I Signed for Six-Months and Then I Stayed for Six-Years in Cambodia

The year I left the Philippines to work overseas, the people of the world, were preparing for the doomsday. The main headline everywhere was the Y2K virus that was supposed to create havoc in the world, and the coming of Jesus was inevitable.

Nothing happened. No computer glitched happened, and no Jesus arrived with brimstone and death. So I forged ahead and started a new life as an expat.

My first international sojourn

I wrote in my blog The Reluctant Overseas Worker how I came to be an overseas worker. It was not something I dreamt of doing after I finished university. The adventure to work overseas landed on my lap without me trying and when an opportunity like this comes who am I to refuse.

Cambodia opened the skies for me, it was my first destination. I didn’t have difficulty settling in because I have family over there.

I have a brother living in Phnom Penh since the early 90’s and my sister who is a nun was assigned there after the coup d’etat in 1997 until few months after I arrived in 2000. And the Filipino community I met was very welcoming and helpful.

The culture was different, but it was not very imposing that its hard to adapt, moving around was easy for non-drivers like me, and the food was great so you will forgive me when I say living in Cambodia, in any part of it, I felt like I was on perpetual vacation all year round. Security was touch and go in the beginning and it improved over time.


I arrived in the country when everything was rustic. and security was lax (but one cannot be complacent). Airports are like ground zero – old runway riddled with potholes, the airport was fenced with corrugated iron and we walked to the gate after we deplane. Once inside the small arrival area, I got the feel of the country — the noise, the chaos and the smell (much like some of the Philippines domestic airport).

Outside was another experience and that’s when I felt I am in another country. I was welcomed by the dusty humid heat and array of colorfully dressed women, men, and children. They are happily waiting and sending off families and friends by the truckload and it was noisily excited!

No time to rest, I was in my new center the day after I arrived. I went to meet my new colleagues and got the introduction and met the different people that I will be interacting with and would help me adjust and settle in.

I settled in well.

Too well actually because a couple of weeks after I arrived, experiencing how easy it was to work with my organization, my colleagues and my team I told myself I can do this and make this my new career move.

My initial contract was 6-months. I was only to give on-the-job training to a few therapists who graduated in the only PT school in the country in French. The organization that hired me was English, and the medium of instructions was English so imagine me, a wide-eyed young woman in a foreign land in a male-dominated industry trying to figure out how I will do my job and not lose face (that is me being Asian) in case I bungled it up. I managed to overcome the language barrier and easily settled in my work like I was born for it.

I was happy that among the seven therapists I was to work with, five of them are female and two are male but only two of them speaks good English. The head of the rehabilitation center was also a woman from the US. She runs the whole rehabilitation center and community program while her husband runs the prosthetics and orthotics workshop and the technical school.

It was very different from working in the hospitals’ in the Philippines (which hasn’t changed a lot since), I had more freedom to be creative, and innovative in handling cases. It was refreshing.

Introduction to international development

When I joined the organization that recruited me I had no idea what they are doing. All I had was information from what they sent me to read. I don’t even know much about the country. That was the time when internet searches were something to be dreamed of and the search engine doesn’t have that much-stored data yet and Facebook will not be born until after four years.

I did learn about Cambodia but with its old name Kampuchea from my history classes in high school and from what my brother told me. I knew about the Khmer Rouge genocide and that the people had to flee their country which that time I could relate to Vietnam boat people and of course the world famous Angkor Wat. But I had no inkling as to the gravity of the aftermath of the genocide until I was there and seeing them in my own eyes.

My new realities

I never saw that much amputation in my life. It was only when I moved to Cambodia that I realized it would be my reality on top of other physical disabilities that we will find in the community where the centers were operating. Twenty years after the war, I still saw acute cases because there were still landmines everywhere in the country. I tried hard to keep my emotion to myself and get on with my job. Others were not so lucky in controlling their emotions because it is just very sad to see the impact it has on the lives of the people at that time.

(Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
A reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s (Cheung Ek grounds) (Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
Tould Sleng Museum grounds

Back then the idea of talking about your feelings is as rare as watching a movie in a theater in Phom Penh. I managed my own stresses and emotion by looking at different ways to unwind and I am glad that Cambodia was such a hub for fun activities – live music, good food, touristic sites etc.

A lifelong commitment

The country drew me in and joining my organization Cambodia Trust that runs one of the successful prosthetics and orthotics school in the capital Phnom Penh and physical rehabilitation centers also in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville (Kampong Som) and Kampong Channang made the transition easy.

All the centers were providing services to people with physical injuries while the school trains technicians using Cambodian standard prosthesis – durable, lightweight and cheap produced locally. It was a fun learning and working experience. I was involved in anything and everything that has to do with uplifting the standards of physiotherapy and rehabilitation services in the country together with other organization in the field aligned with the prosthetics and orthotics services.

Discovering that there are so much to do with very little time, I extended my contract and eventually stayed in Cambodia for 6 years discovering more about human rights and international laws and treaties, and many more until it was time for me to move to another continent.

You can check out Signs of Times: A Summary of My Two Decades of Experience in International Development

Adjustments to the realities of war and violence

Note: This blog post has been published in https://mydecadelongtravels.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/adjustments-to-the-altered-realities-of-war-and-violence/

***********************************

But what if you didn’t die when exposed to the cruelty of the world?

That person ends up disabled changing the dynamics of his or her life and of the lives of the people around them. Especially those closes to him or her whose coping with the change also affects their being starting from their psyche.

I call it the ripple effect as a consequence of trauma.

The impact of disability, which brings change to the person himself is too much. It is life changing, altering everything he worked all his life for. Everything that they know is normal is altered forever. In their mind, more often than not their lives are over, and with that thought, it is often difficult to convince people of the alternatives. That life continues with some accommodations to start over and build a new reality.

Like in any situation of trauma, people with disabilities undergo the process of grief and acceptance. No one can do it alone, help should be available when traumatic events happen in one’s life.

The assurance that “you are not alone” should be there to see the person through the initial shock of the new reality of being alive and of being different.

The difference should be a part when the person learns to accept that it does not change anything more than the appearance. His or her mental health should be considered immediately to allow reality to set in with less dramatic effect on his understanding of his or her new person. Accepting together with him or her would be the closest people in his life because, like rearing children, acceptance of change is a “village.”

Not knowing what is there for him or her, and for them further traumatizes the person’s mind and body that is why it is important that during emergencies, psychological first aid – counseling is available and accessible to all.

Mental health support is for all the people that surround him or her as it will buoy them over to the new reality of their lives and prepare for their environment. This is accompanying immediate medical and physical support to get the person back on his or her feet and start to follow the process until a new life, an accepted reality is reached empowering the person himself and those around him into continue living because at least that they can do something about it.

No one support is more important – be it physical, medical or mental health support. We have to look at the person and acknowledge that what s/he needs is a holistic approach to allow full and complete recovery.  And continue to be part of the environment with the support of the people around them, equally able to adjust to the new life brought on by senseless war and violence in our world.

#NoMoreWar

I went to bed happy.

The last thing I did was publish my last post and turned off the lights. I guess I was tired because most nights I don’t sleep before the witching hour of 3 am the following day so sleeping before midnight was a real treat! But whatever time I went to la la land I always wake up the same time, before the rooster even which tells me I must be getting old 😄. Who cares anyway? Definitely not me!

Anyway, fully awake now I checked my phone and saw the little WordPress, WhatsApp and Facebook icon giving notice that people actually read my post. Well the WhatsApp message was something else but I am pleased with who I saw, and read and I liked them. Especially in Facebook because these are people that I personally know and knows me back.

The first three women who liked my FB post are the three women that I admire myself.

We encountered life and work together and actually a fourth even reached out to me privately when I posted my poem Falling In The Cracks. She offered to listen but all I could reply was “Thanks Amel” because I know even without telling she knows what I am feeling.

Then I saw this quote fitting tribute to the friends I made over the years.

It is not really the number of friend you have that matters its the quality and the bonds you made together.

It doesn’t matter how often you see or talk to each other its the feeling that you know they are there no matter what.

There is always that invisible tie that binds friends together and its truly great to know that the binds are made of gold thread that is priceless like that of families.

Shout out to my friends 🔊 You know who you are!

Lets to friendship! Even virtually

Being Thankful

How much do you appreciate every day?

We live day in, day out.

We toil, we adapt, we adjust to make the most of our life.

We do what we love, we pour out our passion. We try to be happy. We make others happy.

Does that make your day?

It does for me. With my kind of work, you have to believe me when I say I am thankful every day…

in the morning …

for the peaceful and restful sleep …

for the new day …

and for my daily struggles.

I met people in a far worst situation than me. I’ve been to places where luxury is a dream. I’ve been around love from nothing and love that is waiting for nothing in return.

That is why even in my current circumstances. I am grateful every day.

As you already know I am still in the process of healing. My foot and leg have not fully recovered but I am getting there.

I am waiting for it to take its natural course, it means I still have to keep on going as today reminds me of the accident I had at the beginning of the year.

Happy Easter

Before anything else, I like to greet everyone Happy Easter!

In the Catholic faith, this is one of the traditions we celebrate like Christmas, as this is the time when Jesus with his short life was able to give us God’s promise of redemption from all my sins.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:!6

Well, it can be redemptions of your sins or our sins it doesn’t matter as long as you believe that God fulfilled his promise to give us new slate to start over. but then again if you don’t believe in God, that’s up to you, but pretty sure you believe in second chances or an opportunity to start over and for me this is it.

I do this every year, I look back and see how I could be a better person and try hard to outrank how I assessed myself and achieve the happy life I like to live. I made mistakes in the past, now I have time to correct them and try harder not to repeat the same mistakes.

Believe me, when I say I am like everybody else, I am human, prone to make mistakes (reminds you of a song eh?) and to succumb to temptation (making it sound like I have superhuman powers, I have to stop watching Marvel movies!).

In fact, this year started not so right for me. I have to cut my contract short because I have to return to my family to be taken care of. I don’t know when I can go back to work now that I have to start over.

What is important to me now is to keep myself current and be motivated enough to keep me out of bed, psyching myself even though it’s hard not knowing for certain what the future holds. But like I said, we all deserve second chances, I deserve a second chance and this Easter Sunday, I intend to take advantage of that and renew my life.

This blog may be my way out, at least as a catharsis for now but who knows. Social media has been an outlet, I think I’ve used it more than I should but still I want to keep sharing a little bit of me!