Text and photography by Merja Yeung.
Translated from Finnish by Rebecca Watson.
Teksti suomeksi löytyy TÄÄLTÄ.
Expert in children’s rights
Paloma Martin was orphaned at the age of five after losing her parents and both brothers in an accident. Fortunately, she had a close-knit extended family who were ready to take her under their wings. Her childhood experiences were an influencing factor when she decided to focus on children’s rights as part of her studies in politics and development aid.
Already from a young age, Paloma knew she wouldn’t be staying in Spain for good. At the age of 28, she packed her bags in an urge to discover new cultures, places and people in need, and to get a better understanding of the world around. She first headed to Macedonia, then spent the next fifteen years in Ivory Coast, Italy, Angola, Guinea, the Philippines, Guatemala, Morocco, Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea, and finally her current home of Cambodia. Paloma met her spouse Alberto in Macedonia but it was Ivory Coast that left a lasting mark.
Working in Africa had been Paloma’s childhood dream. Her work with orphans and former child soldiers in Ivory Coast made her see just how difficult life could be. She ended up only staying in the country for less than a year, as war changed her plans. Risky evacuations in the face of war left an eternal mark, intensified by the fact that only westerners were whisked away to safety, while locals and children Paloma had worked with were forced to stay behind.
Paloma’s Italian spouse Alberto has a very similar background to Paloma. The couple has lived in almost all the target countries together, and even the children were born “along the way”.
So far, the family has spent the longest time together in Cambodia.
From Spain, Paloma misses the way people talk and look each other in the eye, politeness and, naturally, family, but returning to Europe hasn’t been on the cards. A move back to Italy or Spain gets a mention on the rare occasion, usually when Paloma and Alberto are particularly tired.
Compared to other countries where Paloma has lived, there’s one clear difference in Cambodia: the number of friendships with locals. In Cambodia she made as far only a few native friends, whereas making friends with local people had been fairly straightforward in all the other countries. But it’s not necessarily simply down to the Cambodians, though, as she is after all in a different stage of life than before; now most of her time and energy is channelled into striking a balance between hectic work life and family time. She also thinks the passing years may have something to do with not necessarily being as open-minded in striking up friendships with strangers as before.
Making friends might be tricky in Cambodia, but Paloma does appreciate the calm nature of Cambodians no matter what goes on. For a vivacious Spanish mentality, this did take a bit of getting used to at first though.
It came as a complete surprise that life with children would be so easy in Cambodia. Daily life is runs smoothly and people have a genuine smile on their face. Any surprises have mostly been positive.
Paloma’s family always knew she would be setting off to see the world. They’ve only asked her to come back to Spain on two occasions: after the events in Ivory coast, and after announcing her first pregnancy, when Paloma’s family had hoped she would raise the child in the safety of her familiar circles. Apart from their annual visit to Europe, Paloma keeps in touch with relatives over Skype.
Paloma feels that “all these years away” are in fact the best part of living abroad. She has learnt to respect others, stay calm and smile. Alberto and the children are what matter the most right now. One day, she would love to show the children a peaceful country in Africa, where people have faith in tomorrow and throw a party even in the middle hardship, rejoicing in the small things.
Paloma recommends a move to a new culture for people who stay humble and are passionate about learning and exploring.
When asked what someone moving to another country should consider, Paloma is quick to reply: “I have no answer, as I’m not a very practical person!”.
What you don’t give away, you lose.
Born in 1972 in Madrid, Spain.
Family: Spouse Alberto, country director NGO, b. 1963, children Maya, b. 2007, and Andre, b. 2009, as well as dog Pepa, b. 2013.
Education: Studied politics and development aid at the University of Madrid, specializing in children’s rights and administration.
Employer: CIAI – Centro Italiano Aiuti all'infanzia, country director.
Languages: Spanish, French, Italian and English.
Lived in Phnom Penh since June 2010.
Hobbies: Theatre, writing and reading.
Phnom Penh tips
1. S21 / Genocide Museum
2. Walk, grap a tuk tuk, soak up the city, look around and wonder.
3. National Museum
1. Angkor Wat
3. Koh Rong / Koh Rong Samloem