It’s been a while since I wrote Cambodia: Part 2. Since then, I’ve returned to the whirlwind of work and Ironman training, fighting a hip injury, and traveling to SF and Austin, which featured having my rental car broken into and my duffel bag stolen, getting a nasty sinus infection, and the creation of this run-on sentence. The “holidays” have been anything but relaxing so far.
But back to Cambodia, before “real life” re-invaded my daily existence. We last left our anti-hero (that’s me) in a tailspin Thursday night, after confronting the reality of life for kids in rural villages in Cambodia. Friday morning, we all boarded the same bus, heading for a different village. From the bus to a hay filled truck bed, the heat returned and our sore legs groaned as we bounced down the dirt road to the primary school.
Waiting at the primary school was the entire school – hundreds of kids, and a troupe of dancers doing traditional Cambodia dances. We were welcomed, and then split up to join kids in various parts of the school. My group started in the library, where Mary read a story (“Who am I?”) where animals are described and the kids (1st or 2nd grade) have to guess the animal. Then we started to draw. A very young, shy girl wasn’t participating so I grabbed a piece of paper and sat down next to her. She still wouldn’t draw, so I drew a few things on the paper (I think it was a cat, since that’s what we were supposed to draw), and she eventually joined me to help create a border around the picture. Everything we’d learned about girls education was on display here – the boys were dominant in the classroom, grabbing the paper and taking charge in their groups. I thought about the girls we had met the day before, and how Room to Read was taking shy girls like this one and transforming them into young women who aren’t afraid to challenge a foreigner with a tough question.
We then were seated in a classroom (a shared, small desk that I barely and comically fit into), and were participating in a lesson on writing Khmer letters. The language is tough – three times as many letters as the English alphabet, and they all looked the same to me. I did okay at guessing the words, but only through rote memory and pattern matching. Then three of us were called up to the front to act out animals, and this time instead of guessing the animal, the kids had to write the name of the animal on the mini chalkboard. My team of kids got all the animals that I acted out, though there was some controversy because I failed to recognize a gibbon and thought it was a monkey.
The entire morning was filled with laugher – the kids were laughing, we were laughing, and we were seeing the start of the new journey for these kids. They had a library thanks to Room to Read, and literacy programs, and a wonderful school. There was hope here.
In the afternoon we met a man who had donated the entire grounds for the library – turning them from rice fields into a school yard. Rice fields are the source of prosperity, so this was an unheard of sacrifice – but he wanted to make sure his 20 grandchildren had an education, so he donated the land.
We talked with the community leader (essentially the mayor of a few combined villages) about his goals for the school and community. We heard from elders in the village about their hopes for the school. We saw their commitment in making the school a success, and we shared lunch with them.
After seeing the challenge and despair the day before, we saw the possibility and the potential of what could be for Cambodia.
The previous night, I had been working on what I could do, to keep Cambodia alive in my life. I mentally outlined a set of options, from the most minimal (changing my laptop background to a picture of the girls) to the most extreme (selling all my worldly possessions and moving to Cambodia to help Room to Read).
All too often in life, significant experiences fade quickly and we lose their meaning, washed away by the daily churn of our lives. Our daily repetition of our commute, our offices, our routines bleach out events, feelings, and moments of significance.
I don’t want to lose Cambodia
So, here are my ideas for how I keep Cambodia in my life and keep Room to Read as a part of my life. I haven’t committed to all of them, but I want to record them so I don’t forget.
The Basics – one time
- Changing my laptop background – Done! (Wow, Bryan, you’re amazing.)
- As a part of my trip, I gave a talk at our company “All Hands” meeting about the trip. I gave it three times in one day, twice to Sydney, and once to Amsterdam. Then I got to watch Jeremy, my roommate for the trip, give it to the San Francisco office a day later. I had a hard time making it through the presentation the first time, and even the second time I had to fight through a couple of the stories to not lose my composure. On the upside it was certainly authentic.
- Increasing the amount I am going to match with my Ironman campaign: I’m going to change the matching for my Ironman my fundraising campaign. Instead of just personally matching the first $10,000 donated, I’m going to match the first $15,000 donated.
Good – recurring commitment
- Every three months, for the next three years, I will write a letter of encouragement to Kall, the leader of Room to Read
- Every three months, writing a letter of encouragement to Setlang, a university student who benefitted from Room to Read, who is now a teacher, and giving back to Room To Read.
- I am going to have a work buddy (Matt, who went on the trip with me) who I check in with to keep Cambodia in my mind and heart – he’s made commitments, so this is a way for us to keep each other honest.
Better – bigger commitment
- Returning to Cambodia in two years. ‘Nuff said.
- For the next three years, donate more on Room to Read for Cambodia than I spend on triathlon (includes any running, biking, swimming gear, race fees, massage, tattoos, performance enhancing drugs, etc.)
- For the next three years, make Room to Read the main charity in my life, with a specific focus on Cambodia. This means I would donate more of my personal funds and my time to Room to Read than any other charity.
Out of the Comfort Zone
- Learn basic conversational Khmer. Khmer is the language of Cambodia. I’m not going to become fluent – but just survival Khmer. This would require some work every couple of weeks to make myself somewhat comprehensible when I return in two years.Learning very basic Khmer (taking Khmer lessons in Australia)
- Returning to Cambodia next year (instead of in two years).
- Go monk. Sell all my worldly possessions, donate all my savings to Room to Read, and join a monastery in Cambodia. Okay, I’m ruling this one out. But it’s the kind of thing that crosses your mind after you leave the home of one of the girls.
Was I actually changed by Cambodia? Or was this an emotional speed bump? The proof will be in my actions over the next decade.