Today marks the first day of travel for Toro Vaun, his sister Sokny, mother Lor and myself bound for Cambodia. The trip is on! I'm so excited I can hardly contain myself. We arrived at the airport early so that we could get all the details ironed out with checked bags and connection tickets and to get a few hours rest at the gate before we take off. I know that sounds a little strange, but if you are like me, you don't sleep on airplanes. I don't know why, but I never could, and with a 28-hour flight ahead I wanted to get as much shut-eye as I could. I might be able to get some sleep in our connecting airports in Moscow and Singapore, but I doubt it. These next few days are going to be a sleep-deprived blur.
As the rest of the passengers begin to board the plane, I'm shocked at just how few people there are in our section. Everyone could have a row of seats to themselves. Maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to stretch out and get some sleep.
Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 6:15 pm: We've just past 149 miles and everyone is starting to get settled for the long haul to Moscow, our first stop of the trip. This trip will mark the second time I've traveled to Asia and I owe it to my bosses at the paper and, of course, to Toro and his family. How do you repay someone for letting you tag along on a personal journey like this? I guess doing the best I can in words and images is a start. Making sure I take notice of all the small details and being as descriptive as possible will make a difference.
Toro and I have been friends now for several years, but I'm still having a hard time reading what his true feelings are about heading home to Cambodia for the first time in almost two decades. He certainly doesn't dress like a Cambodian. At the moment he's wearing a dark blue blazer with a white, long-sleeve, pearl-snap shirt, blue jeans with a few stains and of course his beloved cowboy boots with the green uppers and light brown lowers. "I am an American and I want to represent the area I am now living in," Toro said. He in fact is not an American citizen, but in his heart he is. "I speak American English, dress as an American, this is who I am." Toro was born, however, in the small village of Banteay Toup situated in the northwest region of Cambodia. He was born the 10th of 11 children to a very petite women, Lor, who can't be more than five-feet-tall. There is a level of respect he shows his mom that he reserves just for her.
Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 8:05 pm: There is a thin layer of low-level clouds obscuring my view of the ground. The sun, just about to set, is casting a reddish-orange hue across the clouds. Your perspective of the world changes at 30,000 feet and you realize just how small we humans really are. But that doesn't mean we have to be complacent with where we live in the world, because it is ours to explore. As human beings we have it in our genetic configuration to go, see, do. What if in 1492, Columbus decided not to sail the ocean blue? Thank goodness he did, and we're the better for it. Now, this particular trip is not equal to sailing west across the Atlantic for the first time, but for Toro, and perhaps myself, it is similar to journeying into uncharted waters. Toro has limited memory of his birth village and after immigrating to the U.S. in 1992, he has never been back. He's going home, home to a past of shrouded early childhood memories. As for me, now a 30-something white male comfortably situated in lower-middle class America, going anywhere in the world is a dream come true. Shaking off the West Texas dust for the humid and rainy weather of Cambodia will be a welcomed change. Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 9:25 pm: I've just seen the Aurora Borealis for the first time! Amazing! We're currently over Canada somewhere, according to the flight monitor in the seatback in front of me. We've also traveled 2510 miles.
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 12:45 am: So I spent the last few hours surfing the movie options on the little TV screen in front of me. The early morning hours have just begun back home in Texas, but at the moment I'm watching the sunrise over Iceland. I was able to watch the Aurora Borealis start to fade in the distance, it's green tentacles giving way to the deep blues of a cloudless sky. The farther east we head, the lighter the shade of blue the sky becomes. The sun rises to start the new day and with it dawns a new chapter in Toro's life as he tries to reclaim his past. It's a past of starvation and genocide brought on by the Khmer Rouge who took over the country in 1975, just two years before Toro was born. From the time he was four-years-old, Toro and his family had to move from refugee camp to the next to avoid the fighting between KR loyalists, the invading Vietnamese and Cambodian freedom fighters. On this trip, Toro hopes to retrace the route he and his family took in the middle of the night to get into Thailand where he lived in the Site 2 camp until 1992.
But that description is for later in the trip. Right now, breakfast is about to be served by the flight crew. I wish I could sleep on airplanes. This flight to Moscow is supposed to take about 10 1/2 hours and I've been up since 8:00 am Tuesday. Toro has also managed not to fall asleep as he has been to preoccupied with is TV screen. And , thanks to the ever present flight crew, exclaimed, "I feel like I've been eating non-stop!"
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 2:40 am: Typical. Just as my body is about to give up and fall asleep, all the cabin lights come on and the flight crew begins to hand out hot towels. We've now traveled 5272 miles and we are somewhere over Finland. Another meal (can you believe it) is being prepared in the airplane galley in front of us and the lady sitting in the row ahead has just received her vegetarian meal. It smells oddly of flash-frozen green beans. You know, the ones that come out of the freezer at your grandmother's house that have that ultra florescent green color? I decided on the braised ee-fu noodles with pork instead of going with the cheese omelet with chicken sausage. Maybe its just me, but there is something about the term "chicken sausage" that is particularly off-putting. Besides, its not like its going to be a relaxing meal as we will be landing in Moscow in about an hour.
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 3:30 am (TX time), 1:30 pm (Moscow time): We've landed in Moscow and its not at all what I expected. On the final approach I expected to see a huge city, but instead saw dense forest. Maybe I was just sitting on the wrong side of the plane. When we rolled up to the terminal I was expecting it to be a little more modernized, but the first thing I saw was a bunch of planes crowded on the tarmac waiting for gates to open up. And the exposed re-bar and cinder-block design of the terminal left something to be desired. After getting to the gate and deplaning we were told that we would have to once again go through security. That's odd. Security? Again?
If you've never been through an airport outside of the United States, you're in for a treat. Especially one that is not up on all the more modern amenities that we're used to. These are some of the more interesting airports to go through. Ones where you get a tour of the world's languages just by walking by three gates or a single smoking lounge. This airport is just like that and some of the people you meet are just a colorful as the language they speak.
After winding my way through the sea of people, Toro and I got back to our gate, waited around for about 40 minutes, boarded the very same plane we flew in on and and sat in the very same seats. And that statement I made about sitting on the wrong side of the plane was correct because when we took off I got a clear view of the real Moscow. Its not the rural farm-ville it looked like when we flew in, but rather an a massive city made up of dormitory-style block housing highrises. I've now been awake for 24 hours.
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 2:00 pm (TX time), 11:00 pm (Moscow time): We're somewhere over the Andaman Sea between the Andaman Islands and Myanmar (Burma). I was hoping to get a glimpse of the Himalayan Mountains as we flew over northern India, but the sun had already set. Sleep still eludes me. I've been in that half sleep-half awake state for the past few hours. Just as my brain decides that it can't stay conscious any longer, my head falls off the head rest or the pitch in the engines change. The flight crew is bringing yet another meal through the cabin and I guess I should eat. I haven't had anything since the breakfast before we landed in Moscow. I didn't eat the first meal served after takeoff because I was trying to force my body to sleep.
In a few hours we'll be landing in Singapore and from what Toro's sister has told me, you have to have a roll of $100 bills in your pocket to do anything. Apparently, its pretty extravagant. Hopefully I'll have enough money to get some simple food while on the ground. All this airplane food is starting to get a little old. I've been told that Toro's brother is bringing in some fresh fish for dinner the night we get into Cambodia. I'm excited about trying out the local cuisine when we get there. Lots of herbs and spices, rice and noodle soups and fresh fish and chicken are supposed to be what the locals eat. Sounds good to me. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011: Its almost 10:00 am and Toro, his mother Lor, sister Sokny and myself are flying over the flood-covered countryside of Cambodia. This is a new adventure for me, but for Toro it's a return home. This is the first time he has seen his homeland in 19 years. The recent floods are not going to stop Toro from experiencing all he has set his mind to for this trip. On this two-hour plane ride from Singapore I had to sit in an aisle seat. Fortunately, Toro had a window seat and as we flew over Cambodia, his face was glued to the plexiglass. His mom was sitting next to him and he would turn around every so often and relay what he was seeing. As we touched down at the Siem Reap Airport a smile stretched across his face from ear to ear. The plane comes to a stop at the gate, the cabin door swings open and the adventure begins.
Adjusting to the humidity of the country was an unexpected challenge right off the plane, but getting my bags and travel visa was a breeze. As I exited the airport, I was immediately met by a group of young men. My first thought was that this was some kind of tourist trap where they would sell me my first Cambodian t-shirt or give me a discount ride into town. But that's not who they were. They were family members who knew I was coming to stay with them for a few weeks and they were told to look out for. They greeted me in the traditional Cambodian way, with a deep bow and their hands clasped together as if in prayer. They placed a garland of fresh jasmine around my neck and led me to meet the rest of the family. Just that quick and quiet moment was strangely moving, a moment meant only for me.
I met Toro's brother Vireak and a few more members of the family, took a few photos for the story about Toro's homecoming and then bid farewell to Lor. She had decided she was just going to drive home to Sisophon instead of stay with us in Siem Reap. One of Toro's nephews and a friend stayed behind with Toro and I to go and find a hotel for the night. I have to admit, here I was in a new and exotic location of the world I have never seen and the only thing I could think of was finding a bed and falling asleep. I've been awake for almost 48 hours and it didn't matter what new experiences were whizzing by the car window, just get me to a bed. We rolled up on a hotel that charged $15 a night with A/C, threw our bags on the floor and timbered into bed. It was 11:00 in the morning. I didn't wake up until 6:00 that evening.
After the nap, we all headed out to grab some food. I was still a little groggy from lack of sleep, but we found this place that served Khmer BBQ. It was delicious. Basically there is a burner in the middle of the table and you cook different kinds of meats on it. After dinner we went through a night market for tourists, made a quick run through a grocery store for snacks and headed back to the hotel where we sat and talked into the night. It was a good introduction to the country and the people that call this place home. I'm most definitely looking forward to the days ahead.