When I decided for myself that “Live your dreams” would be the motto for my life I had no idea where my journey would take me. At the age of fourteen, I made a decision to become a receptionist one day, travel the world and explore different cultures. A plan which my parents weren’t happy with as they had already drafted my accounting career. So, I found myself attending a college for business administration instead of hotel management. For five years, I told myself that the day would come to live my hospitality dream if only I would believe in it and manage to persuade my parents that accounting is simply not my cup of tea.
After many heated discussions, I was finally allowed to sign up for a college for hotel and tourism management, a two years programme that would open the doors to hospitality and my new dream of working in Thailand. An idea that did not find great support from my friends and family either, on the contrary most just smiled at me. Graduation was followed by six years climbing the ladder at different international hotelchains with only one goal in mind: living my dreams. The year 2010 was the turning point in my life. I moved to Singapore. This step has changed my life forever. I have turned into an open-minded cosmopolitan and at the same time I developped an ever increasing social responsibility which derived from my numerous journeys off the beaten tourist tracks to remote and impoverished villages all over South East Asia.
One of my journeys led me to Cambodia in July 2011 to visit a friend of mine who was volunteering at a local hospital. The extreme poverty, corruption and injustice in this country paired with the genuine care, warmth and happiness of its people captivated me and never left my mind again. I fell in love with Cambodia and felt that I would come back when the time was right. More than a year had passed since my first visit when I decided to take a three months sabbatical to volunteer at a community run NGO – 9 miles outside of Siem Reap. I worked as an English teacher and trained the Khmer staff on administrative and management skills. Throughout my ten years in hospitality I have never had a more fulfilling and rewarding task. There was this undescribable feeling of pure happiness, inner harmony and never wanting to leave again.
From my very first day in Kro Bei Riel commune I was treated like a long lost friend and was immediately adopted into their families. I joined weddings, funerals, birthdays and other celebrations and enjoyed a true cultural experience. The curiosity I was approached with and their genuine care made me feel at home. And by the time I left I felt I wasn’t a stranger anymore neither a tourist. I had made friends with many Cambodians and feel blessed for every single one of them who has left footprints in my life. But three months were flying by very fast and returning to Singapore was an unwanted wake up call that interrupted my Cambodian dream. I was asked many times if it was difficult for me to live a simple Cambodian lifestyle without western luxuries. The truth is, I don’t need it and on the contrary it was way more difficult to adjust back to the superficial, commercialized life in Singapore. Cambodia had changed my values and priorities in life and somehow a new dream was born: moving to Cambodia and continuing the work I had started.
Despite the many reasons that drew me to going back, the decision was much harder. Not only was it a massive change to my lifestyle but it also meant a huge change in my professional career. I had no teaching degree and was thinking for very long time if giving up my management position for this dream would be worth it. I would lie if people wouldn’t have called me crazy for accepting a few thousand dollar paycut. Nonetheless, I felt that the happiness I would get in return would be more rewarding than my account balance. After four months of going back and forth between Singapore and Siem Reap I packed my life in boxes again to start a new adventure. Back in Cambodia I got TESOL certified and started teaching English and Hospitality at an NGO providing hospitality trainings to underprivileged youth. Their smiles, eagerness to learn and curiosity towards new things make up for every single cent of my paycut and the feeling of being able to have a job that is as meaningful and rewarding fills me with happiness.
It is great to see the country slowly recovering from its wounds of the Khmer Rouge genocide when between 1.7 to 2.2 million Cambodians lost their lives, infrastructure was destroyed and a country that once used to be he most powerful South East Asian empire before was left devastated. Despite the countless NGOs working in Cambodia the recovery is slow and tedious. Human trafficking and child labor is as common as corruption. Till date I’m not able to forget an incident during one of my visits to a local family with one of the social workers of the NGO I worked with. We went to check the family to encourage the parents to send their children to study English and attend state school. My attention however was drawn to the two year old baby boy that gave me a puppy look. I started playing with him and after a while his mother asked my colleague if I would like to keep him. I politely declined and started wondering what this question was all about. When I was cycling back to town it suddenly made sense and I realized that she sctually offered her baby for sale to earn some money for her family.
The desperation of a mother must be sheer unbearable if she is willing to sacrifice her child for a better living. Having lived here for a little while now I know that this was not an exception but is much rather a growing business. It breaks my heart to think of the many children that are at the risk of being trafficked as sex workers or laborers in Thailand with no one to protect them. Education is their most powerful resource to escape this vicious poverty circle and help their family earn money. Though, I cannot change the world, I’m at least able to do my part for their education. I’m forever grateful for all the opportunities I had to live my dreams and for all the people I met on my journey that have impacted and supported me in one way or the other. All I wish for is that the Cambodian youth get the same opportunities to live their dreams one day.
Sigrid Baldinger was born in Gmunden, Austria. She has studied tourism and the leisure industry (hotel management) and Bussiness administration in Austria. Before her current job, she has worked at Westin and Marriott hotels in Germany and as Assistant Front Office Manager and Club & VIP Services Manager at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore.