Soon I will be leaving Siem Reap and I hate saying goodbye to places and people; I’m not good at it, although I’ve had plenty of practice. I’ve spent short periods of 2 – 3 months on projects in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Ecuador and longer periods of 18 months to 2 years in Gabon and Australia with the longest period away from England being 15 years in Portugal.
Even during the short projects, the experiences and vicissitudes that you invariably encounter in developing countries, weld the bonds of friendship that last a lifetime. If you have spent a few weeks in a VW campervan driving around Burkina Faso, working in small villages in the savannah, the close proximity engenders an enduring respect for your co-workers as you put up with the hardships, particularly the diet of rice and dried fish in onion and tomato sauce which we lived on for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s nothing like a bout of dysentery to break down the barriers and inhibitions either; trying to shit decorously behind a blade of grass is very levelling. Or remembering the time in Gabon when on arrival in a village with my colleague to collect blood samples, I realised that I was coming down with malaria myself – she had to drive me back to the lab for diagnosis and treatment. Nothing like staring down the microscope at your own red blood cells invaded with Plasmodium falciparum to do a quick stock check of who your friends are.
Cambodia and before that, India, were new places to me and I have only tickled the surface in this year of exploration but it has not disappointed – far from it. I realise how little I know about Asia, its culture, traditions and people. It has a fascinating history and a lot of it is very recent; sadly, Britain and other European countries do not come out of it particularly well. I have made new friends and met people doing extraordinary jobs and been inspired by many. It has allowed me to put my own life into the greater perspective. I have learnt so much and the biggest lesson of all is that despite my education and experience, I am still so ignorant about so many things, that being a Buddhist and hoping for reincarnation seems like the only option, so that I can come back and have another go!
I realise how easy it is to be seduced by the apparent safety and security of the daily routines of life in the West. To change is always a lot of hard work and often financially challenging, but the rewards are incalculable. When I announced to my friends that I was volunteering overseas for a year, the reactions were very mixed; some expressed feelings of jealousy – they thought it the right time and a brilliant idea, others were concerned that I was no longer 26! I accept that some are quite happy to stay at home and live the daily round, are not curious about what lies beyond and I suppose that is a good thing because if everyone was tripping round the world it would be pretty chaotic. However, I have always been very curious and I strongly believe that we must seize every opportunity that comes our way; when someone says “would you like to” the answer is always “yes”, there is never any worry about “will it be safe?” or “is it dangerous?”. Living is dangerous per se, having a heart attack, brain haemorrhage, car accident, being shot or stabbed happen to the nicest people in the randomest of ways and could happen to any of us at any time.
I came across an article by Justin Rowlatt who was leaving India after 3 years as BBC South Asia Correspondent and this quote resonated with me.
“We should all live as if we are about to leave – that way you realise the true value of what you have.”
For the future, even back at home in the heart of Sussex there are daily challenges to take up and new adventures waiting. It’s my new goal to be more adventurous and to live every day as if tomorrow I may leave. I’ve always been accused of being a “I’ve just got to do….” person and perhaps that should be my personal motto. We should all try to be that little bit braver…
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