There are a couple reasons why I've chosen to live my life the way that I do. The unpredictable coming of death is a major determining factor that leaves me feeling helpless to the forces of nature. When traveling to distant lands and seeking adventure make us more vulnerable to risk and danger, but statistics claim most accidents and fatal situations happen close to home, I can't help but believe in living like you have no control over your own time; so I've stopped living a comfortable life that lends to such a mentality. By doing so, I hope to improve my quality of life to a measure that cannot be surpassed, one that doesn't stop sopping up beautiful moments while leaving nothing but good things in the wake, making my time of death a welcome occurrence when it arrives as I've deferred nothing for that non-existent future. I say all this because I lost a friend today, someone I knew 12 days in total but held dear nonetheless. And though 12 days is but an infantile blip in the timeline of my existence, this friendship began and proceeded as the best ones do: as a traveler friendship.
Arriving in July to a city, country, and continent he'd never visited, Evan Witty began his time as a long-term volunteer at the Palm Tree Orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When I met him in November, he had become a staple figure on the grounds, knew every one of the 100+ children by name (names not easily absorbed by a Western mind), understood their personalities and tendencies, and had grasped an incredible take on Cambodian culture from both an outsider's and an insider's eyes. He revealed a lot to me about a country I was ignorant of and welcomed me along in his own experiences both at Palm Tree and around town.
Though many times as a volunteer we were confused as to our part in the grand scheme of Palm Tree, it was understood that Evan was there to become inexplicably linked to the kids and make wonderful things happen, both tangible and emotional. He had goals for his fundraising efforts and knew his place there. As a result, he was deeply respected and sought after for guidance on a wide range of issues.
I needed him dearly to break the barrier that had formed around me in India. I hadn't been exposed to the familiar in so long and hadn't felt a hug from home since July, but when he told me he was a Midwestern boy, whom had experienced the wonders of Indiana University's Little 500, knew mutual friends, held leadership positions in his greek organization, and loved being away from the comfort of the United States, I felt at ease, finally. And with traveler friendships and the ever-present expiration date, we got to know each other fast and in ways that sidetracked the common small talk of two ships passing. He showed me how to call home for an hour for less than a US Dollar, enabled my experience of the Cambodian nightlife, and acted himself in a way that compounded my sense of purpose and possibility for the things I hope to accomplish in life.
Since Evan was lousy at correspondence, and thankfully made that known to me before I left, we didn't get to speak after I left at 5:00am on the morning of November 13th, 2008. He made sure I woke him up to say goodbye, exchange contacts, and promise to meet again once we were both stateside. And honestly, I was still very much looking forward to that meeting after his summer flight back to Chicago; I thought about it many times, imagining conversations over beers or a baseball game where we discussed the kids and his future plans for probable humanitarian work (since he was meant to care for others).
I made a CD with my videos and pictures of the kids I thought he would appreciate. I wrote him a letter, hoping to help him in whatever task he was working on. Those were only just being delivered this week with the arrival of Terry Kellogg, one of the founders of Cambodia's Hope, and I'm sad I won't get the chance to further any initiatives he started or had dreamed up.
I awoke with a shock when I rolled to my side to look at my phone; one e-mail from Marvel Kellogg stating Evan had passed in his sleep. It's hard to shake that confusion off when a friend never wakes, especially at the ripe age of youth, and I am bitter that this has happened to friends of mine more than once.
There’s a certain awe I feel toward Evan Witty and his now legendary heart and determination to do good for the kids at the Palm Tree orphanage in Cambodia. As a guy with a great deal of education, charisma, and experience, he could have moved into a powerful job path and made monetary success his mission. But he found more appeal in living with 100+ kids in a country he had no ties to. He wanted to move people and make physical and emotional necessities available to anyone. With that desire and an experience such as the one he had at Palm Tree, his life work was destined to be hugely impacting and awe-inspiring, and I'm so sorry we don't get to witness his next steps. But he passed with people who loved him and he loved in return, in his sleep on the beach in Cambodia. As unfair as this whole situation is, that irreversible fact has a peace that adequately reflects the dignity Evan deserves to receive.
I will continue to think of his dreams for the Palm Tree orphanage and stay a part of the children's lives, keeping in mind Evan's work and what he would want to happen for the future. If you knew Evan or were moved by his humanity, please check out his cause on my page documenting Cambodia's Hope. Those kids are deserving of more devout workers like Evan, so if you are looking for a way to impact something wonderful with your time or funds, this would be the place and the cause. And if you do decide to become a volunteer for Palm Tree, I'd love to pass on the tips I remember from Evan that will make your experience complete.