The attempt to focus on one face at a time, my eyes darting back and forth out the window as I sat in the backseat of my paid driver’s car, was nauseating. The sweat behind my knees effectively glued my legs to the pleather seat. Prak spoke broken English, just enough for me to ask him to take me to my hotel. The hotel flyer I had absentmindedly tossed in my bag that morning may actually deserve the credit for getting me back to said hotel, though I definitely wasn’t the same person who left.
The chaotic intersections on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that day rivaled those in Old Delhi; the only thing missing was a friendly-faced cow. The crushing experience of the Killing Fields left a dark spot on my heart. I reeled from the weight of what humanity is capable of, and of what happened there only 40 years ago.
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1974-1979. In just four years, over one million Cambodians were killed in mass genocide, with another million dying from poor living conditions, starvation, and disease. To put a bit of context against how truly devastating these numbers are: Cambodia had a population of around 8 million at the time of the Killings. That means 1 out of every 4 people died. There was no way to escape the effects of this regime, and though I will never be able to begin to understand what occurred there, I could feel the heaviness of it still in the air.
Peering through the dirty car window, I saw hundreds of thin women and men of almost every age walking out of the clothing factories, most wearing tattered shirts from what appeared to be Calvin Klein’s 1998 spring line. Just as ants crawl out of their dens, these day laborers poured out onto the streets from all directions in a fluid, synchronized dance.
But they were laughing. They were holding hands. Their faces were lined with years of difficult work, but they were still adorned with the recognizable smile that only the end of a lengthy day brings.
I imagined they were chatting about what to prepare for dinner, their plans for the weekend, and the cute new guy who started working at the factory that week.
They carried backpacks, the shoulder straps literally worn to the point that thin rope had replaced them.
I was only a mile or two from the Killing Fields. These Cambodians carry a dark history that frames who they are, yet they have built their lives up over again.
They seemed elated to be done with a day’s worth of labor. Tomorrow is another day.
In the West, the minimalist lifestyle has become a movement, a hipster ideal marked down as some sort of achievement, and something to brag about over an overpriced hazelnut latte.
“Yesterday, I took eight trash bags of clothes to Goodwill!”
Never mind the fact that you (we) still have two closets worth of expensive, barely worn apparel. I learned that as much as I contribute to these locals’ livelihoods in Phnom Penh, I also contribute to the problem.
Something in me changed that day. I was never able to fully lock eyes with any one person. I wanted not only to see them with my gaze, but also to feel them with my soul.
For those in Cambodia, living their lives, the minimalist lifestyle isn’t hip. It is all they know.
Living out of a backpack, by definition, means you have to carry everything you “own”. I loved this way of life, never being bogged down with extra stuff. It also forces you to reflect on the good and the bad of capitalism, why we buy things, why we have credit card debt with nothing to show for it, and why we continue to consume beyond our means. I grappled with these questions, and, at the end of the day, I just made a decision to stop. My money pays for nutritious health food, a roof over my head, and experiences. Everything else I think I “need’ gets scrutinized. I don’t need extra stuff.
Taking a year off to travel has been the single most enriching experience in my life. Family and friends are what make life matter, and seeing families and people of other cultures interact, love more, live with less, well, it’s beautiful.
My next adventure is to renovate a vintage Airstream trailer. I will be able to fit a bit more in the trailer than I could in my backpack, but I will be conscious of every single thing that makes it inside.
Here are a few things I have added to my life because of this short moment in Cambodia.
Four Practical Ways This Moment Changed How I Live
1) I contemplate purchases based on if they are a need or a want. Is this an impulse buy or does it support my life in a way something else I already own cannot?
2) When I do buy a new piece of clothing, I select at least one item from my closet to donate to an organization that supports women. This way, I am never accumulating too much, and I’m not burdened by stuff. I want to keep that backpack mentality, even though I have an actual home now.
3) I no longer subscribe to any services that automatically send clothes or shoes. I would always end up keeping something not out of need, but out of want. I do think these types of services can be helpful in different seasons of life, I am just not in one now where I need it.
4) Every 6 – 8 months, I host a clothing swap at my house. My lady friends bring their used household goods, books, clothes, accessories to spread out all over my house. After everyone has arrived, you can walk room to room to find a “new” shirt or skirt. Once everyone has finished “shopping”, I take all of the extra items to a women’s shelter or organization that empowers single moms and children. More than anything, the goal here is to have a cup of coffee or tea with my friends, clean out our closets, and donate to others in need.
I hope this helps you find inspiration to live your best life, as I did.
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