Category: Inspiration


I don’t know if I like the word “rebellion” or if World Travel resonates with me that way. But the words that follow do hum and buzz with my nomad soul.

travel is rebellion

In Singapore (where I live), I am slapped with many labels and shoulder several roles: the responsible mother, the objective journalist, the good Catholic girl, perhaps role model, “media personality” etc. But I was never fully aware of these till I took a year off to backpack around the world.

When I left the familiar to venture into the unknown, I felt for the first time in my life that all the invisible labels and roles that defined me in Singapore were suddenly stripped away.

This did not happen immediately, of course. It took a while. But there comes a moment when you realise nobody recognises you in these foreign lands and you stop putting on makeup, you stop putting on a show.

Overnight train: Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

18hr overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

At some point, I started walking at my own pace, without being pushed along against my will or dragged back. I started paying attention to what made me smile, the sound of my own laughter, what made me frightened, what upset or annoyed me, what mattered to me.

I remember being alone in Bali and strolling along an unfamiliar road in Seminyak (looking for coffee!). It was late afternoon, and I chanced upon an obscure patch of grass. It was quiet and serene, and nothing much was happening, except for a couple of ducks quacking after a tropical rain. I stood there for a good 20mins, doing nothing, just soaking it all in.

Solo in Seminyak, 2013

Solo in Seminyak, Bali 2013

I can’t even label this experience. It cannot be pigeon-holed into any category of “nature” or “urban landscape”; it’s even hard to bring up in conversation because it’s so insignificant. It’s simply my little moment. And even if it holds no meaning to anyone else, it left a lasting impression on me. It’s now a part of me.

You only realise how little you know yourself and how much you are running on defined roles when you’re torn away from all that’s familiar, and you have nothing to grasp at or fall back on.

I’m not saying roles and labels are bad or wrong. I’m just saying they don’t define who I am. And it’s important to have such an experience of liberation from them – even if you do go back to assuming them out of necessity – because at least you know what it feels like, smells like, looks like, in that sacred space free from them.

I love backpacking and traveling solo!

I love traveling solo!

To me, many short trips do not equal a long continuous one. I realise that people who travel frequently do not necessarily understand this experience that long-term world travellers understand. It’s because short vacations often don’t allow you to fully shed these labels and roles, especially if you are traveling with loved ones.

You need to fall off the grid completely for a time. But if you can’t afford that luxury, then do a solo trip, or choose to get off social media completely.

One thing I’m learning: You can’t expect to experience something different – something life changing or liberating – if you keep doing the same thing, over and over again. You need to do something different.

And if travel is rebellion in its purest form, then I’d say rebel at least once in your life. You never know till you take that leap of faith!

Do it now

#NoRegrets

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This is one of the most powerful questions ever put to me.

When I was attending a leadership course 11 years ago, this question was fired at me like bullets over a period of 6 months. “What are you committed to create?”

And by “committed”, they mean do whatever it takes.

So when I show up at a place, what am I committed to create here? Be it at a meeting at work, at home with my children, or a gathering of friends, am I committed to create fun? honesty and openness? peace and reconciliation? love and affection?

Friends are the family we choose

Friends are the family we choose

It’s a very empowering question.

If I’m not conscious of this, there is a chance I will let my mood dictate what I end up creating. And that can sometimes be destructive and hurtful to people around me.

Gandhi once said this, and wisely so..

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This is what I hear him saying: What do you want to see in this world? Commit to creating it. BE it.

This speaks to me, too, in the context of my work as a freelance travel writer, where things are often so uncertain. I always tell people that while I love my work, there are moments I don’t see beyond 6 months… and that’s very often!

It’s easy to sit back and accept that as part and parcel of a freelancer’s life. But I’ve learnt that being a freelance writer doesn’t mean you just write. You have to go out there and make connections, meet people, market yourself, and create opportunities and possibilities. You have to be a play-maker.

And that is creation. Making possible something that was not there before.

The freelance writer's life... more than just writing!

The freelance writer’s life… more than just writing!

Writing is also an act of creation. When I sit in front of my laptop, with a blank screen, what am I committed to create on this page? What can I bring into the world that was not there before? Is it awareness I am creating? or controversy or reconciliation through my words? What do my words make possible?

The sad thing is that I’m not always conscious of this power I have within me to make a difference. And it’s a power that swings both ways. Like a double-edged sword.

Imagine if you’re conscious of this at every moment… How would your world look different?

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“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. 
Impossible is not a fact. 
It’s an opinion. 
Impossible is not a declaration. 
It’s a dare. 
Impossible is potential. 
Impossible is temporary. 
Impossible is nothing.”

– Muhammad Ali –

 

Still, Be Thankful

It’s so easy to fall into discouragement. A little remark by someone. A flash recall of better times. A diminishing bank account. A foreboding feeling that your future – once filled with possibilities – is fast fading.

I am at a point where work and personal concerns have collided: An amalgamation of new fears and old regrets, of uncertain things made certain and certain things made uncertain, and of isolated events being drawn together from all directions to form a growing ball of negative energy.

In the words of Shakespeare, “When sorrows come, they come not in single spies but in battalions!”

It’s so easy – in a space like this – to think of returning to what is safe and familiar. To let go of my dreams, to throw my hands up in surrender, and just escape quietly through a back door.

But this morning, while queuing up to buy breakfast at a noisy hawker centre, I plugged in to YouTube to catch up on channels I subscribe to —  just to kill time — and heard this:

 

Just two days ago, I subscribed to Nick Vujicic‘s YouTube channel Attitude is Altitude after he announced at a press conference in Singapore that he was launching a series of 1,000 one-minute clips over the next 1,000 days. I didn’t think I would actually watch them.

Nick Vujicic at press conference 2 days ago, Singapore.

Nick Vujicic at a press conference to launch his book, “Stand Strong”

But I guess it’s true what they say. Nothing happens by chance.

“In life, we can get so caught up in what I wish I had, what I wish was different, and I forget to be thankful for what I have now. Because you’re never going to achieve your full potential in life – and a life without limits – until you actually realise what you have, and do your best with what you have.” – Nick Vujicic 

In that noisy hawker centre, the most unexpected of places, I was reminded to not focus on what I do not have – on what I deem is missing in my life – and to focus on what I do have, now.

And if the Law of Attraction really does exist in this life, then maybe that growing ball of negative energy will transform into a growing ball of positive energy. Because haven’t we heard that…

Louise-Roe-Thankful-Moody-Monday

Today, I am thankful for certain people placed in my life. The mere fact that they are in my life – right now – is reason enough to feel royally blessed. I would be a lot worse off without them!

I am thankful that I am able-bodied and healthy. So if I wanted get healthier and fitter, I can. It’s all a matter of deciding when to start, and then starting.

And I’m thankful that I’ve been gifted with a talent that I can use to make a living. So even if there are months that are drier than others, at least I am doing what I love. And isn’t that something others only dream of having?

So through the good and bad, the victories and disappointments, the successes and failures…

Be Thankful Option 01 PREVIEW

I have heard about him, read about him, and I respect him for bringing hope and inspiration to millions. His life is a testament to me that no matter how many lemons Fate throws you, you can make glasses after glasses of lemonade.

Nick Vujicic at this morning's press conference, Singapore

Nick Vujicic at this morning’s press conference, Singapore

But what I did not know about Nick Vujicic (pron. Vooy-cheech) is that he attempted suicide at the age of 10.

He was bullied from a young age, and suffered from loneliness and depression. He hated God then for making him the way he was and was terrified of what would happen to him if his parents weren’t there to take care of him.

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Being ‘different’ was already tough enough for this Serb growing up in Melbourne. It became tougher when his family moved to Los Angeles because not only was he the only kid in his school with no arms and no legs, and the only kid in a wheelchair, he also became the only kid in the school with an Australian accent!

“The most common bullying experience is being taunted or ridiculed for being ‘different’ in some way. I’m the poster child for this,” he says in his latest book, Stand Strong, on bullying.

“Most of us are familiar with childhood bullies who threaten to beat us up, make fun of us, or turn friends against us. Adults may experience bullying in the form of sexual harassment or as discrimination based on race, religion, sexual identity or disabilities. Bullies can be your boss, coworkers, teachers, coaches, boyfriends or girlfriends – anyone who abuses his power or position.” 

When I hear Nick’s definition of bullying, it puts some things into perspective for me: Lately, there have been religious leaders in Singapore making discriminatory remarks against pockets of people in the community who are ‘different’. And when their actions were exposed, they tried to turn the tables around to accuse those they attacked for being the ones discriminating against them.

Seriously? When people who are ‘different’ – who have been marginalised or discriminated against all their lives – speak up, they are not discriminating against you. They are standing up for themselves against your bullying.

The media lapped up his every word and questions flowed freely.

The media lapped up his every word and questions flowed freely.

Nick Vujicic is an inspiration to me because despite what he has gone through, he exudes JOY.

And he is unapologetic about attributing it to God and His faith. And while this may seem a little out of place – in theory – in a secular press conference filled with journalists, it was not out of place at all. I did not get a sense of him speaking about God from a place of self-righteousness or a ‘holier than thou’ pulpit. He was coming from a space of love.

During this press conference, Nick announced three projects he’s working on:

1,000 Videos in 1,000 Days

About a month ago, Nick launched a project to put 1,000 messages of hope – each about a minute long – on YouTube, where anyone can access. These are broadcast through 36 YouTube channels in 36 different languages. At this point in time, there are about 30 clips up, and you can expect another 970 over the next three years. One every day. You can access these clips here.

Here’s a taste of it:

A Movie on His Life

Nick also revealed that a movie on his life is in the works, and is scheduled to be released in the United States in 2015. This movie is produced by 10 Elephants Pictures, a film production house he’s set up with some partners. “I’m not sure if I will be acting in it, or if they will use my body and CGI the actor’s head on!” he jokes. “But we do have a budget for a Class A actor and Class A director.” (A little narcissistic though?)

Love Without Limits 

Many people have been asking Nick Vujicic how he met his beautiful wife, Kanae. The couple were married in Feb 2012, and a year later, became parents to a healthy baby boy whom they named Kiyoshi. Nick announced today that his wife Kanae and him are writing a book about their love story.

Nick proposed to Kanae on a boat, and put the ring on her finger with his mouth!

Nick proposed to Kanae on a boat, and put the ring on her finger with his mouth!

The book is entitled Love Without Limits and will be released in the United States on Nov 18. “If you’re inspired by me, I’m even more inspired by her,” he says with pride. “What I’ve gone through is nothing compared to her. She has not shared her side of our story.”

Nick and Kanae with their one-year-old son, Kiyoshi

Nick and Kanae with their one-year-old son, Kiyoshi

I’m excited about what’s in store for Nick. He is the keynote speaker for the 2014 National Achievers Congress in Singapore this weekend, but his talk Success Without Limits has been sold out.

But you can grab a copy of his latest book, Stand Strong, at all major bookstores. Launched here on 15 April, it has claimed No. 1 spot on the Sunday Times Bestsellers List for the past three weeks, and counting…

Truth be told, I have not read a single book of his. But after meeting Nick today, I think I may start with this one.

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*WARNING* GRAPHIC DETAILS

Some call it female circumcision, others call it female genital cutting. In its most severe form, the clitoris, inner and outer labia of a girl’s vagina are cut (with a knife or razor) and then crudely sewed up, leaving just a small hole – the size of a matchstick head – for the urine and menstrual blood to pass through.

Photo: WorldPulse.com

Using a razor to cut (Photo: WorldPulse.com)

Although these forms of “cutting” may vary in severity depending on the cultural rituals of different communities, the term I would choose to use when I talk about this – and which is widely used – would be Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

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Author Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o

My first brush with this vague concept of FGM happened when I was 15. In school, we read a Literature classic, written by African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, entitled The River Between.

Kenya is a world away from Singapore. And back in the 1980s, before the invention of the Internet, I knew close to nothing about its history, culture or rituals. This work of literature threw open my mind to realities beyond my own.

One of the themes in Ngugi’s book was circumcision. The word he used specifically was “female circumcision”. But juxtaposed with Waiyaki’s circumcision – which he looked forward to because it marked his final initiation into manhood – Muthoni’s circumcision was dreaded and eventually led to her death.

For her, it wasn’t just a nick in the flesh, as it was for the boys. For her (and other girls like her in Kenya, and Somalia, and Ethopia, and other African nations), the removal of the clitoris and labia led to bleeding, infection, chronic pain, cysts and often to death.

It’s hard not to question if the term “female circumcision” is misleading.

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Last night, I attended a film screening and panel discussion on a film called Desert Flower. Organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and SMU’s Shirin Fozdar Programme, this powerful film traces the extraordinary journey of Waris Dirie, a Somali desert nomad-turned-supermodel who is now a UN spokesperson campaigning against female genital mutilation.

At the age of 5, her mother brought her out into the desert to be cut by a traditional circumciser. It was a poignant scene in the film for me because the procedure was performed (on what – to me – looked liked a sacrificial rock altar) by a woman on a little girl. There were no men around. It was a ritual performed by women on women.

Why? Because only a “cut woman” is believed to be clean. In fact, it is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it – particularly by the women – who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.

Desert Flower has an R-rating. Here’s the trailer:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Key facts

  • Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

(Source: World Health Organisation, Updated Feb 2014) 

About 125 million women and girls in Africa and the Middle-East have undergone FGM. Among them, about 8 million have experienced the most severe form of mutilation (Type III), which is common in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

But what I learnt from the panel discussion that followed the film screening last night was that FGM happens not just in Africa and the Middle-East but in First World countries as well. Asia is not spared. Even more shocking, FGM happens here in Singapore.

Panel Discussion after the screening of Desert Flower

Panel Discussion with anthropologist Dr Dhooleka Raj and Minnie from UN Women

Maybe because FGM is so foreign and far-removed from my daily circumstance, it’s hard for me to connect with it on a very personal level. But one thing that Minnie from UN Women said struck a personal chord: In the case of Waris Dirie, who was cut and sewn up till what was left was a hole the size of a matchstick head, this hole caused her monthly periods to last 3 weeks.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Honestly, I dread the monthly discomfort and inconvenience of my own period. I remember getting my first period at 13 and thinking to myself, “OMG, is this going to happen to me every month till the day I die?” It was a horrible feeling of helplessness.

But for Waris, it was not just a period that lasted 3 weeks instead of 3 days, but also the chronic pain involved as a result of the botch job done by the circumciser with a razor and needle.

What has been done? 

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation.

In 2010, WHO published a “Global Strategy to Stop Healthcare Providers from Performing Female Genital Mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

Panorama_of_the_United_Nations_General_Assembly,_Oct_2012

But the truth is, laws are poorly enforced in many cases, and these measures are not without opposition. From the perspective of colonial and post-colonial history (in particular, the introduction of Christianity by Western missionaries), some anthropologists raise questions about the ethical implications of meddling with deeply-entrenched cultural rituals.

In fact, that was the premise of the book The River Between, written in 1965. When I read it in 1985, I too questioned the ethics of imposing Western religious beliefs on indigenous populations.

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But last night, in my first brush with the Desert Flower (‘Waris’ means ‘Desert Flower’), I heard a Somali woman speak up for herself and for other African girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. She is one of the first to ever speak up against FGM at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

Now that was powerful.

It was powerful for me because Waris did not always believe it was a violation. It was her reality. And it was through a painful personal journey that led to her to the point of speaking up against it.

And for me, every time an African speaks up for Africans, or a Cambodian speaks up for Cambodians, I think we need to sit up and pay attention. Because hearing a cry for help from within makes all the difference.

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

I always believe change starts with awareness. And while I don’t know what a small group of people in Singapore can do, I do believe in the power of the Ripple Effect, and that one person’s awareness can start a chain reaction.

If you feel moved to find out more about Waris Dirie’s humanitarian work, do visit her website at desertflowerfoundation.org or the film’s website at desertflower-movie.com.

 

 

 

A Time to Rest

Sunday mornings are best spent quiet.

I grew up Catholic but never really observed the Sabbath. Till today, I don’t think I deliberately set aside time to rest on Sundays. In fact, I know little about its significance.

Apparently, the word “Sabbath” has its roots in Judaism. The Jews have a word, “Shabbat”, which in Hebrew refers to a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end or to rest.

In fact, Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. (Source: Jewfaq.org).

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I am not religious. I won’t even venture to say I’m very spiritual these days. But from a very secular perspective, I respect that in the bigger scheme of things, there is a time for everything.

And one of these things – I believe – is rest.

Rest is even harder to do as a freelance writer because I don’t work 9-to-5. I don’t have “leave to clear” or a clear concept of “after-work hours”. Worse, I am a mother of twins. When does a mother go off-service?

But on this Sunday, I am reminded that we all need to allow ourselves to take a break from all the labouring. It’s not wrong. It’s not being lazy. And there shouldn’t be any guilt involved.

It may not end up being a Sunday – it may be a Wednesday or a Saturday – but one day a week. And unless we give ourselves permission through a conscious decision, we won’t.

I love this quote by one of my favourite inspirational writers, Maya Angelou:

Photo: dosomething.org

Photo: dosomething.org

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

Counter-intuitive as it may be, it’s our ego that gets in the way sometimes. But an ex-colleague of mine, Samantha, told me something many moons ago. She said, “We’re not indispensable. The world will go on without us – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

So let’s make rest a weekly discipline – as it was intended.

Let’s first allow ourselves. Then let’s discipline ourselves to practise it into a habit. We may not realise the wisdom of Ancient Wisdoms till we give it a shot.

 

 

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When she was found, she was perched on a wooden crate in a makeshift tent constructed from wooden sticks and canvas sheets. It was hard to tell from her seated position that she was disabled. There was no wheelchair or crutches in sight.
(Photo Credit: John Vink)

Oudong Province, Cambodia (Photo: John Vink)

These makeshift homes flanked the foot of Phnom Oudong (Oudong Mountain), located about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh. Between 1618 and 1866, this was the site of the old capital of Cambodia, before it was moved to Phnom Penh under French colonisation. Today, tourists climb this mountain daily to visit the magnificent temples and stupas on its summit, and to soak in the panoramic views.

Phnom Oudong with its temples & stupas

Phnom Oudong in the distance, Cambodia

But this 11-year-old girl was not there for any of these reasons. In fact, she was there not even by choice, but circumstance. Her family – together with 300 other families – had been forcefully evicted from the Borei Keila district in Phnom Penh and dumped here.

Borei Keila forced eviction on 4 Jan 2012 (Source: KI-Media)

Borei Keila forced eviction on 4 Jan 2012
(Photo: KI-Media)

“In early 2003, a ‘land-sharing’ arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which allowed the well-connected construction company, Phanimex, to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing housing to the residents on the remaining land. Phanimex was obligated to build 10 apartment buildings on two hectares of land for the villagers in return for obtaining ownership of an additional 2.6 hectares for commercial development.

In April 2010, Phanimex unilaterally reneged on the agreement, however – with the approval of the government – and only constructed eight buildings. That left 300 Borei Keila families excluded from the original agreement – and still living in housing on the site. These were the homes that Phanimex representatives destroyed today.”

(Source: THE DIPLOMAT, 15 Jan 2012)

Borei Keila homes bulldozed to the ground (Photo Credit: Faine Greenwood)

Borei Keila homes bulldozed to the ground
(Photo: Faine Greenwood)

These forcefully evicted families were dispersed and relocated to three campsites outside Phnom Penh – Oudong being one of them.

While they waited for their little plots of promised land, they lived in flimsy self-constructed tents, cut off from their sources of income, and left to fend for themselves. And for a young girl with a disability, moving around the campsite alone was hard as the ground was uneven and unpaved.

This was how Eunice Olsen – a former Singaporean politician, actor, TV host and avid volunteer – found Srey Nuon back in 2012.

Travelling to Phnom Penh to do research for 3.50, a film she was making about human trafficking in Cambodia, Eunice was put in touch with a doctor at Sihanouk Hospital. It was through this doctor that she was directed to NGOs working with trafficked girls, as well as a home care team that did outreach to persons living with HIV.

Eunice Olsen in a scene from 3.50 the movie

Eunice Olsen in a scene from 3.50 the movie

Outside of research work for her film, Eunice tagged along with this home care team as they made their rounds. Over the span of a few days, she was brought to Borei Keila, and then to Oudong, where she first met Srey Nuon.

Srey Nuon’s family was one of those evicted.

“You know, poverty isn’t the problem,” Eunice said to me in one of our casual conversations. “People can still survive, and even be happy, when they’re poor. The problem is injustice.”

At Oudong, the social worker Eunice was trailing approached Srey Nuon to engage her in conversation because she was a “new case”. They had not seen her before and they wanted to find out more about her situation. The little girl could not speak a word of English.

Through the social worker, who translated their exchange from Khmer to English, Eunice learnt that the girl’s father would transport her everyday to the foot of Oudong Mountain on his scooter, and there, she would climb over a hundred steps – on her hands – to beg.

In the community’s eyes, Srey Nuon’s fate was to be a beggar.

When Eunice heard this, she asked almost instinctively, “Did she go to school before?”

The social worker translated her question to the girl, and came back with this reply, “Yes.”

“Did she like to go to school?” Eunice pursued.

The translated answer came back once again, “Yes.”

It was the girl’s non-hesitant answer to that pointed question that compelled Eunice Olsen to make a decision on the spot: She would put Srey Nuon back in school, and support her till she was 21.

On Lala's tuk tuk in Phnom Penh traffic

On Lala’s tuk tuk in Phnom Penh traffic

When I was in Phnom Penh last week with Eunice, we visited Srey Nuon at her school. It was a school for the disabled, run by a Catholic mission, and one of the first stops we made on our 4-day trip to Cambodia.

Together with Chhavelith from Sihanouk Hospital’s home care team, we rode out in Lala’s tuk tuk, veering off the main road after about an hour onto a dusty, bumpy path. The school was located at the outskirts of the city, tucked away in a corner of nowhere.

I know this bothered Eunice a little because she has always stood up for integration, even as a Parliamentarian. But I learnt that Srey Nuon did start out trying to integrate into a mainstream school, but because the school’s infrastructure and teachers were not equipped to provide adequately for someone like her, she wasn’t coping physically and intellectually.

And to be fair, this little school for the disabled was out of sight, but not out of mind.

As we spluttered through the open gate and climbed out of Lala’s tuk tuk, I breathed in the fresh air and soaked in the vibes of the place – as I often do in a new place. It felt light and safe, and there was no heaviness hanging over the place, like I sometimes feel when I step into Singapore schools.

The compound was small and quiet, a tad old but clean and well maintained. I could tell that the Catholic missionaries took pride in this place.

(Photo: Arte e Salute)

(Photo: Arte e Salute)

The supervisor, a gentle soft-spoken man, came out to meet us. He led us down a row of classrooms towards the canteen, and on the way, pointed out a computer lab for the students, complete with second-hand laptops donated by well-meaning donors and volunteers from the West.

It was “dessert time” and the children had spilled out from the classrooms into the airy canteen. Some were already huddled over bowls of soupy dessert – one bowl on each table to be shared.

The children were understandably curious about us. We were visibly different. But unreservedly, they greeted us “good afternoon!” in English and followed us around.

They were adorable! While similar in that they all had disabilities, they were also uniquely different: Some were running around with shrivelled arms, others were on wheelchairs and crutches, while others had no arms or legs. Even the cheerful young teacher who recognised Eunice and came out to greet us, had a stump for a right arm.

Eunice scanned the canteen for Srey Nuon but she was nowhere in sight. I felt my breath quicken because I had heard so much about her and I was finally going to meet her face-to-face. The supervisor informed us that she would be along in a bit because she had just finished swimming lessons, and was changing back into her uniform.

Just beside the canteen where we were was a small swimming pool, shallow and rectangle-shaped, and protectively fenced to prevent the children from falling in. I was lost in thought for a moment as I watched the clear blue water shimmer happily in the afternoon sun.

stock-footage-sun-reflections-on-swimming-pool-water

I was heartened to learn that the students here did not just have swimming lessons, but also music and art lessons.

“Srey Nuon is also learning English,” the supervisor informed us.

Chhavelith beamed like a proud father. After all, he had been instrumental in making arrangements for Srey Nuon here in Phnom Penh while Eunice was back in Singapore.

P1090021Since that chance meeting at Oudong, Srey Nuon had moved back to the capital and was living with an aunt and her family. But more recently, she was boarding five days a week at the school, returning home only on weekends because her aunt had just given birth.

“I think this is a better arrangement,” Chhavelith had updated Eunice when we were discussing Srey Nuon’s progress back at the office. “She’ll have more care here.”

I knew Eunice trusted Chhavelith’s judgement, and the moment I set eyes on Srey Nuon a distance away, I understood why. My first thought was that she looked happy!

Her face lit up when she saw Eunice, who had bounded over to hug her. Even though she was on a wheelchair, she appeared strong and healthy and her eyes twinkled merrily.

She is now 13.

“Hello, good afternoon!” she said in English, much to our delight.

The rest of the conversation between her and Eunice was carried out with the help of Chhavelith’s translation. Eunice handed her some gifts from Singapore, and she updated Eunice on how she was doing in school. She said she enjoyed swimming and music very much.

“You must learn to play the piano, OK?” teased Eunice, herself a proficient pianist.

Keyboard Keys Close Up

A group of children had gathered around Srey Nuon, children of different shapes and sizes, all hanging on to their every word with interest and curiosity. Srey Nuon introduced Eunice to her best friend, who was standing quietly behind her wheelchair.

DSC_0334“That’s her best friend!” Eunice shot me a glance from her kneeled position on the floor, and I could see from her expression that her heart was melting. As was mine. That was the sweetest moment, to see two little girls connected in a special friendship this way.

For some reason, I remembered then that Srey Nuon had lost her mum. Some time back, Eunice had taken her to the hospital to visit her ailing mother. “I cried the whole day after that, when I thought about her sitting by her mother’s bedside,” Eunice had revealed.

A week after that hospital visit, Srey Nuon’s mum passed away.

How happy her mother would be, I thought, knowing that her daughter was safe and in good hands. And that she had the possibility of a future brighter than her own. She must be smiling from heaven.

(Photo: John Vink)

(Photo: John Vink)

I wonder. When Eunice first met that little beggar girl sitting on a wooden crate two years ago, would she have seen this in her mind’s eye? Her in a school uniform, beaming happily beside another little girl she called her best friend? Would Eunice have envisioned her speaking English and learning music and enjoying swimming?

“Did she like to go to school?” That question that Eunice asked so instinctively was perhaps the one most important question to have asked at that moment.

I don’t know what prompted her to ask it, but I do know as a journalist that it was a question that arose not from the intellect but from the heart. And oh, what a difference it has made!

This, to me, is what it means to find a need and fill it.

Eunice Olsen. Oudong, Cambodia (14 Jan 2014)

Eunice Olsen. Oudong, Cambodia (14 Jan 2014)

I don’t think Eunice realises the difference she has made to this child. A decision to support Srey Nuon till she is 21 is a huge commitment. And as a freelance writer, I understand how unpredictable work is for people like us who don’t hold 9-to-5 jobs.

But Eunice’s simple gesture – which she does not share publicly or boast about – taught me that despite not knowing how or from where your resources will come, you sometimes need to respond without counting the cost, because there is simply a need to be filled. Period.

It brings to mind – and to life – a verse that I have cherished since I was 16.

“I expect to pass through this world but once. 

Any good therefore that I can do,

or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,

let me do it now.

Let me not defer or neglect it,

for I shall not pass this way again.”

~ William Penn ~

Srey Nuon put a face to Cambodia’s forced evictions for me. I felt indignant by the injustice of it. But at the same time, I felt deeply touched because I had witnessed compassion and generosity given freely from one stranger to another.

I left Cambodia believing that there is goodness in this world. And somehow, that changes you.

* * *

THE STARFISH STORY

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realise there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea.

“It made a difference to that one.”

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** No photos of Srey Nuon have been included in this article in order to protect her identity and safety – upon request by Eunice Olsen.

Fight the Good Fight

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“We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body. Many times in our lives we see our dreams shattered and our desires frustrated, but we have to continue dreaming. If we don’t, our soul dies, and agape cannot reach it. 

The good fight is the one we fight because our heart asks it of us. In the heroic ages – at the time of the knights in armour – this was easy. There were lands to conquer and much to do. Today, though, the world has changed a lot, and the good fight has shifted from the battlefields to the fields within ourselves. 

The good fight is the one that’s fought in the name of our dreams. When we’re young and our dreams first explode inside us with all their force, we were very courageous, but we haven’t yet learned how to fight. With great effort, we learn how to fight, but by then we no longer have the courage to go into combat. So we turn against ourselves and do battle within. We become our own worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, or too difficult to realise, or the result of our not having known enough about life. We kill our dreams because we are afraid to fight the good fight.” 

~ Paulo Coelho (The Pilgrimage) 

The Road to Santiago

The Road to Santiago

Today marks the last day of 2013. When I look back on this one year, I remember it for two things: 

Firstly, for leaving my full-time journalism job of 7 years to follow my dream of being a writer. I have known since I was 13 that I was created to write. And while I did make a decision to do that in a mid-career shift, this path was somehow overshadowed when I pursued journalism into the realms of radio and television. Those were, no doubt, good years. But it was time to return to my first love.

If we don’t stand up and fight for our own dreams, who will fight for us?

There are battles we can step away from, and there are battles we need to step up to. And I think we need to pray for wisdom to choose them wisely. But once we’ve chosen, fight the good fight for them!

Secondly, 2013 was about closing chapters and writing new ones. It was a season of letting go, of decluttering, and recognising that I need to step away from things in my life that don’t serve to build me up but drag me down. I wouldn’t say it was easy at all, but necessary.

With the closing of a chapter meant the freeing-up of space in my life. I think in many ways I was ready for God to fill it with His idea of goodness. And I trusted that He would provide – in His time, and in His way.

And He did. I will remember 2013 as a year of new and unexpected friendships. I am still in the midst of spring-cleaning, taking stock of who are my Reason, Season & Lifetime friends. It’s a time of flux, but I believe I’ll emerge with a greater knowing of how to move forward, traveling lighter.

2013 was also a year of extensive travel for me. I barely stayed for a month before I was off again. In March, I embarked on my first solo trip, followed by another one in October, and I realised how much I love solo travel.

snapshot 2013

So for all the ups and downs, the pains and joys, the endings and beginnings, I am deeply grateful.

I am looking forward to 2014 because I’m recently reminded that my life must serve a purpose bigger than myself. I want some clarity on that in the new year.

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And for that reason, one of the items on my bucket list in 2014 is a pilgrimage to walk the Road to Santiago, a path trodden by millions of pilgrims for centuries. Insha’Allah – God willing.

Let’s see where that leads.

“The good fight is the one we fight because our heart asks it of us.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Call of the Camino


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These words by Mark Twain hit me like a brick wall. I don’t profess to know why I’m born. And it strikes me today that I may never know.

But I feel it shouldn’t stop me from searching. Because if my Maker made me for a reason, then I want to live out that purpose while I’m still here.

I woke up this morning wanting to re-watch a 42min video on the El Camino a Santiago – or the Road to Santiago – with Paulo Coelho, one of my most revered writers.

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The  film traces his 700km walk across northern Spain, a journey that would change the course of his life forever. It was this pivotal journey that compelled him to start writing at the age of 38. And in many ways, it was the journey that revealed to him his life’s purpose.

Coelho has since sold more than 150 million books in over 150 countries worldwide, and his works have been translated into 80 languages.

From his own El Camino a Santiago experience, he wrote The Pilgrimage – a precursor to his international bestseller, The Alchemist.

A copy of this book has been sitting on my shelf for many years.

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Perhaps it’s time to finally read it. I’ve always believed that books find you at the right time.

I don’t know where this prompting will lead me. But I do know that in the current circumstances of my life, there is a quiet persistent yearning to know: Why I’m here, and what I’m meant to do in this fraction of eternity that I’m here.

And really, it shouldn’t surprise me that it would be authors who have set me on this path. 

Here is the video. If you decide to watch it, BE OPEN because you never know what questions it raises for you. And isn’t it always about asking the right questions?

“The boat is safer anchored at the port; but that’s not the aim of boats.” 
― Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage 

  

When I was traveling for 3 weeks in South Africa in 2011, Cape Town was having rugby fever. It was rugby season and the Springboks were playing the All Blacks. Everyone in Cape Town was wearing a Springbok jersey, and their verve was infectious!

My South African friend Nadem got me a jersey and I’ve kept it all these years. It’s still in pristine condition – see the price tag?

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Today, I dug it out again. Perhaps it’s because of all the rugby World Cup news of late, or perhaps, it’s because I heard on the radio this morning that Nelson Mandela’s body was making its way through the streets of Pretoria in South Africa, so that the ordinary man-in-the-street can say his final goodbyes.

Whatever it was, it made me remember the stories I’d heard in my travels in Cape Town.

In 1995, the newly democratic South Africa (after the fall of apartheid) made its Rugby World Cup debut after many years of anti-apartheid boycott. It hosted the games that year.

The rift then between the blacks and the coloured people of South Africa and the ruling class white elite was wide. There was still much anger and resentment in the country.

It was because of anti-apartheid sentiments that the Springboks missed the last two World Cup series (1987, 1991). But to everyone’s surprise, the underdogs made it to the finals and were set to play against the favourites – New Zealand’s All Blacks. 

In that final game, Nelson Mandela appeared before the mostly white crowd of 62,000 wearing a Springbok jersey to shake the players’ hands before kick-off.

That powerful image of a Black Afrikaan man sporting a garment that was so indelibly associated with the apartheid regime spoke a quiet but powerful message of reconciliation.

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The Springboks ended up defeating the All Blacks 15-12 in the World Cup Finals in 1995.

I feel compelled to remember this great story as we pay our last respects to this great man. My Springbok jersey will always remind me of the lessons I learnt in my short time in South Africa. Important ones, nonetheless. 

Rest in Peace, Mr Mandela.