The holiday of Pchum Ben begins now. Much like Mongolian Tsagaan Saar, the actual celebration is rather short though it consumes a whole week. Work is closed, the city all but shuts down and my students have gone home to spend this time with their families. In an effort to save money I elected to spend the week in Phnom Penh, which has proved a wise choice because Siem Riep, the seat of Angkhor Wat, is flooded and the beach hostels are crawling with bedbugs. However, not everyone saw my choice as a wise one.
The head dormitory manager came to talk to me about being here alone, making the 30-mintue commute from the other dorm apparently pressed by the urgency of the situation. I sat in the dorm office as both managers stared at me in disbelief and held their press conference-intervention. 'Won't you be scary being alone?!' one of the managers asked. 'No one has done this before' the other informed me with concern. They could not fathom how I would survive by myself in the dorm. By this time I guess I'm used to people thinking I won't make it. Mongolians were convinced the foreigners would all die in the winter. Some of my friends were surprised I didn't bail out of the Peace Corps early. I just smiled sweetly and told them I'd be fine.
Though it was hard at first, I've grown used to solitary pursuits and now I sometimes look forward to time by myself. It was probably the Mongolian winters that made me accept isolation, particularly long, dark evenings when I first moved to Hovd. I would tramp up the slummy stairs to my cold apartment every evening where the walls fairly vibrated with the desolate solitude that awaited me there. It was not fun. But with the help of Six Feet Under, a crush of novels and Facebook I survived and even managed to develop a comfort in my own skin.
My days in Cambodia have not been lonely. I am surrounded by people every waking moment. But I have to make extra effort to see other expats and the weekends can be particularly tough. I have yet to fall into the rhythm that is expat weekends in Phnom Penh, though I know it includes brunch and a club with pools called Elsewhere. Last Friday, determined to see the night, I took myself on a dinner date. I parked myself at an outdoor cafe and relished a divine salad Niçoise with a glass of Australian red. But by the end of the night I had grown melancholy, stewing in my own company had made matters worse. I dragged myself back to the dorm and when I returned the girls were full of bubbles and ideas and chatter; I let their conversation bring me back to life and happiness. We laughed at the geckos on the ceiling that one girl called 'little crocodiles' and it was not without irony that I realized the people I was attempting to seek solitude from were the ones who brought me the most joy that night.
Last night I tried something different. Since Friday had been quiet and early, lulled by rain, Mad Men and Sam's G-Chat company, I decided that I would do something fun Saturday. Darn it. Armed with my Kindle I headed to a local hostel that also has a great little restaurant with a sunset vista. I planted myself at the bar and before I knew it was playing card games with a gaggle of about 10 travelers. Showing up at a hostel was a risk that felt a little predatory but it worked out in the end; the evening's odyssey included a sidewalk cafe run by Italian gangsters, people riding on top of tuk-tuks, two night clubs, another hostel's bar, greasy hamburgers of unknown origins and a 3:30 bedtime. Though I am a little worse for wear today the evening was rejuvenating. I made friends and had fun just because I wanted to. And that felt good.
Going to a hostel, though perhaps odd, seemed to make sense. Travelers understand being alone because that is the nature of the beast. Where you are from and what you have seen makes you different. Hostels become little epicenters where people from unique journeys come to be together, oases to sleep, eat, water and stave off the solidude that seeps into long bus rides and transient friendships. Once you begin traveling it is impossible to escape that no one else has seen what you've seen; you become more alone in your experiences and that feeling is hard to shake.
I must admit I am nervous about this week with no schedule or work. However, a list of things to do, open coffee shops and a gym with a sauna, free English newspapers and fishy foot massage tank will help me combat feelings of uselessness. I hope. I will do my best; I won't be scary.