I left Bangkok at 5 a.m. Saying goodbye to my love and best friend was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but I kept my shit relatively together. This was it. The day I suspected would come eventually but could never envision for myself. I knew it would take something big to heist me out of Southeast Asia. And something big it definitely is. I left my African crew at the terminal and walked to my gate alone. I could still see them through the thick glass that parted us as I made my way to customs. I waved goodbye, blew a few air kisses and walked on until I could no longer see them. Customs stamped me out and I shuffled through the corridor to my gate in a daze. At 5 a.m. Suvarnabhumi is a ghost town which is about as surreal as it can get in this megatropolis. I can still remember the day I arrived – the first breath of thick humid air I took when my feet landed on Thai soil for the first time. The adventure was just beginning then. So much excitement and possibility – a giant blank canvas. And now, years later, my exit.
I arrived in Tokyo six hours later and barely had time to pee before boarding the next flight. No time to even think about where I was. I arrived in Portland at 8.30 a.m. and cleared immigration with no hassles. It sort of went like this:
Immigration Official: Where are you coming from? How long have you been there and what were you doing?
Me: I am coming from Bangkok. I was in Thailand for three years working in human trafficking prevention on the northern Thai-Burma border.
Immigration Official: Thank you ma’am for your service abroad. Welcome home!
Just like that. I’m back. Two flights, 14 hours, crossing back across the International Date Line and I’m in a completely different world. The joys of jet-setting.
The first thing I noticed were the signs around me – all in English. The airport corridors were rundown and quiet. Everyone meandered quietly through immigration, then customs, then security, then baggage claim. I noticed the diversity – seeing black men in positions of authority was refreshing! There were no friends or family members there to greet me. No grand entrance. No welcome back celebration. Just me and three years of a life abroad shoved into two suitcases. This is how it goes typically – I leave alone and I return alone – and the bittersweet part is the journey is all my own. How badly I wish to share the actual experiences with my loved ones. To transport them to a land 8,000 miles away and let them soak it in. Such is the life of a solo adventurer – some will get it; many others will not, and for better or worse, I will continue to exist in two places at once – one foot in the west and the other in the east. Just where will the two collide, I often ask myself. I proceeded to get my luggage and exit to the car rental. I was amazed by the customer service and easy-going nature of everyone around me not to mention wide-spoken English. Gone were the Thai smiles, meandering motorbikes and Southeast Asian humidity. I noticed the air – so crisp, cool and clean. Breathing it in felt like heaven. Welcome to the State of Oregon. Getting in the car on the wrong side of the vehicle I wondered if I could remember how to drive here – which side of the road and all the traffic rules – none of which were entirely observed in Thailand. I had grown quite accustom to the non-obiglitory nature of traffic signals. Don’t think that’s gonna fly here. The car had a lot of bells and whistles – something absent from the dozens of motorbikes I’d been driving for nearly three years. It’s like riding a bike I reminded myself.
I hit the I-205 South and navigated my way to an old friend’s house. I felt jet-lagged and exhausted – a thinly veiled version of myself. The streets of Portland are clean and well organized and shockingly quiet. Everything. Is. So. Quiet. Gone are the street dogs, singsongy ice cream carts, street stalls selling dried fish, fruit and unidentifiable meats on stick. Gone are the Asian faces, foreign languages and brightly coloured taxis. Gone is the street life, population density and Bangkok scents. This is all going to take some major readjustment. And in a way it’s not entirely foreign to me. Returning to my roots always feels strange after some time abroad. I am indeed a stranger in a strange, strange land. Pra poot ta jow chuay duay tookwan na ka!