Getting here was pretty rough.
We arrived last night around midnight, which back in the USA’s Central Time Zone was noon, 12 hours behind Cambodia. There was a point along the way where my morale began to drop, somewhere after 30-some hours of flying and airport sitting, 4 airplane meals and 2 hours of sleep in the last 48. After our third and final flight into Phnom Penh, we were picked up by tuk-tuk and zoomed through the streets of Phnom Penh to our hotel. It was a strange moment in my life. I was dazed from the flight and lack of sleep, the rundown streets were eerily deserted, and garbage littered the sidewalks and piled up against curbs. I had heard words like “homesickness” and “culture shock” before I left, but I didn’t think they would actually happen to me.
For a day.
When I woke up this morning at 5 a.m. and lay in bed, staring out the window, I wondered what I had gotten my brother and myself into. I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. I also couldn’t get the “free Wi-Fi” to work in our hotel room, which I had been hoping to use to contact my family and the Boyfriend to tell them I had arrived safely.
(There is a good ending to this, I promise.)
After we showered and went down to the lobby, things perked up dramatically. First of all, we ate, which hadn’t happened for what seemed like days, and plus it was something other than a packaged airline meal. Second of all, it turns out the router on our hotel floor is broken, but we can actually access internet very well from the lobby, so I got to send those “I’m here!” emails to my boyfriend and parents. Third, we began to meet people from our program as they wandered into the lobby area. Twenty-one of us from all over the US, Canada and the UK are here in Phnom Penh for our training course. Everyone was friendly and interesting. To be honest, I think that made the biggest difference. Culture shock is “shocking” largely due to a feeling of intense loneliness. At least that’s my interpretation. Meeting other friendly people who are also interested in traveling, volunteering, teaching, and working with kids changed my attitude dramatically.
Fourth, after breakfast a few of us were again escorted by tuk-tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. It was a heavy experience, walking around the memorial site of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of approximately 25% of their own Cambodian people. But I learned a lot about Cambodia’s history in that short hour and a half, the rainy weather felt refreshing after several days of travel, and the fellow rider in our tuk-tuk, a recent college graduate by the name of Harris, was good company. I also got to finally see Phnom Penh during the day rather than after hours at night while exhausted and shortly off the plane. So that was positive. The hustle and bustle of the city streets and craziness of the traffic was cheering and interesting, much more so than last night’s eerie ride from the airport. In the afternoon, we visited temples, palaces, and the markets that make Southeast Asia so appealing to travelers.
I’m getting the feeling that Cambodia is a pretty unique place. But over the course of our first day here, the culture shock — or just shock, whatever you want to call it — has mostly worn off and the excitement that I felt before has set back in.