The first time

It’s been almost ten years now, the memories are blurry. But that feeling won’t let itself be forgotten. 

Maybe not all of us have been through this particular roller-coaster of emotions, so imagine : in the morning, you pack your bags. Two backpacks, a big and a small one, with all the essentials to get by for six months in a foreign country. Six months. No big deal. Your parents drive you to the airport, where your whole family is assembled to say goodbye. Because you’re leaving for Asia, for a six-month internship in an NGO. You’re twenty-two years old, fresh off an Erasmus in Spain, in the middle of your Master’s degree. This is not an academically-approved internship. Nobody seems to care, least of all you. 

You hug and kiss everyone goodbye at the gate. Sister and brother-in-law, dad, mom. You hug your grandma a little longer. You don’t know this yet, but saying goodbye to these people will never get easier. Every time you do it, it gets a little bit harder. Eventually, you won’t want to leave anymore. But it’s only the second time in your life you’re doing this, and you can’t wait to get out of here. Spread your broken wings and learn to fly.

If I remember correctly, the layover is in Mumbai. You only have dollars on you and everything is in rupees. You take out a new notebook, a beautifully ornate one. You already had a thing for notebooks. You write some heartfelt drivel inside it about goodbyes and adventure. I know now: you weren’t scared enough. You had no way to prepare, to know what was to come, but that much is clear to me now : a twenty-two year old should have been much more afraid to move to the other side of the world, where they didn’t know anyone and the imposing shadow of their older sibling would follow them everywhere.

Anyway. Plane rides are plane rides. You hate flying, but you enjoy the opportunity to watch blockbusters. Another layover in Bangkok. You know that airport by heart now, isn’t it funny? You thought nothing of it back then.

The plane ride to Phnom Penh is still, to this day, the worst, scariest plane ride of your life. But at this point, you’ve been awake for over twenty hours, who cares if you crash? Not you. The plane sinks into an air pocket, you screw your eyes shut. When you open them and glance outside the window, there it is. The outskirts of the capital during the rainy season : lakes of brown and green, flooded rice fields and dirt roads, tiny tin houses. An ugly mess. It doesn’t look at all like the postcards and the pictures in the Lonely Planet. 

You’re disappointed, a little bit. You know nothing.

Defying all expectations, the plane lands safely in Pochentong airport. Well, this is it. No going back now. 

The air, outside on the tarmac. The air is hot and liquid, moving around you, dragging against your skin, permeating your hair with the smell of dust, of sun, of sticky rice and rotting waste and gasoline. You’ve been outside for fifteen seconds and you’re sweating in your striped red and white t-shirt. Welcome to the rest of your life. 

An enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver takes you on, yes yes, he knows the guesthouse you’re telling him to go to, yes. Okay Guesthouse, sure, but listen, there’s another guesthouse, right next to it, cheaper, much better. He’ll take you there, okay? You should be arguing with the enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver, but you’re a twenty-two year old baby alone in a foreign country and you’ve been awake for close to thirty hours and it’s the middle of a hot, humid August afternoon. You’ve survived a very eventful plane ride: you just want a bed. The tuk-tuk driver kicks his moto to life. You go along, clutching your bag to your chest. 

This is the very first time you get to experience this : the busy streets of Phnom Penh after it rained, in the middle of the afternoon. The chaos of traffic, minivans, motodops and bicycles, street vendors, beggars, temples and boulevards, squares, parks, the Royal Palace and the riverside. Trash, plastic bags littering every corner of the city, the heat over rapidly fading puddles, potholes, strident music and kids playing on narrow sidewalks. 

Chaos. An absolute nightmare. A total mess. So much unbridled life. You’re exhausted and your eyes are drinking in as much as they can and your heart is fit to burst. You know, right then and there. This wasn’t a mistake. This place is made for you, or you are made for it, or you were both made for each other. It doesn’t really matter, the only thing that matters is this : you were looking for a place to call home for a while, a place where your soul vibrates, where you belong. A mess for a mess. And you know this will be hard, of course it will. But you’ve found it. This is where you get to grow.