A life apart, two weeks of self-isolation

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.

My little galley kitchen. Counters are lower than at home and I have low water pressure but everything I need is here.
Main living space. Will probably look for a table cloth, some cushions and a few pieces of art for the walls to make it feel more like home.

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.

The entrance to Preah Puth Mean Bon Temple. View from my balcony and zoomed in a bit as I am on the 20th floor.
The green space that I can only admire for now.
Watching the streets from my balcony.

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.

The red marker is the Temple, to the right the yellow marker is my building. It is one of several in complex urban community called Olympia City. I can also see the roofs of the Orussey Market from my perch.
Thanks Google Maps for offering this image. I am in the red building, all the way at the top. This would be the view from the Temple entrance looking back and up at my place.
Thanks Google Maps for the image. This is the entrance to the Temple. I will learn more about the place when I am free to explore and will post more.

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.

Travel during COVID

I’ve traveled enough to know what normal looks like, even when it goes sideways.  Travel during COVID is a different beast altogether.  Rules are more stringent, more complicated and everyone is acting scared and overzealous.  Despite this I have arrived and am ready to get settled into my new home and while I have to wait it out 14 days, I am ready to get to know my neighbourhood and new friends.

So where to begin? I not intended to publish anything about my travel day, but since so many people asked about it, I’ve changed my mind.  To begin, in order to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia you need a visa.  As things stood when I applied you needed a letter of invitation, return express envelope, passport, $120CND processing fee, proof of $50 000USD health insurance that includes COVID coverage, a $3000USD deposit (to pay to COVID testing and government assigned quarantine) and a negative COVID test.  All of this was fairly straight forward except for the last, the COVID test…well that was another matter.

Once it became clear that CIS was unable to help get the visa (because of the changing rules) I sent in all the required documents to the Honorary Consulate in Toronto.  At that point I was asked to get a COVID test (test #1…keep count as my story unfolds).  Off I went, throat swab and I wait. Rule change…no longer need that test and the visa is on its way.  The rules changing is also a theme in this travel adventure.  I do still need a negative COVID test and the requirement is strict.  From the time of the test to my arrival time in Phnom Penh no more than 72 hours can pass.  You can well imagine that when the travel time is about 28 hours this doesn’t leave much time for the test and the results to get back to me.  You also need a letter from a doctor, signed, stamped (not in black, I know weird rule) so I also had to time a doctor’s appointment.

I booked a test, flight time changed, booked another test to ensure everything was lined up.  Packed my bags, printed documents, said all my see you soon’s and got ready to leave Canadian life behind.  A surge in COVID cases in Alberta meant that it was taking longer to get the results back and despite my many assurances from health link the local testing team would absolutely do nothing to expedite my test results.  I crossed my fingers and prayed that the results would be in when I arrived at my doctor’s office 17 hours before I had to leave Red Deer.  No luck, results were not back.  No way to help them along, no way to be certain they would be entered by the time the office closed.   Both Kevin and I went on a phoning spree, pharmacies, health link, ER you name it we called.  Over and over we explained why we needed the rush on the test, over and over we were told sorry, can’t help you.

I called a friend and asked for a professional favour, a rapid test and after-hours meeting.  This wonderful human obliged and at midnight (only 6 hours before I planned on leaving Red Deer) I had my COVID test documents.  Have you been counting? This rapid test was the fourth COVID test.  I went home to close my bags and check in electronically.  Having had an exhausting day chasing down the test I decided to upgrade the long flight, turns out this was a very good decision.

Arrival at the Calgary airport was uneventful and fairly normal as it was the full flight to Vancouver.  The only thing out of place was that all the attendants wore masks.  A late departure meant that I really had very little time in Vancouver.  Was just arriving at the gate when my zone was called so I just walked right on.  First time on the new 787 Dreamliner.  Beautiful plane.  The upgrade meant that I had a larger seat with more room between rows.  The breathing space on an 11-hour flight was a gift.  I also had the row to myself and no one behind me.  This makes it easier to move around, recline, shuffle items to and from my bag…generally everything.  Three meals, 4 films and a few games on my phone the time passed quick enough.  Service was a bit different.  No longer were there choices of meals and snacks, you were handed a bag on entry with sanitizer, masks, gloves, pretzels and water.  Meals were fully boxed, each item sealed and presented all together, not good if you are a picky eater.  All in all, this flight was delightful.

(The windows on the Dreamliner lightened and darkened at the push of a button. I may have played with them a bit)

Arrival in Seoul was smooth, as I exited the plane there was a service agent there with my name on a sign who escorted me through the health check, fill out a form please, temperature taken, then through security again and then through the airport to the transfer check in counter to get my boarding pass.  Feeling fairly good because everything was going so smoothly…I should have known better.  The agent at the desk begins to go over the documents, lab report – good, doctor note – good, insurance letter – good, $3000 deposit – what is this? Nope no good.  She asks for a credit card; she asks me to purchase a return to Seoul ticket; to both I declined.  My school had made arrangement to act as my guarantor and I didn’t need to pay a thing, just needed for this agent to understand. What’s App had all my school (CIS) contacts in it so I sit down and start texting.  The other CIS teachers flying with Korean Air had no problems and were sitting in the same airport at the same time enjoying Starbucks while I wait for the problem to get sorted out.  I get an image of a bank slip, still the agent will not accept it, more texts.  In the background I have two local ladies working their magic.  After I am sure a flurry of phone calls including the lady who owns Canadia Group and I finally have a boarding pass.

A nap in the boarding lounge was just enough to let me know just how long I had been traveling, 20 hours so far.  I was looking forward to sleeping on the next flight.  Boarding this last flight included another temperature check and visa check, again the row to myself and we’re off.  I slept for about 4 of the 5-hour flight, woken once by an attendant passing out forms, three to fill out before arrival.

Arrival in Phnom Penh!  Hourray!  Can’t read a thing, can’t understand anything so I march along following the rest of the passengers.  I see a sign with my schools’ logo on it and immediately feel a sense of relief.  They, a team of three meet me and help me with the various stations and processes.  First, health documents checked, then deposit slip from bank, then immigration (here they keep your passport until you get your hopefully negative COVID results), customs declaration, baggage claim and off to line up for a COVID test.  The school rep get me a SIM card, some USD cash and tell me how the next steps are to go.  As they were unable to follow me to quarantine, they head off having gotten me through the worst of the processing.

Every foreigner must have a COVID test before leaving the airport.  This was a bit surreal.  The old 50’s style metal office desks provide space for another form to be filled out and each of these stations is separated by old fashioned looking bamboo screens (probably quite modern but to my western eye it seemed like something kitsch).  Two people at the desk with the form and two workers taking samples at each of the nine or so health stations.  The people drawing the swabs were decked out in full gear.  Booties and gloves tapped over their outer scrubs, the inner suite pulled over their head and zipped to their chins.  Face masks, goggles and face shields completed their outfit.  Throat swab and two nasal swabs and I am headed out to the bus.  No signs, no one directing I’m just following the other travellers who seem to know more than me.

I find the bus for the foreigners, but have to abandon my trolley and deal with my two very near 50 lbs suitcases, carry on and hand bag on my own.  It wasn’t too far, maybe twenty feet, so I was good.  About thirty minutes ride and we arrive at the hotel.  The ride was uneventful as it was too dark to really see anything, though I smiled when we passed some night food stalls.  They look exactly like what I had seen on YouTube travel videos.

The two buses bound for quarantine were escorted by police and on our arrival we all poured out to the sidewalk, suitcases and all.  Again, no trolleys no helpers.  I gather my stuff and follow the herd.  Down what seemed to be an alley, clean but dark.  I can only make out the closest of details, wires strung from building to building and awnings jutting out. 

(photos of the road I took the next morning as I left. It was not an alley at all, just a regular neighbourhood road)

We are crammed into a little lobby, suitcases were sprayed (so were you if you were near the bags) given another form to fill out and begin to check in.  I get to the counter and hand my paper to the clerk and am told no single rooms, go back and wait.  I was tired so this bothered me more than it should have.  A gentleman about my age offered to share a room so we hand the clerk our papers together, the clerk takes one look at the papers, looks at us and says no, not woman and man together.  Apparently, this was outside the bounds of decency.  So, I wait.  The man I tried to room with calls over a few minutes later and points out a young girl just entering.  I talk with her and we decide to try rooming together.  My first friend a young lady from California.

We head up to our room and after unpacking, showers and getting electronics hooked up we fell asleep.  Awake very early because of the time change we headed off to breakfast.  I had assumed that food would be delivered during this quarantine time but no we all headed to the 14th floor for the buffet. Rice porridge (bor bor) was the new item for me.  Runnier than a typical oatmeal and savory in flavour from the chicken and vegetables in it (topped with fresh black pepper, fresh lime and green onions of course).  Yummy and hot so it really hit the spot.  We spent the day watching TV, talking and taking a nap.

(Hotel lobby was decked out in beautiful wood carving everywhere, two shrines, pillows…Bor bor for breakfast and papaya salad at lunch. The salad I had heard about and was looking forward to it. My roommate assured me this version of the salad was lacking so I didn’t feel too bad about not really liking it)

About 11pm the hotel calls and lets us know we are clear and can leave.  This means that all the foreigners on our plane tested negative and we were allowed to head to our own residences.  My roommate left by tuk tuk right away and I waited for the morning to have the school representative come get me. She and the driver help me with my bags and we are off to my apartment.  I still have to stay put and inside for the next 12 days but at least I can unpack and get used to my new home.

So, that is how far I have gotten.  I have managed to get the right apps going for ordering food and groceries.  My Internet is working on all my devices and I have mostly found a good home for all my stuff.  Since I can’t go shopping for the few things l’d like in my apartment, I am making lists, yes, making lists makes me feel good.  At the end of 14 days I will go with a representative from the school to get my last COVID test and if negative can venture out into the city and meet people face to face.  Over the next few days I will begin some school work, figure out how to sign out and back in again to Netflix on my TV (its all in Khmer), work on the craft projects I was wise enough to bring with me and read some of the books loaded on my Kobo.

Did you count…?  How many COVID tests did I have done?  A long story to be sure, sorry for that.  I have been saying often these past days, its complicated.  That is what travel during COVID is, complicated.

A short follow up…I made it through to my home many others have not. A colleague is stuck in Canada with getting a COVID test with the right timing, another had their guarantor document questioned until the flight was missed and a whole group are stuck in hotel quarantine as a person on their flight tested positive, these poor folks can not leave their rooms for 14 days.

What is it to be courageous?

People are calling me courageous; I don’t think I am.  Adventurous, gutsy, intrepid and spirited yes, but not courageous.  Having given some thought to why this seems to be a common adjective when people talk about my choice to change things up, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the matter.

Merriam-Webster online defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”.  There are several elements to this definition that do not apply to what I am doing.  I am moving overseas, this is not unique, difficult or challenging.  Many people from all cultures from all over the world do this on a regular basis. 

So why does this word come up again and again?  I am 46, well established in my profession, wife, mother…I have been moving through life as one might expect for a typical Canadian woman.  I had my overseas gap year in university when I lived as an au-pair for a family in France.  I’ve traveled with my family to places like Disneyland, Yellowstone, New Orleans, Vancouver Island, Mexico and Europe.  I own a home, have a dog and enjoy regular social activities with friends and coworkers.  This is a predictable life, a normal life, it falls clearly within the bounds of what society says I should do.

But I have flipped that predictable world over.  It is not expected that after 20 years in a profession that one would take a leave and move to the other side of the planet.  This is not a promotion and the compensation is not what I receive here.  I am going alone; my son has recently moved out and my husband will continue his work here.  Making this move is, in some ways, snubbing the normal, expected path of a middle-aged woman.  I think this is why people say I am courageous.

I said at the beginning that I would describe myself as adventurous, gutsy, intrepid and spirited. I have never shied away from new things, have even taken measured risks on occasion and no one who knows me would say that I am meek or quiet.  It takes guts to pursue your passion especially if the path to do so flies in the face of the normal (expected) course of things.

If you have traveled with me you would know that I research deeply before heading off.  I have done as much as ever for this adventure and feel certain that while there will be challenges, I have nothing to fear, there is no life-threatening danger.  While many elements in my life will be different than home, I am excited for the change and don’t perceive them to be difficulties, just daily adventures.

Perhaps the only element of courage that I feel applies to me is the part about mental strength.  I can acknowledge that it takes guts and fortitude to make this change.  Second guessing my decision, worrying about all the what if’s and wishing COVID-19 had not messed things up royally have plagued me since day one.  Yet, in spite of all those thoughts I am heading off. 

Call me adventurous, gutsy, intrepid and spirited if you must but save courageous for others.

Check out YouTube and website for Drew Binsky.  I have followed him for ages and love how he tells stories of real people from all over the world  https://drewbinsky.com/

Photos taken while my mom (Denise) and my sister (Raina) were spending some girl time together in Banff before I leave. The wild alpine flowers were unbelievable and Lake Louise is always picture perfect.

My First Blog Post

Time minus 14 days

Well here it is!  Finally, I have sorted out how to publish a Blog.  I am sure there will be technical difficulties as I learn more about how to use this platform, but for now here we go! 

Two weeks to go!  I have taken care of just about everything you would imagine.  Finances, vaccinations, shopping, doctor, dentist, optometrist, you name it!  Now, I am down to the last few essential to dos. 

I have booked my CoVid test and made an appointment with my family doctor for him to write the all important CoVid negative letter that I need to present at the Cambodian border.  I have to be especially careful over the coming days to stay safe and virus free or all my preparations will be for nothing (and if I am honest, I am totally freaked out about the possibility of getting sick with this bug).

Time now to pack my life into two suitcases.  Not easy packing up your life and fitting it into two bags.  What do I leave behind? What do I buy when I get there? What about my classroom and professional things?  I have woken at night many times thinking about how I will spend my time, both on regular work days and alone during my 14-day quarantine so I feel like I have a good handle on what to take…but will it all fit?

The Kobo is full, podcasts have been downloaded, channels have been subscribed to.  I’ve also bought a few craft projects (of the very small size variety) to help keep me busy; there really is no way I could sit in a hotel room for two weeks and only watch TV.  Once I am out of quarantine, I have plans to take a city tour and a food tour just to get my bearings.  The school also has experience getting their staff situated so there may be some fun activities organised by them as well.

A few classroom items as well need to get thrown in; things that will let my room really feel like my space.  My ceinture flécheé, some Canadian paintings posters (Emily Carr and the Group of Seven), a small Newton’s cradle, my Einstein desk figure and a few office supplies (namely my erasable gel pens and fancy pink binder) that make me happy.

So, while I feel like my preparations are well in hand, I am increasingly seeking time with family and friends.  This is the really hard part.  It is expensive to travel and it may not even be possible.  The state of the world has really made it impossible to know if I will get to see those I love live and in person for a good while.  At least we have all had lots of practice with online meetings recently so at least I will be able to plan some video calls.

A huge thank you to all of you.  I would never have found the courage to take a chance on this opportunity if I was not surrounded by your love and support.  You lift me up and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Carpe Diem my friends!

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

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