Sunday, September 18, 2011

Coming In For a Landing

Welcome back!

It has obviously been a while since I last posted on this blog.  I’m hoping that now that I’m in Vietnam and finally getting somewhat of a foothold here in Southeast Asia, I will be able to update my blog somewhat regularly.  For right now, I have a lot of making up to do for Cambodia, and the next few posts will be dedicated to that perplexing yet fascinating country.  I guess I'll start from the beginning...

After over 35 hours from the time I woke up to my current situation, my Korean Air flight was finally making its descent into Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  I opened my window shade and stared out into the blackness.  It was closing in on 11 pm on Saturday night and there was no evidence of the orangish hue of lights on the ground that usually greets planes from below as they make their final approach.  Because of my delirium (I'm a good flier, but I'm not a good sleeper on planes), it took me a few seconds to recall that Phnom Penh wasn't near the coast and that we were definitely not over water.  There were simply no signs of life below despite our proximity to a city boasting over 2.2 million inhabitants.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, people asked me if I was nervous.  My reply was always that I wasn't because I've had so much time to prepare and I was doing something that I really wanted to do, but that it would probably hit me as my flight descended into Cambodia.  And here I was floating downward toward my black hole of a home, and while my nerves never got the best of me, the enormity of the situation definitely did.  I was in for a huge change from what I was used to...

A very soft hint of lights finally appeared that indicated signs of life, but not until we were uncomfortably close to our landing.  When I was in Korea before my final flight, (my flight path ended up changing: a long story I really don't want to re-live) I found another girl, Jessica, (or more accurately, she found me) who was in my program so it made collecting our luggage, acquiring a visa, and passing through customs a much smoother process since I was with someone else who I could associate with.  

We walked outside the airport and we were greeted by the familiar scene that I've seen play out at every third-world-country's pick up area: a crowd of strange faces all jockeying for position behind a rope trying to get the attention of the person they came to pick up who stepped out of the airport.  Beyond them, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers waving down the new arrivals, convincing them that their fare is the best.  All the while, airport policemen and security guards are trying to keep order.  It's quite a nauseating effect, especially after being so accustomed to the calm, regulated experience of air travel.  

We spotted two guys with "LanguageCorps" signs.  We walked up to them and exchanged smiles and handshakes, but not much else since only one of them spoke broken English.  He told me his name was Pitol and he'd be right back with a tuk-tuk to take us to our hotel.  As Jessica and I sweated in the heat and humidity and stood outside the airport amidst mass chaos of people coming and going while we waited for Pitol and the tuk-tuk, we couldn't help but sarcastically joke about how we just literally arrived halfway around the world to put our trust in a random Cambodian man.  That was the first time I set aside my fears and just decided to "go with it."  I would soon find out that I'd be doing a lot of that lately.  It's pretty much the only way of really experiencing the culture here without fear.

Pitol soon arrived with the tuk-tuk, and we hoisted our bags on one side and squeezed into the other.

Pitol, who later became my good friend, and his tuk-tuk.  How do you not trust that face?
The ride back to the hotel took about 25 minutes.  I was struck by how dark the city appeared.  It almost looked like a city back home after a power outage.  This explained why I could see no signs of life from the plane.  Once in the hotel and I finally lugged my bags 6 stories up into my room, I took a breath and opened the window blinds to see.... blackness.  Nothing but the faint outlines of the street below.  Time for some much needed sleep.

In the morning, I was woken up by a rooster, engines, and the honking of cars and motos.  I got up, once again opened up my blinds, and was greeted by a vastly different scene from the one the previous night.  I immediately started snapping photos...

The view out my bedroom window

The same shot at night.  Because of the pollution there were some amazing sunsets.

The dirtiest, most foul smelling waterway I've ever seen.   Not sure what the white foam is.

And so, after snapping photos from every possible angle from my hotel window, my initial invitation to Cambodia came to a close.  I was soon going to meet the other 18 members in my training program for a tour of Phnom Penh.  After two weeks in Cambodia I doubt I'll be able to explain the country very well, but I'll do my best in upcoming posts.