Solitude. It’s been on my mind for months now. I’ve written little notes and diary entries about it. I’ve considered writing about it for a blog a dozen times before but I just wasn’t sure how. I thought that I would have an epiphany and suddenly know exactly how to write about it. I thought that I would know what I wanted to say about learning to be alone sometimes. I guess it’s just not one of those things.
Still, I feel like I want to document and share some things that I have learnt about this state of being. When you’re little you (usually) get familiar with your surroundings. You get used to being around siblings, parents, friends, class mates. You develop your personality and what you are known for. Your habits grow with your lifestyle, people know your personal traits and learn how to treat you. An intricate web is spun around you which gives you a certain sense of security. You cannot forget who you are because who you are is partially defined and kept safe by those who are around you.
It is easy to find people who identify with the experiences you are going through, be it the all wise parent who has suffered the same insecurities as you at your age, the best friend who sees the group of scary girls from school in the same light as you or the sibling who understands the craziness that can only be understood from inside the family.
As you get older your path strays from that of those who you have grown up with. The combination of experiences that you have give you a richer makeup and a deeper understanding of the world that you live in, but it also means that it is harder to find people who can identify completely with you.
There are a number of ways to deal with this. Firstly, you could pretend that nothing has changed. Push the doubt to the back of your mind, switch off the part of your brain that thinks independently and maybe, if you listen hard enough to what everyone else is saying, you might be able to convince yourself that you feel the same way. Unconvinced? Well, you could just decide to not leave your home, stay as close as you can to what you know and remain faithful to that which you have become so accustomed to.
Here I find myself with an issue. Even at the best of times at home I find myself struggling to settle and keep myself to a routine. I have a split personality depending on which environment I am in, I guess that comes from having two cultures that do not make a very harmonious balance, battling inside my head.
I went to live in a Haitian village in the Dominican Republic when I was 18. That is quite a young age to be going so far away from home I guess, although it didn’t really feel like it at the time. I lived in a village with temperamental electricity where the villagers had no running water, bathed in the river and lived with sporadic electricity that came for a few hours each day and then disappeared with no hint of when it would return. I got held up at gunpoint, went to more than one funeral of a student, as well as the funeral of one of my best friends there and dozens of other nameless faces whom I had never had the chance to meet. I felt the earth tremble when the earthquake happened in January 2010 and became completely detached from life in the UK. I grew accustomed to the village but I was just a spectator, friends with many, family to none. As an 18 year old there were many things that I found hard, trying to find some stability in an environment that was very foreign, working for a church-based organization when I was raised in a Muslim home, listening to stories people told about how witchcraft had taken their loved ones and how the earthquake was God’s hint to the apocalypse.
I came home and realized that as much as I could talk about these experiences, my words would only paint a watercolour picture for whoever I was talking to. There would be little identification with what I was saying, and any discussion would lean more towards storytelling than mutual dialogue or exchange.
I went to Leeds and Fresher’s week rushed past. I wasn’t particularly interested in the craziness of what was going on around me, not because I felt like I was any better than the rest of the student, but simply because my freedom had expanded beyond the realms of the student life.
I hung around with a variety of people, many from the Afro Caribbean society or from various classes I had. I never met any Algerians or half Algerians like myself, nor did I meet any Dominicans or Haitians. I hung out mostly with Latinos or black friends and that was fine.
I didn’t feel particularly happy or centered in Leeds. The good thing is that I had my own radio show last year and I was on the newspaper editorial team and I was friends with the people that ran the Latin nights in town so I always got to go to them for free. I decided that I wanted to go back to a Latino country and the universe conspired to get me to Colombia. So here I am. Eight months in. Working a cushy number in a swanky uni. Interesting that. Those from home who are familiar with my preferences know that I am about as anti-private school as they get. Growing up in Cambridge I went to a regular comprehensive with it’s fair sprinkle of teenage pregnancies, fights in the the playground and classroom dramas. When I went to sixth form I found myself with a lot of people who had been to private school until the age of 16, and let’s just say I decided that I wouldn’t want to send my own kids to one.
But somehow I have ended up in one of the most elite institutions in all of Colombia. My students get more pocket money than I earn in a month. Their big concern about prostitution is that prostitutes are not properly taxed and regulated and they would have loved to have burned Chavez at the stake. Let’s just say I have a lot less in common with most of my students than just my native language.
I arrived last year during Ramadan and had made the decision to not eat anything that wasn’t halal because of where my head was at that time. Many Muslim friends and indeed my father insisted that if there was no halal food I could eat the chicken, especially as I am living in a Catholic country. I decided that the need wasn’t that great and stuck with a largely vegetarian diet, in a country where ham is used in most meals as if it were salt.
I don’t drink alcohol but that hasn’t stopped my friends here from trying to get me to try “just a drop” of the national tipple Aguardiente. I have politely resisted. I went to the mosque for Eid prayers and again to see how things were moving along with the construction but I did not meet any girls like myself. In fact, it was pretty much only men who were there. I don’t meet up with any of the other British Council assistants who are dotted around Colombia because I guess I don’t identify much more with them than I do with Colombians, strange as that might sound.
I do, however have many varied Colombian friends. People from every corner of the country and I have travelled and shared with many different people. I have met the most amazing Mexicans you could ever imagine and shared their independence day with them, smiling as they cried, clinging to their flag, listening to the mariachis in the Mexican restaurant where we were sharing the evening.
I have had so much fun and felt so blessed to have been accepted into so many people’s homes. It has been a year full of delights and tribulations. I am nearly always swept off my feet with travelling plans, parties, study, work and crazy social events. However I have spent my solitary moments trying to decide what kind of person I am, where my foundations lie and what my true core values are. There is no-one familiar around to guide me or remind me who I am. I have to do it myself. This is the first time that I have lived alone in my whole life. Everywhere that I have been I have had a friend, loved one or colleague either by my side or on the other side of a wall, close enough to share a cup of tea or breakfast. Even when I was in the DR I lived on a compound with the art teacher who had her bed next to mine.
Now I am a big girl and I sleep in a double bed all by myself. Sometimes I wake up with a nightmare and I have to calm myself down and go back to sleep because there is no-one else to do that for me.
I met a model yesterday, a stunner of a girl who towered over my with her willowy limbs and pretty face who was telling me all about her boyfriend/not-boyfriend who takes her out, spends the night, drives her places and buys her pretty things. She explained that as she is living in the capital by herself she gets bored and lonely, so she likes the company of this gent. I thought to myself, that is another way that people sometimes deal with things. Distractions and fillers help busy the mind. But I couldn’t/wouldn’t be able to do the same. I like my independence and I don’t like to be close to people in that way. The best thing about solitude that I have learnt this year is that it can help you turn up your natural metronome. That internal rhythm that you live by, the values that you wrap yourself in before you go to sleep or set off in the morning. Being surrounded by people all the time drowns out your personal rhythm and can make you unbalanced if you never get a chance to reclaim it.
That is why I like my solitary reading moments. I have a few haunts in particular where I can make an overpriced tinto pequeño last for three hours. I curl up on a sofa and love myself in the words of some authors who take away the rhythm of Colombia and replace in with something that neutralizes and tranquilizes me. I honestly prefer to lose myself in books rather than men. You can always close them and put them away if they get a bit too much. It is rather more difficult to do that with a man.
In just over three months I will be going to New York for a month. Then I shall briefly pass by London for five days before jetting off to Algeria for a few weeks to see my grandparents inchallah, whom I haven’t seen for far too many years now. Then it will be back to London, Cambridge and Leeds to finish this degree that I have started. Then who knows? All that I am sure of is that all of this bouncing around is going to require a strong sense of grounded-ness somewhere deep inside me. I’m working on it but I see it to be a work forever in progress. Something new always comes along to unsettle the balance, if not naturally then by my own will. I am blessed to have some amazing friends and family who love and support me and it is thanks to them that I am able to lead this wonderful, challenging life that I am strapped into. I hope that I haven’t disrupted your own internal balance with this release, or that you have felt bored by what I am saying, but I wanted to put this out there and see…maybe these aren’t such solitary feelings afterall. I will leave you with the words of Alice Koller:
Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.