Sometimes life doesn't work out how we planned. As one Makawao man found out, this isn't always a bad thing. In a world where everything seemingly happens for a reason, Tim Ellison experienced how a failed windsurfing expedition turned into a life-changing experience.
Three hours east of Ho Chi Minh City, the southern Vietnamese beach town of Mui Ne has some of the most consistent wind in Asia. A warm-weather haven for traveling wind and kite surfers, the winter months are almost always blessed with stiff winds, sunny weather and the perfect conditions for taking to the water.
But during the one week that Ellison visited Mui Ne in January 2011, the wind that he had crossed oceans for simply failed to blow. So after five days of fickle breezes and with a dismal forecast on the horizon, Ellison decided it was time to get out of town.
“Of the 60 countries I have visited, nowhere has the passion for knowledge been more apparent than in Cambodia, which was depleted of its educated class during the Pol Pot regime.”
"I decided to travel for a month in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos with no itinerary, just waiting to see what each day brings," said Ellison.
A few days later, Ellison found himself on a ferry headed to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh--a first-time visitor to the war-ravaged country.
"Everywhere I went, I had asked tuk-tuk drivers to take me to orphanages, then I would find out what they needed and go buy supplies," said Ellison. "That really opened my eyes to the needs of the people there. I went to six or seven different orphanages. But when I was in Phnom Penh--that is where I really had 'the change.'"
It was on the other side of the river that his tuk-tuk driver, Pouv, set Ellison's journey--and his life--in an entirely unforeseen direction.
Pouv, a 40-something-year-old survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime--a time in which dictator Pol Pot slaughtered millions of educated Cambodians in an effort to return the country to an agrarian society--drives a tuk-tuk (a motorized version of the traditional rickshaw) in an effort to provide for his wife and two teenage children, Rotanak and Sreynouch.
"Pouv took me to a museum that used to be a high school," said Ellison. "Pol Pot had taken it over, and he used it to torture and execute nearly 17,000 people."
Of the many sights in Phnom Penh where tourists are able to explore the grisly history of the Pol Pot regime, two of the most popular--and heart wrenching--are Tuol Sleng prison (the former school) and The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.
"I spent a few hours walking through the classrooms, looking at the black and white photos of the people who had been killed there," said Ellison.
Of the 17,000 prisoners who were held at Tuol Sleng, it's believed that only seven made it out alive.
"It is mindboggling when you are actually face to face with history as opposed to reading about it," said Ellison. "Pouv actually lived through it. He was taken away from his parents when he was 6 years old, and until he was 9, he worked in a labor camp. They didn't want parents to associate with their children. He feels blessed that both his parents survived."
"Pol Pot killed as many educated people as he could, because he thought they were a threat to his idea that everybody should be a rice farmer," said Ellison. "So that country is really starting from scratch."
Pouv then took Ellison to Choeung Ek--mass graves of thousands of Cambodians next to a stupa made of human skulls.
Inside the rural complex, a tree displays a sign explaining how infants were slammed by their ankles against the trunk in an effort to save bullets.
"I was pretty shaken," said Ellison. "I talked to Pouv for a long time"
Their friendship was quickly forged, and right there in the parking lot of The Killing Fields, Ellison realized why he came to Asia. That afternoon, he helped Pouv with the purchase of his own tuk-tuk, so that he no longer had to rent one, and he committed to help Pouv put his two children through school.
"I figured it was the least I could do," said Ellison. "I set them up with English and computer classes and now they're going to private schools. It changed his [Pouv's] life, and it didn't really change my life to do it."
That decision was just the beginning of a life-changing idea that came to Ellison, my father, based on actions I myself had taken just a year prior. It was I, in fact, who led him astray to Mui Ne
"That's what led me to this project we're doing I didn't intend to do this at all," said Ellison. "It's interesting to just open yourself up to what life unfolds."
And as you will read next week, even when the wind doesn't blow, it may nevertheless carry us in the direction we were ultimately meant to travel.
Pick up next week's Maui Weekly for the rest of the story.