It’s taken me almost a month to put my thoughts about my trip to Cambodia into words. I wrestled with a lot of emotions in Cambodia and the grappling didn’t stop when I got home. That being said, it was difficult to figure out how to document everything in this space. So, instead of writing one long chronological narrative I decided to write about the emotions I experienced. My emotions ranged from feelings of joy, happiness and fascination to moments when I felt speechless, confused, misled and anxious. In the end, I think the emotion that runs throughout the story is the feeling I started with when I left, an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I was fortunate to work with some remarkable human beings while I was in Cambodia, who truly inspired me.
I didn’t do a lot to prepare myself prior to the trip to Cambodia, so I felt like a sponge while I was there. Soaking up as much information, history and culture that I could. Since I’ve gotten home my curiosity and sense of wonder have only increased. I was blown away by both the resiliency and gentle nature of the Khmer (Cambodian) people. I was exposed first hand to orphan tourism, the orphan crisis, child abuse and human-trafficking. I became aware of problems I could hardly fathom before the trip. While this caused some internal strife, I was so encouraged by the Cambodian organizations I got to work with while I was there. You can find a list of the organizations I worked with at the end of this post.
Ironically, since returning home I’ve seen several articles popping up in my newsfeed about the “white savior” complex, like this one from NPR and this one from The Guardian. These articles are disheartening and make me sad for several reasons. There is no straightforward answer to the “white savior” issue (the idea that only white Western aid, charity and intervention can “save the world”); it is so complicated. However, it is worth mentioning that I did think about these issues during my trip. This is the third international humanitarian trip I’ve participated in and it was very different than anything I have been a part of in the past. In fact, it was also very different from a lot of volunteer work I’ve done in the US. On my previous trips to Jamaica we built homes for those in need, I’ve also worked with local after school programs that provide children with school supplies, food and other basic necessities. While my intentions in the past were good, I always wondered if I was somehow missing the mark.
In Cambodia, however, all of the organizations we partnered with were working to empower people by equipping them with the skills, tools and training needed to become financially and socially independent individuals that are contributing to their communities. We give the girls bicycles because the organizations have gotten to know Dan over the years, and they ask the 88bikes for the bicycles. They have a need and 88bikes help them to meet the need. The local NGOs are already doing so much on their own that they do not have the budget to help their beneficiaries get bicycles. By giving bikes, 88bikes is able to come alongside the organizations and girls to help encourage them, empower them and make them less vulnerable. This is one reason why this trip, above any others, had such a profound impact. Furthermore, I am a cyclist. I’m passionate about cycling, and women’s cycling in particular. Studies have shown that cycling improves self esteem and academic performance, I’ve experienced this in my own life, seen it through coaching a middle school mountain bike team (NICA) and through spending time with a women’s cycling club in Gurgaon, India. My passion for cycling matched with the unprompted need for bicycles made this experience so authentic. None of the relationships were forced. The work was not forced and the spotlight was never put on 88bikes, Dan, Ellen or me.
To read more about my trip you can check out my collection of writing and photography here.