The emotional roller coaster that has been April presented me with some of the most conflicted and complicated emotions I have had since coming to Cambodia. I felt calm and stressed, exhilarated and defeated, grateful and yet desperate to leave.
A lot of enjoyable things took place in April, but I also found myself feeling a bit troubled. Feelings of unease and ambiguity left me unmotivated to push myself in my time here, to explore new places and experience new things. I lacked the enthusiasm to blog and share what was going on, whether good or bad.
However, after some soul searching and a chocolate donut, I believe it is finally time to talk about what has been happening in April. It is time to share the highs, the lows, and everything else that has happened over this month. For it is important to me to be true to what really goes on here, in both my time in Cambodia but also in my mind. What good is having a place to document my travels, if the writings are full of falsities and grand tales of exaggeration and fantasy? I never hesitate to share the wonderful times, and I also strive not to hide the challenges and the unfavorable parts of my volunteer experience.
At the beginning of the month, I felt tired. Two months in Cambodia, while incredible in many ways, left me feeling a bit weary and wanting to go home. I loved the excitement of being someplace new, and I loved the chance to meet new people, experience a new culture, teach young minds, play with children with the most beautiful souls, and write endless words for a NGO. Yet, I grew frustrated with waking up to ants crawling over me in my bed, fishing out bugs from my food, the feeling of never being clean, and the lack of respect from my almost completely male office.
My feelings of discontent created new ones: shame, guilt, and resentment. I knew that I should not be angry at a place that was different from home, for that was the whole point was it not? To be so outside of my comfort zone that it transformed me into a new person, forced to abandon her anxieties and worries in order to cope with new surroundings.
At first that worked, and once I got over the initial shock of Cambodia when I arrived three months ago, I slowly let go of the dark shadows that loomed over me in order to manage in my new environment. I am thankful for that. Cambodia became what I hoped it would be; not something that would fix me temporarily, but a place where I gained the tools to heal myself.
But as time grew on, the little things that irritated me continued to swarm in my mind. Some I disliked but could handle, like the inescapable heat and the smell of fish whenever it rained. Others frustrated me to points where I locked myself in my room and cried, such as finding insects in my food and rats running around the kitchen. I hated the uncleanliness, but my hatred only poisoned me with guilt for feeling the way I did. I wondered if I was losing the strength and development that I had gained here; if I was moving backwards.
I did not want to resent the experience that, despite the unfortunate parts, was becoming everything I wanted, and was giving me everything I had hoped it would. So I strove, and am still in the process, to change my mindset, to scale back, to do whatever it took to maintain a happy and positive attitude about my time here. I wanted to ensure the experience was one I could still look back on and smile about, not remember with any strong feelings of contempt.
Throughout April, I slowly scaled back. I spend more time in solitude, retreating to the quiet of my room to read books for hours on end. Over the course of the month, I finished four books, going from one to the next in a desperate attempt for some escape from the real world.
First I traveled through North Korea, learning about the intensity of government censorship and corruption, and the hardships of the people through the words of The Orphan Master’s Son. I was surprised, shocked, and horrified. I unconsciously drew parallels between the abuse and horrors of its political climate and the terrors suffered by Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge. When I visited the Genocide Museum and the Killings Fields later in the month, my heart ached and my mind struggled to comprehend the barbarity of what took place.
Next, I went to England and exploring a both thrilling and unfortunate case about a hit and run incident. I realized a mystery story of filled with loss, rediscovery, and forgiveness. With I Let You Go, I reflected upon my own conflictions, my own inner turmoil coming to terms with the past. Even though I must confess this novel is mainly a thriller, something to read quickly and then impatiently wait for a movie remake to be made, I gained more from it. The story resonated with me, for reasons I am not quite sure.
After England, I got lost in a circus and within days devoured a story of magic, romance, and wonder. The Night Circus left me dazzled and mystified, feeling once again in love with life. Stories with fantastical elements excite me. As a child I built fairy houses in my backyard and tried to teach myself how to fly. I was convinced of the reality of Santa Clause and believed the world too big and too undiscovered to truly refute anything of whimsical origin. This tale spoke to my inner child, and brought me a happiness that I greatly needed.
Finally, I ended April in Afghanistan with A Thousand Splendid Suns. I cried alongside the stories of two women, brought together through cruel fates. I learned about Islam, the uprisings, the wars, and the terrorist groups; versions of both the ones I knew and the ones known by Afghanistan. I read recipes for food, prayers for worship, and the friendship and unlikely triumph of brave women.
But while traveling in spirit through the words in my books, I also journeyed to other places in the physical sense. Drained from feeling like a wasted extremity at my volunteer placement, where they had and still have failed to utilize me for all that I am worth despite my attempts, I desired to make better use of my time. Or at the very least, do something with it that brought me more joy than sitting in an ant filled office, surrounded by male coworkers that rarely talk to me.
As I mentioned before, I ventured to Kampot and Kep. I felt renewed by scenic lake and mountain views and empowered by operating a motorbike. My soul swelled with happiness after a weekend full of adventure, friendship, and good food.
I also played tourist in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap once again. With the arrival of my parents, for ten days I frolicked about with my family, feeling truly happy and complete for the first time in weeks. Modern technology may provide me with a closeness to my friends and family back home that I am truly thankful for, but still, nothing can compare to an actual hug from Mom and Dad, no matter how sweaty it may be.
Even after my holiday, I continued to seek solace. I frequently sought the air-conditioned refuge of cafes, taking extended lunch hours where I nourished my soul with a baked good or two. I reached out to friends, watched my favorite YouTubers, and spent hours binging Vikings on Netflix.
Four weeks later, April has ended. The toughest month of my time here so far has finally come to a close, and I feel relieved because of it. In my original intention of staying for six months, twenty-four weeks, I have reached the halfway mark.
Looking back, reflecting on all the things that have occurred and emotions I have experienced, I feel slightly surprised and proud of how I have changed here. Before coming to Cambodia, I felt instable, out of control, and afraid of myself. I distrusted my own thoughts and feared what crossed through my mind. My brain never turned off, and the constant thinking and worrying left me a bubbling pit of anxiety and despair.
I wanted to find myself again, and surface above all the darkness that had loomed around me. I wanted to not just revert back to the confident and happy person I knew existed somewhere inside of me, but progress past her, and reach a new level of fulfillment and self-assurance that epitomized the person I knew I could become; that I knew I truly was. And even with the occasional moments of uncertainty and dissatisfaction, I know that over these three months, I have become this person, found her within myself. I no longer stress like I once did, worry with the same aggressive nature, or feel like I am trapped in my life. Once again, I feel in control of my own destiny, the main character of my story.
With these realizations, I no longer feel the need to prove myself. My worries that I am not staying in Cambodia long enough, not in an enough culturally different or shocking place, not doing work important enough: all finally understood for the noises of falsity they truly are. For really, I have done everything I wanted to accomplish while putting myself so incredibly far outside of my comfort zone. I experienced a new culture, I learned how to navigate and survive in a city vastly foreign to me, I worked with a diverse team to help others on a global scale, and I overcame my own demons.
After years of feeling insufficient, for the first time in my life, I truly feel and believe that I am enough, just as I am, and it is the most beautiful truth in the world. So what happened in April? In April I questioned everything, but I also learned how to love and accept myself.