And just to preface this story with, it wasn’t even economy comfort, main cabin extra, economy plus, or whatever you want to call it. It was pure economy. Straight to the back of the plane. Row 64, Seat B. Smack in between a young woman who had just traveled south east Asia alone, and another woman who just finished her holiday with her husband in the islands of Thailand. For the next fifteen hours, little did I know, that I would view life in a completely destroyed different mannerisms and make two friends in the least of likely places.
It all started when I was trying to get to my “B” seat and the woman in the “C” seat was already sitting down in her seat in somewhat of a panic. She got up to let me into my seat, quickly asked if I could watch her stuff, and ran off trying to make a phone call on a phone that didn’t even have international service. Cue the next woman, an Iranian from Long Island, that was just about as much of a mess as I usually am when I travel, but way more extreme. Bags everywhere, things disheveled, and all too many lost items, in a bottomless seat-back pocket.
You see, the three of us were supposed to be on last nights flight that left Hong Kong at 1am, to arrive at New York’s Kennedy Airport at 6am, bright and early. But low and behold, we all had delayed connecting flights, and ended up on the 935 out of Hong Kong, sitting all next to each. Three New Yorkers, one row. Sounds a bit like a name of a budget indie film, I know.
But moments later the Iranian girl Debbie and I made acquaintances, when she couldn’t find her iPhone charger and I lent her mine, to charge her already dead phone. You see, the three of us were all in the same boat, and perhaps it was destiny that we would meet on this gruesomely long flight in which we were all forced to endure the tribulations of economy class, together. After spending the night in the airport myself, because of the lack of hotels in the vicinity of the Hong Kong International Airport (what is that about by the way?), I too was a lucky disheveled mess to have made this flight on my staff standby ticket.
I had been trying to fly standby out of Ho Chi Minh City for nearly two days, playing the horrid nonrev game, which if you are a flight attendant you know how bad this could get, and I myself hadn’t slept in days which put me in the same situation as everyone else. Tired, hungry, and messed up with stomach issues from eating the South East Asian food, Debbie and I chatted about our travels and what we had seen.
And it was to my surprise that Debbie had also visited Cambodia, however in a very different manner and approach then I had. I remember a while back when I was researching entering into Cambodia, I glimpsed upon some tales of other backpackers strongly urging not to cross the Thailand- Cambodia border because of shady business and unsafe measures. Apparently whatever I had read online was far from the truth, and apparently it is much worse then it’s made to seem.
Debbie retold her adventures of how she hired a driver in Thailand to take her to the border crossing, where she was met by one man in a room who basically just made up a price for her entrance, leaving her no choice but to pay the price or go back. From there she ditched her driver, waiting for her to return, and hired a new one to take her to the Angkor Wat complex, which was also some shady business that the immigration “officer” arranged for her. She recalled passing countless people just siting in the street, filthy, malnourished, and emaciated children, where only bones and flesh could be seen on their bodies.
The people wore clothes that were dirty beyond belief, packed on with mud, as if they had been rolling around in it. The children just laid in the road, hopeless of any form of savior; poor, hungry, and dirty. The scene she painted was not a glamorous one in any means, and she explained to met how every moment she spent outside of the car of the car, whether dealing with the immigration officer or getting her driver was scary, as if her life was in dangers, and anyone could murder her at any given moment. The story she told are all so similar to what I have read on the Internet before, strongly advising travelers to enter the country through an international airport, with less shady immigration officials and practices.
Suddenly it dawned on me; the picture that she painted of Cambodia was all too different then what I had experienced, because she had seen the real thing. Siem Reap, the second biggest city in Cambodia after the capital city Phenom Phenh, seemed like a pretty legit city with restaurants, hotels, indoor plumbing, and even a street with a market, pubs, and restaurants. But this wasn’t the real Cambodia. Not the true way in which Cambodians really live. Because you see, as tourists, the government doesn’t want us to see the real Cambodia. It tries so hard to hide the real struggles of their country to encourage tourism, which in turn generates money.
It’s hard to believe that even when I did a cooking class outside of the city, and visited some local families that I too fell for some allure that the people were better off then they really are, (which wasn’t that much better to be honest; the people were still living in huts without bathrooms, plumbing, electric, or kitchens).
It was in that moment that I was jealous of Debbie that got to witness the reality of a country instead of touristic marketing a country tries to sell. But she assured me, that her experiences were nothing to be jealous of, as it left a lasting mark on her. She told me one final story about how when she tried to exit the border this time from Cambodia back to Thailand, that immigration officer basically laughed at her in the face, and said if you want to get back to Thailand give me all of your money. And in that moment, desperate for escape, Debbie surrendered whatever money she had had on her to seek safety and freedom just meters away.
Sounds a bit like that low budget indie film I was talking about, but this was a series of true events that if you ever so happen to enter Cambodia via the Thailand border, are some adventures you will face. And suddenly as I sat in the middle seat in economy heading back to New York, after having to cut my holiday short, is it really seeing the world if we fly in first or business class to these third world countries, and then stay inside four or five star resorts once we get there?
It took sitting in that middle seat in economy for fifteen hours, having the time of my life, chatting with my new found friends and watching movies, that I really began to think about all of this. And that is why i admire backpackers, who want to dig deep into the culture, and really see the country for what it has to offer, staying in hostels, traveling alone, and using their resources to get around on a budget. I mean, think about it, if you fly to Dominican Republic, just go to the beach and never leave the resort the whole time you were there, did you really get to see DR? Did you get to have the crazy dangerous experiences like I had taking busses with my crew sitting next to boys with guns?
You see, the world demands to be noticed and not in the way many of us want to notice it. Because even though I do believe that there is so much beauty in the world, there is also hardship, poverty, and starvation. And sometimes it takes a humbling situation to allow your realize, just how much you have and how good your life is.
Until next time, XOXO.