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Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Skyros Effect by Marianne Richards

Like many people, I am a workaholic. No time for me. I was exhausted, too exhausted even to think about the kind of holiday I would take on my own. Then the new Skyros brochure plopped in the letterbox. I had been in Skyros before, in 2003, where I had a fantastic time whether in Ari Badaines course ‘Take Life at Whatever Risk’, singing with Trixie (Field), learning Greek cookery or just enjoying the new company. Some of the people I met there still remain firm friends.

Now I thought a beach holiday in Thailand was just what was needed. I went for it - that was in January 2007. Koh Chang was fantastic and exactly what the doctor had ordered.

It was there tha
t I heard that Michael (Eales), Ed and Kel (Portman) were just about to do the first Skyros-in-Cambodia holiday. A group of us agreed that if all went well, we'd take it in 2009.

Two years later I was standing at the border at Poipet (on the Cambodia-Thailand border). I don't think I’ll ever forget that day. I knew that this country was going to get me, that my life had changed (again!) forever. But I still had no idea how....

The temples were amazing but I prefer people to monuments and the Cambodians bowled me over. Whenever we left the bus we were surrounded by children so cute they could sell you anything. It doesn't take long to realise that the cuteness is disguising something much less appealing. These kids are horrendously poor and often abused. At best, they have to go out after school and earn for the family to live. At worst they are beaten, abused......

I felt I had no choice. I HAD to do something and throwing money at the kids was not the answer.

The Skyros group were lucky - we had been assigned a bri
lliant young guide - Narong - who was passionate about his country and wanted so much to share all his knowledge with us. He did the temples as was his job and then he answered questions on the Khmer Rouge, the Killing Fields, politics, life in Cambodia etc etc.

I asked him what I could do to help. His answer was simple: ‘find a poor person and help him’! Well, to cut a lo
ng story short, thanks to Narong I am now the very proud Godmother of two Cambodian boys. This was the start. Now I would have to return...

For the first time in years I had acquired a purpose, a sense of direction, something other than work, work, work. Then I came across something that I really wanted to do: voluntary work with these children.

At the time, I was not sure I would have had the courage to go totally blind into this. However, as I write this, I realise that decision involved the coming together of a couple of desires - firstly to go back and meet my boys and also to try volunteering which is something that had always played in the back of my mind. Tha
t was to me a perfectly logical, natural and normal thing to do. So in retrospect, there wasn't the slightest element of bravery in my decision. I didn't need courage to do this. The words fish and water spring to mind.

That was it. I booked everything and only then asked for six weeks off work! I had made my mind up and NOTHING was going to stop me now. Before I knew it, it was Christmas Day and I had a flight to catch. And my time in Cambodia flew even faster. I had a ball. I laughed and cried with all my heart on so many occasions.

At the end of my (Cambodia) ‘work’ I had a couple of weeks’ holiday with my Koh Chang roommate, Lorraine. One evening she asked me what I had been most surprised to discover about myself in doing this. I replied I hadn't really been surprised at all. Like all human beings I am multi faceted. So perhaps, in hindsight, the biggest ‘surprise’ was how others had been ‘surprised’ by their glimpse at part of the ‘real’ me!

I answered without hesitation that I was totally at ease in Cambodia, with the kids, the heat, barefoot and constantly covered in dust! I wasn't bothered about de-fleaing my hair and I had my worm tablets to take when I got back to France! I wasn't squeamish about cleaning a manky wound or cuddling a child who may have AIDS (we didn't know who did and didn't). I slept with a cockroach feet away under a champagne bottle... I hadn't once pined for my own bed, a European meal or indeed for anything (though in fairness I can't say we really roughed it - Globalteer does look after its volunteers well and Siem Reap is NOT the end of the world however poor the locals are).

Some of my clothes, although washed, were fairly stained from being on a dirty bench or tuk tuk or from the juice of a deliciously fresh pineapple that was impossible to eat without getting totally covered. But does it matter? Of course it doesn't! The pineapple would not have tasted so good prepared by someone else and eaten with a knife and fork. The cuddle with the child would have been spoiled if I'd wanted to keep flealess! To stay clean on a tuk tuk or bike ride is impossible. You have to peel off the barriers to enjoy, I mean really enjoy, the things in life that count. I learnt that a very long time ago.

So to close, the whole trip was truly amazing. I miss Cambodia, the kids and my boys so much it truly hurts. How can you feel such love after such a relatively short period? I am of course going back (haven't told work yet!). Vachanak, my eldest boy (16) needs to change school and we need to find him somewhere to live as he leaves home for the big town (Siem Reap). There is nowhere for these boys to live - they often sleep on the street. You wouldn't know when you see them washed and in their school uniform, but they do. They deserve better and if I do nothing else with my life I will do all I can to make sure that at least a couple of them get better.

I chose life, whatever the risk. Thanks Ari, Michael (pictured left), Ed and Kel and to all at Skyros for helping me find the courage to be. Yes, I'll leave it like that. The courage to be.

The end

or is it

The beginning....

You can read my whole blog at

Thank you to Marianne for her wonderfully inspiring story. If you would like to share your own, email text and photos to

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