The Wonder of Cambodia

June 8, 2016

     The theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote in his fourth century text "Confessions", "People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering."

     Few Cambodians were left untouched by the Khmer Rouge genocide. An estimated two million lost their lives, representing one-third of the population. Much like cancer in America, everyone has lost someone close. The shadow of the past still lingers, shrouding the landscape and haunting the Khmer.

     The Khmer's struggle has left them with an appreciation of peace which comes only after living without it. Cambodians live deliberately and without frills. The constant specter of mortality creates a love and appreciation of life unlike anything in America. The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt described this appreciation as "love of the world", words I have never truly been able to make sense of until now.

     The Cambodian ethos manifests itself in the medical field as a deep gratitude for those who care for them. There have been many problems our small, mobile treatment team is unequipped to manage. My gut reaction is fear I have failed or let my patient down. Delivering disappointing news via translator seems to last an eternity. The reputation of American doctors attracts sick patients from miles around. As the translator relays my apologetic words I wait for hope to melt into disappointment. Not once have my fears been realized. Cambodians are uniformly gracious to a fault. They appreciate mere effort. It is an extremely humbling experience.

     I will echo a popular cliche of Americans abroad: I realize how much I have and how much I have to be thankful for. More than once I have mistakenly overpaid only to have the vendor stop me and return the excess. The amount is pocket change to me but represents a day's work to an average Khmer. This action speaks without need for translation.

     These past weeks I have wondered at Cambodia's mountains, seas, rivers, oceans and stars but mostly I wonder at the Khmer and their vivacious, unsinkable spirit and I pass by myself and wonder.

                         Kampot Sunset

Dane Hellwig, Medical Student

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