I don’t write often on the Blog, you know.
Not yet, at least. Writing constantly, every day, on the Facebook page takes already a lot of time and effort, so I decided that I will work better on the site once this journey is over. When – I hope – I will be able to give some kind of order to all the different and bizarre experiences I had during these long solitary months.
But sometimes, when travelling, it happens at times that you come across some very unique stories.
Stories which deserve, in my opinion, to be told; simple stories of normal people trying to take alternative routes, to strike up particular projects, and to look at their lives with a different key compared to the very common ones.
Stories like my friend Jiri Oliva’s one and his Kayak Around Europe, which can describe – or present only – different kind of lifestyles. Brave and “inspirational” ones, even if I’m not trying to come to any kind of conclusion or judgment regarding which one should be the correct way or which is not.
It is a very personal matter, indeed.
Everyone has their own way of finding balance, seeking peace and chasing, sometimes, moments of happiness.
Nothing happens by chance.
All events, luck, hard times, joys and sorrows in life come out from choices.
To choose, when you are free enough to do so (and 99 out of 100 cases, it is), is always the most complicated step. But if it’s done with open mind and following your heart, your innermost desires and purest passions, it can hardly turn into something negative.
The following story is one of the many I had the good fortune to come across during my travels.
It comes from Koh Rong island, Cambodia, but could take place at any latitude, at any time and with any kind of performer.
Adam and Mars, an English guy and a German one around my age, met each other on the island three years ago, became friends immediately and over the time decided to undertake an activity which, nowadays, absorbs them completely and at the same time is nothing but the result of their abilities, of their desires and their lifes. An activity that, for this reason, is respected throughout Koh Rong because it just spreads positive energies all over the island.
I met them by chance, because of a friend who told me about them and recommended one of their “full day boat tours“, in case I ever decided to stop a few days in Koh Rong. I hesitated, at first, when I was asked 25 dollars for something that, apparently, might seem like a normal excursion; some other companies offer similar tours for less than half of the price, and the amount, compared to the average costs of Cambodia, is quite a hit.
Having been working several years in tourism field, however, I learned how to distinguish among the proposals and to recognize those ones which – one way or another – differ from others because simply they are able to offer interesting, exciting, funny and deeply authentic experiences. Complete experiences, to be short.
Skills, preparation, organization and details, like in all things, make the difference. To pay for them is always the right thing to do, especially if not only they deserve it, but also they dive deep into the social background, bringing benefits and real development bases for the entire context in which they appear.
Obviously I couldn’t know all of this, in the beginning.
But I learned it later … and here’s how.
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning when I’m sitting at the meeting place, together with about 40 other persons, waiting for the “Adventure Adam” guys to arrive and to let the day start.
Mars is the first to arrive, pretty shy, concentrated and quiet, busy in all the preparations and skillful dispenser of quick advices, furtive glances and sincere smiles.
Adam comes a little later, with a backpack for scuba divers on his shoulder and a cigarette in his hand.
He strikes for his tattooed arms, for his bright, keen eyes and for his witty and subtle British humor. He’s definitely a skilled orator – you’d understand instantly that he will be an excellent guide also – and he only needs a few minutes to win completely the attention and laughter of his audience with a few, simple, sentences:
“If you’re wondering about it, there is no toilet on the boats we will use. That thing in front of you (pointing out the vastness of the Gulf of Thailand) will be your 5-star-bathroom for today!
Do not move too quickly, or in groups, from side to side of the boat without alerting me or the crew. I have seen many tumbling into the water. Fun for me, but not for you when the waves are smashing on your head!
We will probably meet rain and wind in the afternoon. We also may not, but there’s a possibility. The sea, however, is expected to remain fairly quiet. We we will not stop anyway. It’s all part of the adventure, and we always try to avoid risks. If you think you can be cold, go and get some clothes now. Life jackets can also help. If you still feel cold, then we drop the anchor somewhere and dive into the water. It is always around 30 degrees. And if you keep on feeling cold, well, then you would find out that life on this island is not exactly the right one for you!
Show respect to the Beauty that surrounds you. If I just spot a cigarette being thrown out of the boat, I will probably ask you to jump into the water and go to retrieve it, but be aware that there are different streams in these seas, and it’s easy to disappear in few seconds. My shorts are full of ash and stink, but they can be easily washed. Nature, cannot!
There is a music system on each of the two boats we are using today. However, I’m not the best deejay on the island. Feel free to give us your music. Everything is welcome, and with great pleasure we will use it … as long as it’s not Justin Bieber!
Remember that you are guests in a new country, and that customs here are not the same as those you may be used to. If, in the villages, you want to photograph someone, ask them. They may not appreciate, otherwise. How would you react if someone would come into your garden and try you steal a picture without your permission? Also, cover your back when you walk in the villages. As for the boat, its nose is the best place to enjoy the navigation. You are allowed to sit or lie down there any time. But do not sit on the very end of it. Some of you may know it already, but for Cambodians that is a sacred and untouchable area of each boat, where only incense, flowers and garlands may be found. This is their home, this is my home. These are our costumes. So, please, guys … respect ‘em.“
So the day starts early. It is intense, coordinated and eventually ends way after the sunset: long, pleasant hours of navigation, countless dives in warm water, the discovery of the tiny Praek Svay village, where still over 70% of the economy comes from fishing and where children play barefoot on the sand, smiling purely and feeding themselves on coconut milk, a barbecue on a beautiful, secluded beach, some snorkeling among coral and coloured fishes, angling in the middle of a hidden bay, a stop for sunset (although missed, because of clouds) in front of Long Beach and a night swim to be dazzled by the electric glare of luminescent plankton, magic of these seas.
Anyway it was not the high number of planned activities that amazed me, but rather the ease, the talent, the skills and the real engagement it all happened with.
It seemed to me that Adam and Mars still really amuse themselves with what they do, even if they have been going on the same kind of tour, several times a week, for years now. Like kids who love soccer and have already played hundreds of games, but still love to run barefoot on a field, following a ball, to get dirty with grass and to hurt their own knees, happy, just like the first time.
Wherever they go, they dispense smiles and greetings to all local families.
Wherever they go, they are welcomed now as sons, now as uncles, now as brothers.
“There was a time – Adam confesses during one of the breaks – I was so close to bring all my little belongings here, in Praek Svay village. During the first tours I was performing one of these kids used to climb on top of the palm trees to collect coconuts for the customers, the buffalos had not yet been replaced by machines and everyone was happy to share everything they had. It’s not hard to understand why I fell in love with this place. And this didn’t change. They still share everything they have, and this is amazing, although buffalos now are no longer needed and are free to roam in the forest. The kid doesn’t climb over the top of the palm trees anymore … or he would need hours to gather over 40 coconuts at one time! However, you see, we have encouraged a different kind of economy, a clean and eco-friendly one, based on coconut farming, rice and much more. Local women prepare this coconut oil which is among the best I ever tasted, local whiskey is fragrant, and handicraft production is extremely interesting. Feel free to buy anything you like. We invite you to do so. We support several causes of education and economy diversification, on this island, in order to guarantee more choices to the younger and future generations. Be aware that part of what you paid to be here today, in fact, part of every single tour or adventure we offer, is devolved to a fund that we use to support many different projects, together with Koh Rong community, to improve the quality of life of this society: we encourage eco-tourism on the islands, we help to educate people on marine conservation and support local organisations, benefit the local economy in our village and other villages we visit, raise money for the new Koh Rong Medic Centre, local charities such as Friends of Koh Rong (FoKR) and the local school, the building and supply of a library in a local fishing village, a new temple on Koh Rong and support local home stays and guest houses. In the near future we also hope to offer training to teenagers from the local villages, in tour guiding, outdoor activities safety and first aid and more.”
Needless to say, all this affected me deeply, especially since nothing I could see or listen to was fake. Every detail Adam told about was easily recognizable in some of the buildings, in the nods of local elders, in the embraces of the labourer, in the carefree laughter of the children who were happy to be playing once again with those boys who came from a very far country, and soon became something like uncles or older brothers. No longer foreigners, but part of a community.
After circumnavigating Koh Rong from top to bottom and getting back to the pier, I thanked Adam and Mars. I thanked them for the passion they used all throughout the day and for inspiration they were able to rise in people. Me included.
Their adventures and their activities had amazed me.
Their stories intrigued me.
So in the following days I decided to visit a couple of times their base camp in order to get the chance of knowing these two guys just a little bit deeper.
Mars was always very busy and operative on all fronts, quiet and relaxed, but never afraid of shaking my hand and showing me reassuring and very friendly smiles.
Adam was mostly working at the bar counter of their “Adventure Camp” and opened himself to my curiosity.
“You know, my friend, it all started by chance – he began, as if he had understood instantly my extreme interest – about three years ago. I was 31 and I was travelling for some years, the last of them with very little money. But I’m a diving instructor, and I was always able to find something. When I came here I fell in love with this island. There was almost nothing, few tourists used to arrive and electricity was a luxury. I found a job as an instructor and I stayed, feeling immediately the warmth of the people around me. I decided to turn them into my future family. I learned the language, so the community began to know me better, as I did with them. I had so many adventures, since then, here on this island. You could not imagine how many. I pushed myself in solitary trekking in the jungle for days, sleeping literally everywhere, paying attention to insects, animals and snakes. I kayaked all around the island to discover its hidden secrets. Sometimes I paddled even in the night, under a storm or in the angry sea. I swam in every bay and dived more than 600 times to know the depths of this paradise. So someone started to look for me and gave me this nickname, Adventure Adam. Then I also started to offer boat tours, with Mars, just as you would with your friends when you want to go having fun outdoors or fishing. Then people, through word of mouth, called to come out with us. And so our activity began, and right away we tried to involve in it as much as possible local families and businesses. Little by little everything has become much bigger. Initially we were working in the back of a friend’s bar, but now we opened the Adventure Camp, where anyone can also come to eat and sleep. We devolve a lot of money to many of the organizations we support. We are happy, they are happy. I do what I always wanted to do, I love what I do and that makes me feel good. I’m free, I’m on water every day of my life and at the same time I’m helping my big family. There can be no real success if the community you live in is not successful with you. If it doesn’t run a serene life, as a whole. This is, for me, the very basis of everything.”
“And didn’t you ever meet any kind of problems or resistance?” – I asked straight.
“Yes, of course. Especially at the beginning. Threats, numerous threats. Sometimes someone doesn’t like what you do and how you do it. They don’t understand, so they fear you. They made me understand it and tried to intimidate me, but for me there was no problem. I simply stopped operating, saying that I would have soon gone away, and waited. I wouldn’t have lifted a finger or fought with them. I only left it to the community itself. I was sure that Koh Rong people and the families of the island were appreciating what we were doing and creating, as we never stopped to appreciate all the things they always did for us. I was sure, as well, they all wanted us to stay and that they would just oppose themselves to those who threatened us. And so it went. We never really meant to leave actually, but we would have done it, if only we had been asked to. We only would have brought our skills, our experience and our know-how on another island, or anywhere else, to start again. Easy. But here is where we chose to stay, and I’m happy we could stay. I might go back to Europe wherever I want, now, and make a lot of money with everything I’ve learned, but I do feel good here and I don’t need more. I miss travelling, but it’s not yet the travel now. We have big projects here, so now we want to see how far we can get and what we can build. Then, perhaps, we will start an Adventure Adam 2 in Africa, or who knows … maybe in Mexico! ”
“’Cause it would mean that one of us should go there, in Mexico, and potentially travel for months around the country, to understand it better and find out where and how to start. It doesn’t sound so bad, don’t you think? Ha ha! ”
“Well, true … So tell me, Adam, honestly, how do you feel after three years on the same island? What is your final goal, if there should be one? – I tried to be serious.
“I still like it here a lot, believe me. When things go wrong, I just go hiking in the jungle or kayaking for some time, and everything falls into place. But, of course, we spend everyday a lot of time and energies in our activities … so, yes, sometimes I think I need a holiday! As for our goals, my friend, I told you, there are so many. Basically, we’re only trying to improve the living conditions of local people, to offer them a better education and better health care system, to educate the younger generations according to principles of respect and love for the place they live in. Unfortunately not everybody knows what it means. They have experienced so many bad things down here that it is also understandable why many Cambodians don’t try or just don’t even want to solve some of the problems they face daily. We would like the children of the villages to join us one day, and maybe to become the promoters themselves, not dreaming of getting a job in the mainland which could also be bring them better money, but certainly less satisfaction and happiness to themselves and their own families. This is probably our ultimate goal, and it is far from easy. Do you know why? Because when they understand that you’re trying to teach someone, to educate someone or even to explain how some things should be done for the best, they quit immediately. Closed. Nothing to do. So everything gets longer and more difficult; you have to go your own way, without stopping, proving day after day that what you’re doing, basically, just brings improvements for everybody … so therefore the desire to change, to learn and to grow comes directly within them. Only in this way we will be able, sooner or later, to reach the last step.”
I don’t deny that, at that moment, I considered seriously about staying on the island with them, trying to become a part of their big family and their inspiring, brave, adventure.
On my last night in Koh Rong I walked up to Adventure Camp, to say goodbye to Adam and Mars and wish them to keep going their own way, knowing that they would do it any way.
Mars was feeding a huge fire on the beach, Adam was sitting at a table with two of his many Cambobian “relatives”.
He invited me to sit down and offered me a drink, surprised and sad cause I was about to leave the island soon.
“Adam, listen – I asked him, contemplating the sea in front of me – how far is Koh Rong from Koh Rong Sanloem (its sister island, visible from the port and from every southern sides of Koh Rong)? ”
“It should be around five kilometers, why?”
“Oh, nothing. I was thinking about it these days. I was a swimmer and when I see some islands at a short distance I always wonder how long it would take me to swim all the way, if I wasn’t a lazy boy. Sometimes I also do it, anyway. Did you ever swim from here to Sanloem?”
“No, not yet. But I want to do it. It’s not always possible due to the sea, but sooner or later I will. Better, we will. Many people asked me already, so I would like to organize some kind of big event for mutual support, sharing and fundraising. I hope we can manage to do it within by the end of this year.”
“Great. So I’ll ask you only one thing. Send me a message if you see you plan this event in a short time. I will probably still be around here in the next two months and I wouldn’t mind to come back, to take part in it.”
“That would be great, really! But, you know, I don’t think I could really swim with you. I mean, if we organize an event for the community, we will cross slowly, in groups, supported by boats and other technical aids. But you could do it, and you’d be the holder of the first official swim record between Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem! Ha ha! Think about it, fantastic! ”
“Ha ha! Deal, Adam! We’ll see if it happens. In any case, it was really a great honour for me to meet you and to know you. You are inspiration for so many people, not only for those from Koh Rong. Thank you very much. I hope to meet you and Mars again, somewhere in the world, in the near future. And I’m sure it will happen someday! “- my last words to a new, unexpected friend.
My right hand embracing Adam’s one, my left hand beating softly on my heart.
Silence, for a few moments, included all the rest.
His words, in response, I will always guard in a very special corner of me.
As a warning for the future, and an imperishable memory of a great meeting.
Of a simple, great, adventure.
“Keep on rockin’, my friend.
And just … stay free.”