Winding down

Over the past ten days I have had highs and lows and things have not gone to plan (do they ever?). Alas, it is my second-to-last day in scorching Phnom Penh before heading to Bali where at least I have some friends. Cue violins. I have spent countless hours scurrying around the streets of central PP, with my mind in a near-constant state of comparison – the city I came to know and love a few years ago and the city as it is now.

The changes are obvious and predictable. They are more or less from my own subjective point of view. Slightly rundown yet charming traditional structures have been bulldozed and replaced with towering apartment buildings and office blocks. The unique Khmer and colonial-inspired architecture is being replaced with slabs of glass, steel and stacco. Cranes line the horizon and everyday at 7am I am woken up incessant banging, crashing, and hammering in the name of progress.

I type this from a brand new Scandinavian-inspired Starbucks, one of only three in the city (all new). It is huge and probably a little neighborhood of family-owned and operated businesses were demolished. I hope, at least, this gentrification of an entire city has some trickle down effect and offers opportunities to those less fortunate.

Unfortunately, there are still the “couples” of old, overweight, unattractive western men and extremely young Cambodian girls seen in bars, restaurants, hotels and just walking around the downtown area and along Riverside. There are beggars and street urchins and I’m ashamed to say I walked right on by one young screaming child that had been abandoned on the street.

As a traveling introvert, it’s hard to meet people, but luckily I did encounter some interesting expats through yoga and capoeira: a Ukrainian architect, a Brazilian NGO consultant, an Australian NGO worker, a yoga teacher who is the daughter of Cambodia’s most revered architect. All seem to be happy enough. And the French. There are so many Frenchies here, not surprising given the colonial connection.

The locals are still kind, sweet, friendly and curious. The groups of men who sit outside cafes compulsively smoking and yelling are not so endearing, however. Neither are the tuk-tuk drivers who are constantly on the lookout for their next passenger. There’s still some kind of racial hierarchy: the lighter, whiter-skinned Cambodians don’t do the dirty work. The darker-skinned Cambodians from the provinces seem to be the ones banging away shirtless at the Chinese-owned construction companies day and night.

This time, I haven’t been out to the slums, where the roads are strewn with trash and people live under tarpaulin tents. I can only hope that some of the development the country is experiencing is being channelled into the areas and people that need it most.

A New Year

A puppy who joined me for meditation on New Year’s Day

Heraclitus reportedly said that, “No [wo]man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and [s]he’s not the same [wo]man.” And so it is with this in mind as I stroll around Phnom Penh, that charming and peacefully chaotic city that I spent two months in several years ago. I had an urge to come back, and on the urging of my friends, I came back. I had almost two months of happy memories that compelled me. Not necessarily happy in the hedonistic, saccharine sense, but in the sense of accomplishment, moving out of my comfort zone, and doing what feels right.

I threw myself into a new situation, followed my heart by working with an organization I had long admired, led my a man I would consider one of my heroes. The students were great, the experience was challenging but incredibly rewarding, and personally, I got to meet fascinating people (including my hero), and travel to some amazing places (Holla Angkor Wat!).

Everything worked out so well and all my boxes were ticked. And so I wanted to come back and experience it again. Alas, as we read in the opening lines to this post, things don’t work that way. I booked my ticket a few weeks ago then contacted the organisation I worked with before. They didn’t reply for a week, which was unusual, but when they did, they said they were so sorry but they didn’t need me as a volunteer at the moment. They had grown so big and become so popular that they were now only taking people for long periods of time. I understand it’s better for the organization (and probably the volunteer) to stay for a longer period of time, but I was a little miffed and disappointed.

I thought I would find another organisation to work with but now that I’m here, I don’t feel like it. I don’t need to do that anymore. I will resume my idealist, do-goodery-save-the-world shtick when I’m sixty, like the other single, divorced ladies I met who last time who had property in New York and LA and could afford to now devote themselves to causes they cared about.

And how about Phnom Penh? I was disappointed to see my quaint little neighborhood, while still teeming with unruly trees and flowers and the chaos of motorcycles and tuk-tuks, had developed in the wrong ways. Now there are endless construction projects from Chinese companies building McCondos for the privileged. The incredible masseur who diagnosed all my old injuries with his mere touch has disappeared and in his place is a longterm expat hairdresser. While I went in to see if my guy was still there, two Korean guys came in with little English, read the menu and insisted they wanted Brazilian and bikini waxes respectively. The hairdresser told them to come back soon and there would be a guy to do it. No, no, they insisted, they wanted a woman. I wonder what exactly they think they’re in for.

The spa around the road where I went almost everyday for pampering has been turned into a wedding dress shop. The funky little pizza place has been replaced by a techno-playing bar and flashpackers while the indie venue where local and expat bands played and where there was salsa dancing on Wednesdays is still there, it’s just that it’s been closed and chained behind an iron fence for months, waiting for someone to buy it and turn it into another guesthouse.

Indeed, it’s not the same place and I am not the same woman. That is both good and bad. In those almost four years since that time I’ve had a few different jobs in addition to my current gig. I’ve travelled to all the continents except the big white one. I’ve developed emotionally and I’ve definitely matured. I’ve struggled to learn a new language and I’ve loved and had my heart broken, survived it as well as the demise of friendships, a large amount of money being stolen, the death of acquaintances. Life is long. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but the turtle and the hare both need to keep moving forward, regardless of how fast they do so. I have sat on my laurels when I shouldn’t have. And of course, with all this time on my hands, there’s plenty of time for self-flagellation. I’m trying not to go there.

Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, but I don’t think I’ll be staying here.



Props: Akiko Naka & Wantedly

Akiko in Petra

As you know, I was lucky enough to sail around the world twice. One my second trip, I met Akiko, who was working as a translator. She is now the founder of Japan’s Wantedly, known as ‘Linkedin for millennials.’ At that time, she was a fresh-faced graduate from a prestigious university with a fancy job lined up with Goldman Sachs in Tokyo. She was full of energy and extremely smart, with an endearing Kiwi accent (she had gone to high school in New Zealand, and despite not speaking English fluently when she arrived, became top of the school. No surprises there).

Now Akiko is something of a celebrity in Japan’s burgeoning startup scene – she’s done TED Talks, and been featured in well-known media around the world, particularly in Asia where her company is expanding. She is my favourite millennial, having started coding from the age of nine. She’s a risk taker and her dream was to become a Manga artist and indeed, after a few gruelling years at Goldman Sachs, she quit and gave herself a year to make it happen. As we know, success is not usually linear and predictable and often life takes us in unexpected directions. The money didn’t follow and instead, life took Akiko to Facebook where she worked before quitting to found Wantedly. Although in interviews she has said she doesn’t want to be considered pioneering because she’s a female leader in the tech and recruiting industries, given the cultural context of conservative, patriarchal Japan, it is incredible that a young woman has been able to be so successful. Times are a-changing.

The mission of Wantedly comes at an important time – it seeks to change with way people feel about work, and to match employers and job seekers based on values and meaning. Money and prestige take a backseat to passion and fulfilment. Her heroes are Steve Jobs and Dan Pink.

Based on my fond memories of hanging out with Akiko, I am not at all surprised by her success. I remember her indefatigable nature – she would get up at 6am, go to the gym and workout, then work all day and socialize all night, getting by on very little sleep and having almost no downtime. Maybe her energy levels were fuelled by her compulsive drinking of vegetable juice. Regardless, it is kind of cool having a famous friend and seeing their star rise.




There’s a crack in everything

With the appointment of Mr. Trump as the POTUS on Wednesday and now the death of the inimitable Leonard Cohen on Friday, it’s turning into a dark, dark week. There’s now a rational justification to pile on the grief bacon. And I have indeed been partaking in binge eating candy and chocolate in an attempt to numb and distract myself from the tragedy and disappointment.

One of my favourite Leonard Cohen lyrics, ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ is a reminder to look for hope among the despair, to find the light no matter how dark these days feel. Now that the novelty of stuffing my face with sugar has worn off, I’ve opted for a healthier form of self-care: I’m focusing on beauty, nature, peace, gratitude and connection. Here are a few shots from the past few weeks that have given me pleasure, solace and distraction, in both taking them and in thinking about what they represent. May the light find its way in.




More Grief Bacon



What a coincidence – just a few days after discovering and writing about the German term for ‘grief bacon’ (Kummerspeck), I was reacquainted with a German friend who has just returned to Korea. Sitting in a beautiful zen garden next to one of the old palaces downtown, I asked her about this term. She laughed and proceeded to tell me that it refers to the handful of fat that can be found on one’s stomach and hips after they indulge in endless comfort eating after a traumatic event, such as a death or breakup. It’s something our sausage-loving German friends good-naturedly tease each other about, or can be a topic of conversation if you haven’t seen someone for a long-time. If you see them with a spare tire, as we’d say in English, you might want to ask them why they have grief bacon, what happened to cause this downhill slide into frumpydom? It can signal that a friend is depressed or sad and can be cause for concern. In my case, I have what I now refer to as ‘lazy bacon’ or ‘can’t be assed bacon.’ My German friend, who has only known me a short time, did not comment on this.

In other news, I had another split second of language-related glee when I discovered that the Italian words influenza and radice mean influence and root respectively. Which got me thinking (and googling). Could the English word of Influenza, referring to the dreaded ‘flu have come from Italian? And could radish, that interesting and bright coloured vegetable have been named from the Italian?

Concerning the former, this is what omniscient Google told me: “In Italian, influenza took a slightly different course to our influence, coming to refer metaphorically to the outbreak of a disease, thought to caused by the influence of the stars. For example, influenza di febbre scarlattina meant “an outbreak of scarlet fever” and such phrases are known from the early sixteenth century onwards. In 1743 what was called in Italian an influenza di catarro, an “outbreak of the catarrhal fever” became an epidemic which spread across Europe. As is so common with foreign phrases, only the first word was taken to be significant, and the disease immediately came to be known in English as the influenza. From about the beginning of the Victorian period it started to be abbreviated to our modern flu, though often at first spelt flue.”

Interesting, right? Concerning the humble radish, I round out that radice can also mean radish in Italian, although there are other, more accurate, words for it. Apparently, radish comes from the Latin term radix, which means roots. So there you go. Don’t say I never teach you anything.