I remember a time when I thought nothing of treating a friend to a $150 dinner. I hosted holidays and parties that cost more than I spend in an entire week traveling in Southeast Asia. I shared what I had, thought little about the cost, and picked up the bill often.
It’s hard to believe when I see myself today, haggling over 10 baht or the equivalent of roughly thirty cents.
Transitioning my lifestyle from a high earning urbanite to a self employed vagabond, my relationship with money has changed a lot in the last two years.
Where I once spent recklessly, today I track every penny in a spreadsheet. I used to give bartenders 25%, yet now traveling in countries that don’t expect it, I’ve stopped tipping altogether. While in the past I socialized with upper middle class urbanites I now associate with travelers living on a shoestring.
We repay a friend the 500 Indonesian Rupiah we borrowed earlier… about five cents. As women we stop expecting the men we date to ever pick up the tab. We haggle over $1 often… that’s the price of an entire meal after all. We brag about how little we paid for our guesthouse, our meal, or our poorly made printed pants. Asking someone what he spent on anything is not considered rude.
At times I interpret our behavior as… well, stingy.
But you see, I totally get it.
As travelers, constant movement forces us to address our most basic needs daily: shelter, food, and safety. Despite our privilege and our education, we often default to survival mode. How can we possibly give –our time, our attention, our resources—to others when we barely have enough to sustain ourselves? Not to mention that we feel constantly prey to scam artists masked as tuk tuk drivers and street vendors. We begin to believe that everyone is trying to rip us off.
Yes, I’m making some pretty dramatic generalizations here.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong advocate against giving money to children and overpaying for goods and services in developing countries. I believe this type of behavior promotes irresponsible tourism with unsustainable revenue streams. What I’m referring to here is the general feeling of not having enough to give.
We seem to lose sight of the inconceivable truth that the universe delivers in abundance and that generosity breeds greater generosity. We seem to forget that we don’t lose when we give.
I might argue that American society as a whole functions based on this belief in scarcity. We believe that, despite our extreme excess, we don’t have enough. Not enough money in the bank to support our family. Not enough jobs in the market to pursue our dreams. Not enough land to create our homes. Not enough suitable single (wo)men for us to fall in love. Not enough light for everyone to shine.
Ok, enough preaching, I promise I’m going somewhere with all of this.
A few weeks ago in Cambodia, a country where most people live on less than even the poorest person in the first world, where just forty years ago an alarming number of citizens were starved to death by their own government, the universe decided to show me that abundance is in fact everywhere.
I spent the morning with Tice, a Dutch traveler I met at Bodhi Villas on the riverside in Kampot, snacking on fruit at the local market and haggling over woven goods.
If you’ve ever shopped in a third world tourist town you know how these negotiations typically come down to pride over expense. I think Alex Garland put it best in his epic The Beach when he said, “I get confused between feeling that I shouldn’t haggle with poverty and hating getting ripped off.”
This theme continued throughout our day.
We drove through the salt flats and pepper farms, through beautiful Cambodian countryside, before stopping at the Phnom Chhngok caves on the road heading towards Kep. As we walked up to the cave’s entrance, some locals demanded we each pay a $1 entry fee. We begrudgingly paid up, and agreed to hire the kid who spoke English to give us a tour of the cave. Sensing an impending scam we confirmed that we would each pay $1 for the tour.
Two other boys silently followed while we explored limestone caverns with cathedral heights and our guide pointed out the animal spirits living in the stonewalls. The smallest boy would reach for my hand to guide me through a low opening or down crumbling steps. My experience traveling in Morocco assured me these boys would want something in the end.
When we reached the exit we met a group of three travelers sitting in a circle eating a bag of mangos. They appeared to be mid twenties, one fair skinned Asian woman, one dark skinned Asian woman, and one white Western man. “We’re from America,” they said. The guy was, but the others’ thick accents revealed they were not. Their lie peaked my curiosity.
We spoke about the Mekong Delta and the famous caves in Vietnam. They insisted on sharing their mangos and the dark skinned Asian girl generously cut large slabs and handed them to us. Tice pulled a small packet of nuts, some sanitary hand wipes, and a bottle of water from his bag, “please let me share with you what I have!” he said sincerely. They laughed and declined.
In the field in front of the cave the girls took sticks and knocked down armloads of green mangos while the locals sat and watched. I spoke with the American man, who revealed that one of the women, his girlfriend, was actually from Vietnam. The two of them met in Nha Trang and were traveling through Thailand and Cambodia together. The other woman, from China, they met in Phnom Penh.
“They really don’t like the Vietnamese here in Cambodia, so we lie and just say we’re all American.”
I’ve read that most Khmers detest the Vietnamese, likely from over a century of nationalistic brainwashing. During the Khmer Rouge years, “healthy” children were recruited into army camps where leaders would fill their minds with anti-Vietnamese propaganda nightly. It was Vietnamese troops who eventually “liberated” the work camps by invading Cambodia and fighting the Khmer Rouge, but this negative sentiment pervades today.
Many Khmers believe Vietnamese immigrants take jobs and Vietnamese investors who purchase land for rubber plantations in the Cambodian countryside effectively evict Khmers from their homes. I’ve seen in my own country how perceived job scarcity can create a hateful movement against immigrants.
Interestingly many Southern Vietnamese have Khmer roots. Case in point, this Vietnamese woman hiding under the protection of “American” citizenship was actually born to a Khmer mother.
When we returned to our bikes and handed our tour guide his payment, the two boys who tagged along on our tour demanded $1 each. Tice seemed soured by their game; I had anticipated it. We paid our guide and remained firm on our initial agreement. They looked at us with disdain. Was the principal worth upholding?
Riding back through the countryside I told Tice that being here, outside of the tourist center, reminded me why I loved Cambodia. He laughed and said our experience at the cave reminded him why he didn’t.
We reunited with the American-Vietnamese couple and their Chinese travel companion at the next cave en route to Kep and sipped on sugar cane juice in the parking lot. The Vietnamese girl oozed charisma and spoke dramatically about their recent travel misadventures.
“They put on another face for white people,” she said, referring to the locals in Southeast Asia.
Apparently she was denied entry to Thailand even with a prearranged visa, received constant glares in Cambodia, and while traveling in conservative Northern Vietnam locals made it abundantly clear they disapproved of interracial couples.
“Wow, you must have a big vagina to be with a white man,” a Vietnamese man actually said to her.
“We’d like to travel outside of Southeast Asia,” her boyfriend said “but it’s just too difficult for her to get a visa.”
Consequently they decided to return to Nha Trang after Kampot.
I silently acknowledged that a white woman sits on a pedestal and felt disconcerted by yet another reminder of my privilege.
Our five sugar cane drinks came to 8000 riel, or $2, and the American insisted on paying. Tice and I urged him to accept our money. Only in a country like Cambodia would a Westerner feel in debt over a single dollar.
We agreed to meet for dinner in the seaside town Kep famous for its fresh crabs seasoned with fresh peppercorns from the nearby farms.
When Tice and I arrived our white faces quadrupled the prices, making a crab on the street more expensive than an entire meal in a fancy restaurant. The American asked his girlfriend to go and bargain for us.
“Sometimes, because of her dark skin, they assume she’s Khmer.”
The Vietnamese girl returned and announced she negotiated on an entire kilo of Kampot pepper crab for $5. The negativity surrounding being “ripped off” transformed an otherwise delightful evening into one infused with stress. I wondered what the true cost was of saving a dollar.
We sat on plastic covered picnic tables on the pier and devoured the perfectly boiled delicate crabs, dunking the meat into spicy chili sauce while juices ran down our arms.
Tice struggled to gut his crabs, a novice, while the Asian girls attacked with ease. Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland I was no stranger to a crab feast, but being predominantly vegetarian for most of my life I struggled to crack the shells between my teeth.
The American was also a vegetarian, Tice had converted about a month ago, and I was practically vegan, yet here we were eating crabs with our bare hands. The boys were too disgusted and ordered two whole barracudas for $3.
We tallied the outstanding bill. The Vietnamese girl told me the total; I responded that I hadn’t ordered any fish, only crab. “Oh, ok, don’t worry about it,” she said and walked away. Meanwhile Tice insisted on paying extra out of gratitude for her negotiating skills.
The sky turned lilac as the burning orange sphere lowered on the horizon. Children pulled fishing traps in for their parents, families gathered on the wooden docks, and I sat in silence watching the most fantastic performer who rises and sets every day, free of charge.
Our companions decided to return to Kampot and I looked for the girls to say goodbye. I smiled sincerely and said how nice it was to meet them and received an icy farewell from the Vietnamese girl, who continued chatting with Tice.
They left and I was slammed with the realization that I had insulted them. These people thought nothing of sharing their mangos, paying for the sugarcane juice, and negotiating a price on our seafood, and there I was nickel and diming the bill. True, I hadn’t ordered or eaten fish, but I offended a new friend over one dollar.
Riding back to Kampot in the dark, the deep peace I felt in the countryside that day became replaced with anxiety and insecurity as I questioned my integrity and character. Who was I? Had I become a total cheap ass?
To be fair I had made many generous acts since first arriving in Southeast Asia seven months ago. Still, I was operating in a constant state of scarcity and giving required a conscious decision; it was never an automatic response. I felt far from the woman in me who once gave freely.
That night, humiliated by what had transpired, I set an intention to find greater charity within myself.
A few days later, walking down the beach in Otres 2, a quiet beach South of Sihanoukville, the universe decided to turn my intention on its head.
I stumbled upon a charming family run place called Castaways and ordered a young coconut to sip on while watching the sunset. I passed by a large picnic table covered in Styrofoam containers heaped with clams, steamed shrimp, raw oysters, white rice, and the famous Kampot pepper crabs.
“Sorry to bother you, but where did you get your crabs?” I asked the locals who gathered around it. I had assumed Kep was the only place to procure these delicacies.
“We bought them in the market in Sihanoukville,” a young Khmer man replied with a smile.
I nodded and smiled before walking over to a lounge chair along the shore.
A few minutes later the same man approached me, “you can come and share with us if you’d like?”
“Oh, no no, it’s ok, please, enjoy!”
“Yes, yes come eat with us,” he insisted.
He picked up my coconut and transported it to the picnic table.
“Here, you need to drink this instead,” he said as he plopped two big ice cubes into a glass mug and handed me a can of Angkor.
I remained hesitant as they piled my plate with rice. I mentally tabulated how much cash I had on me, only a couple of dollars. The rest was in my room a few miles down the beach. This was hardly enough to offer for my meal.
We clanked our glasses together as they laughed and shouted. Their celebratory energy was palpable and I felt honored to absorb it.
I soon learned that the man who invited me to the feast, Luch, was the nephew of the family who owned Castaways. For the start of Khmer New Year, he brought his closest colleagues to see his hometown and meet his family. They all worked for Cambodia Children’s Fund, a highly respected nonprofit in Phnom Penh.
Luch and I talked about corruption in Cambodia and he told me that most Khmers in the city, himself included, had to work at least three jobs to survive.
Other patrons of the bungalows and restaurant joined us as we drank ice-cold beers and licked pepper crab off of our fingers. They were happy to share everything that they had. It quickly became apparent that offering money towards the meal would have been more insulting than kind.
I wondered what I had done to deserve this treatment. Hadn’t I been the one who needed to find greater generosity in myself? Why was I, yet again, on the receiving end of it?
Then I realized the inextricable connection between giving and receiving. Perhaps I had been struggling to give to others because of my own feelings of unworthiness in receiving.
I allowed myself to accept the kindness of these people into my heart so that I might begin to embody it. I asked to become a more generous person, but the universe decided to show me generosity first.
Over the following week I shared many occasions with this family. On the owner’s birthday they prepared curries, salads, and seafood and shared it with all of us free of charge. They treated me to breakfast one morning in a noodle stall. Luch’s mother brought exotic fruits and desserts for me to try to my room. For Khmer New Year they shared their beers and held my hands in a circle while we danced.
Based on their generosity alone, you would have believed these were the richest people in the entire world.
Their behavior made me realize that wealth is a perception. A man with two homes can deem himself poor when he looks at his outstanding mortgage while a homeless man can find a coconut tree and believe himself rich.
I decide to perceive myself in the light of the latter.
I have air to breathe and food to eat and people who love me. I have everything I need. In fact I have so much more than I need. I have dresses in different colors, a waterproof camera, a kindle, a macbook, an iPhone, and so much more. I have such excess.
And because I live in a world with abundant energy and love, even if I lose all of my material possessions tomorrow, I will always have more than enough to give.