Leaving Manhattan was nowhere near as sad as it might have been due to my freedom to return anytime during this year combined with my excitement at returning to Cambodia. The cab picked me up at nightfall and we crackled our way over the ice cold cobblestones of SoHo, past people wrapped from head to toe in winter gear, windows, trees, doorways and fences adorned in festive fairy lights and mistletoe. We drove over the Brooklyn Bridge towards John F Kennedy Airport and the bright city skyline of Manhattan gradually disappeared behind me. Instead of telling my driver which terminal I needed, I told him I was with China Airlines. He pulled in to Terminal 1, I paid and we unloaded and said our goodbyes. Walking into the terminal I saw “China Eastern Airlines” and knew I’d just botched it. Thankfully a couple of requests for directions saw me onto the Air Train and within minutes I was in Terminal 4 headed to the China Airlines check-in desk.
JFK Airport was in crisis mode due to “the Holidays” and the queue towards security checkpoint was the longest human caterpillar I’ve ever seen. We walked up the length of the building, turned and walked back down the length of the building, at least three times before we even entered the roped-off zone, all of which took place outside the lifts in what usually serves as a foyer for relatives to farewell their departing loved ones. The couple behind me were young Manhattan locals traveling to Israel to visit family. In years of frequent travel they’d never seen anything like these crowds, so it wasn’t just my hick perceptions playing tricks on me.
After an hour of slow strolling, switching between people watching, solitary tedium and small talk with this interesting Jewish couple, we finally made it to the screening area. Here a big black guy with a perfectly clipped beard, crisp black suit and large crystal bling stud in one ear was directing people to organise their bags as required for screening. “Ladies and Gentlemen! No water bottles in your bags! Please put your telephones in your bag! There is no need to remove your shoes!”. One of his colleagues laughingly asked him to “say it a little louder, they can’t all hear you”. He grabbed his phone from his pocket, placed it to his face like a microphone and began serenading the queue with a brilliant harmonisation of a Smokey Robinson number. The queue immediately transformed from a line of dull faces, to gleaming smiles and laughs. He then shouted out “iPhones out of your pockets now please! Who has an iPhone? Who has an iPhone? Show me your iPhones now please!”. Once enough people raised their hands or iPhones at him, he shouted “Okay! Time to get an Android NOW, people!”. Our long and tedious passage to the checkpoint was worth it just to experience this entertaining farewell off American soil.
Soon enough I was on the eight hour journey to Anchorage, where transit passengers stayed on the plane while others disembarked, the plane refuelled etc which took about an hour. It was then another ten hours to Taipei with a 1.5 hour wait there, then 3.5 hours to Phnom Penh. At Taipei there was time to check my emails and I quickly replied to my fellow Board Member about some emerging staff issues at Phter Koma. Our injured staff member may lose her job as she remains incapacitated. Her temporary replacement is very hopeful of retaining employment with us. My Cambodian friend is struggling with this, as $100 per month makes it a sought-after position and he is feeling for both women who need the money desperately. $100 per month. It by no means makes anyone wealthy but it ensures a small level of otherwise-absent security for people living in abject poverty. This is so different to the environment of New York where families take the children skiing for the holidays, airports are packed to the hilt with overseas travelers, second homes, au pairs, expensive dining out, exclusive shopping and any number of other extreme comforts are all either the norm or the aspired norm. Between these worlds, some of the exchanges made include obesity with malnutrition, drug abuse and addiction with absent pain relief or palliative treatment, homelessness on wealthy street corners with homelessness amidst poverty, unemployment with scavenging and child labour, race related police brutality under the critical eye of media and legal protections with unmonitored class related police brutality.
Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh is very similar to Dili International Airport. None of the fluorescent lights, polished and glossy floors or lustrous wide corridors lined with glistening duty free shops you see in Western airports exist here. You get off the plane and walk through a narrow, high walled, mustard coloured hallway, down some stairs into a crowded lobby and make your way to the correct queue, beyond which you can see your luggage wending it’s way around a rattling conveyerbelt as you wait to get your passport stamped. Beyond the luggage area, guards take your customs declaration off you at the doorway, exiting into the tropical tree-lined undercover walkway where crowds gather behind a rope to meet arrivals.
Unlike arriving in Dili, where despite being met by friends, or my previous arrival in Phnom Penh when MSF had arranged everything for me, I was soaked in nerves and fascination, yesterday’s arrival was more like a homecoming. There was nothing nerve wracking about the crowds waiting behind the rope, the drivers approaching me touting for business or the language barrier. I negotiated a taxi ride and made my way through familiar streets and past familiar sights, in the familiar tropical warmth, towards my hotel. Along the way I chatted in broken Khmer to my driver. A small boy feather dusted our car while we were stopped at an intersection before standing at the window imploring me for money. Cambodian feather dusters are made from chicken feathers glued to a wooden stick, I hadn’t seen one of those for ten weeks, I thought in amusement as I shook my head gently at the raggedy little guy with his sad eyes. All advice is that you should not give money to children as they appeal to our senses more than the adults, and are sent out to beg instead of being sent to school due to their money-making capacities. If you want to contribute, there are organisations involved in keeping children off the streets and in school. The traffic scenes are still entertaining, but no longer shock me as they once did. A body relaxed in a hammock slung diagonally across the tuk tuk cabin, men lay on top of a mattress as it drove down the street, trucks carted loads hanging off the back or sides, children drove motorbikes, the footpaths lined with motorbike repair shops, furniture shops, mobile takeaway restaurants selling Cambodian fare, all removing most walking space and pushing pedestrians out onto the busy road where they become a part of the road traffic. I texted a few people to let them know I was here, took a phone call from Win to discuss my plans for next week and generally resettled into my life as a temporary Cambodian.
On arrival at the hotel I sat in the restaurant to wait while they worked out my check-in and asked for a Diet Coke. The waiter did an about-turn and informed me that “we already finished Diet Coke”. Ah yes! Cambodian hospitality! So friendly and welcoming, in the face of such disorganisation! In keeping with that theme, my room was double booked so they checked me in to their sister hotel next door. Within ten minutes I entered the room, opened my cases, jumped in the shower and lay on the bed.
Ten hours later, it’s after midnight and I just slept for ten hours. Hence this rather uninteresting travel memoir to let you guys know that I am here, safe and sound, albeit time challenged! Today I have a few people to see socially. Tomorrow I am on the bus “home”. Chom is picking me up but Win is off work and happy to trip around with me so I might use his translation skills for a few things too. Tomorrow night I am double booked at two different parties. Tuesday I start merging into my life as a volunteer at the Childrens’ Home. As soon as possible I will visit Shackville and hopefully see Dara. Happy days ahead!