The Uncomfortable Reality of a Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip

 

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Traveling to Cambodia was the fulfillment of a longtime dream. I had long romanticized the notion of exploring Angkor Wat and the country’s many other enchanting temples so that, when the opportunity arose to make the trip, I was ecstatic. Part of what triggered such a strong reaction for me is its intoxicating blend of religion and culture. While I identify as Catholic, I have always loved learning about other religions. I’m endlessly fascinated by their many commonalities and also intrigued by their differences. Learning more about other religions helps refine my own faith, not by elevating the dogma of my church above any other, but by incorporating a fuller understanding of who and what God is.

In other words, this trip was to be both an adventure and something of a soul cleanse. And while there was certainly a great deal of exploring, laughing, and learning, there was also an aspect to the trip that weighed heavily on me throughout.

Upon arriving in Siem Reap, it is impossible to ignore the abject poverty apparent on every street corner. It is a gorgeous and enchanting country in so many ways, but financial hardship is evident nearly everywhere. In America, it is easy to visit a large city and simply navigate around the poorer areas. A smattering of homeless people may, at times, dot our path but it’s easy to sweep along with the incessant flow of pedestrians. Our privileges become momentarily apparent but are easily avoided and ignored. In Cambodia? Not so.

It’s not as if I was particularly surprised by what I saw. Prior to arriving, I had known that Cambodia is a relatively poor country and had considered myself prepared. But having a cursory understanding of something is not the same as experiencing its reality. And through all my excitement, a pervasive, somber undercurrent began to snake its way into the trip.

For the first few days, I navigated the uncomfortableness with a detached sense of gratitude. My family and I would discuss the innumerable ways in which we had won some sort of geographic lottery. We took care to learn as much about the country and its people as we could, peppering our driver, Wii, with an array of questions.

But no matter how hard we worked to converge our understanding of two radically different worlds, we spent much of each day being chauffeured around the countryside in an air conditioned van. At day’s end, we would take our reprieve from the seemingly inescapable poverty by relaxing poolside at our private villa.

I simply could not reconcile these convergent realities. It wore me down until, finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and began quietly weeping upon a river dock.

That evening, we had taken a boat ride out to a small village for something of a sunset cruise. Simple stilted homes rose out of the water as children navigated dilapidated dinghies with the same familiarity as other children ride a bicycle to and from school. Toddlers ambled down rickety staircases leading to the water’s edge while their parents tended to any number of laborious tasks. Deep in tourist mode, we were busy taking pictures, captivated by this tiny village. Then, from over my shoulder, I heard my brother mumble about how appalling it was to be gawking at their misfortune, to be capturing images of their obvious poverty for our own frivolous keepsakes.

He wasn’t wrong. And I felt a deep sense of shame.

How ridiculous I felt in that moment, suddenly aware of the absurdity of vacationing among impoverishment. Of course, that hadn’t been the intention but does it matter when the outcome produces that very result?

The sentiment only grew as we disembarked from our small boat onto even smaller rafts, floating amongst the swampy marsh at the edge of the village. It was there that we watched the sun set below the horizon in what was supposed to have been a calm and peaceful moment. Instead, it was all I could do to curtail my horror that the oarsman of my raft was a girl of about eight, accompanied by her younger sister. Why were they there, rowing around a privileged American as night set in? Why weren’t they at home playing with their dolls or packing their school bags for the following day? I understood they were there out of financial necessity, their families dependent on their work. And there I was, having spent thousands of dollars on a vacation to escape my own “stressful” daily life.

Who was I to complain? Who was I at all?

Reaching the dock, I walked away from where my group was standing and allowed the emotion to overtake me. I couldn’t have explained in that moment, even if I had wanted, what I was feeling or exactly why. I just knew I felt acutely uncomfortable.

And yet. That wasn’t enough. I had witnessed my privilege and been ashamed by it, but I had yet to recognize the value in such discomfort.

The next day, we continued our daily routine of exploring religious temples like Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Ban Srei. Stunning in their beauty and resiliency, I looked forward to each new stop on our adventure, captivated by their religious and cultural backstories. What I did not look forward to? Walking past the throngs of locals, often children, selling trinkets outside the entrances.

This, too, I had been aware of before my arrival. I had been instructed to look straight ahead and not make eye contact because any engagement whatsoever would result in incessant pleas to purchase a magnet, a t-shirt, or small statuette. And in the time it took to pay each seller, another would quickly take his place. The pleas would simply never stop.

It was difficult, of course, to ignore these people. My heart ached for them but my head reminded me that, practically speaking, I could not give to everyone. This was eased by notices posted outside some of the temples instructing tourists not to engage with children, as it discouraged them from attending school. This made sense and allowed me to walk past the locals with increasing ease. Eventually, it became a habit, one made easier by the rationalization that engaging would do more harm than good. The disparity between ourselves remained the same but my level of discomfort decreased markedly over just a few days.

One night, far from the temples, we stopped at a roadside ATM in anticipation of a trip to an outdoor market. While waiting in line, three young boys walked up behind me. Dirty and disheveled, the oldest could not have been more than seven. Walking beside him was a child of three or four, and slung over the eldest’s shoulder was a baby no more than eighteen months old. The baby was completely naked and asleep, relying upon his brother to safely walk him through the dark night. None of them had shoes. No adult was anywhere in sight.

And what did I do in that situation? I smiled politely, barely registering what I saw, and continued waiting in line. I ignored them.

After being overcome with emotion at the sight of a little girl working in a poor river village, I had failed to convert my sympathies into action. At the very next opportunity, I hid behind my privilege, afraid to look, completely unaware of how repulsive my actions were. After all, it’s what I had been conditioned to do.

The boys waited quietly behind me, whimpering half-hearted pleas, seemingly resigned to the eventuality that they would be discarded, ignored, as they undoubtedly had been innumerable times before. After an uncomfortable minute or so, I rummaged around my wallet for whatever spare change I could find. Handing over a couple dollars, the boys gratefully took the money before a worker at a nearby gas station shooed them away.

After they had left, I stepped into the ATM booth, once again overcome by what I had seen and done. Not only had I literally turned my back on helpless children, when I finally did acknowledge them, I had offered a pittance compared to what I was about to withdraw from the cash machine.

Why?

What disturbed me most of all, was that I had not really looked into their faces. Their obvious misfortune had made me nervous, unsure of how to react. I could tell you about the dirt that caked their little feet or the uncut hair that hung low over their foreheads. But I could not tell you the color of their eyes. Had they been a creamy almond, an enchanting hazel? I could not tell you about the shape of their faces or what kind of smile might light them up. I could not tell you because I didn’t take the time to look, to ask their names, or to offer a smile of my own. I didn’t take the time to see them as people, people who would continue to exist after our paths went separate ways. And it’s that stinging realization that has stayed with me.

I looked past them for two reasons: because I could and because it was easy.

It had not been a conscious choice to be rude or to decide that they were uniquely unworthy of my resources and attention. In reality, I had unconsciously hidden behind my privilege.

I didn’t really see them because I didn’t really have to. 

Though it’s a difficult thing to acknowledge, I think it’s critically important. And this doesn’t just apply to random occurrences like my own. Indeed, it can be applied to any number of injustices committed around the world, in our own country, and in our own backyards. Without acknowledging that it exists and making a conscious effort to change that, inequality will reign supreme. And the insidious nature of it is that it is perpetrated by good people.

Read that again.

I consider myself a decent person. I try to do the right thing whenever possible. I don’t consider myself racist, elitist, or disrespectful. And yet….

And yet.

The truth is, those three boys don’t take over my thoughts as much as they did in the immediate aftermath of my return home. Life has marched on inside my own plush reality, the days consumed by an array of distractions and responsibilities. The palpable impact of their appearance has dimmed but, crucially, it still exists. And I hope it always does. Because when the memory of their unwashed faces and bare footing wandering does peak through the veil of my everyday life, it hurts. It should hurt. Not because I deserve to feel guilty for the fortunes of my birth, but because I have a responsibility to acknowledge those fortunes in a meaningful way.

This goes beyond the superficiality of captioning an Instagram picture with #blessed or mumbling a vague prayer of gratitude around a Thanksgiving feast. It requires a deep introspection, an honest assessment of how I benefit from my privilege and the ways in which I can help those not born into the same circumstances.

The difficulty is that we are conditioned not to look because, when we do, our hearts ache. And perhaps that’s not surprising in a world where communication has become increasingly impersonal. We never have to look and our electronic screens don’t care whether we listen. It is easy to withdraw into shells of blissful ignorance, but it certainly is not beneficial.

Today, I challenge you to really see. Force your eyes open and don’t look away. Be braver than I was. When the opportunity presents itself, look into the eyes of misfortune. Acknowledge and connect with it. When you do, a vast new world is within grasp. And, yes, it will hurt. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and even dirty. But so were the feet of those three little boys whose paths intersected with my own, and I can only wonder at what goodness dwells inside them. I will never know, but I could have. And that’s a tragedy I don’t intend to repeat.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken a trip around the world for me to understand. Indeed, that same lack of introspection is at the heart of so many of our collective problems today. I could have looked into my own backyard and seen the same thing had I only been willing. Whether referencing police brutality, racial inequality, illegal immigration, or any other number of intensely debated subjects, we can’t even begin an honest conversation without confronting ourselves first; and that means acknowledging the uncomfortable realities of our privilege and the equally unsettling realities of the biases we all carry.

In the end, I didn’t find God inside the walls of ancient temples. I found Him, or the closest thing I can understand of Him—a call to genuine love and compassion—exactly where I should have been looking all along: in the lives of the downcast and disadvantaged.

Now how do I move forward from here? How do we move forward from here?

It starts with confronting the ugliness within ourselves and the willingness to expose it. Read. Reflect. Talk to people you would not have noticed before. Be deliberate in your actions and words. Give charitably. And be prepared to feel uncomfortable. That’s where the true journey begins.

  • C

Essentials For Flying With Baby

I was 18 when I got my first passport and international stamp. I wouldn’t get my next stamp for another 6 years. My daughter on the other hand, had her passport picture taken when she was less than a week old. Imagine two people shaking a tambourine in her face to try and keep her eyes open long enough for the picture. Girl was not havin’ it.

We currently live overseas in Japan, and now at the ripe old age of 7 months, Baby Girl has been on 3 trips, 1 to Singapore, and 2 back to the States, and a grand total of 14 different planes. She was 2 months, 3 months, and 7 months for each trip.

Our trips always include multiple car rides, a cab, a bus, multiple planes, lots of waiting around time, and no fewer than 20-30 hours from Destination A to Destination B. Once upon a time before I had a baby, I always brought a full carry-on. Now, for the life of me I can’t tell you what I ever had in it. Hubs puts my noise canceling headphones (if you travel a lot, buy these. Trust me, you won’t regret it) in his bag but other than that, my carry on is now her needed items.

Our goal is to still travel light while making sure all her needs are met and our sanity is still intact by the end. So, from a bit of experience, many that made me feel like the worst mom on the planet, here are the things I’ll now never start the journey without:

1) Extra clothes for baby 

An obvious must. But when I say extra, I mean extras for your extras. I found this especially necessary at the 2 and 3-month age. She was still having big, unpredictable blowouts at this point and there could be multiples in a day. I didn’t feel the extra extras were as necessary on her 7-month-old trip; just extra clothes did the trick.

2) Extra clothes for you 

Seriously, don’t skip this. We get so caught up in getting the babies things ready we forget what may be crucial for us. Last I checked the duty free wasn’t selling t-shirts. So unless you want to smell like puke for 8 hours straight, throw it in.

3) Diapers/Wipes 

Duh. We plan for one diaper every 2 hours. Better to have too many than not enough. Wipes, always go for the soft packs. They take up way less space than a bulky plastic container.

4) Scented Plastic Bags 

For when the inevitable poopocalypse happens. Sure you’ll wash the clothes out, but that stink lingers. I’m not a fan of smelling poop or throwing away clothes so these bags are the perfect answer.

5) Food   

I was breastfeeding for my daughter’s first two trips making this a breeze. Just pop the girls out and my girl was happy. A good tip is to feed your baby while the plane takes off and is landing, it should hopefully help baby’s ears.

Breastfeeding lasted about 4 months for us, so she was on formula for our more recent trip and it is much trickier and requires much more planning. Like I mentioned, our overseas trips are typically anywhere from 20-30 hours from one destination to the next so that’s a lot of food to plan for. Our baby eats every 3-4 hours during the day and no longer wakes up to eat at night, so that’s what we planned for, plus one or two extra servings just in case. You know your kiddo best, so plan out those servings.

The biggest kicker though is knowing where you are going to be getting your warm water from for the formula. We were not prepared and ended up with a screaming baby until we got to the airport and asked a restaurant for warm water. We have since smartened up and now have a thermos already filled with warm water we bring with us. Most airports are good with it when you let them know it’s for the baby. (On the actual airplane, the flight attendants can provide the warm water.) On this last trip we also threw in a couple baby foods (so also a wipe down bib and spoon). Of course, don’t forget the bottles or sippys!

5) Changing Pad 

I’m no germophobe, and we are in full support of our girl one day putting some dirt in her mouth and building up that immunity! But I’ve been in a lot of airports, and those changing stations almost never seem to be nice and clean and most are actually pretty hard. So for the sake of your little one’s health and comfort this is a must have.

6) Carrier 

Confession: I never thought I’d be a baby wearer and there was no way in hell I was going to spend the $100+ for one. BUUUUT my co-worker ended up giving me her old one and if I knew then what I know now I wouldn’t hesitate to dish out the cash. I’m not saying it’ll work this way for everyone’s kiddo but putting my baby girl in it would almost instantly put her to sleep. I also loved being able to have both my hands available, which is super important and necessary to me when traveling.

7) Stroller  

But not your big bulky one, an easy cheap umbrella stroller does the trick. In Japan they make you check your stroller when you check the rest of your bags, there is no gate check for it. Japan is amazing though, and provides a stroller for you while you’re in the airport. I have since learned that not all U.S. airports have strollers for you (probably since you’re allowed to gate check them).

For short airline trips your stroller may not be as necessary if your kiddo is happy in a carrier. For longer trips though, you’re inevitably waiting around at some point. Imagine trying to eat while wearing your babe and then picking crumbs out of her hair. Yup, that was me, and since I’m not a monkey I don’t think I’ll be winning any mother of year awards for that one.

8) Blanket 

Overseas trips means we are at some point traveling over our nighttime. We request the bulkhead seats so she can have a bassinet that the airline provides. On the airlines we’ve been on so far, the baby is good to go in the bassinet if they’re 10 kilos (22 lbs.) or under. Since you’re trying to get baby to sleep in a place that’s foreign, bringing their favorite blanket can help to provide that comfort and familiarity of home.

9) Toys 

Not at all necessary at the 3 month mark but a lifesaver at the 7 month mark. We brought two small toys that she loves but can also easily be shoved into the bag and not take up much space. Bottom line, they helped keep her entertained and happy. Tip: Don’t bring anything too noisy or that can make noise on its own!

10) Burp Cloth 

‘Cause she’s a baby, and babies spit up. Pretty straight forward, huh? When I’m wearing her in the carrier I put a burp cloth on my chest too. Helps save my clothes and hers.

11) Your Patience and Sense of Humor 

No matter how much planning you do, there’s likely to be some unpredicted moments. I would always feel so bad and start to stress if my babe was crying on the plane until someone gave me the best advice; “you’re never going to see those people again”. Babies cry, it’s what they do, because that’s how they communicate their needs and emotions. It’s unrealistic to expect your little one to never shed a tear during the adventure, so do your best to roll with the punches and laugh off the puke that just went all over the both of you right as you’re boarding.

If you encounter the person who rolls their eyes and mumbles constantly under their breath because there’s a baby on their plane ride, screw ‘em. You will never see that person again. Your energy needs to be directed toward caring for your kiddo, not worrying about a grown adult’s desires. In all honesty though, we’ve only had this encounter once on all of our plane rides. By and large, people have been kind, understanding, and even helpful.

Does traveling with a baby require more planning and energy? Absolutely. Is the idea maybe even a bit daunting? Sure. To us though, the idea of not continuing to travel, to see family and friends, and explore new places seems more daunting. Admittedly, our experience thus far has been with a non-mobile little one. But, we have some trips planned for later this year when she should definitely be walking; and I can’t wait to update you with the new lessons we learn from our inevitable parenting failures.

• K