I was exhausted, and I was invigorated. For almost two weeks I had almost blindingly participated in a study tour that exposed me to the effects of globalization in SE Asia. Not that I didn’t know where I was going, or what I was doing, but that the trip was such a nonstop rush and over-stimulation of culture shock.
It was hard to keep track of the days, and sometimes the significance of what I saw. But of all the activities, and of all the lessons, it all came together all at once in this moment:
I was in the back of a 90s Toyota 4 Runner pushing out to the edge of Siem Reap. The air was acrid and dusty, the road so bumpy that I was constantly flying around in my seat and the heat so overwhelming, my clothes clung to me like a second skin. The countryside was so starved for the rainy season; it looked lifeless and burnt. Cambodia was doing everything it could to try and make me forget where I was, but it couldn’t. Because everywhere I looked, I saw the happiest people I had ever seen in my life. And not just one, or a couple, but every single one of them. They waved, they smiled, they even danced and chased our car, all just to say hi to us.
But I didn’t get it. Where I was, was the poorest area I had ever seen in my life. The people looked as if they had worn the same clothes their entire lives. Half the people I saw looked as if they need some sort of medical attention. The “water” I saw the children jumping into, was brown, murky and disgusting. And the houses? Overfilling with people, and lacking privacy so much that I could tell it lacked even a table for the families to eat dinner on.
I was so startled by the disparity of poverty. But I was even more startled by the sheer joy of life of the Khmer people displayed. I couldn’t stop waving, smiling or laughing back at them.
I was traveling with one other student, my teacher and our guide to donate bicycles to several impoverished families in need on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Our guideline for a donation? Driving until we didn’t see electricity and running water. To try and communicate how poverty stricken the families were, their children work alongside with them in fields just to survive. I saw families of more than 10, crowd living into a single room shack. What had initially drawn me to this however is that even if the children could receive an education, or go to school, or see a doctor, they had no means to reach it. Schools or hospitals were often miles away from the villages, hence the bicycles.
After making a couple of stops, we finally reached where we felt we should donate a bike. It was a maybe a 10 x 10 hut, with absolutely nothing in it. At a certain point, I even glanced inside to verify. All that I could see was a ½ gallon empty plastic jug for water, a coffee mug and nothing else. No bed, no table, no pillow, no blankets, nothing. Our guide began to translate, that the family was just a single mother and her daughter. The father had passed away a couple of years ago and they were trying to get by, survive. The little girl had never even attended school because she couldn’t get there. The mother worried of what to do, if she ever became gravely ill.
When we came back with the bicycle, the expressions in their eyes changed my life forever. I knew what we were doing was incredible and would have a tremendous impact on them. Time stopped, the reality of where I was, what this family had experienced and was experiencing set in. I looked into their eyes and the mixture of gratitude and excitement in that moment is utterly indescribable. That single moment changed my life. Even now, reliving the experience brings back tears. Had I been able to give them all the clothes off of my back, or all the money I owned, I would have. But I couldn’t, because of the impact it would have had on them and their community. Our guide warned us, if we would have been more generous, their neighbors most likely would have stolen from them. So instead, I gave her my sunglasses too. I hope she still has them.
In that moment, even though it was undefined, ICON began to form. It was a realization that to better aid the world, you had to encourage the tools of sustainability. It was also something that during that same trip to Cambodia, my partner and Co-Founder was also realizing.
This is our story, this was our start.