“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith
A tour guide can make or break a journey and we were really fortunate to have Dino on the Cambodian leg of our trip. He is a man of many passions which is perhaps why I warmed to him almost instantly. It was obvious to me he cared deeply about his country as well as the travellers he was responsible for but he was also passionate about his dreams, which is a quality I find incredibly endearing. During our travels through Cambodia, he shared parts of his life with us and I asked if he would mind if I wrote his story. He was delighted at the thought, and on our last day together, in Ho Chi Minh City, he visited me in my room to share his story.
Dino grew up on a farm with his grandmother and his 2 brothers and sister. His parents split up when he was very young and his mom travelled from province to province to purchase livestock and other produce to sell at the market.
One day, while his mum and her friend were travelling through the jungle, escorted by a couple of Cambodian men, a landmine exploded. Her friend was killed instantly and his mum badly injured. She was carrying a large amount of cash with her at the time as she had just sold some cattle (about US$7,000) and in retrospect it is possible this incident was set up by their escorts! When she came to, the money was gone, and her friend was dead.
In the meantime, the authorities got their wires crossed and Dino and his family received word their mom was dead. I could see the trauma of that occasion still reflected on his face as he told me the shock of hearing this news. His grandmother and aunt travelled to the jungle to pick up the body and realised his mom was actually alive. Her injuries were very serious though and she needed to travel to Thailand for treatment.
The source of income for this family dried up instantly and Dino was forced to quit school and help his grandma raise enough money to care for him and his siblings. It was a hand to mouth existence where enough money was made each day to survive till the next meal. A few years passed and Dino’s mom moved back to Cambodia. Time passes and she moves the entire family to Thailand in search of a better life.
Dino enters the world of construction in Thailand but he soon tires of that job and ends up in the restaurant business where he makes a decent living. Unfortunately he is now required to live apart from his family. He works illegally and learns the tricks of the restaurant trade.
Meanwhile, more tragedy strikes the family. After saving a decent bit of money, his mom sends his brother back to Cambodia to start the process of building a home for the family. His brother has a nasty accident where he breaks both his legs and his mom rushes back to Cambodia, leaving Dino with no clue as to where they have gone. Communication back then was limited and they did not have phone or internet access.
Three years pass by and Dino goes back to Cambodia in search of his family and reconnects with them. The medical expenses of his brother has resulted in eating up their cash reserves and dashing their hopes of a family home.
Dino goes back to Thailand, supporting his family back in Cambodia and continues to work at the restaurant. He is now in charge of the bar and is responsible for 12 staff serving about 150 customers a day. While working there, life brings Victor, a fashion designer from Denmark who now works for Cosmopolitan Magazine, into Dino’s world! Dino is now 22 years old and through encounters such as the one with Victor he has come to the realisation that he is gay and has a talent for fashion design.
He carries with him a sketch pad with an amazing portfolio of his work. I have captured a few of his designs for you and having browsed through his collection, can assure you this man has real talent.
A few years on, life also brings him in touch with the Cambodia Sales and Marketing Director for Intrepid, (the travel company for people who want to leave the world behind!). She gets to know him at the bar where he works, and recognises the potential of this young man. She asks him to apply for the job of Cambodian tour leader.
Dino did not graduate high school, he has never done an interview in his life and never prepared a resume. He is now required to sit in front of a 3 person interview panel and is absolutely petrified but finds the courage to give it a go. Intrepid requires their recruits to first go through intensive on the job training before making the final selections for tour guides. This two step process means that once you get through the interview and pass the first hurdle, you are required to quit your job and under go the training, taking a leap of faith that you will get selected. The training required Dino to shadow a tour guide on 3 separate trips through Cambodia.
Dino takes one of the biggest risks of his life at this stage, quitting a secure well paying job at the bar to give this dream wings. He was ecstatic when he learnt he was successful and had secured a job as the Intrepid tour guide for Cambodia. This was about 2 years ago. Watching him in action today I can see how far he has come from the trembling young man who must have stood in front of his first tour group not that long ago. Today, he is a confident guide, knowledgeable, caring and passionate. Qualities that one does not really acquire through those final years of high school but are rather ones picked up through one’s journey in the school of life.
A couple of years ago, Dino also came into contact with his current partner Joel, an Australian gay man from Cairns. Joel was on holiday in South East Asia and had come across Dino’s profile on an internet dating site! They met for what must have been just a holiday romance at the time. However, deep connections are often made through chance encounters on the road although not everyone recognises them or has the courage to pursue them any further. This was another risk that both of these young men were willing to take. After the trials of a long distance relationship, the holiday romance has now become more serious and the two of them have moved into a flat in Cambodia.
While in Siem Riep, Jane, Al and I were very privileged to be invited back to his flat, in the city he now calls home. That night, Dino gave us a real insight and taste into life in Cambodia and I am truly grateful for that. I will always remember that night as a very special travel experience. It started with soup in a local roadside stall, where we sat at a table on the street surrounded by other Cambodian families, and threw vegies and meat into a communal hotpot to cook after which we all drank the soup. The night ended with drinks in his trendy flat and it was then we realised how special this occasion was because he told us we were the first travellers he had ever invited back home!
Today Dino has a new dream. He dreams of moving to Cairns with Joel so he can break into the Australian fashion scene and make his mark as a fashion designer. It will mean taking another huge risk in his life, giving up the security of his job as an Intrepid tour guide, giving up the life he knows in Cambodia to follow his destiny in foreign shores. I wish him the very best of luck and I hope he knows that perseverance, hard work and a belief in oneself will deliver him his destiny.
“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.”
- from the Alchemist