Travel: How ditching my old life for Cambodia changed me

Central Phnom Penh in Cambodia

Central Phnom Penh in Cambodia

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Why I swapped a comfortable life for one of adventure in Cambodia. By Gabrielle Yetter

Rivers of sweat trickled down the back of my legs as we followed a guide wielding a machete through Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. As he hacked his way through the undergrowth, I peeled a leech from my ankle while mosquitos buzzed around our heads and the searing sun blazed overhead.

Skip and Gabrielle Yetter with an elephant in Cambodia

Skip and Gabrielle Yetter with an elephant in Cambodia

Here we were, two 50-something Westerners, scrambling over rocks and jungle vines in a country far from what we used to call home. Me, a Brit who’s lived most of my life in Bahrain, South Africa and the US; my husband, Skip, an American newspaper executive from Massachusetts – both of us starting new lives in Southeast Asia where we put down roots and opened our minds to new opportunities.

Our journey began in 2010 when Skip and I boarded a plane with one-way tickets to Phnom Penh. We stepped away from a few things: schedules, conventional lifestyles, traditional jobs and a home of our own, to name a few. Taking their place were chaos, confusion, unconventionality and adventure. 

For a while, we’d been feeling an itch for something different and our honeymoon trip to Southeast Asia in 2007 opened our eyes to what that might be. Within three years of returning, we’d sold our home and cars, quit our jobs, sold or given away most of our possessions, found a home for our cat and been accepted by Volunteers In Asia (VIA) for positions with NGOs in Phnom Penh.

We knew little about the country and even less about what awaited us but were both eager for a new undertaking. Our roles with the NGOs required us to work with local Cambodians, many of whom spoke little or no English, so VIA provided language classes which we attended daily for the first two weeks. Struggling with alien sounds that are hard for Western mouths to pronounce, we grasped the basics and plunged into an environment very different to the one we’d left behind.

In the weeks to come, we felt ourselves drift farther and farther from the West with its busyness 
and stress and more and more toward a gentler, slower lifestyle. It wasn’t always easy – Skip got dengue fever twice and malaria during a visit to India, I found it hard to find female friends, we both were frustrated by the constant searing heat – but it made us feel constantly alive and we both knew we could never go back.

We met many others who, like us, had made a choice to step outside the proverbial box in search of new adventures and we featured them in our book, Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure. While each person had a different story, everyone had the same message: Don’t wait. Do it now.

“Life’s not about living happily ever after,” said one of them. “It’s about living. Follow your heart. Follow your dreams. It works out.”

For us, it was more than a midlife adventure; it was a new way of living and a ticket out of life in the US which had become predictable and routine. We weren’t learning anything, and stimulation came in fleeting moments of instant gratification. We wanted more.

In Cambodia, we travelled to work every day in tuk tuks, ate crickets and tarantulas in Cambodians’ homes, stayed in ecolodges where monkeys swung in the trees and ocean waves crashed at our feet and learned valuable lessons from people who had survived the hardships of poverty and the Khmer Rouge.

Work trips frequently meant travelling in company vans for hour upon hour on potholed roads into tiny villages with no electricity. Meetings were often held sitting on grass mats on the floor of dirt huts with chickens and pigs snuffling at my feet while one of my colleagues translated into my ear and children gaped at the white Western woman in their midst.

While we made friends with other expats in Phnom Penh, we also developed relationships with tuk tuk drivers and Cambodians, helping one of them to build a home, another to develop work skills.

And, while we initially found chaos and confusion, we also discovered beauty, gentleness and inspiration and a race of people who give unconditionally, love warmly, and enriched our lives in more ways than we thought possible.

Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure is out now in paperback, £13.50, from www.amazon.co.uk. Read Gabi and Skip’s blog at www.TheMeanderthals.com

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