‘Where are you from,” I said to the man sitting next to me, puffing his cigar with his Hawaiian shirt open to beat the heat, not an uncommon site in a bar in Cambodia at 10 am. But he wore a cowboy hat, something you don’t see every day in Southeast Asia.
“Me too,” I said. My gut told me to keep going. “Where in the U.S.?”
“Connecticut,” the man said. Oh boy.
“Wait – let me guess,” I stopped him. He was definitely blue collar, an Italian Pisano, but had the tan and silver hair of someone with a touch of the good life. Just enough.
“Not Fairfield,” I guessed, “How about Milford?”
“Yeah – how did you know that? Well, I grew up in Trumbull and lived in Milford for a while but now West Haven.”
What are the odds? I’m eating breakfast at the bar beneath my hotel in Cambodia and I end up sitting next to a gentleman who lives next to my hometown in Connecticut, a world away. Or used to live. He introduced himself as Bart and explained that he now spent most of his time in Cambodia, working with the NGO he founded. (NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization, or basically a charity – something you hear every day in this impoverished country.) We chatted for a while about how Kids At Risk Cambodia helps orphans throughout the country.
“Hey, I’m heading out to the province today to check on these two little girls I help, in case you wanted to come,” Bart said. ”I’m meeting a couple med students here and we’re all going to go in about 5 minutes.”
I politely declined. I was so behind on work, had woke up late, and it was already blazing hot out. But then, I remembered that most great things happen when it’s least convenient. I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t NOT go.
So, when the Cambodian med students showed up, two smiling women in they’re mid 20’s wearing jeans and sweatshirts despite the heat, I grabbed my backpack and headed out with our new crew. We crammed into a tuk tuk, two wooden benches under an open roof pulled by a motorcycle. Including me, Cowboy, his girlfriend (who we called Cowgirl,) the two med students, and the driver, we had six people powered by one pre-war motorcycle as we headed through the bustling streets of Phnom Penh toward dirt roads, rice fields, and dense palm tree jungle.
The med students were sweethearts and spoke great English and introduced themselves first by their Khmer names, which I couldn’t pronounce, and then by their adopted Western names. One was Keep Calm and the other, Keep Hope. They even showed me their Facebook pages to confirm it. And yes, their brother went by 'Keep Going.' They had a couple more years to go in med school before their residency and then, doctors, but this trip out to the province to check on the girls was strictly volunteer work because they cared. Their ultimate goal, they said, was to make enough money when they became doctors that they could adopt the girls and also look out for many more children in need.
As we bumped and rattled our way through smaller towns, Khmer farmers and shop patrons staring at the unusual site of 6 people including two big farang (foreigner) faces, and supplies packed into one tuk tuk, Cowboy told me the girl’s story.
Years back, he’d gone out to do some work in their province for some reason and when he met with the villagers he noticed there were two little girls always tagging along, filthy and dressed in rags. He asked Simon, his trusty tuk tuk driver and defacto interpreter, about them. Simon told him they were orphans. Both their parents were dead and they had no one else to look after them.
“How did they eat?” Cowboy asked.
“The villagers give them extra food and scraps when they can,” Simon said.
“Where do they stay?” Cowboy asked.
“They sleep most nights over there,” and he pointed to a bare wooden platform outdoors, half covered from the sun and rain.
Through Simon and the villagers, Cowboy tried to help, offering some rice and a little money when he could. But the girl’s situation got worse – when the village fell on hard times and there was not enough to eat, one girl was sent way out to the remote northern provinces to stay with a distant relative. The sisters were split up. Jenny was sent to an area in the jungle so isolated that she had no other children as friends – she had to play with monkeys every day. She missed her sister terribly and her life was hard. Her loneliness was worse than hunger.
But with Cowboy’s assistance, the sisters were reunited in the village. Since then, they’ve been inseparable, in heaven with their own company. They never fight, they never complain, and never are without smiles on their faces. With the help of Kids at Risk, Cowboy rented them a simple room for them to sleep and pays monthly for their rice and food. He makes sure they can go to school.
But there are always problems in Cambodia. Desperate poverty is not just based on circumstances, but poverty of the mind. He built a huge teepee-like new home for the family who was housing the girls, but when he came back months later they’d torn it down to sell the scrap metal. The room the girls were supposed to stay in was now inhabited by up to a dozen people, and sometimes the girls were forced to sleep on their platform outside again.
Clean water is always a challenge. Too often, they go to the bathroom right outside in the bush but collect their drinking, cooking, and bathing water from nearby sources. So Cowboy had a concrete outhouse built and arranged for them to use the neighbor’s well water. But with so extra people now living there, they were using too much water and the neighbors were threatening to cut them off.
So it was important Cowboy made an appearance, with Simon, to visit the girls as often as possible. He could try to smooth out problems, make sure the girls were eating well and no one was pocketing their food money, insist they get to sleep indoors in the room he was renting, and check to see they were going to school every day and not sent out into the fields to pick mangoes. Of course, Keep Calm and Keep Hope coming along was a blessing, the only medical care the sisters might see that year.
But you can’t expect to just show up and solve all their problems, and throwing money at it can be counterproductive sometimes. It all falls apart the moment you drive away. You can only be someone’s advocate - give them a fighting chance and most importantly, empower them. Of course supplying food and shelter to the girls is the primary concern, as is ensuring their safety.
A sad reality in Cambodia is that girls get snatched up all the time by sex traffickers, or sometimes even sold by their starving families. The girls are coming of age and very pretty, so Cowboy and the med students are concerned – they urge their relatives to keep a very close eye on them. In the long term, education is the only way to empower them with a better life. By attending school and learning English their ceiling will be much higher than a farmer or homemaker, so they may grow up to be advocates, themselves, helping the next generation and reversing the cycles of poverty.
For that reason, Cowboy really appreciated Keep Calm and Keep Hope coming along. More than just medical checkups, they can talk to the girls in Khmer and find out the real story what’s going on in their lives and if they’re having problems. You can’t underestimate the value of two Cambodian women who are educated, independent professionals taking the time to personally visit the girls. It gives them hope and something to reach for in life, recalibrating their possibilities.
Near noon, we finally pulled off the road into a dirt yard in front of a simple complex concrete bungalow. Before our tuk tuk even pulled in, children ran to us from all directions, huge smiles on their faces. As Keep Hope and Keep Calm stepped off the tuk tuk, the two sisters engulfed them in hugs and wouldn’t let go. Village children ran up to Cowboy and hugged him, too, “Papa! Papa!” like Santa Claus had arrived.
Cowboy gave me the 5-cent tour – the new outhouse in back, the neighbor’s well that was causing so much conflict, the room he’d rented for the girls, and the wooden platform where they sometimes still slept. We spent the afternoon with girls and the other children and the villagers. One by one, the medical students checked over the children.
He was concerned because one of the sisters didn’t look well – she wasn’t smiling, and had deep circles around her eyes. He was worried that something bad was going on in her life, but she didn’t report any problems. Other than the grandmother hitting them sometimes (Khmer culture is still violent or even abusive by our standards,) and not being able to sleep in the room, everything was fine, and certainly they didn’t want to complain about trivial things like those since they were now together and had enough food and people caring for them.
The children quickly flocked to me and I picked them up and twirled them around and threw them in the air. Of course, there were a dozen kids to pick up and play with and they didn’t want me to stop, so I was soon sweating like crazy under the blazing jungle sun. There was no escaping the heat – somehow it felt 20 degrees hotter than in the city an hour away. It was so hot, their babies didn't even cry. Mercifully, they set up one dilapidated old fan and we sat in the shade and ate the mangos they prepared.
The medical students lined up the eager children to give them lessons in hand washing. Something as simple as washing hands and basic sanitation is lost on them if not taught. They also recited basic phrases and sang songs in English, reinforcing a few words for the young ones. If they learned enough English, they could possibly get a job in tourism in the future, earning them a $80 a month salary that would get them out of poverty and allow them to send a few dollars home every month. Pretty soon, the children were repeating my expressions, especially “WOW!” and "NICE!"
We all walked up to the market to buy some supplies for the children, a caravan of Khmer kids and only two westerners. These little home-based stores are their only chance to buy any food or goods. Since no one can afford a whole bottle of cooking oil or a whole package of sugar, the shopkeepers break them into tiny single-serving baggies, sold for a few pennies. I chipped in a little money I had and we bough bars of soap and talcum powder, as well as cold drinks for everyone. Cowboy made sure the kids weren’t drinking sugary sodas or terribly-unhealthy energy drinks.
On the walk home, the kids held on to our plastic bags of supplies from the store like they were gold. It’s so rare they get anything or have any new possessions that they play with them and want to hold them, just out of novelty. One village girl held on to a pig stuffed animal and wouldn’t let go of it all afternoon. After drinking an iced tea, the sister who wasn't feeling well started gagging. She ran into the bush and threw up.
The medical students checked her over and made sure she was ok and asked if she was drinking clean water, like they’d told her. After a little while she was feeling much better, much to Cowboy’s relief because that meant she didn’t look well because she was ill, not because she was being abused or anything major was wrong. He sent someone back to the store to buy a big jug of clean drinking water for the kids.
The medical students mixed the talcum powder into a paste and applied it to rashes, cut fingernails, and checked their eyes and mouths for signs of worms, dengue, or other ailments. But mostly, they were just happy, smiling kids – eager to jump all over their new Western friend.
As the sun crawled toward the tree line, we rounded up our group and said our goodbyes. Cowboy confirmed plans to dig a new well and sternly made it clear that the girls should be sleeping indoors and going to school every day.
The sisters gave me one last big hug before I climbed aboard the tuk tuk, huge smiles on their faces. Knowing they were ok, and more importantly, they knew people loved and cared about them, was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
“When will we see you again? Come back to us soon, Pa Pa,” they said to me.
It was hard to drive away, to leave them, but it was hot and we all were tired and had a long trip back to Phnom Penh. And I had more work to do, more than I could have imagined that morning when my decision to say "yes" to a stranger's invite led my life down an unexpected path.
“So what do you think?” Cowboy asked me as our tuk tuk chugged over a bridge spanning the blood orange-red Mekong River. “We could really use your help…”
This time, I didn't even have to think about it.
Email me if you'd like to help the sisters and Kids At Risk Cambodia.
We think too much. About everything, all the time. Our minds are constantly calculating the next move, to anticipate the next correct choice, racing to match the pace of the outside world. It’s led us to a hyper sensitive sense of perception but dulled our intuition. So I want to remind you to pay attention when you’re feeling good.
The next time you find yourself smiling like a child, exhilarated with hope, or just glowing for no logical reason, pay attention. When you’re feeling good, switch off your mind. Hit cancel on your intellect. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and just let the sensation rise within you.
Pay attention to the energy around you. Who you are with. What you were just thinking about. How you feel physically. How you see the world. How you perceive time. Remember every little detail you can.
Write it down in a journal. I don’t mean a gratitude journal – that’s just your mind telling you what you should be thankful for and hoping your feelings correspond. It’s a noble endeavor, but writing down the circumstances when you feel good goes deeper. It doesn’t need to make sense. Don’t judge yourself. That’s your mind.
Take note of where you are, who you’re with, what you ate, how you slept, what your wearing, what music is playing, your recent exercise habits, caffeine and alcohol intake, sunlight, fresh air, laughter, human connections, if you've helped someone recently, etc. - every detail in your life that comes from your subconscious, not your ego. These are all contributing factors to your sublime state of being.
We think we feel good because of the current circumstances of out lives but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hearing your favorite song may not even register when you’re stressed and stuck in traffic after work, while hearing it on a weekend road trip with friends might send you into a state of bliss. Those are just triggers to something more primal.
Once you’re more conscious of your feelings of grace, a few things will happen. You’ll easily identify the positive factors in your life and avoid the negative ones. Your intuition will become practiced, allowing you to move toward light with clarity. The lows won’t be as low or last as long and the highs will be magnified. You’ll feel healthier - in control of your own happiness and not dependent on circumstances from the outside world.
This isn't about unrealistic positive thinking or annoying self-help mantras. You'll still have problems in life and sometimes feel like shit. But it will train your consciousness to inhabit an elevated state of being, where you were supposed to be before your intellect took over.
After a while, your emotions will automatically work backward and you’ll be able to place yourself in the state of transcendence without even needing the triggers. You’ll radiate good energy instead of searching for it.
The result will change everything in your life.
Songkran is actually a celebration of the Thai New Year in April, which loosely coincides with the New Year celebration in other Southeast Asian countries. They’ve been celebrating Songkran for centuries as it’s roots go all the way back to the Sankranti Hindu festivals. It’s a celebration signifying a new life in the new year, so people visit their family, friends, and elders. They also visit religious sites to make offerings and pray, paying homage to Buddhist monks. Monks and religious relics are paraded around town in precessions and people sprinkle water and powder on them, a symbol of cleansing and rebirth.
But the real fun is in the streets, where this bacchanalian madhouse unfolds. The week of Sangkran turns the streets of Chang Mai or Bangkok or Pattaya, where I witnessed it, into the world’s biggest water fight. Every man, woman, and child is armed with the weapons for mass wetting. The streets are lined with partiers all day and all night, splashing water all over everyone passing. Tourists buy Super Soakers but are outdone by the local Thais, who fill big trashcans and tubs with water and throw it around with buckets. To add to the cruelty of getting blindsided by a bucket full of water upside the head, they put big blocks of ice in there so the water is freezing cold by the time it hits you. It’s absolutely impossible to walk by or even drive by on a motorcycle or in the back of a tuk tuk taxi without getting soaked to the bone, and in fact the mob will target anyone who is even close to dry.
Just so no one has to leave their posts for more ammo, filling trucks drive around to replenish your water tank for 20 Baht (about 65 cents.) Once everyone is doused, the powder comes out – brightly colored talcum or just baby powder in a pinch – that you water into a paste and then throw or smear all over your neighbor’s face. Of course it’s near 100 degrees so everyone is down to their swimsuits and gaudy Hawaiian shirts, or sometimes less when the party gets out of control! Vendors go around selling necklaces made of sweet smelling white flowers, beer and booze so you don’t even have to go indoors to get a cold one, and plenty of soggy street side barbecue. The main streets are packed and the bar streets (and there are a lot of them in Pattaya,) with rows of 50 or more bars, turn into a logjam of fun. Music is blasting, people are dancing, drinks are flowing – it’s incredible!
I’m a little too old for spring break and a good dinner and a quiet night at home hold more appeal than all the craziness for me at this point, but I did notice a few really cool things. First, everyone participates. The streets are just as packed with little kids throwing water and causing mischief as adults. The children absolutely love Songkran – it’s their yearly permission to cause mass destruction. There were also plenty of Thai grandmothers and grandfathers out there on the street laughing and watching the chaos! How many parties do you know where the whole family celebrates together? That’s the way it should be!
The second thing I noticed is that the vibe is amazing. I didn’t see one single fight, altercation, bad word, or even one person get mad when their iPhone got ruined by a bucket of water (Songkran veterans know to place their money and phone in sealed plastic pouches.) The energy was pure. You have the biggest mix of foreigners on the planet partying wet and wild in the streets - people from Brazil, Ghana, England, Iran, South Korea, France, China, Australia, and even the United States – shoulder to top-of-the-head with Thai people – and everyone gets along swimmingly. I think that’s the true spirit of Songkran. Yes, there was booze and partying but that’s not the point. It’s all about celebrating the blessings of life and renewal and love of your fellow man.
I was pretty mellow my time in Thailand (comparatively) but on my last day I just had to get out and observe the insanity of the festival. So I left my hotel in the heat of the afternoon with the intention of getting one beer while shooting photos from a safe distance. Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. Within five minutes of being on the street, a pickup truck full of smiling Thai people waved me over. They barely spoke English but lifted me aboard and handed me a bucket and a water gun and I was part of their crew for the next 4 hours. We cruised all over the city celebrating, dancing, getting everyone soaked, and taking shots of Hong Thong. (Note: NEVER take shots of Hong Thong. I’m serious.)
They were the nicest people ever and it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. This morning I boarded a flight in Bangkok headed for Cambodia and the airport was filled with red-eyed tourists with ghastly hickeys and soggy clothing, reeking of Hong Thong and still trying to shake the water out of their ears.
I think we could all use the fresh start of a new year after surviving Songkran!
As a blogger and lifelong bumbling marketer, I look to articles by people who are “Internet famous,” in order to advance my craft. One of the best I’ve found is Seth Godin; 20-time author, marketing philosopher, and ultra-cool über-nerd with funky eyeglasses.
I signed up for Mr. Godin’s blog and receive his wisdom in my inbox every morning. To be honest, when I read his first blog post, it was so short, I thought it was a mistake.
Maybe he was having a busy day and didn’t have time to write much? I envisioned him hacking away at his iPad as his taxi was stuck in New York City gridlock, only to jump out, slide across the hood action-hero-style, throw the cabbie a 20 and say “Keep the change, Joe!” and sprint uptown toward his office, his assistant racing to keep up without spilling his boss’s latte. Then again, I don’t even know where Mr. Godin lives or if he’s got an assistant or even likes coffee, but that’s how I picture the life of this dazzlingly-successful entrepreneezy.
But day after day, the lack of length was confirmed:
Seth’s blogs are short.
In fact, the first thing you think when you see his posts (without reading them,) is, “Wow, that’s really not a lot of words.” I actually started counting. His word count can be anywhere from 60 words to 360, with most posts averaging less than 200 words.
That’s remarkable in this day and age when writers tend to prattle on (I’m guilty, your honor!) Most blog posts reach 700-800 words, and there are too many that look like an endless sea of words. But Seth Godin’s blogs can be washed down in one easy gulp.
I’m here to tell you, that’s awesome. And the more I learn about him and his work, I doubt it’s an accident. Why?
But I’m afraid I’ve said too much, already- over 500 words! So to wrap it all up, I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Godin’s ridiculously short blog posts. And Mr. Godin; if you ever need someone to run behind you in traffic while holding your latte, give me a call – I have a lot to learn.
An interview with Nadine Hays Pisani, author of Costa Rican expat memoir, "Happier Than a Billionaire."
When it comes to books about moving to Costa Rica, there is none more popular than the expat memoir by Nadine Hays Pisani, Happier Than a Billionaire. Nadine was nice enough to answer a few questions for me about what made her move away from the United States, her new home in Costa Rica, and the mega-success of her book.
What did you do in your “past life?”
In my past life I was a chiropractor running a very busy practice.
Why did you choose Costa Rica as a new home?
I was looking for a simpler life, so my husband and I decided to sell everything and move to Costa Rica. We did a little research and found that the diversity and the lower cost of living is what attracted us there.
What do you love most about your new life in Costa Rica?
I love that my life is much slower than it was before. I now take the time to appreciate all the beautiful things around me. I have monkeys outside my window everyday and parrots squawk overhead every morning. It's very hard to be in a bad mood surrounded by that.
Is there anything you really miss about life back in the US?
What do I miss about the US? Everything! Bagels with Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Kindly bring some the next time you are back in Costa Rica. Oh... my husband is also asking for a new alternator for our car. Please shove that in your carry-on as well.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me is learning the language. Every time I think I learned a new work in Spanish, I later find out I asked the grocer for a bag of urine.
When did you first think about writing a book about your experience as an expat?
The book happened by chance. Just started writing all the funny stories, and how much my life was changing when not worrying about how I'm going to squeeze in another patient into my already long day. Next thing I know CNN was calling. I wish I could say I planned all that out, but I didn't. In fact, it was the only thing in my life I haven't planned out.
What advice would you give people thinking of moving to Costa Rica?
The advice I would give to anyone moving to a foreign country is to pack a good sense of humor with you. It's the most valuable thing you'll own. You can get through anything (in our case: hospital visits and scooter accidents) if you can laugh at how ridiculous it all is. Some things will go your way, others will fall by the wayside. But in the end, you will have a story to tell. I didn't have one while working in that office all those years. But now I do. And it's a funny one.
Thanks Nadine! We appreciate the interview and thanks for writing such a great book about your new life in Costa Rica!
Don't miss Norm's new book,
The Queens of Dragon Town!
Norm Schriever is a best-selling author, expat, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. He travels the globe, telling the stories of the people he finds, and hopes to make the world a little bit better place with his words.