Five weeks ago, in preparation for one of our first seminar discussions, we read a book by Joel Brinkley, titled Cambodia’s Curse, which, according to the inside cover, “draws from rich, in-depth reporting to illuminate the real Cambodia.” There were many things written in the pages of this Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford professor’s text with which I did not agree, but none so much as this: “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.” Brinkley calls this statement by Joseph Mussomeli, former United States ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia, a “prophetic warning.” After spending several weeks here, I remain startled and astonished that either of these men could come to such a conclusion.
For each day that I wake up in this country, I am inspired. It is not only the breathtaking landscapes, with grounds more vibrant and skies that feel just a bit fuller than anywhere else. The people I encounter here have a great beauty and grace that continues to overwhelm me – something as simple as an infectious smile from the old woman at the market stays with me for days. Everyone I meet – at Seven Candles, at Bamboo Shoot City Dorm, at Srayang – is so welcoming and kind. When the only female reporter in Siem Reap, who started her work at seventeen, so openly shares her story with us, I am moved by her courageous spirit. As the girls at the dorm discuss their goals, I am proud to sit in the company of Cambodia’s future leaders.
In addition to the hope and enthusiasm I see in everyone I have met, there is also tremendous strength. I see no apathy, only thoughtfulness around the complex realities that exist. As I watch a group of students, some of whom who have lived at times with no food, plumbing, or electricity in order to continue attending school, speak about studying at university (programming, graphic design, literature, medicine, mathematics, history, biology, chemistry, the list goes on…), I am, myself, motivated by the example of these extraordinary individuals.
Though Brinkley insists that over two hundred people, “Cambodian and others with experience in the country,” were interviewed for his book, I have to believe that neither he nor Mussomeli stopped to have a real conversation while here in Cambodia. Despite the corruption (its history from which Brinkley, Mussomeli, and myself are not completely separate from, as Americans in this country), there are so many individuals, especially youth, who are creating their own paths for the future. In my time here, I feel that I have gotten a glimpse of the real Cambodia and I have fallen in love – with its beauty, its people, and the indomitable character that I have seen in so many. It is with a full heart that I will return home in a few days, carrying all that I have learned here with me into the future, and to everyone I have encountered here, I am forever grateful.