I can be quite socially awkward occasionally. Sometimes, during these intermittent periods of social waywardness, I try to mitigate my awkwardness (and/or loneliness) by befriending dogs.
Now that I read that statement it seems like a weird way to start off a story. Anyway, that’s something you should know about me.
On the outside, my social awkwardness has gotten a lot better with age. Perhaps I’ve learned to better mask that awkwardness under a deluge of give-a-fuck-ness. Perhaps I really am not awkward anymore, but I still feel those tremors from the past, an endless cycle of after-shocks.
People who belong to a group — cis, straight, white, male — before which I can’t ever not be aware of my queerness.
Anyway, this social awkwardness of mine is always exacerbated when I’m around people who seem typically “cool” — people to whom casual intimacy with random strangers comes as second nature. People who belong to a group — cis, straight, white, male — before which I can’t ever not be aware of my queerness.
Whenever I meet someone, a part of me analyses what role they must have played in their high-school years. Were they the popular jock? Were they the goofy nerd? Were they a part of the Intelligentsia, so to speak? And once I’ve determined their assumed clique, that dynamic seems to linger in my mind like a stubborn aftertaste, coloring all of my experiences with them.
It goes without saying that I never had a seat at the cool table back in high school. Even though I wasn’t out back then, I was always queer.
And so, while traveling, when I meet these people who seem typically “cool”, I feel at once privileged (shamefully) to have their friendship, while simultaneously feeling aloof yet again.
This sense of alienation is even more pronounced when there’s liquor involved. I don’t consume any alcohol. Initially, it was just because I didn’t much care for the taste. But over time, it has almost become emblematic of my stubborn nature. I’ve come this far without drinking, why in the hell would I start now? Even if I’m in a party, surrounded by people who effortlessly embrace their lack of inhibitions, I determinedly isolate myself, mentally if not spatially.
Anyway, all of that is laying the backbone so you better understand why, on one tropical evening, I found myself seeking the company of stray dogs on a beach in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Island.
I’d like to say I’m 100% comfortable in my own company and that I don’t need external validation. And that’s true. I can be on my own, for like… 5 minutes.
A lot of people start traveling out of “wanderlust” (ugh). I started traveling — yes, out of wanderlust — but largely as an escape. In India, I have never not felt like the Other. Never in my life have I ever felt comfortable here, like I belong. I naively assumed it is in traveling that I would find some grounding, a sense of belonging.
Related reading: Why I’m Boycotting Travel Bloggers, and You Should Too
Traveling solo turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve made the most unexpected and grand connections. But I’ve also found myself alone, attempting to make connections, failing to do so, and feeling pretty hopeless as a result.
I’d like to say I’m 100% comfortable in my own company and that I don’t need external validation. And that’s true. I can be on my own, for like… 5 minutes. And then I’m back to sniffing out possible company, while simultaneously detesting my need to do so.
So back to Koh Rong Island.
I’d landed in Koh Rong Island in a sunny afternoon. I didn’t have a place booked so I hopped into the closest hostel I could find. It was a $4 shack along the coast. Fair enough.
The guy who owned the hostel seemed real nice. White guy with dreadlocks… a staple in this particular Cambodian island. But that’s a whole other digression I won’t get into right now.
They wore cool hairstyles, un-self-consciously dressed in that give-a-damn-style that only certain people can pull off, and conversed in the kind of eternally languid drawl that suggests they’ve got all the time in the world to simply hang back and drink beer, world be damned.
Anyway, he showed me to my dorm and introduced me to the other hostel guests and the other barkeeps (also white). The few Cambodian workers I saw were relegated to cleaning dishes and the latrine, out of sight. Again, that’s a subject for another blog post.
Everyone seemed super nice, all the guests and the folks working at the hostel. And they were super friendly. They wore cool hairstyles, un-self-consciously dressed in that give-a-damn-style that only certain people can pull off, and conversed in the kind of eternally languid drawl that suggests they’ve got all the time in the world to simply hang back and drink beer, world be damned. They were, for lack of a better word, “cool.” Lol, I know how ridiculous it is to keep using that word. Believe me, I do.
I’m merely establishing the reason for my aloofness here. I tried to interact with them, of course. I went about the motions of interacting the way you generally do with people you’ve just met, casual and utterly meaningless, especially if you know you’re never going to carry this particular relationship further. When you’re just biding your time. That’s what I tried to do, but I gave up the attempt soon after. I wasn’t going to remember any of their names a day from then, the effort of interacting was positively draining me.
So that’s when I simply decided to pull out one of their chairs on the sand and perch myself there. I didn’t exactly have a view of a pretty horizon or anything because the friggin’ pier was right before me, but I felt too tired to even walk down the coast and find someplace solitary. So I sat there, literally staring at a green wooden wall standing before me.
I put on my earphones and started going through my playlist. I told myself that if someone looked at me, like those cool people in the hostel, they’d see that I don’t care about them and that all I need is my own company. Again, I knew no one was looking at me because no one gave a shit. And that’s alright.
So I started petting the dog, even though I knew I shouldn’t, even though it was sleeping.
That’s when I noticed a dog sleeping a few feet from me, next to yet another chair. I was lonely, and I wanted to feel the kind of unconditional and unmitigated affection I’m used to receiving from my two darling pugs back home.
Related reading:My 5 Favorite Apps for Dealing With Solo Travel Loneliness
So I started petting the dog, even though I knew I shouldn’t, even though it was sleeping. A second later, it jumped up, let out a bark, bit deep into my arm, and ran away.
I sat there, my arm hanging by my side. I knew it was bleeding, but I didn’t want to look. I was embarrassed. It’s sort of like when you declare your crush to a boy you admire, only to have him respond with an insult. Only, in this case, I’m not even the sympathetic boy who’s been rejected. Sleeping stray dogs aren’t toys to be played with when you’re lonely.
Anyway, so I sat there, bleeding through my forearms until a young Cambodian woman came up to me and asked me if I was alright. I said I was, “just a scratch.”
When the folks in the hostel asked me what happened, I lied. I told them I accidentally kicked a random dog that was sleeping on the ground and it bit me. They wouldn’t have made much of me petting a dog either. But to reveal that would come close to revealing the reason I sought a stray dog’s company in the first place — because here, in an island, on a “vacation”, I wasn’t as giddy with joy as I assumed I was supposed to be. I wasn’t as happy as all the Travel Instagrams told me I would be. And I still felt like the Other.
I found a nearby pharmacy and got myself some disinfectant, iodine, and bandages. But I still needed to go to a proper hospital. So, the next day, I hopped into the first ferry back to Sihanoukville and left to get a rabies shot.
Soon after, I met someone in Sihanoukville that I really got along with — a Turkish queer woman who momentarily mitigated my sense of alienation. We vehemently railed against the institutions that oppress us, those that make us feel “other” — the institutions of cis straight white maleness, yes, but also of the self.
We got along famously… for three days. And then I moved on, intermittently fluctuating between periods of intimate rootedness and loneliness.
Now, you might wonder what this story had to do with the stray dogs I mentioned in the title. Well, when I started writing, this was supposed to be a cute tongue-in-cheek whoopsie kinda’ article about getting bit by a dog on an island and the ensuing panic surrounding it. But then I started writing, and it turned into something else.
I decided I’ll keep the title.
So why shouldn’t you try to befriend stray dogs while traveling? (Other than the fact that it’s rude to disturb their slumber.)
Because they can’t give you the love or contentment you may be looking for.
What did you learn from Rohan’s essay? Can you relate? Let us know in the comments!
This essay is part of our Voices of Travel series. If you’re interested in becoming a guest contributor and sharing your unique traveler’s voice, check out our Call for Submissions. Sign up below to receive stories like these straight to your inbox.