September 12

Zooming in

Consider this picture (1) below. What is the main thing that you see first?

geral ponte

Tonle Sekong river, Stung Treng, Cambodia

 

I imagine that some of you found yourself first noticing the trash and dirt on the riverbank, and maybe found yourself despairing about how little people must seem to care about the river and nature. What a terrible thing to see…

And now look at this picture (2). What do you now see first?

zoom ponte

Tonle Sekong river, Stung Treng, Cambodia

 

Maybe all of you would now admire this landscape: the wide and beautiful of the river, the bridge in the distance, seeing the beauty of nature all around? You might find yourself wishing you were here, contemplating the sense of place and how it might feel to stand here and experience this view. Right?

Well, if you pay attention, you will see that the two pictures are actually from the same place, at the same position (“same same” as they say here); however, the second one is simply zoomed in, so that you can only see the beautiful landscape and not the trash that litters the riverbank. Applying this metaphor to our daily life, this is a simple example of how, sometimes, when we capture flashes of happenings around us – the good and bad, the ugly or beautiful ones – what we see and focus on depends not on what lies in front of us but depends more on what we choose to see.

Worries, concerns, difficult decisions, negative thoughts or demotivated feelings can often surround and engulf us. Such thoughts and feelings can linger, consuming our energies and attention, leaving us feeling almost helpless: powerless to effect change and unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. With our mind clouded we find ourselves complaining about the ‘dirty things along the river’, unable to see in front of us to the beauty in the distance. In situations where we leave our comfort zone, such feelings can become common if things are not going as well as we would like them to, or where we face conditions that require of us a bit more effort to adapt to some new reality. Who among us has not experienced feelings and thoughts like these? Well, I certainly have recently.

After almost three weeks of travelling back and forth between the capital, Phnom Penh, and neighbouring province, Ratanakiri, attending NGO meetings and visiting local health facilities, this weekend I finally moved to the area where I will be based for the rest of my time here in Cambodia. The province of Stung Treng is located in Northeast Cambodia, some 400km from Phnom Penh, on the border with Laos to the north. The main attraction is the junction of the Tonle Sekong river with the Mekong river, that cuts the province roughly in half. The province has around 135,000 inhabitants, and its capital – a small town of the same name – accounts for around 20% of the province’s population. The region is considered to be amongst the poorest, most remote and least accessible in Cambodia. The area’s natural resources are starting to attract investors, new businesses and migrants, and yet even so I have so far seen less than a handful of foreigners in the streets. Very few people can communicate in English (just in their local language, Khmer), and even less so in my native Portuguese! I have found myself having to invent new forms of sign language to order food, to find somewhere to rent a room, to ask about the product prices and to interact with those who cross my path, mainly children who will stop and stare at the curious “Barang” (as they call western people in Cambodia) and shout “Hello” at me when they see me in the street.

 

Within a few hours I can walk around the whole town. To one side: all roads stop at the edge of the Sekong river. To the other: paved streets quickly disappear into countryside and mud-covered tracks. Wooden houses suspended on stilts can be seen around the central area where the local market is concentrated. Distances are short, and any place can be reached on foot (including my office), although motorcycles are more prevalent than pedestrians on the streets owing to the hot and humid weather during the current rainy season. Besides the usual dogs and cats, chickens and cows can often be found casually strolling in the streets. As is usual in the countryside, daily life starts early with the sun and ends early in the evening; the chances of finding food after 8:30pm are nil, and I have already slept without have dinner because of this.

 

The GSK PULSE programme brought me here. And for that I am very grateful. Thinking about how it will be to live here for the next five months feels like a big adventure, but I also recognize that it will be a challenge, and that my resilience will be tested. I know that there is so much to do, but more than that, I also feel that there is so much for me to learn from living here. Living in a new country, surrounded by such a different culture, language and behaviours, brings to us all the opportunity to challenge ourselves, to go beyond our comfort zone, to learn and develop new skills that we could never have imagined before. Despite the difficulties, the ‘trash’ that can appear in front of my eyes (and I know that it is just there), I am choosing, day by day, to try and see the broader picture and admire the beauty that is always there as well. Perspective is just a matter of choice, and this is the choice I am making.

And you, have you thought about what you choose to focus on in your life? Are you able to recognize the beauty and opportunity that always exists, despite the ‘trash and dirty things’ that might appear just in front of you?

sunset bridge

Amazing sunset from the bridge over the Tonle Sekong river, Stung Treng, Cambodia