Holiday in Cambodia

posted by Satyam Kaswala

Cambodia first roared into my life when I was 11-years-old and relishing in the simple and dangerous amusement park pleasures of sitting on an oversized desk chair that leaned back over halfway to the floor. “Holiday In Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys rattled my cheap Sony speakers almost as violently as it rattled by skull. The punk classic overflowed with debauched fury, from the unspeakably menacing bass intro to the dueling guitars, which drunkenly chugged under lead singer Jello Biafra’s biting and spastic vocal delivery. That this strange country so beautifully named, evoking such idyllic pleasures through the sound its syllables alone could inspire such aggressive ferocity perplexed my young mind. Wasn’t the song about a holiday? Why did it sound so angry? I had a hunch it was vaguely political, but at that age I did not understand why. Even then I often lived my life vicariously through music, and so through the contradiction I could not decide whether or not it was a happy place. I was enamored. It was a song by Western folks whose heart was with the East, much like myself.

A decade later, I board a mammoth Boeing 747 plane on my way to Cambodia and still am uncertain about how to approach the country. I collapse onto the chair, stretching my left leg out onto the aisle side as if to claim my own territory above land. This chair is no amusement park. A man sitting a few rows behind me speaks to his family on his cell phone as passengers march to their seats, dragging their carry-ons behind them as if the bags are leashed dogs hesitant to follow their owners to a vet’s office doors.

“Be careful?” he replies, repeating the voice on the other end. “Whatchya mean ‘be careful?’ I’m fixin’ to be sittin’ on a chair for 13 hours! Ya’ll on the outside need to be careful. I’m on a plane!”

A passenger flopped down next to him lets out a howling guffaw.

“Wooooooohahahahaha!”

The man hangs up and begins to chortle with equal gusto, as if trying to one-up the passenger.

“Yeeewho-who-hah-hah-hah!”

Challenged, the passenger doesn’t let up. For a moment, his voice crackles into previously untapped octaves.

“HahaheeEEEEEEeeee-heh!”

The scene is so infectious that I participate myself. The aftershock chuckles return to me every 10 minutes for the first hour of that trip, though by the end I no longer know why I am laughing. I lighten up. I should approach Cambodia as a happy place. The syllables of the laughter vibrate with such bliss. A happy place, despite the fact that its all too recent past is one of systematic brutality and mass suffering, two million people mercilessly slaughtered in the same time-span as an American president’s single term.

This is the first international flight I’ve taken since 1992, at which time my family visited our relatives in India. My family now lives in Newnan, Georgia.

“Where did you say you were from?” the passenger asks the man.

“Oh I’m from Newnan,” the man responds.

Yes, some strange sense of closure, a happy place.

The plane began to hurtle into the Georgia sky, and though I was leaving home, in some sense I was returning to it by journeying to the East.

The plane settled into its solemn pace in the air, and the yellow seat-belt light above flicked off. Endless rows of small LCD screens planted onto the backs of each chair’s headrest. For at least half the journey, I stared intensely at the one in front of me, which had a live GPS that tracked the plane’s locations and showed the geography of the land under it. I watched as a dime-sized plane icon leaped across entire cities, states, countries, and continents. I was in disbelief. I was in a dream. Here I was boxed in a machine, hovering through the icy hinterlands of Canada, then the vast expanses of Russia, and then the plains of mainland China. I had never been to Russia or China. This was my first time. Or was I even there? The sky had no borders, yet the screen seemed to go out of its way to name every patch of land the plane traversed. It almost felt as if I was disrespecting the lands, its people and its ideas that the plane trudged through so thoughtlessly. This time the beauty of the syllables of their names was not reassuring. They made me uneasy. The geography of the land the screen told me I was in- alternatively flat plains and clashing mountains, rising and tumbling seas- now suggested only the peaks and valleys of ferocious sound within the song that introduced me to Cambodia. All I could think of was its ugliness.

A voice with broken English came on the intercom.

“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. Please fasten your seatbelts. We are experiencing turbulence.”

Like a decade before, the turbulence again rattled my skull, and in the process my mindset. Perhaps I should approach Cambodia as a sad and turbulent place, despite the globally recognized resilience, kindness and humor of the Khmer people. I should never be ignorant of suffering. A sad place, despite the vibrant, day-to-day spirituality and uncluttered lifestyles and joyfully insouciant pace of life Cambodians have that the West cannot claim for itself.

The plane stooped into the Incheon International Airport in South Korea for the connecting flight. I ambled around the glossy airport until the final plane to Cambodia arrived. On the five-hour home stretch, I pondered about the absurdity of approaching any place with a preconceived notion about what it was like. But the air pressure pumped in my head, and I could hardly think straight. I thought about the final line of the song.

“A holiday in Cambodia, where the slum’s got so much soul.”

Happy or sad, ravaged or renewed, it mattered less and less as I got closer. I would approach the country as the country first approached me. Head-on and unassuming. After all, I hadn’t even stepped foot there. The plan landed on the Cambodian soil. Unlike the other lands I sped through on the way here, I hadn’t neglected it yet. That was enough.

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