Editor’s note: This piece by staff writer Kathryn Kneller is meant to be a companion to my “When the Traveler Can’t Travel.” For more of Kathryn’s writing, visit her index.
In December 2019 I set off on a year-long odyssey which would see me spending a month in each of twelve different world cities, beginning in Santiago, Chile. I had signed up on a programme called Remote Year along with 27 other adventurers, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads who, like me, were planning to work as we travelled the world together. Our itinerary would lead us north up the western edge of South America through Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico before crossing the Pacific to Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Kyoto in time for the Olympics, and Kuala Lumpur. After that we would spend three months in Mediterranean Europe in the autumn and finally see in 2021 from Cape Town, South Africa. But then: Covid-19.
Back in early March, as the contagion was gathering pace in Asia, Italy and Spain, it was still a relatively minor item tucked away in the “World News” section of the papers. The headlines were dominated instead by where Prince Harry and Megan Markle (remember them?) were going to live and who was going to foot the bill for their security detail. Simpler times indeed.
On Friday March 13th my greatest Covid-19-related concern was that Vietnam seemed disinclined to allow Brits in, and that I might have to go somewhere else for the month of May before rejoining my companions in Thailand in June. By the evening of Sunday the 15th, countries across the world had announced they were closing borders and grounding international flights and it had begun to dawn on all of us that this was Not. A. Normal. Situation. Within hours, my cohort and I were faced with a stark decision: stay put where we were in Medellin, Colombia, or go home?
Medellin and me
Seven of us decided to remain and wait it out, and a month later, here we still are. Colombia was (happily) late to the Covid-19 party: with minimal infection rates, and some of the best healthcare in the world, I felt the risk of staying here was smaller than that of returning to the UK, where collective madness seemed to be taking over. I was in a comfortable apartment with roommates I liked, there were no quarantine restrictions in place, the weather was good and the supermarket shelves well-stocked. I felt pretty good about the decision, and my family backed it too.
The following week, a nationwide lockdown was announced. One individual per household would be allowed out each day to buy food and medicine, or to go to the bank, but that was it. The week after that, it was announced that this would be restricted to twice weekly, with entry to shops based on the last digit of your ID card (or passport, for foreign nationals). Just last week it was restricted further, to one trip out every five days. The lockdown has been extended twice now too – from April 13th to April 26th, and it seems likely to be extended again. Even though by acting fast and hard, Colombia seems to have been successful in containing the spread of the virus, none of us have any idea when this will be over, or how it will end – here or anywhere else.
Medellin is a gorgeous city, even though I can’t see it right now.
My housemates and I are doing what we can to make our accommodation feel like home, even though we’ve transformed the living area into a makeshift co-working space, with post-it notes up the wall and even our own printer. We’re buying kitchenware on our supermarket trips, new bedding and vases for flowers. We’re establishing rituals and taking on roles. Cynthia gets up first and makes a pot of coffee for the three of us. I cook supper. We celebrate the end of the working day at 5:30pm with a “sundowner” on the balcony: a cocktail of orange juice, cranberry juice and aguardiente, the local brandy. We watch movies together in the evening.
I look forward to my twice-weekly walk to the supermarket now as much I used to do a city break in Europe. I pay more attention now that it’s an excursion, not just an errand. The colour of the tropical flowers. The sound of birdsong (and I’m sure it’s louder than it was before). The Venezuelan refugees living in the park who greet me with a smile and a cheery wave and “hola amiga!” The mango tree I pass on the way: it’s almost a thrill of excitement to hear a rustle in the leaves, and then a thud, and then watch a green mango bounce away down the hill.
I have time to sit in the sun on our balcony and think about my literary heroes whose travels were either interrupted or had to be redirected inwards. Odysseus, so comfortable with Circe on the island of Aeaea that he forgot all about his planned return to Ithaca. Hamlet, who said he “could be bounded in a nutshell and count himself the king of infinite space.” The author of the Oxford poem, who proclaimed that “my mind to me a kingdom is.” I find it helps.
Our balcony view
We’re all still safe and well, and thank goodness, so are all those we love. In the meantime, I have a business to build, and coaching clients who need my help. So I am making the most of having no other distractions (unless of course you count the internet and all the old friends from back home who suddenly want to have virtual drinks with me – a delightful problem to have) to use this time wisely. And I remind myself that my adventures haven’t ended: the world just pressed pause on them for the time being. I am still travelling: I’m just not moving.
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