Tag Archives: Milestones

back to cambodia

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back to cambodia

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.

Home to home;

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It’s been 8 weeks and it’s time to go home.

Although if the saying “home is where the heart is” is true, then ‘home’ is a pretty amalgamous concept since I’ve certainly left my heart in several places around the world. Singapore, of course, will always be the primero. New York, too, for its infinite possibilities, and now, Arequipa, for its humbling ways and the lesson that simple contentment still exists in this capitalistic world.

I’m not sure if I’ve attained “traveller” (and not “tourist”) status, but I think that at the very least, I’ve become more environmentally- and culturally-sensitive. I’ve learnt to appreciate the luxury of a hot shower and of having money in my pocket. I’ve realized that that tourism can be detrimental to community psyche even if the people need or want it, and I’ve realized that I’m as much a bane to other tourists as they are to me. We all seek beauty and novelty, but we also seek solitude in that beauty. It’s the selfishness of travel and the conundrum of the tourism industry.

Am also still amazed by the multitude of people that we’ve met along the way, and of the lessons we’ve learnt from them- on life, filial piety, and definitely, definitely humility. Also very grateful for my best travel partner, who above all PMS-induced tantrums, tolerated my unbelievably smelly feet :X

And now in limbo from home to home- how blessed! (:

My Inka Initiation.

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The Inca Trail today is definitely drastically different from what it was in the past. Tour agencies cleverly present it as a ‘pilgrimage’ to the ‘sacred’ citadel of Macchu Picchu, and it costs a rather hefty price (USD 450 to be exact) to walk in the footsteps of the Andean kings. But man oh man, it sure as hell is worth it.

The Incas were the kings of the Andean people from the year 1200 to 1533, when the 14th Inka was defeated by the Spanish conquistador, Pizzaro. Once before and during their term as an Inca, they had to make a pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu from Cuzco (which was the center of the Inca empire) so as to learn about and (hopefully) improve the lives of their people. They were people who believed in the divinity of the Pachamama (or Mother Earth), Pachatata and water, and their intense devotion to these elements of nature is well represented in the Inca ruins that we saw along our trek.

It’s not hard to understand why Pachamama is so revered when you survey the geographical diversity of the Andes. On our 45 km hike, we trekked through tropical rainforests with splendid snow-capped mountains peeking shyly through the dense foliage; we hobbled down paths lined by swaying white lalang-ish plants, we tiptoed across makeshift wooden bridges over streams alive with gushing water, and each morning, we watched the mountains glow with pride in the rising sun. I was truly touched by the love and sensitivity that my guides, Santiago and Ruben, showed toward their Pachmama. It puts us air-conditioning aficionados to shame.

Fields of gold

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Colca Canyon: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?

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(This post is dedicated to Chen Weibiao, who managed to complete the entire Colca trek on foot despite having breathing difficulties and chest pains. You’re my hero!)

I didn’t realize I signed up for Outward Bound Peru. It was like I was back in Korea again- amidst amazing scenery, still as physically unprepared as ever, dogged with the same sense of elusiveness as to where we were actually going and how long we would take to get there, but at least not struggling with a 12kg load this time. (Considering how the Colca Canyon is the second deepest in the world at 3191m, it probably wasn’t smart of me to not have exercised at all in the past 3 months.) The climate was entirely different too. It had been winter in Korea so we were trekking across piles of dried leaves, snow, and at times, frozen waterfalls. Here, it was mostly, rocks, sand and even more sand. All my hopes of finally getting some unpolluted air out of Arequipa were dashed when the vast amount of sand on the roads made it such that everyone was like a revving sand machine. Not very lung-friendly at all.

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