”Written byFreddie Hiney
The Hapless Traveler – A Pandemic Anecdote
I was sitting at the pub on a Sunday afternoon with my local crew, nursing a hangover after a two-day bender when my mother called. That was when I knew COVID-19 was serious. If we were to live in relative freedom, we’d have to hightail it back to South Africa post-haste. Little did we know the implications COVID 19 would have on the South African landscape.
The haziness of those implications started to settle in. The pandemic had certainly taken root. Would I be suffering another hangover next week? As all students will attest to, this is one of the main concerns, coupled with impending assignment deadlines.
At the time, I was in the middle of my dissertation and time was running out. With all the uncertainty up in the air, universities decided to postpone exams and hand-ins by two months, a blessing in disguise in that sense.
Whether you were at home watching TV or travelling through South America, the thought of the world stopping was unfathomable. For South Africa, it proved catastrophic. In a country where many of its industries rely on tourism, it submerged them like a tsunami. They went from freedom to a national lockdown within a week. Some would panic-buy a year’s supply of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. While others, still optimistic that they can make their flight to Sri Lank in 5 weeks. As it was. Mom and I were fortunate enough to get one of the last flights out of the country before international travel would cease indefinitely. I arrived in South Africa a day before the borders closed, vaguely optimistic that this would be short-lived, and I would be back in the pub with my friends after the Easter holidays. However, South Africa would go on to experience some of the harshest lockdown measures across any continent.
When the pandemic started to sweep the UK, my feelings were a mixture of panic coupled with the idea that this was just going to come and go. All over in a month or two. How wrong I was in my assumption? Well, when I first heard about it, I was in the backend of my third and final year of university in Cardiff, Wales. When the virus was still contained in China, the thought of COVID affecting my life felt very slim. However, once it entered Italy it flipped very quickly; suddenly I couldn’t go out without overhearing people’s conspiracy theories like, ‘it’s the government, not a bat’. Something felt different. These were no longer throw-away comments. But still, no one could have predicted the months to follow.
“Something felt different. These were no longer throw-away comments. But still, no one could have predicted the months to follow.”
As Italy went into a lockdown in the space of a few days, it started to creep into the UK. The street chatter became more and more vocal, and it was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You couldn’t escape it; it became the focal point of everyone’s conversation. With countries closing their borders’ one after the other it felt inevitable that it was going to close the UK’s. With this going on in the back of my head, I went to my good friend Ken voicing my concern about a lockdown and how this will mean no more parties for a while. It didn’t take much convincing and that Friday we located a couple of house parties, got some beers, and started our round-robin, eventually wobbling home in the early hours, arm in arm. The same again would happen on Saturday.
Hungover and feeling sorry for myself, I joined my friends for a Sunday pub lunch, and this was when the call came from my mother. She told me that I needed to get on the first flight back home before the lockdown. I rushed back to my laptop and booked a flight for the next day. Still distorted from the weekend, it hadn’t quite sunk in, but it all felt quite James Bond-ish. Trying to get home to SA before the President locks me out.
Luckily (for me), my housemate was in a similar situation and was on his way back home to Seattle that same day. I packed what I could, said my goodbyes and hopped into his taxi. Before I knew it, we were on our way to Heathrow within 14 hours of booking my flight, still hungover. With the Easter holidays only three weeks away, we were still confident that we would be back to finish off our last term of university.
Walking into the airport felt apocalyptic. There was a mixture of people rushing home with no masks, others with hazmat suits, head to toe. It felt eerie and empty; things you don’t expect from an international airport. Still naïve at what was to come, my friend and I giggled at those in their ‘Armageddon’ suits and masks; we were excited by the prospect of an extended holiday back in our respective homes, escaping the cold weather. Fully expecting to be back in a month or two it wasn’t an emotional goodbye, more of a ‘travel safe’ and ‘see you soon.’
“It started to creep into the UK. The street chatter became more and more vocal, and it was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You couldn’t escape it; it became the focal point of everyone’s conversation.”
I hopped on the plane and flew down to Cape Town, eventually arriving in Wilderness. I still hadn’t quite recovered from the weekend, but it was a relief to be back home and as the months followed weeks with no sight of the world returning to normal, I was grateful for where I was. Obviously, there were moments of frustration due to a general lack of freedoms, but it had been a couple of years since I had been back home for longer than a month. The opportunity to rekindle with family and have home-cooked meals was all I needed.
I know this was very different for others; when we lose our basic freedoms and are told what we can’t consume or inhale it is enough to send us over the edge. There were moments when I nearly went over the edge, but the sounds and happiness of being home, surrounded by nature and family helped keep me grounded. I was privileged enough to not have the inner-city constraints, still able to sneak in surfs and go on walks outside of my property. It felt rebellious and fun, like the virus was contained to the cities and I was free. Some individuals took this time to reflect, pick up a new hobby, or work harder on their craft. For others it was a moment of pure panic; trying to pay bills when there are no hours to clock in.
As time went on it became more apparent that getting back to university was not going to happen. Around the globe, millions of students were coming to the same realisation. Whilst university fees were staying the same, suddenly, they had to do a U-turn on their plans, leaving behind their newfound freedom of adulthood and instead, returning home. Many pondering at what the point is in attending a prestigious university or paying prestigious university prices as they shifted from lecture halls to self-studying in bed. With the world at a standstill, I still had many of my belongings in digs. How was I going to get them back? The short answer is: I still haven’t gotten them back. I asked my six housemates if they could each take a portion of my belongings and they obliged. It’s been so long since that time, I can’t remember what belongings I have and who has what.
Fast track to today and it seems that we still haven’t progressed. Alcohol banned again and a bloody 9pm curfew. Through all the highs and lows, travelling has always been prime in my life. The want to travel is within us all, when we feel restricted it only increases that urge. The thought of not being able to fly away to where we want to be without a two-week quarantine in a small room is frightening. Before 2019, this concept of not being able to leave our country would have been laughed at, but right now we are in the thick of it. I’m still optimistic about it all and feel that freedom is in sight. Soon we will be able to travel the world, albeit with masks and hazmat suits. Musicians will play to thousands and the thought of social distancing will be a thing of the past.
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