  • Erin Johnson said at 2013-04-08T23:20:19+0000: Rebecca, I can totally relate! I also got my journalism degree from Madison (many years ago) and last year took a career break to backpack around Southeast Asia. I, too, fell in love with Cambodia and have wanted to return ever since I left. Could you please share what you're currently doing over there and how you found it? I'm looking for inspiration! Thanks!
  • The Drifter Journals said at 2013-04-08T14:58:08+0000: This was a very fascinating post. It's great to see how something as simple as 'travel' can be a catalyst for great and unexpected things. Tweeting it now...thanks!
  • Ray Umashankar said at 2013-04-09T01:20:17+0000: How inspiring! Will share this with all my young friends!
  • Joan Anssens Mascaró said at 2013-04-09T11:39:52+0000: Beautiful
  • Jason Yamanaka said at 2013-05-07T19:11:26+0000: hey, well written article! Cambodia is a great place and awesome to hear you got that experience. Not enough people go through those moments, and if they never have, its hard to relate with them.
  • Sarah Cuiksa said at 2013-04-23T23:40:28+0000: Love this piece, Rebecca. Quit my job last week, and am heading to Cambodia this morning. Stumbled upon this looking for Cambodia travel advice. It's provided what I really needed - the reinforcement that I'm making the right moves. Thanks!
  • Terri Lynn Merritts said at 2013-04-10T02:52:43+0000: I don't think real jobs are over rated. I decided to get a PhD so I would be able to afford the things in life I wanted like to have a lovely home as a cozy refuge with a pool and gardens, to be able to work the schedule I want because I am in demand, and to be able to have good health care and to homeschool and provide for my family. Yes, I could have chosen to be a bum and go about the world living among the desperately poor, risking illness and living under horrid conditions, but my husband and I choose to travel worldwide under better conditions. I have never thought that it was any advantage to live or travel like the desperately poor. I don't live in a housing project here so why would we want to live in an overseas dump? You can meet plenty of people without staying under nasty conditions.
  • Jovonne Nevarez said at 2013-04-08T17:37:52+0000: Thank u! I have been feeling I have been missing something in my life and travel has been on my mind lately. And the job thing I feel the same, that they are there everyday but the life experience and memories created from exploring what real life is I believe is priceless. I like how you said life can be shorter than we think. So thank u, u have answered my prayers on what I need to do to make me feel fulfilled and happy.
  • Ann-Marie Lamb Holland said at 2013-04-08T16:04:52+0000: Rebecca, my round the world trip was at 42. Even them I didn't have the amazing self-perception that you possess now. I'll follow your future with anticipation.
  • Brandon Fralic said at 2013-04-08T15:47:23+0000: Great article, Rebecca. I'd be interested in hearing more about the work you are doing now. I've never been to hope SE Asia but hope to visit in the fall.
  • Cayla Genevieve said at 2013-04-08T14:57:31+0000: thank you for sharing. Travel certainly does allow a person to live in the moment. I'm curious to know how and where you are helping.
  • Turner Wright said at 2013-04-08T21:28:28+0000: So what did you end up doing? There's some truth in this, but eventually, money and spirit will run a little short.
  • Shelley Renee Seale said at 2013-04-08T23:48:27+0000: Beautiful...and totally relatable. Thank you for sharing.