It has been a week since I left my government selected quarantine hotel and landed in my own apartment. I am well located in the heart of the city, surrounded by busy roads, temples and markets. A week here would normally mean I have hit the streets to explore my neighbourhood, however, being in self-isolation means I have not done any of the regular on arrival activities and have been virtually alone. I say virtually because while I have interacted with a few delivery people and spoken via video call or text with friends back home, I am on my own and alone. There are those who say it is liberating, having no one to answer to, but it also can make it feel disconnected, cut off.
I have experienced the privilege that allows me to safely quarantine. There are those here, and at home, that do not have the means to keep themselves or their families safe. At home, both income earners of my household were able to continue working and drawing paychecks from home. We were able to have groceries and sundries ordered, picked up or delivered. Our community allowed us space to safely walk and get outside exercise, our yard offered us outdoor space in which to play with our dog. While there were some adjustments, we were able to care for all our basic needs. At home, with Kevin and I both at home, life was modified but flowed naturally. I was still apart of the community and felt engaged with it, though at a distance.
The process I would have to go through on arrival here was known to me before I left, so I was able to plan a few things. I brought along a couple of small craft kits (diamond dots, paint by number and cross stitch), loaded the Kobo with books and loaded games to my laptop and tablet. I’ve even signed up for a MOC (massive online course) through the University of Alberta on Indigenous Canada. Here in Phnom Penh, I have less space so the element of exercise is more of a challenge but has been doable (I desperately need a yoga mat!). I am tending to my mental well-being by engaging in crafts, online courses, reading and video games.
What I have not been able to anticipate is feeling apart from everything. It is strange, and I really don’t mean home sick. I stand on my balcony and watch the city below me. People, mottos and tuk tuks going in every direction, occasional honks and sirens, the sound of call to prayers from the temple nearest me. I am only watching however, apart, not participating in the regular movement and energy of daily life in the city.
At first, it felt rather luxurious to be alone, no demands, no rush, no deadlines. Just the noise of my radio or TV show. Then there was the exhilaration of the feeling of “time to figure things out, get the lay of the land”. This exhilaration is normal when I travel, I’ve felt it every time I arrive in a new place. There is something special about the newness of it all that makes exploring the world my addiction of choice. This time, I had to extinguish the excitement, stuff it down and make promises to myself that soon I would be free to explore. Self-isolation no longer feels luxurious.
Google maps was able to tell me what I was looking at below, the name of the temple, the name of the market, nearby shops. Some texting with others in my same situation little messages about how to work the stove, where to take the garbage, how often the delivery people come to the wrong entrance. Video calls and emails are great, and I love every minute of them, but it is so very evident that either end of the call is a world away. Good morning here is good night there…simple but also clearly marks a separation between life in Red Deer and life in Phnom Penh. I have a bird’s eye view of life but am apart from it.
I have encountered hic ups, but each has been dealt with in time. My Korean TV box was eventually reset to English, I identified my frying pan as no good for induction (there are no symbols on anything), I know what to do with garbage (no compost or recycling at all), dealt with panic as the electricity randomly turns off for a few minutes and I will continue to edit the details for drivers about where the lobby to my building is (not a single one has arrived at the right place without at least a call or two). I’ve even identified the weird clunking noise that happens when it rains (it’s the building pumps).
None of these activities and challenges really allow me to feel like I am here, that I’ve arrived. I am held apart in self isolation watching the hustle and bustle of the city below. I’m not bored, but I desperately want to engage in life here. I want to smile at locals on the street, I want to decline, over and over again, tuk tuk drivers asking if I need a ride, I want to look at and smell the food before I order it and I want to hear the locals speak in Khmer. I don’t even know what is in my building! I can see a green space below me, have seen the pedways that allow you to cross the street, I was able to glance a peek at the mall. There is a pool in the complex, I’m certain not far but none of my little sorties to fetch deliveries in the lobby have given me any idea of where that might be. I want to melt in the hot humid air and get soaked having been caught in an afternoon shower, rather than stay hidden in my little climate-controlled apartment.
So, for a few more days, I will live apart from the world. I am not bored and this is not home sick, it is simply the strangest way to arrive in a new country that I have ever experienced. COVID has certainly made things different and I guess for now different means I sit here and type rather than put my shoes on and walk to the market or go for a swim in the pool (it’s a beautiful 33C feeling like 38C with the humidity, perfect pool day!)
I know the school has lots planned for the 17th when us newbies have to report to work, but at least for the next three days I must sit apart from life only watching. My first outing of course will be to take the last (hopefully) COVID test on the 13th, then with any luck I will be free to roam and engage in life here more fully. What will I do first? I’m not certain, any suggestions? For now, I live my life apart.