MAHE, Seychelles Islands – Who hasn’t said it? “I want to be on an island with nothing to do.” I said it many times, especially in times of too much work, stress and conflict. Well, it happened to me.
I am on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and I have nothing to do. Because of Covid, I am stuck in Mahe, the biggest island of the Seychelles archipelago of 100,000 people. Its imposing granite mountains and tropical forests lap the Indian Ocean, the warmest I have ever swam in. But I have to explain how I got here.
The Seychelles are on the far side of the world, a four-hour flight from East Africa and almost a day from Miami or New York. Since my days as a poor university student I wanted to come. The islands seemed so beautiful to the eye and intoxicating for the spirit. Above all, they were unreachable. But finally, after months of planning and saving to leave behind the frustrations of 2021, I organized a year’s end vacation here for the whole family.
We considered almost everything. We were worried about the Omicron wave. But we were all vaccinated and had to pass a PCR test before traveling. So we got on the airplane.
On the second day I sensed a strange noise in my left ear. Tinnitus. But, strangely, it would not go away. So I blamed it and the headaches on the flights and jet lag. The next day, resting face down, I felt something run down my left nostril. I panicked. I went to my room, took out a home Covid test I had packed and 15 minutes later – with the two little lines that showed positive – I knew my vacation had come to an end. I had the Coronavirus. The hotel nurse confirmed it the next day with another test.
I went into emergency mode. (Television, with its breaking news, prepared me well for that.) No one else in the group was infected, and, surprisingly, I found flights that same night to return everyone to Miami. My daughter Paula did not want to leave me alone, and in an incredible show of her love and solidarity stayed for a few days to take care of me.
My three shots of the Moderna vaccine protected me well, and I have almost no symptoms. The tinnitus disappeared after a few days and I was left only with a sleepy and slight tiredness. But the worst was the isolation, the boredom and the inability to leave this place. Once your diagnosis is confirmed, the Seychelles health ministry tells you to enter a strict and solitary quarantine. This archipelago was, at one point of the pandemic, the most vaccinated country per capita. Today, the daily cases here are in the dozens, not the hundreds of thousands like other nations.
I am lucky to spend these difficult days in my hotel. Those who cannot stay in their hotels must spend their quarantine in government facilities. From my room I can see the sea and verdant mountains. So close, but so far away. With more than 5 million dead from Covid around the world, I cannot complain. And yet …
My daughter Paola, magnificent and magnanimous, has now left. But before that she made sure that I had nothing serious. We spent, with masks and broad social distancing, four days of marvelous conversations. I love and admire her. When I grow up, I want to be like her. Seeing her loose hair leave in the car that took her to the airport, I started to cry like I had not cried in decades. For several minutes, it was uncontrollable.
When it rains, the line marking the ocean disappears, everything gets mixed up and it rains inside me. With Paola’s departure, I was left alone. Very alone. Although little by little I have met new companions. There are some beautiful and daring black birds with yellow beaks that come close, specially when food is around. There are so many tarantulas on tree webs – before I got sick a guide helped me to identify them – that I no longer jump when I see them. I try to keep the doors and windows closed to keep out the UFIs – unidentified flying insects. And as I write I see a long and well organized line of tiny black ants under the desk. They conquered the territory. They won.
I can recite the restaurant menu from memory. And they know my name and tastes when I ask them for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They bring my food in disposable boxes and cups, which they leave at the door and later remove in special plastic bags. The employees wear masks and gloves and don’t come near me. I know I make them afraid. No one comes into my room, ever. They don’t know how grateful I am for what they do for me.
I am not religious or superstitious. But now I understand why the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away felt he was accompanied by a volleyball ball he called Wilson. Chiqui, my life partner, forgot an earring and I honor it by keeping it on a white towel, like a sacred object. I want to believe that if I touch it it will bring me luck. At least it reminds me of life before this nightmare.
Mornings are the worst here because my family, friends and workmates are still sleeping in Miami. I am nine hours ahead. Sometimes I turn on the TV – CNN International or the BBC – just to feel some companionship, without paying much attention to the news. My phone, my Ipad, the Internet, Netflix and the hotel’s good WiFi system have kept me mentally healthy and connected to little pieces of my former life. During one dinner some water fell on my cell and I almost had a stroke. But nothing happened. To pass the time, I watched the two seasons of Emily in Paris, and any old movie shown on the hotel TV. There’s something comforting about watching something you know how it ends.
Small things become big. By mistake, someone canceled one of my two credit cards, and I reacted very badly (And what if I have Covid and no money on an African island?). A bit of a sore throat or a pain in the ribs, a rash on my knee and the dozens of bites from mosquitoes and spiders get me sweating and imagining catastrophic scenarios. But the breathing I learned in yoga brings me back to the present. Incredibly, I have been able to connect to the daily classes at the Casa Vinyasa in Miami. Even from a distance, the sensibilities of its instructors can be felt. That also has saved me.
So far from everything, I feel very vulnerable and fragile. There are so many things that don’t depend on me. I have had to let go of control. It is a life very different from what I was accustomed to for decades. It causes an anguish, in the center of my chest, that does not leave me even when I sleep.
I am trapped in paradise. I still don’t know how or when I’ll be able to get out of here. But I suspect that this experience will mark me deeply. In fact, it has already changed me. It has given me time, a lot of time, to think about what is truly important. I’ll tell you later how this all ends.