Quarantine Zen Queen 3: In A Holding Pattern

Stepping into one of the smallest hotel rooms known to man, I once again thanked the Universe for the power of technology. It was spotless, comfortable and all sorts of space efficient, like ‘tiny living’ for travellers. The young receptionist was apologetic about the lack of normal service, but breakfast and dinner were available if needed, and could be eaten in the dining room as long as social distancing was observed.

Stocked up with an M&S meal deal from the airport and a ton of teabags from home, I declined in favour of locking myself away to allow the full release of my anxiety. Although the first leg was over, VS89 to Saint Lucia seemed a long time off and a lot could happen in between. I’d been messaging Virgin’s WhatsApp assistance line for days without any real result, and spent a hundred minutes the previous morning on the end of my parents’ landline before finally hearing a human voice.

During that call I’d listened to Bittersweet Symphony about ten times, thereby rendering it NOT one of my favourites any more. It rotated with three other songs until I thought I’d lose my mind, but a nice lady had finally been able to confirm that the flight to Hewanorra was still scheduled. She’d recommended staying in touch via WhatsApp as the situation could change at any moment.

Now that fruitless task resumed, but despite being well within the 72 hours-before-travel window, only the bots replied with automatic messages, instantly followed by survey questions asking me to rate their response. In full-on Belfast cursing mode, I whispered an unWordsmith-worthy tirade of abuse at my beloved phone so as not to disturb the neighbours. All I could do was message my anxious family and the few friends that knew I was on the move, then hit the sack.

Sunday morning was cloudless and dazzlingly sunny. I peered through the tiny window at the rather nice mid-century red brick houses in the street outside, thinking again that the weather god was taking the piss. Although the shutdown wasn’t yet mandatory, the area was almost deserted when I ventured out later to find supplies. My legs were suffering from that restless syndrome and a long walk was priority. Food wasn’t really, given the anxiety butterflies that characterise my normal travel vibe, now ratcheted up to maximum.

Striding along the main road, a few people doing the same, enjoying the Spring sunshine and scouting for open businesses. There weren’t many, but a children’s playground and park were pretty busy with young ones running off steam. I kept walking until I spied a Tesco Express that was still keeping its normal 7am till 11pm hours. Again, I could have hugged the lone staffer, but set about finding some sensible, portable, edible supplies instead.

Twenty quid later, I had all eventualities covered, including water, instant coffee, salad, fruit, a big pot of Singapore curry noodles and a bar of 74% dark chocolate. Yeah, I was becoming an episode of ‘Doomsday Preppers’ all by myself. Of course I forgot to bring one of the four reusable bags I had in my suitcase – somehow the guilt of buying yet another one didn’t seem so bad.

On the way back to the hotel, I swung into a little park with a war memorial and the most splendid flower beds full of daffodils, narcissi, and vivid red tulips, took a bench and soaked up the sun for a while. I even unbuttoned my coat, unwrapped my scarf and took off my woolly hat for a few moments. It was another opportunity for zen training. I was simply grateful for a picturesque break from all the madness.

Back in the room, WhatsApp bing-bonged and with zero expectations, I checked the message to find it was from a Virgin human with good news. The flight was still scheduled to depart in seventeen hours and Saint Lucia was still open to returning nationals. My citizenship paper and marriage certificate would be sufficient to allow me in with my UK passport. I exhaled, then started packing again.

Up at the crack of dawn and shuttled to the airport with one other guest, it was absolutely jaw-droppingly empty of passengers, although dozens of staff were walking around in uniforms and hi-vis gilets. The empty acreage of Virgin check-in blew me away, considering how many of our family’s return journeys to Saint Lucia had involved queuing for an hour or more with excitedly impatient kids and multiple trolleys laden with Primark purchases.

But the news from the beautiful check-in agent was good. Yes, it was still flying; yes, my docs were in order; yes, it was the most unbelievably surreal time in our lives; yes, both our livelihoods were shutting down and the future was uncertain for now. She really was lovely, it wasn’t just my mood, and once more on this journey I shared a moment of solidarity with a complete stranger.

“Every disappointment is a blessing”, my brain mantra-ed again, clearing security and immigration almost alone. The international departure area felt massive in its emptiness, with most retail stores and restaurants closed except the ever reliable WH Smith and stinking, unscrupulous Wetherspoons, which – according to some worried-looking staff calling out like market hawkers – was doing take-out fry-ups and beer.

By now I was masked and gloved – for everyone else’s benefit more than mine – but also to help calm the terror that I could be carrying the invisible assailant back to Saint Lucia. Two Asian teens in full hazmat suits and Hello Kitty backpacks wandered past, and I vascillated between thinking they were overdoing it and that they were wiser than me. The hour before the announcement time ebbed glacially away, and I sprinted to the gate as soon as the number came up on the board.

Fifteen minutes before boarding time, I heard the agent tell the arriving pilot that there were twenty-three pax checked in on this flight to Saint Lucia and Grenada. Five minutes later, twelve Grenadians were advised they wouldn’t be going anywhere. In all the drama so far, that was the point at which I couldn’t hold my emotions in check and was glad of the mask and sunnies that had been pissing me off up till then.

It was heartbreaking. There was nothing Virgin could do because the Grenadian government had made the decision in real time and they were only finding out about it at this crazy cruel moment. It was the decision I’d been dreading for days would be made in Saint Lucia – a sensible, understandable measure that would prevent me getting home to my beloved rock.

Three elderly ladies were stunned into tearful silence. A young man reasoned that he had nowhere to go back to because his family was self-isolating. An older guy argued politely that he didn’t even have money to take the tube back to his family. I stood and watched and cried like a baby as they were escorted away to find their luggage and figure out the next steps.

We were down to ten Virgin crew, nine adult passengers and a baby. As we silently marched down the jetway to the airplane door, you could feel the collective sigh of guilt-ridden relief. Honestly, it felt bad to be so happy about being upgraded to Premium Economy after what we’d just witnessed, but all praise to Virgin for finding a way to make it all feel OK.

Social distancing was easy and I nabbed a window seat far away from everyone else. Prosecco was produced and doors closed. We pushed back from the gate, taxied to the runway and I clapped as we took off into the cloudless London sky. Yeah, I admit it. I was probably the only one who did, but short of screaming my lungs out with relief, it was all I could think of doing to celebrate the fact that I’d be home in nine hours to whatever was coming next.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 2: Getting Back Home

St. Paddy’s Day was to be my first in Ireland since leaving for Saint Lucia in 1993. The parade and fetes were cancelled, to nobody’s surprise. After the boiled ham, cabbage and mashed spuds were devoured, we had the traditional family evening at home with a few adult beverages, great craic and a lot of corona-chat. It felt like the last day anything would be normal.

Next morning, I found Dad in the kitchen and said it was crunch time for decision-making. It was obvious to me that a full shutdown of the UK was on the cards even if Buffoon Boris was dragging his heels and confusing the people with his messages. For the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, the local 6 o’clock news was de rigeur simply because it came an hour after the PM’s daily brief with the latest numbers and advisories.

I started to think the Universe had lined up this trip for a purpose – being in Belfast to help my parents, just steps away from my sisters’ homes and a bus ride from my girl. After all, I’m the empty-nester lone-ranger digital nomad of the family, so in theory it was an obvious choice. In fact, Dad discombobulated me totally by recommending I go home as planned.

It was an emotional conversation, but he explained pragmatically why he and Mum were worried, and I sobbed as I realised he was right. My dilemma was fuelled by a big dose of Irish-former-Catholic guilt, combined with my oldest sibling sense of responsibility and a little mom-worry about my chick, who was starting to realise that Belfast life was about to become very narrow.

I also felt guilty because his loving words released my real feelings – every fibre of my being was hankering after Saint Lucia, despite the accompanying terror of how our little rock and its 185,000 inhabitants would weather the impending global lockdown. Familiarity was a draw – it’s my home and I know how to operate within the already crazy reality of island life. Selfishly, it’s also warm, sunny and beautiful, which I truly believe makes everything easier to handle.

So on Wednesday, March 18, I shifted my strategising to the return journey – if that was at all possible. Virgin had removed change fees so I would have pushed back my departure, but somehow it felt like that Elvis song: “It’s now or never…” Getting to Gatwick was to first leg, and when Easyjet flights went from seven to two on my preferred travel day, I started to panic a little.

It was time to consult my travel guru son who was already on lockdown in the Dominican Republic. We video-chatted and threw around the worst case scenarios – my natural proclivity for multiple back-up plans was definitely useful, apart from the moments when my over-stimulated head started to melt, as Rosie would say.

We decided I’d fly to Gatwick on the Saturday and stay two nights in a small hotel close to the airport – all of which cost less than the Sunday flight which had doubled in price. The flight was booked on the Thursday, family briefed on my imminent departure and the countdown was on.

I must have checked Easyjet’s website every hour for two days, half expecting the Universe to take it out of my hands by cancelling the flight. Bombastic Boris was creeping closer to a complete shutdown, and there was a serious chance that Belfast International would close before I boarded the plane. I started to pack, inwardly rolling my eyes at the irony of only having a cabin bag for the first time ever. And it was full of my warmest clothes.

There’s no point in trying to describe the level of anxiety that peaked every few hours during Friday, requiring every ounce of zen I could muster to keep it under control. But Belfast was some playing sort of sick Irish weather joke by being gloriously sunny and crisp, so I delivered the wee man to his last day of school for a while, then walked around the neighbourhood, simply appreciating for the first time in years the place where I spent my teens.

By Saturday, my baby sister had been in isolation for four days so I didn’t see her or my lovely brother-in-law to say goodbye. Meabh and the kids had stopped visiting Granny and Granda from the Thursday, although I couldn’t keep away for a last hang out with them and Rosie. I stopped trying to control my tears, putting on a brave face for this one seemed impossible.

We arrived at the airport three and a half hours before the flight because I expected crowds, but couldn’t hug my dad because he wasn’t allowed to get out of the car. Leaving my girl was just awful – I’m sure I crushed her ribs with the hugs, despite all the warnings. Don’t judge me, you would have done the same.

The airport was deserted, all the food and bev operations were closed except Starbucks who had gone “contactless” and wouldn’t take my cash. At that moment, I decided to let go of all expectations and let the Universe do its thing. WH Smith had nothing edible except 2000 brands of sweets, chocolates and crisps which I could live on if push came to shove, but even that thought didn’t inspire me with joy you’d expect from a Haribo-holic.

People came on time for the flight, which made me feel like a right eejit, but how could anyone predict anything at that point. Jah bless Easyjet for not cancelling, I thought, as we departed bang on time for the 55 minute flight to “the mainland” and Bumptious Boris’s increasingly ramped up regulations. The UK’s second biggest airport was deserted bar a few straggling, mainly masked travellers like myself, standing around looking dumbfounded at the dystopian present.

Believe it or not, Dylan and I had decided not to book a hotel until I reached Gatwick, just in case of last minute curveballs and cancellations, but as soon as I logged onto the free wifi he was there on WhatsApp and sorted out the last available room at The Corner House Hotel just 5 minutes drive away. Meanwhile, I could have hugged the M&S Food staff for being open, well-stocked and with a coffee station – although they would never have allowed such irresponsible behaviour.

The last thing to organise before I could let it all go was a taxi, not too difficult you would think, but this was not a usual Saturday night and there wasn’t a single one on the rank. A nice young driver was called, arrived in 5 minutes and swept me off to see if my haven for the next two nights was as sweet as it looked on the website. He told me he’d been on duty seven hours and I was his first fare. It cost eleven quid and I gave him fifteen, wished him all the best and pushed the double doors open to check in.

So far so good. One step closer to Saint Lucia. Now if only Virgin would stick to their schedule, I’d be heading for home in thirty-six hours.

More to follow…

Quarantine Zen Queen 1: Talk About Bad Timing?

Sick of self-isolation? Kicking off in quarantine? Curfew causing you personal crisis? Here’s a new mantra to practice every time this crazy coronavirus messes up your plan: “It’s not all about me. It’s not all about me.”

Eighteen days ago, I flitted off to Belfast to check in on my parents and family. A well-timed Virgin Seat Sale meant I could afford it, while my freelance status and the wonderful world of technology lets me be a digital nomad and work from anywhere.

Coronavirus was in the news, of course, and I’d spent four weeks keeping an eye on progress, watching the WHO briefings to get the real story instead of the fairytale of foolishness unfolding on most US media channels. After three years of science denial from the Pumpkin President and his administration, I just had a feeling the situation up there might become messy .

Boy, I hate it when I’m right…

I arrived on Saturday, March 7 to sort-of-normality at Gatwick, took the train to Brighton to visit my brother and we went to the pub to meet old friends. The talk was not about coronavirus, at least not on an alarmist level. Some folks were staying home but generally it was business as usual – for a freezing winter day.

By Sunday morning, 16 million Italians had been isolated in Lombardy. I had a serious sinking feeling as I headed back to an emptier-than-usual Gatwick to fly to Belfast on a packed Easyjet flight. There were a few masks around, but nothing out of the ordinary, and I hugged the bones of my 82 year old dad and 25 year old daughter at the luggage carousel.

(Later on, I wondered about the 18 people that surrounded me on the flight, perhaps travelling home from an Italian or Spanish holiday. That’s the moment my perception moved to that of a possible carrier and it was stone cold terrifying.)

By Monday, March 8, Italy was shut down and the number of deaths spiked the next day, starting a dread trajectory that continues to ascend as I type. I started to think that watching every pandemic movie available on YouTube in February was turning out to be educational rather than an indication of my sick sense of irony.

A week later and my family GP’s office was off limits to Dad and everyone else, my niece’s school had shut down without notice, St. Patrick’s Day was cancelled and Belfast pubs were starting to close their doors voluntarily. I know that’s hard to believe, but in the Republic, my friend Leo had already shut them down because of dunderheaded behaviour at Temple Bar the previous weekend.

It was happening so fast. Relentless and inevitable were the words that came to mind. Given my research of Hollywood’s similar scenarii [plural noun. Italian etymology], I noticed a few fatal flaws in the plot as it was unfolding across the globe.

1: The cool, gorgeous ‘Lyndsay Wagner as doctor/scientist’ character was nowhere to be seen, despite the number of cruise ships being struck down with Covid-19 [Voyage of Terror, TV movie, 1997] and the obvious spread of the virus via air travel [Contagious, TV movie, 1998]

2: The ‘Leader of the Free World’ character was definitely not the one to watch in terms of pulling the planet together to defeat the threat. In fact, the Pumpkin Prez was giving a stellar performance the role of ‘ cynical right wing capitalist White House staffer with his head up his arse’, as played by Martin Sheen in ‘Voyage’.

Meaning that 3: There was no sign of a ‘President Morgan Freeman’ character in this version of ‘Pandemic – The Reality Show’. We’d probably need to cast Jacinda Ardern if we wanted a ballsy hero that everyone could get behind.

The mind is weird though.

Despite glaring and growing evidence on every conceivable media channel, and the ubiquitous use of sci-fi-esque terms like “infection rates” and “self-isolation”, every day of that first week felt more and more like being an extra in a badly-conceived, straight-to-video B movie.

Walking around deserted Belfast city centre was a surreal blend of empty department stores and almost empty coffee shops. Meeting Yana for lunch on March 16 at a still-open pub was just a week ago now and feels like another decade, but we were holding on to normality as long as possible.

Getting my superhero dad to stay in his section was a bigger challenge, but he was banned from his beloved Minister of the Eucharist duties at the local church early on, and gradually gave into the constant nagging of three daughters and a grand-daughter. Mum kept forgetting the details but is always happy to stay home so there was no argument there, praise Jah.

Worrying about work and income came next: My own, my kidults’ and my tiny island home in that order. Clearly it was becoming a case of “que sera sera” or go insane with the uncertainty of it all. I earn a living writing about one of the most beautiful – and tiny – corners of the globe, so extrapolating my thoughts on the tourism impact became an anxiety trigger to be avoided by compartmentalising.

Then came crunch time, or as The Clash would put it: “Should I stay or should I go now?”

I decided it was time to get home. That’s when it really got weird.

More to come…

Muy Tranquilo: 5 Must-dos in Cool Cabrera

Cabrera’s most predictable tourist gets ready to hit the town.

The northeast coast of Dominican Republic is where the cool kids go to look for adventure. Superlatives run out fast here, as the dazzling azure sky oversees the churning Atlantic surf rolling onto Beach-Boy-blonde sand in a constant flux of roaring energy.

Magnificent, breathtaking, awesome, soon becomes “wow, just wow” as the miles fly by and an unending parade of promenadable beaches offers a different vibe depending on your mood. It’s an outdoorsy type’s idea of heaven on earth, wall-to-wall heavy surf and perfect kiting winds, miles of unexplored hiking tracks up mountains and along vertigo-inducing cliff edges, stumbling across the odd mystic waterfall on the way.

Offering a calm and colourful counterpoint to all those dazzling blue and bluer seascapes is the quiet clifftop town of Cabrera. It doesn’t have a beach, so tourism isn’t really a thing in its narrow, bustling streets, but the hub of local social life is the town square called Cabrera Park, flanked on three sides by energetic bars, cafes and street food stands that open late to the hundreds of pasola-riding punters. The fourth side is occupied by the cute but inscrutable white facade of the Santa Cruz Catholic church, just in case the evening crowd needs saving.

Emanating out from the square is a fascinating network of streets housing people, pets and commercial activities, often in one humble space. Shopping is a multi-stop enterprise of retro-simplicity, with tiny produce markets sidling up against local pottery vendors, barbers and beauty shops all jostling for attention using colourful hand-painted signage. The dollar store vibe has infiltrated with a host of more modern emporia flogging everything from juice and crackers to fake designer handbags at very few pesos, but somehow that just adds to the retail adventure.

Cabrera quickly captures your heart with its simple charm, friendly people and vibrant presence of civic art in murals and hand-painted signs around every corner. It’s also a great place to stay as base camp for a laid back vacation with and authentic DR vibe, so here’s are some adventures to enjoy within a half hour drive of “the square.”

Selfies just don’t cut it when the Atlantic coastline is this gorgeous.

ONE Take a walk along the Malecón [Spanish: pier, jetty], a wide sweep of promenade hugging the cliffs that form Cabrera’s town limits to the north. The spray from Atlantic waves crashing into the crevices of the coastline reaches the road at times, and comfy stone benches are the best vantage point. There are a few local restaurants with cold beers and good pizza if you need a stop along the half kilometre stretch.

The Malecón is also home to the Cabrera town sign which acts like a magnet for Insta-selfies and family group snaps. Five foot tall cast concrete letters are painted in a riot of colour and set against a backdrop of sky, sea and surf. It’s a northeast coast thing and every town has a version, thereby offering an eye-catching series of photos for the truly dedicated.

Rows of nursery plants nestled in the natural shade in readiness for clients and projects.

TWO Take Autopisto 5 south towards Nagua for brunch at Cappuccino & Vivero Flor Cafe and feel transported to a Balinese sanctuary. The roadside entrance to this gorgeous outdoor restaurant gives no hint of the horticultural wonderland of a garden nursery that lies behind. Stop off here too for artisanal organic yogurt and cheese produced at the nearby family farm. It’s on the menu alongside classic breakfast and lunch favourites cooked to order.

The charming gazebo is perfect for lounging around over several cups of strong Dominican coffee, but afterwards make sure to take a walk through the nursery. Enjoy a wonderful butterfly ballet as the flowering shrubs and fruit trees attract hordes of colourful species and discover rustic indoor-outdoor event spaces that make you want to hold a party.

Hardly a ripple disturbs the complete serenity of Playa Diamante.

THREE Just 15 minutes drive south of Cabrera there’s a beach so calm that even a fearful newbie can manage to paddle board with dozens of green turtles. Because of its shape and topology, Playa Diamante is so glassy it’s hard to believe we’re still on the Atlantic coast and so shallow you can walk for miles without the water reaching your waist, making paddling or canoeing a fish-eye option for all ages.

There’s a cool beach shack lurking under the trees with cold beers and the ubiquitously delicious catch-of-the-day from Diamante’s local fishermen, while a derelict boat emblazoned with art and graffiti makes a great conversation starter with the locals.

Under the shady trees or on the beach, the food is hot and freshly cooked to order at Playa Grande.

FOUR Speaking of ubiquitous fish, there’s a respect for seafood in this area that means every dish is worth tasting, although the simplest often turn out to be the best. Selecting a whole fish from one of the casitas at the eastern end of Playa Grande is one way to eat what the locals eat. Known by the locals as the “beach club”, this popular hang out hosts as many visitors as it does choosy Dominicans who like their beer ice cold and snapper pan-fried.

Your vendor/chef will return with a large, perfectly seasoned and crisp-skinned fish along with lashings of rice, salad and tostones – twice-fried plantain slices that form a staple side at many of Cabrera’s eateries. Two can easily fill up on this authentic local lunch and share a Presidente grande for about US$20 which isn’t too touristy, although prices reduce considerable the further off the beaten track you go.

Lights and music and a joyful vibe rounds off every weekend in Cabrera.

FIVE Save Sunday for “the square” and join hundreds of Cabrera-dwellers as they chase away the end-of-weekend blues with street food, music, dancing and just plain socialising on every corner. Tables full of families enjoying an easy early dinner of pechurinas on the pavement outside SnackBar; street-glam young people downing shots and smoking hookah at KLK; efficient chef-owners slinging drippingly-good burritos and homemade burgers at the budget hunger-buster Mata Hambre [Spanish: Kill Hunger]. From late afternoon till the wee hours, it’s all good clean fun on a Sunday at Cabrera Park.



Gros Islet Kids Sailing

A collaboration between Wordsmith Agency, The Barbara Pyle Foundation, Island Boat Services and Saint Lucia Yacht Club which aims to expose kids from the fishing village to competitive sailing lessons with a view to developing the national youth team as well as sowing the seeds for future careers in the marine tourism sector.

Coach: Fredric Sweeney

Assistant Coach: Jon-Henri Sweeney

Barbara enjoying the rigging session with kids.
Coach Freddy is happy to to have so many interested young sailors.
Gros Islet beach is a pretty special place to grow up.
Sailing home at sunset…