Although the training before I came to Cambodia was really good and rewarding, and I’m surrounded by supportive friends and colleagues, there are always things that you weren’t told beforehand about your time here. (Or, more likely, you were told but it was lost somewhere in the midst of the huge volume of information you take in the months before your trip.)
The first one for me is this: just how exhausted you’ll be. I have been tired pretty much all the time. Some days are worse than others, but there’s not been a day where I have not finished it really tired.
I tried to explain it to my dad, and he asked my why I should be so tired. (This relates to another “What I wish I knew…” which is how difficult it is to explain your experiences to those back at home and how isolating this can be.) So, I thought, I would explain this to everyone through the medium of blog posts and illustrations. Now, these illustrations are pretty simplisic and I’m not prepared to reveal how long they actually took me to draw.
When you describe your energy levels, it’s quite often seen as one thing, like you’re a durecell bunny with a single battery in your back that fuels you throughout your day. However, we’re slightly more complex than that, so I like to imagine that I’m fuelled by six different batteries, each of which deal with different aspects of your day-to-day life. In no particular order, they provide your emotional energy, your mental energy, your social energy, your sensory energy (the energy that you use when processing sights, sounds, tastes and smells), your physical energy and your comfort energy (the energy that can determine how well you feel and is used up when you feel physically uncomfortable, like when you are too cold or hot).
After a good, restful night’s sleep, you begin your day with your levels in the green. They’re not quite at the top, hence why we need breakfast for physical energy, etc. But after my morning routine, my six batteries are in a good place.
So, I need to walk to my Khmer language school for my lesson. It’s only half-past seven, but it’s already very hot outside. This effects my comfort energy. Furthermore, the effort to walk to school depletes my physical energy. However, the aspect that takes the largest hit is actually my sensory energy. Phnom Penh is a crazy, busy place. I’m getting use to it, so I’m not as overwhelmed as I used to be, but it still takes quite a knock. This is especially true of my walk to my language school, as I need to remain alert to what is happening. I’m surrounded by traffic heading in all directions on all sides of the road, moto and tuk tuk drivers calling for my attention, people welding, chickens meandering around, dogs barking. There are puddles to negotiate, there’s the scents coming from all the roadside stalls selling breakfasts, or the smell of petrol and fumes from the stall that provides spare parts and sells two-litre cola bottles of petrol. There’s pollution and rubbish; there’s the occasional drowned rat lying in your path. It’s an immense amount to take in.
By the time I reach my lesson, my energy levels have already taken a hit.
Then there’s the actual lesson. Fortunately, I get on well with the staff at the school and I have quite a few friends that go there, so my social energy rises. However, two hours of one-to-one speaking and listening in a language you don’t really understand is mentally draining and sometimes a little frustrating. Again, it’s getting easier, but if it’s a new topic with new vocabulary or sentence structures then it can be particularly difficult. Social energy is up, but mental energy has gone into the red.
The general rule is this: you don’t let any battery go into the red. So, in order to keep my energy levels at a relatively even level, the energy from the other batteries is shared around a bit. This is essentially self-management. It takes a bit of self-awareness and effort. It’s those moments, for example, when you ready yourself for a difficult conversation. You intentionally take some energy from other areas to bulster the social energy levels to manage the interaction and stay calm and polite. Some people are better at this than others, and often it depends on the context.
However, after some self-management, my energy levels are a bit more even, so they look a bit like this.
This is okay and liveable, but in order to function for any more time, I need to invest in some of my energy levels. So, I head to a favourite cafe. The iced coffee and cake provide physical energy (although, I know its not the best type), the chairs are great, the aircon is on, so my comfort levels rise as well. Also, this is a familiar, safe place, a bit of a refuge. This improves my emotional levels. So, I’ve managed to get a few more of my energy levels back into the green. Well done me.
Now, I don’t want to go straight home, so I wonder to Psar Tuol Tompong, otherwise know as the Russian Market. I really enjoy the atmosphere, the vibrancy and all the activity. This means that my emotional energy rises. However, there is a lot of sensory information (the smells of the food, the colours of the fabrics, the sounds of the sellers and customer, the sight of the cat that wonders about) so that goes down. It’s quite a maze, so you do end up walking quite far, furthermore its baking hot in there. The physical and comfort energy levels take a knock. Finally, I speak a bit of Khmer to one of the sellers, and I also have to work in two foreign currencies similtaneous, which takes quite a bit of mental agility. So, needless to say, my energy levels have taken a bit of a dip.
I decide to head home, to prevent more of my energy levels reaching problematic levels. I walk back to Jars of Clay, hoping Vitou will be outside. He isn’t. I ask another tuk tuk driver if he knows where he is. I ask in Khmer, but it isn’t understood first time, which is slightly frustrating. I get an answer about Vitou; apparently, he’s busy but the driver might be lying. Now I’ve started talking to him it means that I’m probably going to have to use him to get home. This takes various elements of my energy: emotional, mental and social. I could call Vitou, but I may have to wait and I want to get home pretty soon. So I decide to persevere with this driver.
I need explain where I live in Khmer. This is more difficult than it sounds, as some drivers don’t know my area that well. I think I’ve made myself clear, so we head off. As we head onto the main road, it’s evident that the tuk tuk driver didn’t understand my instructions. So I need to direct him in Khmer. This is all frustrating, socially difficult and mentally straining. I also know that he’ll probably charge me more than I would like (since my lack of mental energy prevented me from having the foresight to agree on a price beforehand).
I know I must not show any frustration or anger; it’s not culturally acceptable. Therefore, any surplus energy I have left is put into my social battery, so I can end this transaction in a civil and polite manner. This means that everything has dropped to red.
My emotional energy is really low; I feel ready to cry. My ability to barter is gone as I have no brain power left. I won’t be able to take anymore sensory input, so I will be shutting myself in a dark room. My physical energy is gone, so I will probably have to drag myself up the two flights of stairs and will go to bed. Finally, my comfort has gone so a raging headache has started.
This is an extreme example, where every element ends in red. However, often it’s that just a few of them are. However, the end result means that I have to be aware of how I’m feeling and the helpful ways in which to deal with it. It also explains why I often become attached to certain things (like the coffee at Jars of Clay, or Vitou as he prevents a lot of energy problems).
I’m very good at coming up with quick fixes (naps and Pepsi, mainly), but I’m not good at managing myself in the long-term (if I’m tired or hot, I’ll often skip meals, for example). This is something that I’m going to have to work on.
It’s also interesting as I find out more about what fills my batteries and what depletes them. Often, one activity will have multiple effects. For instance, writing this post improves my emotional and social energies as I’m being creative and it’s a way of connecting with people back home. However, it drains my mental battery. However, watching food videos on Facebook stimulates my mental battery but isn’t very productive in terms of other energy levels and this can be a bit frustrating.
I think what I’ve learnt about myself, and how different aspects of my energy level get affected, will be useful when I return home. Anything that teaches you more about yourself and enables you to be self-reflective is good. So, in that way, it’s worth while. However, I just wish I felt more awake more often.
Now, I’m off to have a nap.
- What fills your batteries?
- What wears you out and how?
- What signals are there that your batteries might be low (I get headaches or grumpy)?
- What fixes do you have?