JUST TWO MONTHS AFTER my eighteenth birthday I began my six-week summer journey to Cambodia. In the months before my departure the idea of traveling to Cambodia felt so surreal, and even when the day of my departure arrived I still could not believe it.
In a desperate attempt to gather all my gear and say good-bye to my family, I almost missed my flight to Los Angeles. Luckily, I arrived at the airport just in time for departure. Unfortunately, my luggage did not arrive on time and would come on the next flight.
Once in Los Angeles I met 11 other unique individuals who I’d be traveling with in Cambodia and who were just as eager and excited as I was. (I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only fanatic about traveling) After I was able to pick up my delayed luggage we began our journey to Beijing. There we picked up one more member of our adventures group and got on the flight to Phnom Pehn.
Little did I know how much this six-week trip would change me.
My pursuit to challenge myself did not begin there. It had started two years ago during my sophomore year of high school. I was looking to step out of my comfort zone and I applied and was accepted to the Coro Exploring Leadership Program, a youth leadership program that trains high school students to become change makers in their school and neighborhood communities.
In the program I was challenged to try new things and my leadership skills increased through the activities and action that we took to address social justice issues in our schools and communities.
One day during the program Ben Polansky, the Youth Program Manager, told us that we could apply for a scholarship to travel abroad that summer. I could not believe my ears when I heard this.
This opportunity sounded too good to be true. I would finally be able to achieve my goal of going to a completely foreign country. After I was chosen for a scholarship I decided upon traveling to Cambodia. (How cool is that? Who else can say they have been to Cambodia by the age of 18?)
Out of all the amazing things I experienced in Cambodia the one thing that sticks out in my mind is my home stay. That one week alone made my trip an unforgettable summer. I, despite being born and raised in a big city, quickly adjusted and learned to love the simple rural life of a small village such as Prek Pdao.
Napping in a hammock under the stilt house and hanging out with my host brother throughout the village, I felt I was living life at its purest.
Back in San Francisco I felt I was always living a routine and did not take time to appreciate what was around me. Prek Pdao was much more of a calm environment. It allowed me to stop and reflect on the beauty and nature around me. With no outside distractions, I was finally living in the present.
What struck me the most about the home stay was the humility and generosity of the local people, especially my host family. My host family would always put my needs ahead of their own. They did whatever they could to make my stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Towards the beginning of my trip I causally mentioned I enjoy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
From then on I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich everyday as an afternoon snack known as “supper”. In such a little time they taught me so much about compassion and generosity. I was very inspired by their tremendous compassion to offer me the little that they had. I hope to continue to use the lessons they taught me for the rest of my life.
I also had the opportunity to teach English to classes of students at a school. Coming to Cambodia I had never thought about standing in front of a classroom and teaching a group of students. When I was asked by one of the teachers I hesitantly agreed. I was open to the new experience but did not think I would make a very good teacher.
Looking back now I can honestly say it was one of my highlights of the trip. The students were all very motivated to learn as much English from me as they could. They perfectly followed along with the dialogue and quickly mastered the grammar rules I taught. They did not hesitate to ask questions and were very attentive. Teaching, something totally new to me, felt so natural.
The hours I spent teaching flew by. The teacher then asked me to teach other classes, and I agreed without hesitation. I happily spent the next few days teaching other classes. Sure, I might have helped the students learn the English language but I think the students taught me something much more important. They taught me to not give up on my goals no matter the situation.
These students have to overcome tremendous difficulties and challenges to get a good education and be successful. Despite all the odds against them they continue to pursue an education. They gave me the hope that I can accomplish my hopes and dream no matter the difficulties I face.
Returning back home was definitely difficult for me. It seemed that the community that I had spent my whole life in had changed when in actuality it was me who had changed. Looking at it from an outside perspective I finally saw exactly how much excess material possessions we in the United States posses. I got to better understand the blessings I have living in this country.
Now I no longer take things such as a flushing the toilet and a refrigerator for granted. I am much more aware of what we posses compared to other countries. Now I try to live more of a life of solidarity rather than a life of material excess like before.
I definitely recommend traveling to high school students. In my opinion traveling is the best way to deepen your understanding of the world. I found my experience to be life changing and I’m sure the other students in my group would say the same.
Honesty, I can know say there is no better way to spend you summ3er than traveling abroad. It doesn’t matter where you travel or who you are, with so many fun and new experiences when visiting a new country, I’m sure you will enjoy it.
Do you remember your very first travel experience? Share your reflections with our Brave New Travelers in the comment section below.
Learn more about the Matador Youth Scholarship Fund.