I just returned from a 15 day trip to Cambodia and Laos, which both surprised me in their own rights.
Cambodia’s dark history of genocide in the late 70’s shocked me, when approximately a quarter of their population was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, driven by fear from Pol Pot’s regime. Any intellectual people such as doctors, teachers, and nurses were all uprooted from their families, tortured and killed, along with their kin. Up to 2 million people were wiped out this way from 1975 to 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded and Pol Pot’s regime fell over. There’s a generation gap clearly evident by the large amount of young people all over Cambodia.
Laos surprised me by its conservative Communist rule and its extreme poverty. Apparently it’s a crime for Lao women to mix with foreigners / Western men. Taking roads through the rural countryside, I felt naive to realize how poor of a country Laos is. I was robbed twice in the course of my travels through Laos, but in hindsight, it was my own lack of foresight that led to these incidents. It also made for a huge chunk of change to a local Laotian’s average salary of a few dollars a day (or less).
These two revelations struck me. While I myself was a tourist snapping pictures, falling into tourist traps and the like, I felt a bit of displacement looking at particular tourists. Those tourists with too much money who travel for the sake of getting another stamp in the passport, adding another to a growing laundry list of visited countries just to say they’ve been there. They scorn the locals, only mix with Westerners on their trip and make a mockery of the culture by poking fun at the language and getting shitfaced amongst luxury accommodations and pubs catered for them. What they fail to realize is how subservient and grateful locals are to tourists, who provide so much in the form of income, tips etc. They go out of their way to learn English and French, vastly different languages to Khmer and Lao, so why do we feel entitled to mock their poor English writing in menus and signposts? English speakers are notorious for knowing only their mother tongue. If we tried to pick up their language they’d have a field day of laughing at us. Anyways, I digress.
The reason for the post is there’s 2 certainties my brain has settled on. 1) We will all die 2) A huge part of the world population subsists on $1/day. Call me an idealist, but number 2 still scares me. The first certainty of death does only mildly now, but only from the perspective that time runs out far too quickly for us to rest on our laurels and make excuses to stay with the status quo and forego things we really want to pursue. My first goal when I started work 6 years ago was to attain a 6 figure salary before I reached 30. I’m 30 now and making a comfortable living, but it feels flat and empty, a means to an ever increasing goal for more money to supplement what kind of lifestyle? Pretention, stuff, material excess, mortgages, cars? No thanks. If that’s the holy grail of success, I have nothing left to prove, nor do I want to prove it anymore.
11 months are left on my contract. The freedom to explore what I want to do next is wide open. Whether I pursue development economics / policy / humanitarian aid is still something that has scratched my conscience for years. Regardless, I’m grateful to have saved a good chunk of change to buy this freedom to take time off next year. Travel, family / friend time, semi-retirement and exploring a new purpose are on the agenda for 2013. 11 months will fly here in Australia, but I can’t wait to take things in stride and off-the-cuff next year.