Aftershocks

Posted on March 12, 2011

After ten hours convincing myself that the turbulence over the Pacific Ocean in route on Bangkok did not portend a Lost like scenario in my future I drifted off into REM sleep.  Whether my incessant twitching was a result of my flight fear neurosis manifesting itself even in the unconscious state or my body’s way of protesting earlier cups of coffee was never resolved.  I was dragged out of what was shaping up to be a rather pleasant dream by a frantic commotion.  In my befuddled state with one eye cracked open (the other was stubbornly refusing to leave said pleasant dream behind) I tried to puzzle out why the Pacific Ocean suddenly looked suspiciously like a large metropolitan city.  One that seemed to be getting closer.  The plane banked sharply to the left and my closed right eye snapped open.  Turning away from the window, the last of my sleep was chased away by the site of the man across the aisle, slate grey, shallow breathing and hand to his chest.  Three people, one of whom who clearly possessed some medical training, were measuring his pulse and hanging an IV off of the baggage compartment.

“Ladies and Gentlemen.  We are making an emergency descent in Tokyo Airport due to a medical emergency.”

The mood on the plane was somber as the plane began its descent.  Time was clearly of the essence so when we suddenly banked away again and aborted our descent, confusion and a wee bit of concern began to crack through.

“Ladies and Gentlemen.  We have been diverted to another airport for our emergency landing.”

Why we were being diverted was unknown to those of us on Flight 932 on Friday as we headed unexpectedly towards Japan.  The pilots wasted little time bringing the aircraft down.  My adrenaline was slow to follow.  We landed and within minutes they were packing the man and his distraught wife off of the plane.  In this digital age, it didn’t take long for the news that Japan had been devastated by the 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami to sweep the plane.  The somber mood intensified.  All I could think about was that poor man from our flight.  Of all the places to have a heart attack, 36,000 feet in the air can’t be the 1st choice.  Follow it up with landing in a country currently in the throes of one the worse disasters on record and that makes for some pretty unlucky karma.

It certainly put things in perspective for the rest of us as we sat for hours on our plane at the closed airport we had been able to land at waiting for the aftershocks to subside.

Death has been my dance partner these last few days.   I have been both excited and anxious over my return to Cambodian.  Seven months ago while in Siem Reap, I lost my beloved 5 year old Sum Namg to a massive seizure and can still feel the aftershocks his death brings.  The inspiration for the Safe Haven School, Sum Namg’s legacy will live on through the project, but his loss continues to rattle me when I least expect it.

Yesterday before leaving for Cambodia I had updated my will at the gentle persistence of my mother.  Basically updating a will helps to make sure your affairs are neatly in order and highlights how much junk you have that nobody in your close family will probably care about.  I mean, I don’t think anyone is going to get into a smack down over who gets my acrylic pepper mill and scotch decanter.  Okay, maybe my brother Tom will get a little demanding over the  decanter, but nonetheless, it’s brought to my attention its probably time to have a yard sale and let some of this accumulation become someone else’s beloved heirloom.

I also received word prior to leaving that Nghan, the boy from the Stung Meanchy garbage dump in my documentary Small Voices, who would bury the dead babies he found, was in the middle of a family crisis.  His brother had been shot in the back by a gang member in Stung Meanchy.  I am rattled again.  The aftershocks continue.  Luckily, he survived but the wound is serious, traveling through his body and shattering ribs.   His parents make less than $5 a day which doesn’t exactly bode well for long term treatments.  All I can think about is how unsanitary it is at the garbage dump and this boy with his gun shot wound recovering there.  It seems like a pitiful offering, but I loaded up on clean gauze, betadine and had an absurd conservation with my assistant over whether extra strength Tylenol or Advil would be better for gun shot wounds.  We went with the Tylenol.

My suitcase was also packed to the brim with “medicines” for my friend Kanha’s elderly parents who are in poor health.  She had written an email requested my assistance in bringing these much needed medicines her parents could no afford.  She even took pictures of the bottles to show me what she needed.  The pictures turned out to be vitamins and supplements.  Fish Oil and a lot of Women’s One A Day.

The things we take for granted.

Eventually, despite the aftershocks in Japan, our plane is allowed to take off and in short order I arrive in Bangkok.  As I prepare to disembark, my mind is racing ahead with details on trying to get a reschedule flight to Cambodia, dealing with where my luggage may be, contacting my hotel in Cambodia that was suppose to pick me up and of course, wondering how on earth to contact my families in Stung Meanchy who were expecting me for a visit that day.  I can’t just call them up.  There digital age only dumps its relics there in pieces for them to recycle.

For my other immediate problems, it appeared my worries were unfounded.  Thai Air set about  proving with a purpose why they are my favorite airline.   As I left the plane, a woman was waiting with a sign with my name on it.  She whisked me away on a little golf cart and escorted me personally through security and customs without any waiting and brought me to the ticket counter where they had an agent book me on the next flight to Cambodia.  Since I was now going to be stuck at the Bangkok Airport most of the day waiting for said flight, in short order they had called my Cambodia hotel to let them know and checked me into an executive hotel room inside the airport so I could sleep, have a hot shower and relax.  I was looking around the room in amazement when there was a knock and a server standing there will a piping hot breakfast and coffee.  Bless you, Thai.  Can you start flying domestically in the USA?  I am fairly certain if I had missed a connection under these circumstances in the States I would have been handed a $15 coupon and pointed towards to nearest Starbucks.

Finally, Cambodia.  Evening is rapidly approaching though the stifling heat has not bated when my plane finally touches down in my adopted second home.  I know I have arrived by my sudden inability to breath properly and I suck on my inhalers.  A lung infection I got in Cambodia a few years ago has left me with asthma which really rears its annoying head in the polluted Phnom Penh.  In short order I am hurtling in the chaos of Phnom Penh traffic towards my hotel.  I am watching the clock anxiously because I only have until 5pm to get to Aziza’s Place if I am to see 7 year old Lina, my little artful dodger street beggar today.  The landscape of my life has been in an upheaval the past 30 plus hours and I want to be able to end it on a calmer note.

I tear my way into the hotel, toss my luggage in the room and hustle out of the room.  Vantha, my trusted Tuk Tuk driver, alerted to my arrival, is already waiting outside.  I hop in his Tuk Tuk and we dash towards Aziza’s.  Thankfully, Vantha is driving a friend’s Tuk Tuk which means it isn’t leaking gasoline from a bungee cord strapped plastic makeshift gas tank and breaking down every few feet like his own Tuk Tuk is apt to do.

I get to Aziza’s and hop out.  The staff is pleased that I managed to make it but Lina is not in sight.  She is off down the street at the public school with friends.  I decided to walk up the street to try and intercept her.  It doesn’t take long.  She spots me and tears down the street like a little tornado screaming “Mak Tor!” at the top of her lungs.  She jumps into my arms and nearly bowls me over in the process.

“Mak Tor! You are BACK!” Lina exclaims and giving me a kiss, she throws her arms around my neck and smiles her beautiful smile.

The aftershocks subside.

  • Elizabeth

    Heather,
    You are such an amazing writer and only you have adventures like this. Sending you much love and light, and hugs.

    Soak all that love up while you’re there, knowing that you will give it back three thousand fold for those little kids that need you ohh so much!

    YOU ARE STILL THE MOST AMAZING PERSON I KNOW!
    <3