Post- Cambodia Reflections
I last visited Australia a year and nine months ago. It was a two week holiday away from the culture shock of China. At the time I’d been travelling for a year and ten months so it seems I go in rhythms because here I am again. The differences I noted then remain similar now. I’m still looking for the waste paper basket for my toilet paper as opposed to simply flushing it and I catch myself out when Asian looking people speak perfect English. Yet this time I’m in Australia for good. Well for as long as good lasts.
This is the reason I live a foundation travellers lifestyle. I expect to pick up and leave again yet in the three and half years of travel I have also built a healthy respect for my ability to come home and rejuvenate. There’s this idealistic view that people see my life as which isn’t quite up to par. It’s not been the amazing adventure people would liken it to. In fact, it’s been hard work of seemingly never-ending struggles.
Few people speak about what can go wrong with foundation travel and what happens to you mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. What’s interesting is that the cliché ‘it will make you stronger’ is annoyingly true. If you need a challenge that pushes you to question your motivation, to develop yourself and to make you sit up and pay attention then I can definitely recommend living in Asia without any savings.
There’s no denying; travel is expensive but living is a rip-off!
The scenario for a western person in Asia (particularly Cambodia, Thailand and China where my experiences lie) starts with the standard assumption that you’ve got money, a lot of it. If you’re white it’s automatically assumed you’re rich, after all, how can you be in another country? This hasn’t been the case for me and my Nigerian partner. In fact we struggled on only $900 a month. There’s two main reasons for this, the ESL industry is poorly paid and African footballers in Cambodia are under-paid and subjected to gross racial injustices.
When you are the sole provider on limited funds forced to cope on a daily basis with the hike in prices because you’re white and therefore wealthy then it is natural to become resentful and angry, and over the course of a year this is what happened to me. When I first arrived to Cambodia I, like many westerners like me, viewed the Cambodian people with a poor-me mentality. I didn’t mind that they blatantly ripped me off because I naively felt sorry for their predicament. In time, I learned that Cambodia actually has a lot of money that is being manipulated and misused by the government and the non-government organisations. My patience wore very thin because I was sometimes poorer than those who did everything they could to take advantage of me.
Imagine that every time you go to a store, buy vegetables at a market, buy sugar cane from a vendor, travel by motorbike taxi, get approached by a beggar, or go to an Internet cafe you will be told a price four times more than a local would pay and ask yourself if you too would become indignant from all the trouble it takes to haggle the price down to a more reasonable double the cost?
What happens is you gradually become very good at reading body language. I now have the ability to see the subtle eye twinge when I’m being lied to, I can tell when I’m being told a price more than is fair and I have absolutely no hesitation in turning around and walking away without a word. Ignorance or perhaps lack of education means that few locals realise just how much Khmer (or Thai or Chinese) language I and my partner, Dauda, actually understand. One day, Dauda and I were in a market haggling for the price of something at one of the few fair-priced stalls we found when another woman approached and stated loudly, “that’s too cheap, you can get more out of them than that” completely oblivious to the fact that Dauda understood her. The seller shrugged and immediately doubled her price again. We had no choice but to walk away otherwise the seller would’ve lost face (respect) from the senior woman and we’d not be able to go back next week.
Now I’m back on Australian soil I’m equally blown away by just how expensive it is here. I’ve gone from $1.50 coffees to $4 and transport has more than quadrupled! I have to laugh at the irony of still being poor and yet in a more fortuitous position because at least here there’s always a way up. In Asia you have to fight too much red tape and corruption; you have to be prepared to lose a piece of yourself to the illegality of the lifestyle and it’s not a sacrifice I’m willing to make any more.
The cultures are a tug-o-war
I am able to adapt to another culture. I take time to learn about the country and the style of living that the local customs abide by. I am respectful and do whatever I can to fit in. This was all made more challenging for me when I would live and work within the Cambodian culture, socialise in an African culture and come home to a mix of African and western cultures.
My home has always been my sanctuary away from foreign cultures. On purpose, I have very little local artefacts, pictures, music, or cultural reminders to the country I am in. I do this because I found early on that I get overwhelmed by Asian cultures and need a reprieve. The moment I step outside I accept that I am within another world to which I must change to suit. My home is like my own personal embassy.
On any given day I was accustomed to melding into the three cultures simultaneously and that required a very careful balancing act. Eventually once the stress of the financial instability took it’s toll on me I began to give up. Interestingly, it was the western culture that I gave up participating in. I stopped making western friends, I stopped interacting with westerners and in the end completely avoided social settings that would see me try to explain my lifestyle. When you don’t have the money to participate with the wealthy westerners it makes it extremely hard to substantiate yourself.
Now that I’m home I find myself seeking out the cultures that differ from my own. I miss my daily dose of differences. I look for the international students on the train to chat to, I seek out the different restaurants so I can talk to the staff, and I look at the westerners in a whole new light. For once I can see the stereotypes of Australians and can appreciate where they come from. For all the multi-culturalism that Australia tries to represent there is also a lot of fit in or f-off mentality which saddens me.
One of the objectives I have with this site now is to seek out Australia’s cultures and learn more about how they are attempting to fit in, in their own way.
What spirituality isn’t
Perhaps one of the most photographed people in Asia are the monks with their bald heads, orange robes and alms bowls and yet what I realised from all this tradition is that it too is fragmented. It’s like many religions and beliefs of today but I feel that Buddhism is meant to speak more for the genuineness of belief and is meant to step aside the indoctrination of organised religious belief.
In Cambodia, I saw evidence of how little respect authentic belief in Buddhism there is. On multiple occasions I witnessed monks doing nothing better than begging for their supper, or the few riel people would obligatorily give. Monks would walk our street in their classic attire and people would literally give them money and shut the door on them as the monks gave their prayers. I was stunned that the people wouldn’t stay and listen, and give respect to the gift of Buddha they were receiving until a Khmer friend asked me, “What’s the point? They’re not really monks.”
Shocked, I sought more information and I learned that many of the monks are really young men from the provinces who come to the temples to receive a free education, housing and food and have little long term spiritual inclination. I have actually nothing against this if it were obvious and clearly stated, like a different coloured garb for example, but to use a religion in this fashion seems to desecrate Buddhism.
Every day there are traditional ways in which the Khmer would honour Buddha, they have small prayer temples in their homes, give food and light incense which I find speaks more for the individuals intent than these young monks do. Daily practices are personal and what I saw evidence of through Dauda’s devout Islamic morning prayers was that it doesn’t really matter what an entire religion does to show faith because it is how you honour your God that ultimately enables you to hold your head high.
I’ve grown up in an atheist and pagan household and have always been told to make my own mind up about God. My intent for living in Asia was to learn more about Buddhism and eastern philosophies but what I have found now that I’m home is that westerners seem to be either all in or nothing at all and lack a daily ritual, either that or the fear of condemnation prevents sharing personal beliefs publicly. Both seem sad in comparison to the daily observations of the Khmer lifestyle, even if they themselves aren’t as respectful as they could be.
Losing your mind while maintaining your sanity
In one post here it’s hard to explicate how an ordinarily calm, kind person can carry anger so profound that it literally prevents common sense but this is what Cambodia eventually brought out in me. I can say now that there was a period of about four months when I was in a permanent state of internal rage. On the outside I smiled but on the inside I screamed at everything, hated everyone and every now and then when it got too much my darling Dauda would cop it. Coming back to Australia to rejuvenate has reminded me of the value of having a strong support network behind you as you leave the country. Even if you’re travelling solo it’s crucial that you have key people behind you, who understand your needs more than you understand them.
My key people made the decision for my return for me and they’ve been with me every step. I had to trust that they knew what was best for me because if I stayed within those stressful circumstances I’d lose far more than my travel spirit. There comes a time when going home has to be your next travel destination.