In December 2012, I travelled to Cambodia with Griffith University Honours College for a volunteering project for Enactus. This is what I thought:
I wanted to go to Cambodia so that I could see what it was like, how it had developed compared to the rest of the region, what it needed, and try to get a feel of what its future would be like. Before I left to go to Cambodia, I was a little sceptical about how much difference I could make or how much help I could be. There is no doubt I was going over as part of my own personal development, and that some form of that would be achieved whether I was able to help or not, but what impact would I really have by being there?
Even though I hadn’t been to a ‘proper’ developing country before (not counting China), I really didn’t receive much culture shock at all. Being on a group trip the way we were, felt like we were somewhat disconnected from our surroundings – that although we were definitely in a country that was struggling, each night we would go back to our comfortable guesthouse. It was a good balance that allowed us to experience some of the grittier sides of Cambodia, whilst also allowing us to be secure and effective in the way we were volunteering.
I found experiences such as S21 prison and the Killing Fields really challenging as these locations, now tourist hubs, are so disconnected from what happened and it is hard to imagine what it would have been like to be there. There was one photo in particular in S21 that looked exactly like a best friend of mine and it is haunting to think how easily this could happen again .
Since returning home I have changed my views on a lot of things. It is hard to look at simple things like catching the bus, teenagers with their iphones on the street, or even the giant buildings of our city in the same light. I keep thinking that we in Australia take so much for granted and often have life so easy that we simply don’t make the most of it. The divide was clear when I was lying getting a $4 oil massage or a $3 manicure/pedicure and the ladies serving me would say “You are so lucky. At the end of the day, you get to go home.” There is nothing much you can really say to that – “I know” sounds feeble and insufficient even though I am blatantly aware of the privileges I have.
I’ve grown up my entire life knowing that I can “do anything”. We see it on those big stickers – “Girls can do anything!” – and reiterated again and again through our education – that you can do whatever you want to do and set your mind to. But this was just my experience, or our privileged Australian experience, and not something universal. The masseuse confessed to me that she really wanted to be a teacher, but there was no way she could when all she would earn is $0.50 per massage, and she may get one, none, or few of those a day. And though she works 14hrs per day and only gets two days off per month, at the end of it all she simply can’t “do anything”. At least, not yet.
The most poignant part of my trip was handing over the padlock to the new owners of the house in Treak Village. All throughout the building process the father reminded me strongly of my own dad (tall, thin, strong, serious-looking) and it made it that much more relatable – I couldn’t bear the thought of my dad in a similar situation to this man, without a proper home, left with no wife and a terrible illness. In this family’s case (and many others of course), having all the family helping and together is so important – it could be the difference between having a meal tonight or not, or even much bigger problems. In Australia we often take family for granted as we don’t so blatantly need them every day for the physical things – food, shelter, etc. – and the importance of sticking together as a family is sometimes lost out of a lack of physical need. There should always be an emotional need, but that is not always so for some families!
I think this has been a really important experience that will definitely help me in my studies as well as my personal development. It was great to work as a team and particularly great how well we all got along together. In a group full of leaders, I still felt I was able to develop some leadership skills in a different environment and was able to communicate clearly. Next time I do something like this, I want to have more time during the trip (for e.g. at the temples this trip) to reflect and just be somewhere without rushing around madly getting $1 bargains at the market or moving on to the next big attraction. While I like reflecting once I return, I also like to reflect whilst there as I am actually in the situation and can make the most of it.