When I reflect on what sort of an experience Cambodia was for all of us, although the words may sound cheap or meaningless, Cambodia was truly a life-changing, eye-opening and worldview-shifting experience, and one that I know will stay with all of us for a long time to come. There are so many things to comment on that we experienced or saw or felt throughout our mere 13 days, and as much as I know we wish that we could share every single one of them with you tonight – we know we can’t. So, instead, I thought I might share a few things that the trip taught us.
It taught us things like how to make some delicious Khmer food like Amok that sadly I don’t know if I can ever replicate again. It’s taught us about the taste of tarantulas (crunchy in case you were wondering). It’s taught me and another member of our RAK how NOT to get lost in Phnom Penh, and how to find your way back when or if you do. But for me, I think it’s taught me most about what poverty actually looks like.
And I know that we all know the statistics surrounding poverty today. We know the facts. We know the figures. And to be quite honest, before going to Cambodia, I didn’t have a tangible connection with poverty. I knew about it, and I cared, but until such time as I was able to truly see what poverty looked like or spoke with those who live in it – it never ‘clicked’.
Through my time in Cambodia, I saw, truly, for the first time, what poverty looks like. And it’s not what you expect. It’s not just people living in squalor. It’s not just dirty, ragged clothes and missing teeth. It’s also desperation. The desperation on a mother’s face as she and her kids beg together for money from tourists. One of the images that may forever haunt me is of a young boy – he couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, begging on the Tonle Sap lake (just outside Siem Reap), in quite literally, a tin bucket with a large snake curled by his leg. Like Pat mentioned, this isn’t uncommon. This image greatly troubled us all. And I hope that the thought of it troubles you too.
It’s the look of grief in Chalina’s eyes, who gave us a community talk, talking about how she struggles to provide for her son fresh fruit and veggies. It’s the physical manifestation I guess you could say, of inequality with stunning high rises separated by a concrete wall right next to a slum community.
But I’ll also tell you what we learned about what poverty is not. Poverty is not people choosing to live a life where they are forced to beg. Poverty isn’t something that happens only to “others”. Truth is, there’s really nothing that differs any of us from the people that we met. We could have been born into that situation. Chance dictated that we didn’t. Poverty is also not what defines these people or these children. It’s not powerful enough to squash out all the hopes and dreams of the people that it tries to crush. Chalina when asked about what her hopes and dreams were, her face just absolutely lit up. You could simply tell that there was a fire burning in her that dared others to try and put it out. The experiences that she had gone through – being trafficked into the sex trade at around our age, having to be in that line of work, contracting HIV and now living in a tiny 2m by 6 or 7m room – hadn’t managed to do that. And again, I know that might sound cliché, but it’s true. It’s the hope of the Cambodian people for a better future, choosing to move past the horrors and the hurt of the past.
But I also don’t think that poverty is a beast that can’t be tamed to put it that way. Poverty isn’t unbeatable – perhaps we can’t help everyone, but I think certainly we can help some. And I truly believe that we have had or can have an instrumental role in that thanks to the amazing work of Matesabroad. And I guess that’s exactly it – Cambodia truly taught us that we have enormous power to change the world for the better because of the privilege that we have. And I know that all of us, are so deeply grateful that we’ve learned all of these lessons.