24 April 2020
I’ve been backpacking throughout South America for the past year, cleaning toilets, handling reception, planting trees, collecting cow dung, doing all sorts of jobs in exchange for food and accommodation. I was living in a travel bubble, being somewhat unattached from reality. Even when COVID-19 started making headlines, I didn’t take it too seriously. Until it reached the city I was in. And as with every unexpected major change in life, I went through several phases before coming to terms with accepting that this pandemic was really happening.
Phase 1: Denial
I was staying at a hostel in Medellín, finally giving myself time off from volunteering, and having one of my best weeks yet in Colombia. I was in full-on ‘treat yoself’ mode and felt so excited to have no schedule and be able to make travel plans with other backpackers.
I arrived in Medellín on 10 March, a Tuesday. The situation was already grave around the world, but from where I was sitting, you could not tell. Everyone was still in constant party-mode. The only time we felt “affected” was when a club closed at 5:30AM one time, instead of the usual 8AM. In all logical fairness, if the virus was the reason, they should have not opened at all instead of letting us in and then chasing us out early. On Saturday, a large group of over 10 French people checked into the hostel. They were singing, dancing, and very merrily prepping to head out again that night, which we all did together.
The following day, Sunday, 15 March 2020, the entire mood flipped 180 degrees. By noon, half of the French group had already checked out and were at the airport. The other half were making calls, trying to book the next flight out and back home. Everyone was on panic mode, including the two people I was spending most of my time with. The thing is, three of us had booked flights to Santa Marta, the Caribbean Coast for the next day. Now, they both were having second thoughts and wanted to return to Croatia and Germany respectively. My reaction, admittedly not the wisest, was to try and convince them that we shouldn’t make rash decisions in fear. We should head to the beach and calm down and decide there what our next move should be.
Monday arrived. They made their decision. I got on the plane to Santa Marta by myself.
Phase 2: Damage Control
My brain was in a kerfuffle. Was this the wrong move? Why am I still flying to Santa Marta? (Mainly my frugal brain did not want to let my flights go to waste.) Was I being irresponsible by still travelling? Should I have checked for flights back to Malaysia?
I contacted my family. Worried about their health. Wondering if I was being a terrible daughter by not flying home. My parents, amazing as always, were wonderfully super chill. My Dad just said, “Do what you feel is best. We are all okay here.” Seriously, for Asian parents, or just parents in general, I am endlessly amazed by how much trust they have for me to make the hopefully, right decisions for myself. Thank you, Mummy and Daddy Thong!
I contacted my one contact in Santa Marta — my future host for a volunteering gig (to build an eco-hostel) in the jungle, which was meant to take place at the end of March. There were no cases where she was and I could join their jungle crew the morning after I landed.
Phase 3: Anger
I was sad, upset, frustrated. I wasn’t ready to part ways with my friends. If I knew those were our final days together, what would I have done to cherish our time even more? Goodbye came too suddenly. And as it almost always is with travel companions, every time they say, “I’m sure we’ll see each other again…” I know it’s not true.
On top of that, this was meant to be my two-week break from volunteering and yet here I am being woken up at 6AM on the daily to carry out physical labour like transporting logs and digging trenches under the scorching sun. It was rough.
Phase 4: Acceptance
It’s been over a month now. It took me about a week to get over my silly self-pity party and recognise how fortunate I was to be here, safe and sound. Shortly after I entered the jungle, Colombia went on full lockdown. I had no opportunity to re-enter civilisation, which is strange cause I have no idea what the outside world looks like. I know it’s ghost towns everywhere, but I’ve never experienced it.
I get to be outdoors, in nature, unlike many others right now. I’ve gotten used to the work routine, I get fed three times a day, and I like the people I’m with so I don’t believe I have any right to complain.
We’re a total of nine individuals who got here before the restriction of movement began, and have quarantined ourselves together ever since. The two owners are Dutch, while the other seven of us are volunteers, hailing from the US, the UK, Germany, Poland, Colombia, and of course, Malaysia.
Phase 5: Settling In
For now, we have put the hostel building on hold. Our sweaty time and efforts are focused on making this camp our home. We’ve got the basics, such as a roof, a kitchen, and some storage shelves. We’re building walking paths for when the rain comes and turns the ground into mud. We cleared some land for permaculture plantation. We even built some luxuries, like a ridiculously cool hammock cinema.
This group is really starting to feel like family, with the owners being Mum and Dad. I genuinely love these people and very rarely feel irritated, which is a true miracle.
The latest news I received is Colombia’s lockdown has been extended (for the second time) to 11 May, with no flights available until 30 May. We joke that we’ll be here until October 2020. But who knows, really. And even if we do, I believe I am a-okay with that.
*All photos courtesy of the author