Part Nine: Travelers and Conquerors
Our flight leaves at 7:50. When it is time to board, we walk out across the tarmac toward the jet. I remember the creaky old Soviet-made turboprop that had flown me out of Cambodia many years before. Now, we climb aboard a brightly-painted, factory new Bangkok Airways 717. Before the plane is even off the ground, the flight attendents bring small puzzles for Anna and Sean. For the first time, Sean is awake when we take off. It's dark now, and as the plane lifts off, the four of us stare out the window, watching the lights of Phnom Penh disappear.
In about an hour we land at Bangkok, then wait for our next flight. Both children sleep for a while, but about an hour before our flight leaves, Sean wakes up, feverish, and begins to cry. He cries for a long, long time, but when we finally board the flight at 2:15 AM, he falls asleep quickly, and sleeps through almost the entire flight to Tokyo.
We have about two hours before our plane leaves, and during that time I realize that I am at the center of a new empire: Japan, home of Pikachu and Hello Kitty. Round-faced kittens and Pokemon will conquer the entire world, and they will rule until they are dethroned by some other lovable entity that will capture the hearts of children everywhere. In Robert Stone's novel A Flag for Sunrise, a drunken anthropologist delivers his verdict on the power of popular culture: "Mickey Mouse," he says, "will see you dead." Maybe it will be a mouse. Maybe it will be a frog. Maybe it will be a fluffy robot. It could be anything. In an odd way, it gives me hope. Marx and Engels may have altered history, but Homer Simpson and Scooby Doo have seen them dead.
We buy Cokes, we nibble on bread, we pantomime reassurance to an elderly Indian woman who doesn't know whether or not she is at the right gate. Anna colors in her new coloring book, and Sean plays with a toy jet.
And then, suddenly, it's time for us to board the flight. We're already exhausted, and Sean is still running a fever.
I can assure you that you do NOT want to take a feverish, exhausted two-year-old on a trans-Pacific flight, and the less said about it, the better.
It is 8AM when we arrive in Chicago. We look like zombies. Narath is waiting for us as soon as we clear customs. We exchange greetings and pile the luggage into his van. It's shockingly cold, but to me it feels wonderful. I'm home.
I've noticed one odd thing during the years that I have traveled: when I return from a long trip, I almost always have very odd dreams. This time, shortly after we returned, I dreamed that I was watching "The Andy Griffith Show," and the story involved someone who had ridden into Mayberry on a brand new, year 2000 model Japanese superbike. And at the end of the show, while the theme song played, the credits scrolled across the screen, written in Thai letters.
Perhaps there is some deep lesson in that dream. Or perhaps there isn't. Perhaps there is some deep lesson in traveling. Or perhaps there isn't. There are many different reasons to travel. You can see incredible places and astonishing monuments. You can win bragging rights, by being able to say, "Oh, of course, I've been there." Or you can travel to see the world beyond your own horizons. Maybe you can learn to see things as they are. Maybe you can learn to see a small package of tissues and know that it is precious beyond words. Maybe you will learn to imagine a world where it is only natural that Pikachu should reign, and that Sheriff Andy Taylor should speak Thai. Or maybe one day you will just peer out through a balcony railing, and suddenly you will exclaim, "I see Cambodia!"
And it will be true, and it will make perfect sense.
I'd like to take a moment to thank all of the people who helped us make this trip, and the people who donated clothing and gifts for us to take to Cambodia, and the people who were kind enough to feign interest when we returned: Lung, Buthea, Theary, Sela, Prak Sunnary, Narath Tan, Dara Long, my Mom, my sisters Maureen and Michele, Sheryl Winters, Carol Southern, Debby Coffman ("Debby, this skirt fits me. Can I keep it?"), Denise Witczak, Sue Ziegler, Chorvy Tep, Malis Yang, Pou Phon, Soyan Saom, Soyean Saom, Dena Tes, Nimol Tith, Lavet Buth, Savan Chuon, Puon Va, Puon Haing, Chivith Huoy, Chenda Prak, Sue Moongthaveephongsa, Perry Colburn, Tim Melcher, Terry Lutrick, Dave Sugasa, Anne Christensen, and Cassi Ortiz.
This article contains nine parts:
Part 1: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
Part 2: "I See Cambodia!"
Part 3: To Kompong Som and Back
Part 4: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom
Part 5: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets
Part 6: Two Parties
Part 7: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."
Part 8: Goodbyes
· Part 9: Travelers and Conquerors·