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5 Ways to Survive and Thrive (and Help Others, Too)

A trip to Vietnam and Cambodia provides lessons in hope and reinvention

By Donna Sapolin | May 5, 2014

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about ways my peers and I can build on our experiences and interests to ensure a fruitful path forward. For me, and many of my generation, this not only involves figuring out how to have a second (or third or fourth) act but one that also enriches the lives of others. 
 
There are woefully underserved and afflicted people everywhere. Poverty and its ugly ramifications run rampant on our shores and the present political realities make many Americans feel the country is divided among haves and have-nots and that racism still has a stranglehold. Yet few would deny that among the nations of the world, America enjoys unparalleled freedoms and opportunities.
 
However, for the majority of us, the gnawing needs of people outside our immediate circle of family and friends remain mostly abstract and we may not feel inclined or empowered to address them. We read articles and watch post-disaster televised specials (until the media moves on to a fresher topic) that shed light on others’ travails and perhaps, for a moment, we're motivated to do something about them. But then, more likely than not, we turn to the problems that impact us most directly and appear more urgent.

These, too, can seem intractable. Some people may feel that they can barely keep their head above water. Others may not believe they have the means or know-how to make a difference in someone else’s life.
 
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Whatever our reasons for feeling that forward movement on either front is impossible, I think direct exposure to the ways others live and contend with difficulties can provide insights and inspiration that can help spur us to action — in our own spheres and outside them. By witnessing firsthand the challenges others grapple with, we can feel more motivated to help and also learn what it takes to more effectively tackle our own issues.  
 
Travel Reveals the Keys to Survivorship
 
Over time, I’ve learned that travel beyond our immediate environs is a powerful way of gaining this kind of eye-opening, transformative purview.
 
Over the holidays, I took a trip to two countries that figure prominently in every American boomer’s past —  Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries are now safe for travelers and offer a wealth of intriguing sights, fabulous crafts, delicious cuisine rooted in exotic fruits and vegetables, fascinating markets, verdant fields and extraordinary relics of long-gone kingdoms.
 
But these nations are also still plagued by a difficult legacy — successive foreign occupation, despotic leaders, war and decimation. They're dealing with political structures that produce occasional civil unrest; the lingering menace of landmines (relics of decades of war); a high rate of illiteracy; a backward infrastructure, including a lack of such basics as safe drinking water and plumbing; rural-focused populations and trade barriers.
 
While the demographic construct of these developing countries is the opposite of our own — there are more young persons than old ones (in Cambodia, the sinister Khmer Rouge regime wiped out vast numbers of people and shortened the lives of those remaining through malnutrition and disease), the youthful majority is ill-equipped to harness the potential economic and social benefits due to lagging educational opportunities.
 
The good news is that Vietnam and Cambodia are receiving substantial international governmental and NGO support — foreign investment and trade support are required for the restoration of cultural sites, construction of bridges and highways, clearing of land mines and industrial development, from agriculture (rice, fish and produce) and garment production to native artisanry (e.g., silk weaving, lacquerware production, wood and stone carving, silversmithing and basketry). The two nations are also launching many critical initiatives to spur education, healthcare and trade options.
 
Assuming ongoing political stability, all these efforts will go a long way toward ensuring future economic growth and opportunity. But what is even more vital is the positive will and attitude of their populations. Fortunately, Cambodia and Vietnam seem to have these in spades.
 
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5 Requirements to Pull Yourself and Others Up by the Bootstraps
 
The people of Vietnam and Cambodia bear testimony to the possibility of individuals and nations rising from the ashes and building something meaningful. In my travels along the Mekong, I witnessed incredible industriousness and an open-armed, welcoming spirit along with incredible respect for the environment and natural resources, ancestors, elders and religious traditions — keystones that can help anchor populations that have faced upheaval.
 
In traveling to these iconic destinations, I gained important perspective about how one can survive and thrive after any kind of onslaught. My trip underscored that there are five key things, wherever one lives, that are foundational to personal and group healing and evolution:
 
1. Tranquil surroundings and sustained peace

2. An intense desire and will to create a better situation

3. A willingness to unearth and pursue every option for improvement, followed up with diligent and continuous effort

4. A deep and abiding sense of hope 

5. An understanding that it's best to shape a broad network of support
 
My trip guides embodied all of these attributes. One fellow was a "boat person," captured as a child while trying to escape war-torn Vietnam and held in a refugee camp in Hong Kong for many years. During this time, he was separated from everything familiar to him, lived in oppressive conditions and received virtually no education. After he was released, he started life all over. As a young man, he went back to school while assuming full responsibility for his four younger brothers and seeing to it that every one of them would get a career-track education and become self-supporting.
 
Another Cambodian guide was able to pursue a higher education after primary school by entering a Buddhist monastery for eight years. In addition to guiding visitors, he now runs a non-profit NGO — Homestay Volunteer Teachers Org (HVTO), an extra-curricular program that will help poor children living in villages outside Siem Reap lead a more independent life. 
 
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Everywhere I went, I saw incredibly hard-working, friendly and positive people. Western-world versions of industriousness (including maniacal traffic comprising motorcycles, cyclos, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, buses and cars) bumped up against more primitive iterations — but all were profoundly inspiring. 
 
At the end of my trip, I stayed in the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, a lovely French colonial-style facility with an illustrious history. Built in 1901, past guests included Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. Today, trees sprout from brick-rimmed circles in the pavement in front of its outdoor café. Looking at them now, one could never imagine that they once served as hatches to a below-ground bomb shelter that was rediscovered in 2011 by construction workers who were adding a bar to the hotel’s luxurious pool area.  
 
Depending on one’s point of view, those sidewalk circles are either grim reminders of an unspeakably terrible chapter in both America’s and Vietnam’s history or heartening symbols that speak to mankind's drive to move on, rebound and reclaim humanity.
 
I choose to see them as the latter — a physical encapsulation of five principles for surviving and thriving.