Strange Days

Updates from the Rabbit Hole

The sky was melting orange sherbet as I arrived at the base.  Waves were dutifully lapping against the rocks as the boats swayed on the breath of the sea.  As I sat, watching the day clock into night, I was reminded of when I first arrived here exactly one year earlier.  

The Riau Archipelago is a vast stretch of Islands in Northern Indonesia which boasts white sands and superb sunsets.  After living and working here for a year, this strange spit of land had become my home.  It was the 15th March and I had no idea that in just a few minutes my life would capsize and myself and everyone around me would fall down a rabbit hole.

A WhatsApp message pinged on my phone. Breaking news. A new policy had been put into place for those entering Singapore after midnight on 16th March – a 14 day mandatory quarantine aimed to cut down the spread of Covid-19.  It was applicable to people travelling from a variety of countries; the UK and Indonesia amongst them.  My heart dropped into my stomach like an anchor.  My face flushed as it began to dawn on me what this meant for my family, my job, my home and the people I work with.

My mum and her husband were due to fly to Singapore on the 17th and I had planned an entire itinerary for them as well as a holiday to the pristine and luxurious islands of Nikoi and Cempedak where I work.  We had been arranging this for months and even after a cancelled flight and much uncertainty around travelling back to the UK, she had decided to come anyway.  This news however, was a deal breaker.  I called immediately and broke it to her.  Utterly disappointed and heartbroken that I didn’t get to see them, I ended the call and began to unravel the next part of this news. 

Let me explain. 

This picture was taken just a few days before the travel restrictions were set. My lovely friend Cin Hen playing guitar on the jetty as we all joined in making merry and singing with guests. What wonderful memories. I can’t wait to see everyone again.

Almost every single guest that comes to the islands will travel from or via Singapore which meant that every guest who didn’t return there by midnight the next day would have to quarantine themselves.  Not an attractive prospect for most people.  My phone was a flurry of activity.  My best friend Kirstie, who also works on Nikoi was in constant communication.  We had just been to a wedding in Bintan and I had left her just 30 minutes earlier in the capital city, Tanjungpinang.  The news was spreading fast and the teams on both the islands were already frantically booking ferries for the guests.  Due to the virus, fewer tourists had been coming into Bintan recently, which meant the ferry schedule had reduced to just 4 boats per day, and the seats were selling fast.

One family was due to arrive at the base any minute from Singapore.  They were crestfallen when I  broke the news to them.  Luckily, this job has honed my ability to remain calm and clear under pressure. I was focusing on the next step:  Get. The Guests. Home.

As the four outboard motors grumbled to life, the sky was almost black and the stars were popping like pinpricks in a cardboard box. The 15 minute boat ride to the island was the longest it’s ever been.  I hit the jetty running and headed straight towards the dining room where most people would be taking their evening meal.  Almost everyone had heard the news and had either already booked their tickets or were in the process of booking them.  I informed everyone of the situation and me and my colleagues, Nawe and Darto, spent a manic few hours ensuring everyone had a seat.

By the end of the night I was emotionally and physically drained and as I sat at the bar with some of the guests. There was a strange feeling in the air.  Like the eve of battle, there was a sense that something big was coming.  A shockwave event was echoing around the world and now, it was our turn.  Both guests and staff sat together that night and as I drank a much needed Gin and Tonic, all I could say was, ‘It’s going to be okay, we just have to look after each other.’  It was and is true.  In times like this we have to stay strong, not give into our anxieties and take care of each other.

An emotional goodbye when I got on the boat for Singapore. We knew things would change that day.

My heart broke again the next day when I left the island on the midday boat.  There was a sense that nothing would be the same again.  Everything that should be happening was now not going to happen.  The future, usually relatively predictable, was unraveling.  The most interesting and disconcerting element of our current circumstance is the fragility of our world.  This event, this global pandemic has affected everyone.  What will happen next?  The world is having an existential crisis and I still can’t quite believe it.

Kirstie had managed to get a last minute ticket on an extra ferry they had scheduled to Singapore.    We were silent for most of the journey. I wrote a poem in the back of the car:

This rat caravan
Slinks from sinking ship
To rising tide
Four cars wending
We are bringing
Up the rear

This black evacuation
Uncertain in tight format
Tarmac refugees
Four cars forward
Adrenaline palms calm
In sticky situation

This sleepy soldier
Stomach sick sings inside
Through foliage
Four cars screaming
Head heavy eyes
Can only look forward

As we arrived at the office in Singapore our boss greeted us with frosty home brew beers and we sat round trying to gauge the situation.  There was work to be done.

A surreal journey from Indonesia to Singapore. I had no idea if and when I would return. Ambiguity was palpable.

The following days were spent in a flurry of emails, damage control.  The reservations team was overwhelmed by communication and so Kirstie and I, both experienced office workers set to work.  

We spent a week in Singapore.  Each day a new layer of information piled on top of us, narrowing our options by the minute.  A decision had to be made and each individual person had to make it for themselves.  For people living abroad it basically meant you had to decide where you were choosing to ride this out.  Nobody knows how long this is going to last.  The rough estimate seems to be a few months but travel restrictions could go on for longer.  

There were moments I was sure I would return to the UK.  Other times I was frozen on the spot and thought that I would stay in Singapore but after spending just a few days there, my bank account told me otherwise.  It was home or Indonesia.  But which one?

If I went home, where would I stay?  I considered buying myself a van to live in but it seems that a few people had the same idea and the UK has banned the use of public places to hitch up your van.  I didn’t want to risk exposing my mum (she is in the vulnerable category) to the virus and I wouldn’t be able to see my friends anyway.

I decided to go back to Nikoi Island.  Both Kirstie and I would ride out the next…however long…there. 

Kirstie and I made up half the guests on the ferry back to Indonesia. Normally these journeys are a chaotic and noisy hullaballoo with hundreds of people crashing around and bumping luggage. I got my guitar out and sang an Indonesian song I learned to one of the boat stewards.

And here we are.  It’s been a week since we arrived.  Nikoi, usually full of activity and life, is silent.  We are in a 14 day quarantine at the moment and almost halfway through.  We are staying in one of the villas – number 15.  Quarantine in Villa 15.  There’s worse places to be stuck but I must say, the strange and eerie silence of a deserted island is more taxing than you would expect.

Our quarantine lifts on 4th April and we will be free to socialise a little more.  We spoke today about how strange everything is.  How did we end up here?  How long will this go on for?  

We are well cared for though.  Yesterday we had a delivery from the mainland.  It was like Christmas.  Biscuits, coffee, gin, beer, ice, limes and cigarettes.  We’re like prisoners getting contraband delivered ‘from the outside’.  We shop via video call.  We’re getting really good at Monopoly Deal.  We have plenty of teabags and vegemite. Over all, we’re good.

This post serves as an introduction to my current situation.  I will periodically update with various aspects of Island Isolation.  For now, stay safe everyone.  Try to see this time as a space for you to breathe.  We are all in this together and we must care for one another.  Find things that make you laugh.  Pick up that dusty guitar in the corner and learn some songs.  Crack out your pencil case and do some drawing.  Write a poem.  

This advice I must take for myself too.  

If you’re feeling low, depressed and anxious during these times it’s completely normal. We are all feeling it. This article from Wired is an interesting read with some tips at the end on how to ride it out.

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