My trip to Cambodia was probably one of the best times I have had in the short 17 years I have been alive. Since day one, I have been attached at the hip to my identical twin sister. We look exactly the same to new people, make the same grades, have the same friends, share clothes, and are never alone. It is never one or the other but “Hasie and Clara did this” or “Hasie and Clara, let’s do that!” We simply did not know how to be an individual before we went our separate way for the first time ever. With Rustic pathways, I left for the floating villages in Cambodia, and she left for India. It was the first time I would be on my own and discovering who I was without my twin sister. As I traveled around Cambodia, I learned how to make friends on my own and how to be okay with having my own experiences. I found my individual voice and formed more of an idea of who I was as I tapped into a deeper side of myself.
After our work was done and dinner was finished, my group spent every night in the village sitting on the top of our boat reflecting on our day and life and everything it has to offer. We talked about the immensity and wonders of space, social pressures and how they have shaped us, differences and similarities of religion, and almost anything else you can think of. We told funny and sad stories and spent every moment getting know one another that much better. No time was wasted on our phones scrolling through social media and dwelling on the lives of the people who were not with us, and instead, we spent every moment present and engaged in thoughtful and unforgettable conversation.
If I am going to be specific, the most life-changing experience I had was talking to the woman who we built a house for from start to finish. For four or five days, my friends and I spent almost all day hammering wood, tying on bamboo for walls, and sweating as we prepared this house for her. To be completely honest, at first, it seemed a little unfulfilling. We were building a house for one person when we could be out in the community doing anything else that could help multiple people at a time. However, that mindset changed after the conversation we had with her. Our local leader translated, and she told us of her struggles due to the Khmer Rouge. She was taken to a working camp where she worked from sunrise to sunset picking rice and cutting wood with only single bowl of rice to fill her stomach each day. She said she went to bed hungry every night but had to wake up ready to work every day because that was the only way to survive. During the genocide, she lost her husband who was taken to a killing field and two of her four sons. After the Khmer were defeated, she and her two sons went back to their village but could not find their home. As everyone else, they were displaced and had no way of finding their way back to it. As a result, her small family was forced to survive in the woods lining the river. During the dry season, her sons swam through the river grabbing anything that could float in order to make a raft to sleep on when the rain came. They tied it to a tree using its branches as a roof and floated up and down with the rise and fall of the river. For food, they had little and managed to find leaves and a rice substitute which they buried and cooked beneath a fire. Her sons eventually moved away, and she acquired a boat which she then lived in for some time. She has been a guest of her friend’s house but has not had a house of her own since the beginning of the genocide, some 40 years ago. We, however, were able to give her that. She is eighty-four and living far past the Cambodian life expectancy rate, and in her last years, we were given the privilege of providing her a house. After her story was over, she looked each one of us in the eyes and said, “Thank you. I was drowning, and together you all saved me.” We saved one woman and with a few days of hard work were able to restore her independence. The Khmer Rouge took so much from her, but because of us, they could not keep that. I could ask for nothing more. Saving one woman was enough for me, and I no longer desired any other service. We changed her life, and in return, she changed ours by showing us how capable we are of making a difference in the world. Because of this, Cambodia will not be my last trip, and I plan to live a life of service devoted to doing what I can to make even just a single person’s life that much better.