22 Days of Living Dangerously

Daunted by the fear that she’ll die young like her mother, one woman finds renewal—and a new sense of purpose—among the breathtaking ruins of Cambodia  

by Laurie Lico Albanese
cambodia image
The intricately carved Bayon temple is located in Cambodia’s vast Angkor Archaeological Park, which spans six centuries of Khmer history.
Photograph: Frédéric Lagrange

When I turned 53, I was afraid not only of dying young but also of feeling irrelevant and stuck. With five colleagues and two friends laid off in a single month, Frank, a publishing executive, reluctantly realized that sooner or later he and I could be in that same boat, looking for our second act. Would Cambodia be the place for us?

The country began to haunt my dreams. I read books about the brutal Communist regime of the Khmer Rouge, which came to power in the 1970s, and the people who had survived its death camps. I eagerly supported Melissa’s volunteer fund-raising efforts for groups fighting child prostitution and trafficking. I raised $1,000 here at home—enough to pay two years’ college tuition for a girl living in a shelter. After a month of yearning and one searing scene with Frank in our kitchen when I cried, “I want to have a great adventure before I die!” it was decided: He and I would go to Cambodia for three weeks and deliver the money we’d raised directly to the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CCPCR). On the trip we would keep our eyes and hearts open, searching for a humanitarian adventure we could pursue after we finished launching our kids.

As I booked our flights, began researching the places we’d visit and started the inevitable round of inoculations, I felt excited but nervous. I knew the number of yearly visitors to Cambodia was growing, yet I felt fearful about visiting a land where sex tourism was pervasive and human trafficking rampant. “The government is corrupt, but the people are beautiful,” Melissa reassured me during crackling Skype calls.

“Move to Cambodia?” friends asked, incredulous. “You mean, sell your house and go?”

“Not exactly,” I said, hedging. Maybe they were right to think we were crazy. I’d just have to take the trip and find out for myself.

Frank and I arrived in Phnom Penh in darkness. The heat was oppressive. Peering from the taxi at low buildings on streets full of people in plastic chairs clustered around dying fires, I waited for the ring of poverty around the airport to open and reveal a gracious, sweeping city. It didn’t.

Despite months of research, I quickly realized I had no idea what to expect in Cambodia’s largest city. The Khmer Empire had ruled this land for cen­turies before it became a French colony; by 1953, Cambodia was an independent monarchy, but the Vietnam War tore the nation to shreds. The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror followed, producing decades of chaos ­until the Paris Peace Agreements ­mandated democratic elections in the early 1990s.

We spent our first day with Melissa exploring Phnom Penh’s buzzing mass of streets and markets. At every turn we saw women and children selling fresh fruit, drinks or scarves and on every corner a man with a tuk-tuk carriage pulled by a motorbike. “Tuk-tuk, madam? Mango, madam?” They smiled and called to us, and Melissa answered in the singsong tones of Khmer, “A-tay, a-koon. No, thank you.”

Night came quickly, and soon the streets were teeming with thousands of Cambodians pouring into the capital city for the cremation of former king Norodom Sihanouk, who had died four months earlier. Fireworks exploded overhead, and the streets around Independence Monument filled with ghostly people in white, the traditional color of mourning. Barefoot monks in long saffron robes knelt along grassy meridians. Incense burned in small buckets, stinging my eyes. Melissa reached for my hand as we stepped into a crazy intersection. “Think of yourself as a minnow,” she said. “Yield to bigger fish but keep moving.”

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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