Quarantine Cultures

Always hard to understand how things unfold the way they do. The five stages of grief have been referenced throughout the global COVID-19 outbreak. Some temporal distance since my own arrival at the “acceptance” stage has allowed me space to reflect on how different countries develop their own quarantine cultures. 

In mid-March, I was wrapping up travels in Tunisia as the coronavirus hit Europe and North America. President Trump’s misleading announcement of America’s travel ban spurred the rest of the world to respond rapidly in handling their own outbreaks. On March 14th, the Tunisian government had ordered non-essential activities to halt by 4 p.m., sealed all maritime borders, and was in the process of stopping flights. It had seemed like I would be able to fly home until it didn’t—my flight back to the states missed the cutoff by a few hours. Feeling stressed out was beyond the point, I just had to find a way to not be stuck alone in north Africa.

I’d lived in Nairobi, Kenya back in 2018, working as a freelance photojournalist covering ways in which technology is changing our relationship to the natural world. As my options for leaving Tunisia dwindled down to flights across the African continent, the comforting thought of returning to a somewhat familiar place, where I still have a community, made the most sense. It felt like the forces of the universe were on my side. Within 24 hours I’d booked and boarded a flight to Nairobi. Everything went without a hitch as I miraculously obtained a visa on arrival just as Kenya sealed its own borders. I reunited with my friend in a startlingly empty airport. The last time I met her in Nairobi, I had unknowingly picked up an amoeba infection enroute, and she slept through her alarm to pick me up from my red-eye flight. But the chaos this time was happening at a global level. It felt surreal to be back under such circumstances.

We went to my friend’s place in Karen, the admittedly bougie part of town, where I would self-quarantine for two weeks until I figured out what to do next. Karen is where expats and wealthy Kenyans tend to reside due to its greenery and seclusion from the noisy clutter of downtown. Of all the places to quarantine in Nairobi, this is definitely one of the nicer areas. The early days were the hardest, as my brain slowly, reluctantly processed the extent of COVID-19 repercussions. As a lockdown came into place on April 6th and it became clear no one was going anywhere in the near future, I used this opportunity to practice not having desires. I actually started meditating after years of intending to in order to wrestle with this new innate restlessness in response to unprecedented restrictions on movement. As someone who is used to a fairly itinerant life, I usually don’t feel homesick. That’s not even necessarily what I feel right now, but I still feel the urge return home and make sure everything is fine, even though I know they aren’t. 

I tried to keep up with developments in New Hampshire, where my parents live, as streets quieted down, shops closed, and the non-stop cycle of bad developments sustained a low hum of menace. My mother wrote a family email saying, “It’s a different world here now. Before we went to every store, it was always full of customers and goods on all the shelves.” My brother quickly responded- “Please stay calm… stores will be back in stock within a few weeks. This is the United States, not a third world developing country. Everyone is panic buying, of course the shelves will be temporarily empty.” 

A significant portion of Kenya’s population work in the gig economy, with financial limitations that make hoarding impossible. Pre-pandemic, working class Kenyans would buy what they need day-to-day: 3 eggs instead of a dozen, a couple of cigarettes instead of a pack, and so on. Many do not face the sort of abundance that Americans take for granted. The capacity to hoard toilet paper simply doesn’t exist. 

On April 6th, President Kenyatta announced restricted movement for 21 days in and out of Nairobi Metropolitan Area and other virus hotspots, including Kilifi and Mombasa counties. This lockdown has been renewed three times for a total of nine weeks so far. Face masks and social-distancing are required in public places, along with a curfew from 7pm - 5am. These directives, which have since been gazetted, were accepted by the people. The orderliness of sanitization procedures when entering shops does lend some psychological trust to the process. At some establishments, you wash your hands, then use hand sanitizer, and have your temperature taken before you are allowed entrance. Failure to abide results in a fine and/or time in prison, and possibly corporeal punishment by the police. Kenyans may grumble and be forced into compliance, but the government’s authoritarianism has in a way reaffirmed the way in which orders are not questioned. My friends here joke, “beatings are the African way.” As of May 10th, there were 632 COVID-19 cases and 32 deaths. In practice, the strict restrictions may be a shame, but an effective one. 

But there’s been backlash from those who see the Kenyan government’s tunnel-vision handling of coronavirus as a distraction from everything else that needs fixing. On May 7th, at least 194 Kenyans were killed from flash floods. Floods that happen every year. Kenyans have much bigger things to worry about than whether or not the government has overstepped its boundaries by requiring citizens to wear masks.

Meanwhile, Americans collectively realized in horror that the US had not simply botched the handling of COVID-19, but utterly failed to protect its citizens. But that funny thing that comes with America’s particular abstract concept of freedom and individuality– how our opinions should always be respected– that is alive and well. In various parts of the US, protests over mask-wearing emerged as select citizens view issues of public health as hindrances to personal freedom. Of all the things to pick a bone about, this seemed like an inane one considering the initial logarithmic rise of COVID-19 cases in the US. Even in the middle of a pandemic. For some, flaunting recommended stay-at-home orders became an act of bravery and reflection of the right to exercise individual freedom. It’s hard not to feel disconnected from the situation on the ground back at home when hearing such news.

Nevertheless, the US’s systemic failures have never been made more clear. African Americans are disproportionately affected by coronavirus, millions of Americans who were already struggling to pay rent face even more obstacles, and racially-motivated shootings continue to occur. COVID-19 has magnified the looming deficiencies in our system, realities we can no longer afford to ignore. These uncomfortable realizations only add to the general sense of pandemic fear.

When I first started thinking about quarantine cultures, I saw COVID-19 as a democratizing force. The whole world is rarely put on pause at the same time for the same reason. Theoretically, everyone faces the same situation of sheltering in place, self-isolating, and experiencing degrees of loneliness from restricted mobility and nostalgia for the past and joys we took for granted. One’s wealth is no guarantee of safe passage from the virus. But COVID-19 has highlighted key socio-economic inequities, which are going nowhere. In Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa and a neighbourhood division in Nairobi, at least 12% of the population is HIV positive and therefore immuno-compromised. Access to reliable sources of clean water has always been an issue– this is one of the few realities that hasn’t changed. 

News of Americans raring to go to the beach– individuals bored of their Netflix, longing for a return to a former sense of normalcy– is distinctly unsettling. It’s one thing to defy lockdowns when one lacks the means to self-quarantine, but the desire to go on holiday as soon as possible shows how selfish and short-sighted we are as a nation. As long as outbreaks continue– and they will for quite some time– our old activities will not truly feel normal or bring the sort of gratification they once did. In Kenya, everyone knows that the lockdown can’t last for much longer– people need to eat. The majority of civilians live hand-to-mouth; keeping food in the house each day has become even more of a Sisyphean task ever since business jolted to a halt. Yet, the wealthy in Kenya live relatively unperturbed, just as those in the US do, going on daily walks to escape the emptiness of their big houses. With masks on and carefully social distancing, of course.










Tips for (Female) Solo Travelers

Over the years, quite a number of people have asked me about what it’s like as a solo female traveler. Of course, I can only speak from my perspective- the only one I’ve ever had- but I’ve managed to come up with a list that may prove to be interesting, and hopefully helpful, to anyone out interested in seeing the world on their own terms. 

Personally, I travel for human connections: to learn, see, and maybe even understand. Life is meant to be communicated and experienced together. 

  • It is almost always more mental than physical
  • Discomfort is not the same as danger. What you’re concerned about is generally more discomfort than actual issues of safety
  • Humans are inherently problem solvers and we have been gathering skills our whole lives to fix things and work out issues. Even if they aren’t necessarily “back-country” skills, you’ll figure it out. Eventually, the problem-solving process will simplify as you develop your priorities.
  • Testing limits will allow you to gain experience.
  • That being said, don’t be dumb. Don’t test limits just for the sake of doing so. This will be your call, and the nuances will show themselves with time and experience as you figure out what direction you’re trying to go in.
  • Trust your gut feeling. Develop your gut feeling by being aware of it and listening to it. Don’t be paranoid, but if something doesn’t feel right, it’s better to be rude or unsociable than allowing yourself to enter what feels like precarious territory
  • Develop a different relationship with failure/expectations! If something doesn’t go as planned, you can learn from it, go along and see what happens. Some even say that real adventures don’t start unless everything goes wrong. That’s a bit hardcore, but most of my favourite and most memorable times abroad were unplanned.
  • Do your basic research. Respect local customs. Pack loose pants, tops, and scarves for covering up as needed.
  • A quick-drying travel towel is your friend.
  • I always try to have a book, journal, and pens on me. Helps with keeping boredom at bay during inevitable waits (much of traveling is waiting; this is something people don’t talk about enough).
  • Carry $100+ USD for emergencies (i.e. paying for visas on arrival)
  • Always carry all of your documents- old passports, immunizations, sim cards, etc. You never know when a pandemic may hit and where it may send you…

Lurching from a Global Pandemic

No one’s life has gone unscathed in this pandemic. I remember where I was when I first heard about COVID-19: I was out on a walk around the neighbourhood with my mother, and she had just told me how the community Chinese New Year’s event had been canceled due to a virus from Wuhan. This was back in January, 2020. Most Americans were most likely still unaware of just how globalized our world is, how none of us are truly safe from one another. I had been largely on a news-purge since late August of 2020, filling my screen-time with reading literary and art articles. The closest I got to headlines were New Yorker culture articles. I found that I would hear about important happenings in politics sooner or later from my friends. It became an interesting social experiment.

I was a hair’s breadth away from being stuck in Tunisia, North Africa in mid-March as the incoming pandemic swept through (that’s a story for another time). As what felt like my only resort– short of staying in Tunisia for god-knows-how-long, without a real support system– I opted to fly to Nairobi, where I had lived back in 2018. I could stay with a friend for the time being until I figured out how to get back to the States. I’ve been here for seven weeks and counting, with at least 2 more weeks to go. We learned from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s announcement on April 25th that the initial 3-week internal lockdown for Nairobi, Kilifi, Mombasa, and other hotspot areas was doubled until May 18th. Meanwhile, the international borders remain closed (not counting horrifically expensive embassy-arranged charter flights out of Nairobi to Addis-Ababa, where you’re on your own to figure out what to do next). As I near 50 days of being back in Nairobi, I am a bundle of contradictions. My mind is a mess; sometimes I wake up to realize that I’m here, that I’ve been sharing a bed with my friend for more than a month. The inability to retract into my own space has been wearing– like many others, I find myself crying more than usual. Swinging between highs and lows of what we once knew and all the uncertainty the unsteady future holds. I am seriously eternally grateful that Nairobi is still a home for me- I had never thought that I’d come back under such bizarre circumstances. The space that Karen– the admittedly bougie part of the city– offers has been a true blessing; while we are required by law to wear face masks and socially distance in public, with a strict 7pm - 5am curfew, we are free to go outside for walks and runs as we please. My friends in Spain are not so fortunate. 

It appears that people around the world are bored as heck under lockdown (white-collar, well-off individuals fit this category best). I have not been able to relate to this- if anything, I feel more busy than ever. There’s the ever-present internal pressure to work harder at everything- figuring out shit I haven’t gotten around to (e.g. stock trading, savings strategies), developing personal skillset (writing, GIS, and coding loom high on the list), doing more at my jobs (my core job as project manager/account administrator has been remote since day 1). I can’t remember the last time my life was so routine for so long. It’s a comforting yet stifling feeling knowing where I’ll wake up each day and exactly what I will need to do. This is the perfect opportunity for me to grow into rituals I have always felt the urge to do (intermittent fasting, meditation, oil-pulling, regular journalling, yoga, the list goes on), but are difficult to form given an itinerant lifestyle. Routines in this rather forced setting have the tendency to feel like a core. Normal life consists of carefully calibrated routines– if I fail to get the endorphin fix I need or stick to my tasks, I’m liable to totally falling apart.
If anything, I am trying to put this newfound meditation to good use and not feel overwhelmed about all the films I wish I had time to watch and all the skills I should have obtained last year. The rolling cycle of applications, Skillshare classes, thoughts to clear out via stream of consciousness writing doesn’t stop. The key is to accept and respect all Known Unknowns. But take things one day at a time.

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