Quarantine Zen Queen 7: Reality Dawns

One of my favourite feels is arriving at a new destination in the dark and discovering what it looks like in the morning. I realised asking the receptionist for a room with a view had been a wasted joke. The carpark crowd that had been so tired, anxious and hungry were now waking up to a glorious vista over Bel Jou gardens and west to the familiar blueness of Caribbean sea and sky. Granted the first reaction of a few vocal locals was to stand on their balcony hollering their frustrations at the world in general, but we were all finding a personal strategy for coping.

It was Tuesday, March 24, and now I had an answer to all the wondering and worrying about what ‘Quarantine-with-a-capital-Q’ would look like. Let’s face it, two free weeks gazing at the ocean from a hotel room in Saint Lucia is on many people’s bucket lists, and here we were getting the full treatment courtesy of Covid-19 and the government. I decided to throw the full force of my Positive Pollyanna vibe behind every effort, and knuckled down to making this another life-learning experience, while regularly entertaining the folks on Facebook who had been / were still worried about me. Friends in the real sense, not just the social media type.

For the ninety-ninth time in a week, I praised Jah for internet, although the hotel wifi was already staggering under the weight of a hundred or so smart phones all trying to reach out to family or catch up with the news. Photos of my spacious room with its two double beds and private balcony-with-a-view were sent to the family Whatsapp chat, and their collective sigh of relief could be felt from the Dominican Republic to Belfast to Brighton and back home. Yes, there was a kettle for all that tea and coffee I’d been carrying and a fridge for Horley’s best grapes and cherry tomatoes. Yes, there were toiletries enough to keep me smelling sweet. Yes, there was definitely a TV but it would be rationed because I’d already overdosed on Corona-coverage for 48 hours in the UK and knew that watching the news would be an anxiety trigger to manage carefully. Especially here given that most of the news channels were CNN and couldn’t be relied upon for facts.

New routines would evolve around the room service schedule laid out in the official “welcome-to-quarantine’ letter that slid under the door. Breakfast around 8am, lunch around noon, and dinner around 6pm would become the high points of the day, or at least a time to speak to other humans from a safe distance. The staff were masked and gloved, efficient and friendly, despite having to put up with the odd tirade of expletives from a few ungrateful quarant-inmates who felt their human rights entitled them to the all-inclusive luxury package. Day one with no rum was not going well for some.

Room service arrived with eggs, bacon, sausages and a pile of toast. Outside I heard them yelling “what kinda [insert Patois curse here] breakfast was that?” while I rustled up a spare sausage sandwich to keep in the fridge for later. Hoarding would become an obsession – in a good way, because three massive meals a day was way too much for my travel-shredded digestive system to contemplate. It was another mind game to engage in, and games would be important if the two weeks were to be tolerable. Saving something for later would also mean I wouldn’t end up hungry and miserable at random times of the day or night, and the strategy led to some very creative snack options over the course of the first week.

I spent the first morning relieving my wheelie bag of a small pile of winter clothing, one t-shirt and a pair of old shorts I’d left in Belfast on a previous visit. Obviously ‘Hand-washing with Mindfulness’ would have to be on the regular itinerary, otherwise I’d end up living in jeans and woollies with the AC turned down to glacial. Exploring the amenities, I had to admit that life would be just fine in this space, as long as I continued rationing supplies and accessorised the room with scarves and personal artwork from my 5 year old nephew. I hadn’t seen my tiny-but-surprisingly-loud bluetooth speaker since arriving, but there it was, stuck in the wrong corner of the bag just trying to give me a heart attack. Drowning out the human noise outside would be key for my sanity, that much I knew.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? The Nurses. The Nurses who?

The Nurses who would be taking our temperature twice a day, every day for the next fourteen, that’s who! From here on, in my mind and written content, the term will be capitalized out of deep respect for every medical professional in this world at this time in history. They waved their gadget at my forehead, declared the number to be perfectly normal and exchanged a few kind words of assurance. They even got my sense of humour, and over the next few days felt like family, or at least close friends. By day five I was being called “behbeee” so I knew they liked me too.

The next visitor was bearing lunch, and that started another ritual of taking a photo of every meal, just in case I’d forget. Yeah, irrational, but when I line them all up at the end it’ll probably blow my mind. Five hours later there was dinner, and other than that I can’t remember those first twenty four hours in any detail now that we’re ten days into the vacation, I mean quarantine. But my routines evolved quickly to include morning yoga and meditation with The Art of Living community online, strategically timed cuppas, OCD-style tidying up and an hour of news in the evening to stay informed on the terrifying numbers coming in from around the globe. It wasn’t my favourite part of the day, but it felt like a responsible thing to do. Daily showering and skin care assumed spa session proportions – it’s amazing how long you can take washing your face and slapping on serum if there’s nothing else on the agenda.

So the first day was done and the great unknown was less unknown, which I find is always a better headspace. Of course there were a few things I hankered after, like real milk in my tea and cute nail polish, but those could wait a while longer. After all, every disappointment is a blessing and delayed gratification is good for the soul.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 6: The Return of PTSDee

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…

Quarantine Zen Queen 5: Don’t Stand So Close To Me

If you’ve never sat for an hour in the hot sun wearing a medical face mask, oversized shades and a black cap, you may think I’m exaggerating, but it feels like sticking your head inside the door of a sauna while your body stays outside in the 30 degree heat. There’s a point at which all the wiping and dabbing with tissues is a waste of time, so you let the sweat flow where it may. Lying on the ground beside me was a guy claiming to be diabetic, who had made a lot of noise about “going at his home” in the short distance between the plane and our temporary queuing position.

To be honest, I started off thinking he was full of shit and trying a ting with the authorities. It’s a habit for some Saint Lucians to publicly share at top volume whatever beef is on their mind, and there was a lot of eye-rolling going on behind my sunnies and quiet swearing under the mask. After an hour, the man was looking drained while his young teenage son sat silently watching, and my mindset changed to a what-if scenario. What if he was hypo-ing right there beside me while I inwardly accused him of being a big fake? What if his kid had to witness all the unpleasant, scary effects that accompany a dramatic drop in blood sugar?

We’d been watching the circus going on around us for what felt like forever. Departing passengers were emerging in spurts from inside the tinted glass doors, blinking in the mid-afternoon sun and looking lost. Some were headed to a couple of planes that sat on the steaming tarmac, some to the buses that had been laid on for transportation to quarantine. There seemed to be dozens of airport staff, catering contractors and Ports Police milling around with no real sense of purpose which didn’t instill any sense of confidence that the “processing” would be simple or speedy.

As soon as our own Port Medical nurse reappeared and – ignoring the puddle of melting humans in the tiny Virgin group – headed towards the arrivals door, I hauled myself off the hot concrete and nabbed her before she disappeared.

“Hi again, we’re really suffering over there and one of the guys is diabetic. What happens next?” I pleaded. From her reaction, it was clear she’d temporarily forgotten us, but I couldn’t hold it against her. So far I’d seen two nurses dedicated to taking temperatures and escorting groups to buses. Everyone else in uniform seemed to be dousing themselves in hand sanitiser and having a laugh.

“Oh, you can all go inside in the cool,” she said in a tone that implied we should have guessed that ourselves.

I briefed my new travel buddies and dragged my baggage to the cavernous area where we would normally have been lined up snaking towards customs and immigration. The beautiful baby and his ladies were already inside, praise Jah, and he was still behaving impeccably. I hadn’t noticed them leave the line. Another couple of nurses were stationed at a booth, while about forty passengers remained out of two hundred that had come off a flight from the USA. They were repatriated cruise ship crew who had already spent a month in quarantine on board an MSC liner, and some of them were really ticked off.

“I eh go in no hotel,” yelled one short fella repeatedly in a testosterone-fuelled tirade. “You taking my human rights away!” He harangued the nurses while an entire cadre of uniformed officers with stupid little batons stuck under their armpits watched in silence, even smirking about the dude whose anger was encouraging others to vent at the same decibel level. A lady from my flight had been classy and circumspect for the past twelve hours under Virgin’s care, but now she kicked off in a Lucian/London accent about how we were being “treated like animals.” Once started, she never shut her trap until we were in Castries.

Of course I understood their frustration. I just couldn’t see what would be gained by expending all that negative energy at the nurses who were doing the hardest, most dangerous job. They’d never experienced anything like this before. They were obviously trying to carry out government enforced regulations that had not necessarily been well thought out. There was no social distancing in place, so people were milling about and mixing with others, new plane loads were entering the area and most travellers had no masks, no gloves, just a rancorous attitude and a ton of loud self pity.

“Behave yourself! It’s not all about you,” I hissed at them from behind the mask, knowing nobody would figure me out. What Lucian would suspect it was the nice white lady muttering “Mésyé gason!” every few minutes? Slumping down on the cool tiled floor, I was already fighting off the urge to join them hurling abuse in every direction, especially at the pint-sized pot-bellied puffed-up Ports Police that were doing eff all to intervene, shut down the yelling and give suffering medical staff a break from the ignorant histrionics.

By now I was withering with dehydration and one of the nurses pointed to a water fountain nearby. Considering a couple of hundred people were milling around after long haul flights, I felt a bottle of water for the onward journey would have been a sensible provision, but alas, nobody had thought of that. Around two hours after stepping back on Saint Lucian soil, we were rounded up and escorted to one of the island’s saddest, mankiest buses and it was obvious there would be no social distancing all the way to Bel Jou Hotel in Castries, which had moments earlier opened up as the next quarantine centre for the island.

We sat on the bus for another half an hour while passengers from two more flights were jammed into the free seats – UK, USA, Jah knows where they were coming from. I huddled up to my bag on the next seat and hoped I wouldn’t be asked to share. That moment was surreal in all sorts of ways. It was another indication that the authorities were not, as Stephen Covey recommends, “beginning with the end in mind”. No doubt the ground staff were trying their best to execute the directives, but science said that several of us might catch Covid-19 in the next hour and a half, as we hurtled up the highway in matching face masks and senses of panic.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 4: Uncharted Territory

If you were among the nine passengers aboard VS89 from LGW to UVF on Monday, March 23, I have a message: Swear to Jah I don’t always get on like Father Jack in an off licence. In fact it’s years since I consumed more than two adult beverages on a long haul flight, partly because of the amplified effect that leaves the body dessicated by dehydration, and partly because at some point they started charging and who could afford those prices?

But when the Virgin Atlantic crew welcomed us to our Premium Economy upgrade with a glass of Prosecco at 9.30am, I was secretly delighted at the chance to get pissed after two days of solid angsting. Don’t judge me, most of you would have done the same. Settling into my roomy leather window seat with its oversized entertainment monitor and two warm blankets, I felt an avalanche of emotions and gratefully accepted a rum and Coke to celebrate the fact that Saint Lucia was only nine hours and forty minutes away.

It was surreal to know there was one cabin crew for every passenger including the baby, but of course it meant service was amazing. Even better than that one time I got a surprise Upper Class upgrade from Delhi to London, when I sat there hungry until the thoughtful Flight Service Manager briefed me it was like a restaurant and one had to order from the menu. But here we were, living large on an empty airplane as we traversed the Atlantic towards the most beautiful island in the world and whatever the Universe had in store for us.

Despite VERA offering a mind-boggling list of movies and TV shows, I went for the music channel, stuck on my big, comfy headphones and started browsing the genres. “Another drink, madam?” offered the blonde one. “Does a fish have a waterproof head?” I replied, having discovered the classic album section populated by Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Kate Bush, and perfect-for-the-occasion Fleetwood Mac.

Chair-dancing is my favourite so there was quite a lot of energetic bopping in 20K, to say nothing of the personal karaoke session – like my Mum when she got her first Walkman and didn’t realise we could all hear her singing along at the top of her voice. I didn’t – as my people would say – give a shite who heard me this time. After what we had witnessed with our Grenadian friends, I needed to blow off steam and the music was soothing my melted brain. After an hour, I cruised over to the TV shows and found something even more welcome. The second season of Derry Girls was there in full, and I was just gagging to see it all.

“Another drink, madam?” offered the brunette one. “Is the Pope a Catholic?” I replied, “but hold the pathetic pretzels please!” [Btw, whoever is responsible for creating these tasteless cardboard abominations must be having a laugh!] Wrapping up in the better-than-Economy blankets, I grabbed my big bag of emergency M&S Prawn Cocktail Shells and started the first episode with great anticipation.

What a genius body of work Lisa McGee has gifted the world, and in particular, the Northern Irish people who remember The Troubles. I howled with teary laughter at the superb accuracy of the dialogue, then howled with snotty tears of nostalgia that splashed onto the purple blanky as I remembered my own senior school days just a few years before the Derry Girls. Humour in the face of adversity. Who can beat us at that, I thought, doing the big snort-laughs that make my kids laugh even harder.

By the time it got to the visit of the President in the final episode, my intercostal muscles were aching, eyelids swollen like chipolatas and I’d lost all inhibition that my fellow travellers would hear or see the madness going on in the seat over the right wing. It felt like I’d been thinking exclusively about Covid-19 for two whole weeks, so the fact that I lost myself in two hours of comedy diversion was a welcome breakthrough.

“Another drink, madam?” offered the ginger one. “Does a bear poop in the woods?” I replied. Actually that’s a lie. This time I said “Just one more for de road,” and meant it. According to the tracker, we were still five hours away from Saint Lucia and it was Bacardi-induced nap time. There, I admit it – they only had my least favourite brand but at least it was the dark and not the white. I chased it with a bottle of water and fell sound asleep in the big seat.

Three hours later, I was up like a lilty and trying not to focus on what was to come. No expectations and be ready for anything, I reminded myself, which included fourteen days of quarantine at a hotel since my landlord had respectfully requested that I not seek self isolation at home in the building that also housed six other tenants. It was a moot point because Saint Lucia had implemented mandatory quarantine over the weekend, and I was grateful enough to be getting in, far less getting home.

The Cornish cream tea was served an hour before landing and I swiped the sandwich into my Quarantine Prepper kit with the rest of the spoils I’d been gathering like an OCD magpie all through the journey. The Singapore noodles were still there, along with the lone, untouched bar of chocolate which would alleviate some major cravings if rationed to a square a day. I practically offloaded every tissue from the well-stocked toilet at the rear of the plane that had offered a leg stretching opportunity with every ‘comfort break’ as the PC crowd would say.

Documents were double-checked, landing card filled-in, cabin baggage stuffed to twice its size with every layer of clothing I wouldn’t need in ten minutes when we landed in 30 degree heat. I was on the wrong side to see the island as we approached, but considered that disappointment as a blessing in case emotional histrionics would invade my now calmer, more businesslike brain. Gazing at the mad blue expanse of Caribbean Sea was enough to make me grin from ear to ear, so I settled for a quick glimpse of Moule A Chique as we bounced onto the runway. This time I didn’t clap, still embarrassed that I was the only one to celebrate the take-off with a round of applause.

There was another emotional moment though, as we headed for the door and I remembered again that this was actually the last ever Virgin flight to Saint Lucia. The company had had decided to pull out in June, and coronavirus had simply accelerated the permanent departure of my favourite UVF – LGW carrier. I thanked them for dozens of great flights over the years and hoped they’d be back in the post-virus future. For now, they weren’t even allowed off the plane and were heading back to unpaid leave for the foreseeable future – although not before dropping off cargo in Grenada. Yeah, people were left behind but cargo got through. It was a devastating snippet of insider information that made again me ponder this cruel time in our collective lives.

So many personal stories, worries and unknown quantities. I mentally applauded the crew for being so darn cheerful and professional throughout the whole journey and hurtled down the steps to do a Pope John Paul and kiss the tarmac. Not really, but I almost couldn’t resist the urge for a flamboyant gesture. Realising I was back in Saint Lucia where the local sense of humour is such that they’d probably cart me off to the National Mental Health Centre for being a crazy white lady, I gave it a miss.

As our tiny group walked to the terminal, I buddied up with the masked, gloved and laser-focused Port Health nurse from the requisite six feet away, and asked what we could expect now. She was terse but polite: “We’ll process you and then you’ll be put on a bus to quarantine in a hotel. Just line up here for a short while.”

An hour later we were still outside Departures, sitting on the ground, leaning on the glass, sweating like pigs and getting gradually more vexed as hordes of officials wandered around kixxing off with their mates and generally not communicating with the passengers. I knew I was home and would now need all the zen I could muster.

More to come…

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…