I’m not the kind to usually retrace my steps in a country. I like exploring new cities, meeting new people – in fact I consciously make the effort to avoid going back to the same place (especially within the span of a year) because I have so many other destinations on my wanderlust list. But of course, this being a school trip with very specific objectives, I couldn’t afford to only consider my personal inclinations.
In a way, it was good because I did promise the kids at SSF that I would be back. We told them June previously, so technically I’m half a year late. It’s amazing how much things can change within a year – the guesthouse that looked dark and foreboding with its shutters is now an inviting blue. The room we stayed in no longer exists – in fact it is the lounge area for backpackers to rest while waiting to use the computer. There’s wifi access at the cafe and the toilets have heaters while the rooms are air-conditioned. Simple, but definitely functional. The food served up by the students was excellent, although I must admit that I was so glad to go back to the noodle stall and indulge in that bowl of sweet beef noodle soup. The kids at the protection center are still the same – the older ones ask, “This is not your first time here right?” even though we only spent an afternoon together at the village. The younger ones don’t remember, but they are as cute and mischievous as ever. The scary dogs at the office are no longer there, but during this trip I somehow lost that fear of dogs or insects. Perhaps it has to do with having to maintain a facade of bravado in front of the students. The people are still the same – Vichetr and his lovely wife, Panna, Narong, Varonika – all speaking with much better English now. It was so touching when they shared with my students their dreams and how they believe that change starts from the individual, and not from the context or country.
Our route in Phnom Penh was similar too – the killing fields (minus the ATV) and Tuol Sleng. The survivors are still surviving. The scenes evoked are still as harrowing, although I’m not sure my students are old enough to understand the gravity of the massacre. If ever there was the sensation of a parallel universe, this has to be it. The dissonance lies in how much things have changed – and this constant comparison between what has changed and what has remained felt like I was submerging myself in hot and cold water simultaneously.
Of course, there were some differences. We visited a different village this time and got to spend more time interacting with the villagers. I (thankfully) did not waste anyone’s rice this time while rice husking, even though one of our students dropped a metal hook into the well … We also visited a high school and a slum site where the people are so poor they live under the large electric cables.
This entire trip was like .. sitting under a giant Bodhi tree. I feel strangely zen after this, in the sense that I no longer feel that attachment to material goods. My obsession with new things and gadgets seems to have faded away (for now, and hopefully for good) and I would like to dedicate the time that I have to investing in relationships and health instead. At the end of the day, the riches we have on earth really matter more in the lives we’ve touched and the people we love, rather than the objects that wear, tear and fade away.
As we left the protection center, I walked away quickly, struggling to hold back my tears. But even though I made no promises this time, I have a very strong feeling that I will be back again.