The seat beside me was the last free one on the ramshackle bus. As we sat there baking in the full force of the afternoon sun, I secretly prayed that nobody would be forced to sit next to me – for both our sakes. The Universe provided, and I hugged my bags for comfort. Half an hour later and after someone had begged him to move the vehicle into the shade, the masked/gloved driver climbed into his seat and we were off on the last lap of this endless dystopian day.
Emerging from the airport some three hours after arriving, the road was almost empty and my hungry eyes sucked in the scenery as we sped north towards Castries. Behind the sunglasses, I was grinning like Alice’s feline friend at the “lush verdant flora” and “dazzling blue ocean” I so often wrote about to earn a kwas. If ever there was a moment to believe your own PR, that was it. I thought for a moment about the majority of my friends and family employed in tourism and wondered when things might get back to “normal”.
At some level, the anxiety had ebbed away just because my feet were on home soil, but I still had to pinch myself at the thought that this was no ordinary airport shuttle. We were more than a dozen medical-masked, potentially contagious travellers heading to quarantine and whatever that held in store. The driver probably had no choice in transporting us, so he was channeling Sandra Bullock in Speed just to get the hell out of there quicksmart. He swerved around the hairpin bends of the Barre De Lisle, swinging us from side-to-side in our seats like crash test dummies. It was all I could do to hold onto the seat in front and offer a prayer to Jah that after two days travelling through Corona-country, he wouldn’t let me end up dying in a boring old traffic accident.
After an hour we were bouncing along the moonscaped surface of Millennium Highway, bones crunching as hard as the suspension that was taking a battering beneath our bums. Now we were in the capital and suddenly people were looking at the bus, making the sign of the cross, fainting to the floor or grabbing their children and backing slowly away. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but as we crawled along Jeremie Street there were plenty of folks watching with shocked expressions on the pavements, as if they hadn’t heard of Coronavirus as yet. I noticed the temporary market was full of glorious produce and brave (or maybe clueless) vendors. The CDC rum shops were closed but plenty of citizens congregated on the street, drinking a beer and catching up on the business of the day.
Who could blame them? It must be hard to maintain “social distancing” when you coexist cheek-by-jowl in ancient government apartment blocks. Island living is more outside than in, and that doesn’t just mean manicured gardens, private pools and gorgeous beaches. When you live in the city, you sit outside on your own front step or someone else’s porch or in the alley between the buildings or at a table on the street in front of a bar. It’s easy to be judgemental from the first world, but spare a pragmatic thought for those who have no choice, even when new government regulations dictate otherwise. Welcome to real ghetto life, which is different to the B movie badman scenario that London kids think is the essence of woke.
By the time we were crawling up La Pansée – stopping every few minutes to negotiate two-way traffic on a road with a 45 degree gradient and less than one lane wide – I could have reached out and touched the fellas on the tiny balcony outside my open window. One of them locked eyes with me in abject horror, then slowly pulled his t-shirt up over his mouth and nose. I was laughing like a drain under the mask and started wiggling my fingers at him Scooby-Doo-fake-ghost style. Praise Jah, the brother got the joke and cracked up with me. He’s just lucky I didn’t grab the cold Piton right out of his fist.
Clearly the people in this neighbourhood weren’t expecting to see evidence of Covid-19 live and direct in their own front yards. I empathised with them, but Bel Jou was at the top of this particular hill and by now I just wanted the journey to be over. It felt like a relief to know I’d soon be locked away in a quiet, air-conditioned room-with-a-view, but I’d have been happy with a broom closet as long as it was big enough for me to sit down and cry.
As the bus rounded the last corner, I saw the gates manned by a dozen SSU officers in combat gear, automatic weapons and industrial-strength masks. Reality hit me in the anxiety gland and set off my biggest PTSD trigger. Being a raised in Northern Ireland during The Troubles means that guns and I don’t get along, to the extent that my hands began trembling and I started deep breathing exercises to get through the next bit. I knew they were there for our safety, but that matters not a jot to PTSDee.
We pulled into the thronged parking lot, where busloads of panicky people and safari jeeps full of multicoloured luggage jostled for space. I was tempted to leap out the window when nobody moved, but opted to be first out the door once it was ok to do so. Heading for a wall where there was nobody hanging out, I dropped my bags, grabbed my fags and chain-smoked two while watching a gorgeous fiery sunset. Don’t judge me, I’d been cutting down for more than two weeks, but muscle memory demanded nicotine if I was going to get through this final process without losing my cool. My cabin bag was at the bottom of the pile, so I stood and watched the chaos for a while before our long-suffering driver began unpacking the back of the bus. Once it was extricated, I dived into the crowd that was waiting pretty patiently at the entrance to Reception, and recognised some characters from the airport tra-la-la. They were a lot less vocal now it was obvious that “no, no, we eh goin’ home”.
A calm, professional lady from the hotel team appeared and asked for quiet, which remarkably was achieved within a few seconds. We listened to her welcoming words and I concentrated to hear the instructions that came next. One person per room unless partners, family or best friends wanted to bunk together in twos. Confined to assigned room 24/7 at the risk of being re-quarantined for another 14 days. No access to the grounds or pool or restaurant or bar as all were closed. Food would be delivered three times a day. Family could drop off extra food and other supplies but these could not include alcohol or “contraband”. The girl with the duty free rum asked if she was allowed to keep it and I rolled my eyes at a missed opportunity. Hiking through the customer-free miles of Gatwick Airport retail early that morning, I’d considered investing in a litre of the hard stuff, but decided to hoard my cash instead.
We’d be allowed to go five at a time to the reception desk, where PPE’d staff would check us in for our virus vacation. I managed to wriggle right to the front and was waved through as part of the third group, leaving the rest of my bus posse somewhere in the back of the crowd. Joking with the young lady – it’s such an irritating habit of mine – I asked for a room with a view, grabbed my card key and was directed to the main block. Finding 205, I pushed open the door, turned on the lights, dumped the bags, filled the kettle for tea and sat down on one of the two comfy beds to sob my eyes out for half an hour. Then it was time for bed, at last.
More to come…