The fog was gathering thick and fast, but I can still remember the night so clearly. It was a cold, dark Monday night in April 2010. As I pulled down the blinds, I couldn’t help but notice the bright light from the full moon glistening off every window, every car, every roof, every shiny surface in the street.
Bright moonlight on a foggy night, you may ask? Well, the fog, like all my other black dog encounters, was inside my head. If you’ve never experienced such a black dog fog before, you might argue that it’s not a real fog. On the other hand, if you have encountered this blinding beast, you might argue that it is far more real, far more engulfing than even the thickest of the harmless grey stuff that lingers over the street.
Either way, this fog had already been gathering in my head for several months; I was on a slow but steady downward spiral. Unbeknownst to me, only three months later I would find myself teetering nervously on the edge of breakdown.
I don’t usually watch much television, but the fog was so thick on that April night that I just wanted to have my mind distracted. Tess had taken to watching the documentary show Australian Story on Monday nights so I decided to tune out by tuning in with her.
As we rugged up on the couch, little did we know that we were about to watch a poignant, compelling story that would one day send us on a journey outside in the real world – a journey that would provide us with many eye-opening experiences, as well as one of life’s simple yet dazzling light bulb moments. Little did I also know that this journey would ultimately help cement my recovery from my long, slow dance with the black dog.
The Australian Story being televised that Monday night was called Children Of A Lesser God. I was stunned into mental silence for the next thirty minutes as the story of young Sydneysider Tara Winkler unfolded before our eyes.
At the age of just twenty-two, Tara had established an orphanage in the town of Battambang in north-west Cambodia. Tara had previously worked as a volunteer at another orphanage in Battambang, where she had witnessed appalling conditions. She had seen children sleeping like sardines on floors in tiny rooms, drinking dirty water, and relying on leftover scraps from a nearby monastery for food. Her complaints to the cruel orphanage director had been met with deaf ears.
Not long after returning to Sydney at the end of her volunteership, Tara received a cryptic worrying message from one of the orphans. She boarded the next flight to Cambodia, returned to Battambang, and discovered that things had gone from bad to worse.
The orphanage director, as Tara suspected, had been begun embezzling money from overseas sponsors – money that had been intended to buy food and clothes, as well as badly needed medicine for the sick children. The children were now so desperate that they were catching mice to eat. And if that wasn’t bad enough, this evil man was even abusing many of the helpless, terrified children.
Tara felt that she had no option other than to bravely (ie terrified, and literally endangering herself!) rescue the 14 young children from this life of destitution. In doing so, she established her own orphanage, and committed herself to staying in Cambodia to support them. And so the Cambodian Children’s Trust – CCT – came to be.
By the time the Australian Story camera crew turned up in Battambang, the population of CCT had expanded from the original 14 to 33 orphans. These children, as new CCT director Jedtha Pon explained to the cameras, could now go to school, and have good food, good medical care, good care in general.
As the closing credits rolled, Tess and I looked at each other in near disbelief, and I went to sleep that night with a sense of both shame and calm.
Shame, because I realised I constantly let myself worry about the most trivial, materialistic matters. Yet the Children Of A Lesser God anywhere in the world would no doubt give anything – anything – for the opportunities I’ve been gifted with, and the life I am fortunate to lead – even with the irrational worries that came as part of my package.
And calm, because watching the story of their plight had been the trigger to my daily albeit brief window of relief. All my anxiety just crumbled away, my head cleared, and once again I just knew that everything was going to be alright. The worse possible irrational scenarios that my black dogs constantly dreamed up for me simply were not going to transpire.
When I woke up the next morning, however, those beastly black dogs were already growling. I went back to my usual mental state – incessant, irrational worrying about those trivial mistakes that would lead to me losing my job, my health, my mind and all of our money. But at the same time, neither Tess nor I could stop thinking all day about the Children Of A Lesser God. Tess was straight on the case, emailing CCT to find out if we could start to sponsor one of the children.
Although CCT were inundated with offers of support after Australian Story, Tess heard back from Tara a couple of days later. We were delighted within a few weeks to then become sponsor aunt and uncle to Bisay, one of the newer teenage orphans. And so, as the months passed, we began paying $50 a month – the standard amount for a sponsor aunt/uncle – into the CCT coffers to help support Bisay.
Tess also sent off some photos of Jack and Freddie from time to time, and we got the occasional personal letter or drawing from Bisay. In the meantime, we got an immense amount of satisfaction out of knowing that even such a small (and tax deductible!) sum of money was helping to make a difference to someone somewhere in the world.
During those same months, the fog in my head continued to get thicker; the black dogs growled louder and frothed more furiously, and I found myself hiding in deeper caves as I nudged myself closer towards the dark abyss of breakdown.
The Hidden Cost Of Money
Before I skip ahead to August 2011 and that real-world journey, I feel the need to take a brief scene-setting time-out.
One recurring fear that I continually refer to, one that used to literally riddle my head with panic, was the irrational fear of running out of money – a fear that is of particular relevance to this post.
Vivid thoughts and visions of going bankrupt, losing my job, our home, all our possessions and everything we had worked so hard for would run riot in my mind. In fact, most of my worries over the years ultimately originated from money – or more to the point, the fear of running out of the stuff.
When I used to find myself constantly tied up in knots over making mistakes at work, for example, I was only ever worried about how those mistakes would ultimately result in our bank balance being obliterated. No matter how small, how human, how innocent and justifiable any of my mistakes were, I would then start to worry about how bleak our lives would inevitably become without any money. Significantly, I never worried about any sense of shame I might get in losing my job, only because I always knew I had done no wrong.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that all my irrational worries were caused by the black dog instilling in me a sense of “You’re not worthy of this life and all these nice things in it. One day, someone somehow somewhere is going to take it all away from you. And then you’ll be nothing.”
It was a case of the cart before the horse, or rather the act of worrying before the reason for worrying. I was already in a state of worry, and my black dog was simply finding things to justify making me worry. My black dog would go on the hunt for things for me to worry about, It would latch onto them and fester on them. It had no choice in fact – manifesting worries was the only way the black dog could keep itself in existence.
My money worries weren’t just limited to work. I’ve also ruined countless holidays for myself in the past by obsessing over the cost of everything, constantly adding it all up in my head. Rather than being enjoyable, relaxing experiences, all of the holidays in my adult years felt like deep, dark bottomless money pits for much of the time.
Holidays were always perfect conditions for Tommy Tightarse here to be at his most anxiously active. Having already forked out what always felt like a small fortune on flights and accommodation, I’d then find myself excitedly jetting off to destinations I’d often dreamed of seeing.
Yet at the same time I would have the excitement and experience ruined by the anxiety of literally feeling like I was gushing money every minute until I was safely back home. Things like eating out every night, paying inflated prices for excursions, shopping and so on – rather than being enjoyable experiences, they all felt like small gnarling black dogs.
On one particularly memorable holiday, the year before Jack was born, Tess and I spent a week on the Greek Island of Santorini. Every night, we would eat out at restaurants overlooking the volcanic island that the mainland of Santorini surrounds. We enjoyed amazing traditional Greek dishes, while gazing over views of the most spectacular seas and sunsets. Prices in the Santorini restaurants were quite reasonable too, considering the location and view. I couldn’t help but notice that they were comparable to our average Melbourne restaurant prices at around $50-60 all-up.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a great time at all during holidays such as this. I do have lots of happy holiday memories. But true to form, my black dogs hijacked these experiences time after time by reminding me that back home in Melbourne, eating out would be a once, maybe twice a month extravagance. Back home, we would never ever dine out seven nights in a row. Now where was the cheapest meal on the menu?
But after watching the sobering plight of the Children Of A Lesser God, donating $50 a month to CCT never once raised the eyebrow of Tommy Tightarse. I don’t mean that to sound like a “look at us, how good are we, we helped out the poor orphans” comment. I just can’t think of another way to say it.
On that note, I would like to stress that the same holds true for everything I’m about to narrate below. I hope it will become clear that we had all the good done to us by each and every one of the brave souls we met in Cambodia, and never the other way around. We were utterly privileged to have encountered them. We truly had our lives enriched by them in more ways that I can possibly fit into even one of my lengthy blog posts.
Goooood Morning, Cam-bodia!
For the first time in my life, I was actually looking forward to a long-haul economy class flight. I don’t mean I just wasn’t too bothered at the idea of being strapped into a cramped seat for eight hours. No, I really was very much looking forward to it.
After all, Tess and I were going on holiday by ourselves for the first time in six years. We were going to spend five days in Battambang, and then seven days in Siem Reap, leaving Jack and Freddie and all the responsibilities of parenthood safely at home under the watchful eyes of my in-laws, Margaret and Denis. Our first leg was a daytime flight to Singapore, meaning that for an entire eight hours, we were literally unable to do anything except eat, drink, sleep, read or watch movies. What’s not to look forward to there?
After an overnight stopover in Singapore, we finally found ourselves descending into Siem Reap airport. As I gazed over the endless flat paddy fields, it dawned on me that not only was this my first overseas trip with just Tess in six years, it was also my first overseas holiday since shaking off that years-long fear of running out of money.
I’d had other one-off social events and the like since my victory over the black dog, where I’d finally been able to enjoy the experience without obsessing over the cost. However, all preliminary tests of my new-found attitude towards the mighty dollar had until this point been on home soil.
Of course it helped that we were about to land in a Third World country where the average daily wage is $2 – about half the amount I might spend on a single cup of coffee at work. In other words, everything was going to be ridiculously cheap in Cambodia.
Before long, we had collected our suitcases, we were safely through customs and, rather ironically I thought, we had become millionaires by converting $500 into more than 2 million Cambodian Riel. So, we were off to a good start on the financial front, we got in a taxi, and headed south west. Final destination – Battambang.
When A House Becomes A Home
We spent the next three hours whizzing through the Cambodian countryside. We passed by many of those sodden paddy fields we had spotted from the air, and we passed through a few small, grubby market towns.
When we finally arrived in Battambang, the first thing I noticed was that there was nothing particularly noticeable about the place, except for a food and clothing market in the centre of town. The market looked dirty and rundown by Western standards, but it was swarming with locals.
There was nothing in any way modern about Battambang, but the main roads and many of the buildings were solid, albeit ageing.
There was also the unmistakable cacophony of moped engine-humming and horn-tooting – the signature sound of any South-East Asian town or city. To the Western ear, it always sounds like disorganised chaos, and to the Western eye it always amazingly takes place without even the slightest hint of road rage. Battambang was no different.
We were staying in the best room at one of the top hotels in town, yet it was still only costing $50 per night. The staff who greeted us were friendly, our room was small but clean, there was even a pool and a bar. It was nothing to be sniffed at, but then neither was the mildly unpleasant odour that emanated from our bathroom. But we were in a Third World country; we hadn’t come to Battambang for indulgence and comfort.
Tess had been exchanging emails over the previous months with Tara Winkler’s personal assistant, young New Zealander Marnie Walters, to finalise the dates for our visit. We briefly unpacked, and then a tired-looking but eternally cheery Marnie arrived in her small red well-worn Daewoo to pick us up. As we squeezed into Marnie’s car and started chatting, we all instantly connected. It felt like we had known Marnie for years, like we were old friends catching up, rather than meeting for the first time.
As we drove through the gates of the main CCT house, a dozen delightful children who had been happily playing in the grounds stopped in their tracks. As soon as we got out of Marnie’s car, they gathered around us and began saying hello and telling us their names. As we walked into the house, the crowd that was following us grew…and grew…and grew. We were surrounded!
We were then introduced to a somewhat shy Bisay, who understandably didn’t quite know how to react. She was pleasant however, and she was grateful for the gifts we had brought with us. Having come to CCT at an older age than many of the other children, she had an air of quiet wisdom and caution about her. This seemed to be substituted in the younger children by an air of almost boisterous, carefree innocence – on the surface at least.
Marnie then gave us a tour of the house, accompanied by Bisay. She explained that we were in one of three local CCT houses. It was spread across three floors, mostly bedrooms, with several beds occupying each.
The house wasn’t modern, and its furniture wasn’t sparkling and new. But it was solid, and its entire contents were clean, tidy and organised. This was also a home that exuded a sense of pride and care; this was a home full of soul. CCT clearly had to make the most of every cent, and they had done just that.
When the tour of the house was over, the main living room was filled with laughter once again as we sat on the tiled floor and became the centre of attention. It was hard to remember that each and every one of these children had come from an unimaginably horrific past of some sort. They had every reason in the world to be down in the dumps, depressed and miserable, and yet they all seemed quite the opposite.
I would be lying if I said there wasn’t at least some disappointment when Marnie then told us that Tara had only just gone back to Australia for a while, so we were not going to get to meet her. But much as we had in part been looking forward to meeting Tara from the tv, her absence was a strong reminder of the real reason we were there – as if being surrounded by those happy, laughing real reasons wasn’t enough of a reminder.
Compared to the bright and tidy modern-furnished houses we are accustomed to in the West, the CCT house would have been in some ways a dull, depressing place to visit had it not been for those warm-hearted bright-faced children. But as we would discover over the next few days through exploring more of the area, the Children Of A Lesser God were in many ways – and quite unbelievably – the lucky ones.
More Than Just An Art Lesson
Our first stop the next day was at the Drop-In Centre that CCT established in the middle of town. We ended up visiting the centre several times during our brief stay in Battambang. The principle behind the centre was that if the slum children came along and participated in an English, Numeracy, Khmer Literacy or Art lesson, they also got a free meal at the end. The children could also organise their work in clear plastic sleeves in ring binder folders, and safely leave them on shelves in the centre.
On our first full day in Battambang, we joined in an Art class. I sat next to a delightfully quiet, shy young boy whom I would estimate was about ten years old. Like nearly all the other kids in the class, his hair was tidy and he was neatly dressed, albeit in slightly worn clothing. His parents, although slum dwellers, had clearly taken great pride in their son’s appearance at such a public and social gathering.
The little boy was drawing a farm, and I started (rather badly) drawing a Qantas A380. Much to my surprise, he liked my drawing, so I asked for one of his plastic sleeves to put it in so he could keep it. Having misunderstood me, however, he ran over to his spot on the shelves, and came back with his own blue ring binder folder full of his drawings in their plastic sleeves. He then emptied the entire contents, and offered me the empty folder and all the plastic sleeves within.
There I had been, back in Melbourne barely a year earlier, constantly worrying about money, about losing my job and having to move to a smaller house with all our worldly possessions. And here I was now, in the centre of the little town of Battambang, with a poor child who barely even had a house. Yet this child was willingly offering me one of his few worldly possessions without a second’s thought, no strings attached.
Having been terrible at drawing for so many years, I can finally say I’ve learned something important in an art class – and it was through the most generous offer I have ever been made.
Too Much, Too Little
After our day at the Drop-In Centre, Marnie dropped us off at our hotel, and joined us for a couple of drinks by the pool. The three of us chatted away for hours, sharing our own stories; Tess and I also sharing our awe at the sheer happiness of the CCT children as well as the concept behind the Drop-In Centre. We also asked her if there was anything we could do while we were there to help out further with the centre, or anything we could buy.
Marnie explained that the Drop-In Centre also provided the slum children with free clean second hand clothes. CCT bought them from the market we had passed on our way through Battambang on our first day. So the next morning, the three of us were off shopping.
Based on how the market had looked from the outside, we were not surprised by what we saw on the inside – a clothing area that sold all kinds of clothes of all shapes and sizes, and a food area that sold all kinds – and all parts – of animals. Nothing went to waste.
The second-hand clothes stall that we stopped at was tidy and organised. All the clothes had been carefully cleaned, proudly pressed, and built into neat bundles. Knowing it was not going to cost much at all, we picked out so many that we ended up with a bundle that went halfway up my thigh. The stall owner then started to write out a receipt – something that Marnie explained all the marketeers did, again as a matter of pride.
Our bill came to the equivalent of $90. It was a bit more than I had anticipated, but then so was the height of pile of clothes we had just picked out. As I began to count out a wad of Cambodian banknotes as thick as my thumb, the stall owner looked horrified. “Way too much, way too much!” he exclaimed in basic broken English.
He checked his handwritten receipt again, and realised he had gotten his sums wrong – he had meant to charge us just $9! Here he was, a family man as he had explained earlier when I’d asked him, struggling to make ends meet. He had just been in a position where he could have made six weeks worth of the average wage in a single sale. We would have walked away none the wiser, yet he pointed out his mistake as a matter of pride.
We paid him the $9 – and gave him a further $9 as a tip for what I told him was his honesty. But in reality, the tip was really for teaching me that there are some things far more important than money.
The Light At The End Of The Slum
Later that afternoon, Marnie drove us down in her Daewoo to visit the CCT Drop-In Centre kids in the local slum. On our way, we stopped off at a grocery store and bought a supply of small packets of cracker biscuits to give out.
We were unsure what to expect as we turned off a broken bitumen road onto a dirt track that was the main road through the slum. The road was lined with rundown huts made out of wood and corrugated iron. About twenty adults and children stopped in their tracks to smile and wave as Marnie pulled her car to a stop more or less halfway along the road. We then opened the windows to start giving out the packets of crackers – and about fifty more children appeared from nowhere and surrounded the car like a swarm of bees.
The next few minutes were absolute chaos as all the children reached in through the open windows, literally begging for one of the small packets of cracker biscuits.
There were little hands and arms everywhere. Initially it was warming to see the beaming smile on the faces of the kids as they stuffed their bounty into their mouths. It was also humbling to notice that not a single child grabbed a packet of crackers – each and every one of waited until packet was placed in their hand. I also couldn’t help but notice that my camera was sitting on the dashboard within easy reach of all the hands – yet not a single child even tried to grab it, and at no point did I ever believe any of them would.
It all happened so fast, and our supplies of crackers quickly dwindled to nothing. Screams of delight from the lucky children who managed to collect some crackers were replaced by tears of disappointment, tears of hunger even, from the not so lucky ones.
There were also tears of overwhelmedness from Tess in the back seat, as she spotted the look of sheer devastation on the face of one small child in particular.
Although we felt completely safe the whole time, we were both moved and shaken by the experience. As we drove out of the slum, we shouted out to the crying children that we would be back soon with more.
We returned to the grocery store, and this time emptied the shelves of as many boxes of crackers as we could fit into Marnie’s car. The total cost of this particular shopping spree came to around $50 – no more than a pub meal for two back in Melbourne, so again it was no great pedestal-positioning act of generosity on our part.
As I handed over the money to the shopkeeper and walked out to the car containing Tess, Marnie and a mountain of crackers, I turned around to look back into the shop.
And then the light bulb went off.
Our small shopping expedition had left a beaming smile on the face of the shopkeeper; it had also left a noticeable gap on one of his shelves. I also couldn’t help but notice that there was still so much other food left on the shelves – it was there, right there before our very eyes – and yet just a few blocks away there was a slum full of starving children.
Every money-related irrational worry I’d ever had flashed before me. It fully dawned on me, right there and then, that the purpose of money is to make things happens. Money, I realised, creates the experiences we desire – whether for ourselves or for others. In this case, it was money that could move badly needed food off the shelves in the shop and into the bellies of starving children. It was money that could create gaps in all the right places, and fill gaps in others.
Money, it was now clear, is not a banknote or a coin or a number in a computer somewhere – these are just some things that represent what money really is.. Money is, however, a form of universally transferable agreement, no matter what the currency.
All those years I’d spent needlessly hoarding the mighty dollar and pound in case I might make a costly mistake and need as much money as I could get my hands on. All those years I had been saving up for a rainy day -when the very act of anxiously over-saving was what caused it to be a foggy day anyway. All those years of unnecessary weight on my shoulders just lifted as I turned and walked towards a small red Daewoo that was packed to the rafters with boxes of crackers.
When we returned to the slum with our cracker mountain, the car was once again surrounded but this time all the slum folk seemed less frantic, so this time I also got out of the car to give the crackers to some of the kids and take a few photos. Even now, one of the mothers proudly tidied up her tiny son’s hair for the camera!
Tess and I would never have even dreamed of visiting the slum if we hadn’t been accompanied by Marnie, who was well known to many of the slum dwellers. If we hadn’t been with her, we might have made just one wrong turn and it could have all gone wrong. Call it a disclaimer if you like, it is not always safe for a Westerner to walk through a slum handing out food or gifts. Having said that, it is an experience that we will always be grateful for, both to the slum dwellers and to Marnie.
As we drove off for the second and final time, Marnie pointed out that all those kids might otherwise have been hungry but were now going to sleep with something in their belly that night thanks to us. But they would likely be hungry again tomorrow, I thought, whereas they had just given me a gift that would last a lifetime.
Conversations With Marnie
On our last night in Battambang, during the last of our memorable poolside conversations with Marnie, we spoke at length about our life-changing experiences over the previous few days.
With my newly-cemented view on money in mind, I explained to Marnie that I felt we could have done so much more if we had taken the completely selfless approach. If, for example, we had calculated in advance what the cost of our entire trip would have been – airfares, accommodation, the lot – we could have sent CCT a cheque for the entire amount and just stayed at home in Melbourne.
But Marnie pointed out that it was so important for the children to know and to see that there are others out there who care. Money can go a long way for sure, money can at the same time be the root of many evils, but money is the complete opposite of evil and is put to its best use when it is dished out with a dose of love.
Nowadays, my view towards money has completely changed. I do like to sensibly plan for the future, but I also like to plan rationally for the future. As well as now living more fully in the moment, I also like to spend a bit more in the moment.
Of course it is possible that I could indeed run out of money one day for reasons beyond my control. But having witnessed poor people living so proudly in scenarios far worse than anything my black dog ever managed to dream up for me, I no longer fear that future.
I’m sure there would also be a lesson for me to learn if I ever found myself in that predicament. And just like I did after dancing with the black dog for so many years, I know I would bounce back better, stronger and wiser.
I may have travelled a long way, but I learned many priceless lessons in a short space of time in the little town of Battambang. None was more important, however, than realising that wherever there is a gap, whether it be on a shelf in a shop, or in a head somewhere between anxiety and reality, it is usually surrounded by an abundance.
And sometimes, to fill that gap, all you need is love.
The Most Generous Offer I’ve Ever Been Made
For more information on the relief work being carried out by the Cambodian Children’s Trust, and to see more photos showing how they have transformed the lives of the Children Of A Lesser God, please click on: www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org