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.
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.
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An unexpected revelation
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.
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
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:
- Travel Breeds Self-Confidence: How One Month in Spain Made Me Believe in Myself
- How Volunteering Changed Me
- Trading Divorce for Travel
- From Corporate Tool to Nomadic Idealist
- A Long Way Around to Living the Life You Want to Live
Photo credits: SarahDepper, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.