I recently spent a week living in a tiny village in the countryside of southern Cambodia volunteering at a community school for children who otherwise would not receive an education. It was barely a village, really. It was a long stretch of red dirt road, lined with corn farms and rice fields, with a few huts dotted along the way that served as shops, selling ice, beer, rice wine, and basic necessities.
I passed the week painting moon designs and bohemian patterns on the volunteer accommodation, practicing english and playing with the kids, and guiding them through a 30 minute yoga session every afternoon, followed by dips in the local swimming hole to wash off the day’s sweat and dust.
It was a very, very simple life — very few comforts and basic amenities — as this is how these people live. For them, this is “normal”. For us, it would be classified as “poverty”. We slept on the floor on a few very thin mattresses that gave little relief from our bones crushing up against the ground. Our toilet was a few minutes walk away from our accommodation, a little Asian-style squat-hole-in-the-ground, no toilet paper, but a water bucket to flush with. The shower worked… rarely. I showered a total of 2 times during that week. We cooked over a fire, learning how to make one-pot vegetable-and-noodle dishes with limited resources.
Many of the children were expected to work on the farms during the day, and came to school sporadically, and only for a few hours, from 2pm to 5pm. They looked happy. The way that children are innocently accepting and happy.
During my time there I often caught myself thinking about our western dissatisfaction and “lack thinking” and constant striving for more. How these people live with so much less. How happiness is relative, and not dependent on results or accumulations. Why it is that some of us are born with privileges like clean water, health care, access to education, financial abundance and limitless options and choices. While others are born into poverty, corruption, financial struggle, and very few choices.
Buddhists believe that detachment from material things helps us see the inequities of life as relatively unimportant: they are temporary, superficial to our spiritual essence and inconsequential in our pursuit of everlasting spiritual fulfilment. In this view, each lifetime is an opportunity to either grow and expand, or shrink and retract as a spiritual being through the choices you make in your human experience. It’s a kind of game of karma points. You win some, and you lose some, based on how accepting you are and what you make of your life.
It’s a very nice, accepting way to be. I am sure acceptance is much easier than suffering. Nonetheless, I notice that I often feel angry, the muscles in my body tightening, when I see so many things that are being accepted, that are incredibly unfair.
We arrived in Siem Reap, the centre for the famous Angkor Wat temples, a few days ago. Apart from the majestic beauty of the jungle-fairytale temples, I hate it here.
It’s dusty and filthy. There is trash overflowing in piles against every building. Children are begging on every corner, asking for food and money. Not because they really need it, but because it’s more profitable for their parents. There are thousands of desperate people standing outside the cool air-conditioned doors I am hiding behind, frantically trying to sell things to tourists: tuk tuk rides, motorbikes, food, clothes, cheap souvenirs made in China. The hotels are mostly dumps and don’t match the glossy photos they sell their rooms with on the websites.
If I could, I would advise you never to come here. It’s a shame to see that a precious, historical site is being prostituted out for cold, hard cash without the respect and care that it deserves.
This is the overall feeling in Cambodia. Anything that makes money is exploited here: child sex tourism is a huge problem; international baby adoption is a ragingly corrupt business; endless names of available drugs are whispered in dark shady corners for sale to anyone brave enough to dare. And that’s just what I see before my eyes. I can’t even begin to imagine what is happening down narrow alleyways, and between handshakes from stout, grinning politicians and businessmen.
All these things make me feel many different conflicting things.
I feel really, really angry. Because the people who are suffering are the ones who haven’t enough money or opportunities to educate themselves to say “it’s not okay” to the corruption, and “no” when someone offers them a week’s wage to take their little baby girl away.
I also feel a kind of shame. A shame that I have it so much easier and better than so many of them.
And then, a confusion. Those children living in the countryside, with their sweet, wide-eyed innocent joy… Weren’t they exceedingly happier than most children I see in our western world? They live such a simple life, unaware of the troubles that others may have. Maybe it’s not us who are privileged, but them, for ignorance is bliss.
I firmly believe that real change has to come from within. And while I soberingly know that there is very little I can do to make a difference — a real impact on the people living this reality here right now — I believe that I can practice and teach what I preach: if we want the world to change, we have to change, first and foremost.
What else can be done?