25 May, 2014

Travel Safely…

I remember blogging about the trials of travel over the years. Some good  and some not so good

I used to dread the actual travel time as I wished desperately for teleportation, but as I have learned to appreciate what other people, cultures and religion can offer me indirectly, I do not mind sitting back and observing the world from an airplane or international airport.

Upon my arrival at Incheon Airport in South Korea, I was going on about 3 hours of sleep, so as I departed the plane, I commenced exploring this unfamiliar airport.  The cleanliness (which is always my first assessment) pushed it up to the top of my favorite airports.  Next came the smiles. 

I was feeling sad leaving everyone at Wat Opot, so viewing happy faces made me smile right back.  I wandered around, and grabbed my security blanket – a coffee. 

My friend Karin told me the story of how she arrived in India for the first time.  She got off the plane walked outside and lit a cigarette.  How that cigarette grounded her as she anticipated the journey ahead of her.  Coffee does that for me.  It calms my nerves as I hold the cup within the confines of my comfort zone – a comfort zone that becomes small when I’m in an unfamiliar place. 

For reasons unknown, I was bumped up to Business Class when I checked in at the airport in Phnom Penh.  As I boarded the plane I had no trouble finding my seat – #2C.  As I looked forward to stretching out in the bigger seat with more legroom, the flight attendant motioned for me to put my backpack in the overhead compartment.  Immediately my heart rate went up.  I “NEEDED” that backpack.  Everything I might need or want was in that bag.  But since the seats in business class are all that, they have no room to put anything underneath.  As I quickly contemplated how much stuff I can take out and stash all around me, I consciously pushed away feelings of contempt at this woman just doing her job.

I grabbed my new Nook and figured that was all I needed at that moment.  Once we were in the air, I wanted to be back in coach, back in my comfort zone with my backpack within an arm’s reach, I wanted my can of peanuts and Korean pickles– just in case.  I didn’t want to be ‘pampered’; I didn’t want something to drink every 10 minutes.  I wanted to be left alone in my anonymity.

It’s not like I’m inexperienced with first class travel.  For over seven years, I was surrounded by wealth and luxurious travel and accommodations.  I didn’t think twice about it, it became my norm; although I experienced some of the same feelings I had on this trip.  The same feelings of “just leave me alone, I do not want nor need anything at this moment and chances are I will be perfectly fine if you do not approach me again in this lifetime.”    Sometimes wealth begets helplessness, or is it just a need to feel superior?  I am neither wealthy nor am I haughty.  I am also not invisible, but many times wish to be.

Well I survived that flight without giving anyone the stink-eye nor wishing them ill-will and after drinking my coffee decided to look for a place to sleep.  I easily found what I was looking for and more.  There were docking stations to charge your electronic devices, lounge areas, places to take a hot shower and sleeping areas.  I was too wound up to sleep at that time, so I just sat back and took pleasure in watching 2 kids play with their sleeping father – putting a napkin near his mouth so it would gently float to the ground at his exhale, hearing all the different languages, and seeing different cultural interactions.  Finally my eyelids could no longer stay open and I found a sleeper chair out of the mainstream and spooning my backpack, fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke, glanced at my iPod and saw that it was only 10:30 am although it felt much later.  Ate some delicious Korean food and went to the ‘free tour of Seoul” desk.  I told the lady that I would like the 1:00 tour and she looked at me strangely and said, that tour is sold out, I can get you in at 3:00.  I was thinking, “Well great what can I do for a couple of hours now”…when she interrupted my thought with directions to come back in 10 minutes and she will take me to the tour check in place.  Not questioning why I would have to check in about 3 hours early, I just said Okay and went in search of a locker to put my backpack in. 

When I got to the info desk to get a locker key, I saw a clock flashing 2:45 and wondered why this clock along with the 2 that I had I seen earlier were all wrong; then it dawned on me…I am no longer in the Cambodian time zone!  I didn’t sleep for an hour like I thought, but instead had crashed for almost four!  I dashed back to the tour info desk and followed the lady as she lead me the back way through immigration, flashing her badge here and there.  I suddenly remembered the advantages of superiority and ease of access wealth (or in this case – a cool airport badge) can bring about.  She then gave me somewhat complicated directions (turn here, go down there, find gate 8…) to the check in tour desk.

I found the desk and waited for others to arrive for our tour and again took in the sights and people around me.  I laughed at loud at a group of middle to late-aged Asian tourists.  The group of about 20 were milling about like chickens until one man had them line up in two rows like children to organize them.  As each one passed by, he would kindly smack them on the back of the head and they giggled and cackled like 6 year olds!  Another group reminded me of the ducks at Wat Opot.  The group orderly followed the leader, but then all of a sudden the last person said something and they all turned and then followed him the opposite way.  There was then laughter and they once again all turned around and followed the original leader.

It was at this time I felt a couple of pokes in my side causing me to jump and squirm.  I turned and saw the small Korean woman from the info desk.  She said “I am happy to see you again” and she gave me the thumbs up as she slid behind the counter.  I didn’t know what was funnier to me, the fact that she poked me or that she gave me the non-Korean thumbs-up sign.  I don’t know why she was so happy to see me; was it because many people are a no-show at a free tour or was she impressed that I found the out-of-the way tour desk with her directions.

I boarded the tour bus along with a Danish man and his Pilipino wife, a Pilipino American woman and a man from Kenya.  Our tour guide joked/talked about the generalizations of the different cultures and his 30+ years working for United Airlines.  He became a tour guide because he liked people.  He made comments about each culture or country and shared his knowledge of what was going on there.  He gained nods from the Kenyan that their country is starting to promote international flights after a long absence and that the Danish man would culturally always be on time.  He noted how the two Pilipino women looked so different but were from the same country.  About midway through the tour, I realized that he had talked about me in regards to Cambodia, but had not mentioned anything about the US – maybe he follows the childhood advice “if you don’t have anything nice to say….”

As we debussed our first sight was three 16-ish year old girls walking by in school uniform and our very talkative guide became silent and quietly said “those young girls are so wonderful just look at them walking by”.  Before I could detect any pedophiliac creepiness from his comments, he said “So many of our young girls and boys were on the ferry.”  We all grew silent as I remembered hearing about a ferry that had overturned a few days before killing hundreds of people including school kids.  I did not realize that was in Korea not far from where I was at that moment.

When you hear about a tragedy on the news, about something far away, it’s easy to have feelings of sadness, but then move on.  When you travel and start to meet people and befriend others from far away places, your world becomes small.  I looked at our guide who 5 minutes ago was just a funny host and now I saw a man, quite possibly a grandfather with a grandchild the same age as the children who drowned.  I know why I force myself out of my comfort zone when I travel.  Why I decided to take the free tour instead of going back to lay down and cocoon myself in until my flight.  I have a need to experience as much as I have a need to withdraw.

My tour guide was a human being and so were the others in my small group.  I pushed out the boundaries of my comfort zone a bit and then with an unconscious roll of the eyes, I pushed it out even farther and inched closer and fully accepted becoming a minuscule part, in this moment of their lives as well as accepting them into mine.  We proceeded through the tour as friends, joking, laughing, taking photos and when it was over, it was over.  No need to become FaceBook friends, no need to exchange contact information.  We are who we are by the choices we make as well as the people we encounter in our lives.  They don’t have to be dramatic choices or extraordinary people, but a moment of silence in honor of an unrelated tragedy changed my tour perspective, changed the way I viewed those around me and added another positive layer to my heart.