Thursday, November 5, 2015

South to South Volunteering: departures and arrivals

Life takes another turn. This time, a thousand miles away from home.

They call it Angkor Wat without the crowd--Banteay Chhmar temple in Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia.

My international volunteering journey kick-started inside a coffee shop in seaside Dumaguete City in Southern Philippines where one afternoon amid the roaring sounds of cars and motorcycles I clicked the send button of my application. In the weeks that followed, I had my first interview--first in a series of phone/Skype interviews. If everything went smoothly as planned, in just a matter of three weeks, I should be somewhere in Indochina lugging around my big backpack.

Once I got the notice that I was accepted, a series of send-off/get-together with my boss, students, colleagues, friends and family were in order. It was fun. I had a drink too many for the first time in a long time! Fun indeed. Though at some point it felt like an elegy. I, for one, avoid drama like the plague!

After a battery of medical laboratory tests in my home city followed by vaccinations (one in Cebu due to unavailability of the vaccine), series of orientations and then the face-to-face Skills in Development Training, medical briefing and pre-departure briefing in Manila, I was all set to fly to Cambodia!

That humid evening middle of June found me in NAIA.

NAIA Terminal 1 was a pleasant surprise! After getting the flak for several years as the World's Worst Airport, it has redeemed itself (though the laglag-bala is pulling it down this time). The high ceiling, mood lighting, polished marble floors in the departure hall, sleek check-in counters and carpeted floor from the immigration counters until the pre-departure areas--it has all the feel of a first-rate boutique hotel. Changi Airport, even.

The check-in staff at Malaysia Airlines asked for my return ticket. I then explained to her the arrangement for international volunteers then showed her my folder containing documents from different government agencies in the Philippines and Cambodia plus the documents from the NGO I work for. She then asked me to pay for the departure tax across her counter. When I came back, in a jiffy, she handed me my boarding passes (one for the Manila-Kuala Lumpur leg and another for KL to Phnom Penh) and tagged my luggage as check-through. I was secretly wishing for an upgrade. No luck this time, though.

It was seamless at the immigration counter. The young immigration officer just asked about the length of my stay in Cambodia and when she saw my Japan Visa, she asked me about my stay in Japan and that was it.

Many in the flight appeared to be kababayan Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). Probably working as household staff in Malaysia for the first time. I could make out sobbing sounds in front and at the back of my row. Many of them with swollen eyes. Some were trying to say their cracking goodbyes as the plane taxied the runway. It was heartbreaking. Then, as if on cue, entered the irritated flight attendant marching in the aisle to remind everyone to switch off their phones.

As the plane took off, classical music was piped-in inside the cabin, which, in a way helped ease out my nerve for flying with the airline which just months ago had a series of air mishaps. The flight attendants soon handed out dinners and choices of orange juice, tea, water or red wine! Of course, I picked red wine. Red wine at cattle class was unheard of before!  

The plane landed in Kuala Lumpur in the small hours. I spent my 6-hour layover time sleeping in one of the benches and by sunrise I got some coffee and sandwich while waiting for the boarding gate to open.

By 8am, I was up in the air again. An hour later, I could see endless fields of green with snaking rivers around them. And before I knew it, I was already inside Phnom Penh International Airport arrival hall. The visa officer that morning seemed grumpy. After I got my visa, I proceeded to the immigration counter where the smiling immigration officer stamped my passport and greeted me welcome to Cambodia!

(next post: In-Country Orientation, Language Training and meeting an interesting group of Pinoys in Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

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