Thursday 26th March 2020, 18:45, Hewanorra International Airport, St Lucia
How bizarre. I feel somewhat lightheaded with the madness of it. It has taken me 3 months to get here, rarely travelling faster than the wind or I could propel myself, yet in less than 12 hours I will be back where I started at my parent’s front door. But not through it. Oh no. I’ll be living in a caravan in a field for the next couple of weeks, in case I pick up something nasty on the flight or in either airport.
I’ve loved that this journey has been all about travelling slowly. That I’ve found ways to get where I need to go without flying, and that they have invariably been more interesting, taken me to places I’d never otherwise have seen and introduced me to so many people. And that my soul has never been left behind.
So why am I flying now? I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I could stay here in beautiful St Lucia, exploring and building friendships and finding a new boat to sail onwards in. But I can’t bear the thought of being here if (or more likely, when?) my family are sick at home, unable to reach them.
St Lucia announced on Monday that they were closing the airport to international flights, but would allow a limited number of empty planes to land in order to repatriate foreign travellers. Although they said it would only be for a couple of weeks, the government here are being incredibly proactive in preventing the introduction or spread of COVID-19.
The first two cases (reportedly in a BA pilot and crew member) were immediately quarantined and have since been sent home to the UK, and the only other confirmed case is in quarantine too. Cruise ships were banned from stopping here over a week ago. The ferry I caught from Martinique was one of the last. Passengers on subsequent ferries were placed into isolation in a hotel in Rodney Bay for observation.
Gatherings of more than 10 people were banned, and two days later all non-essential services were closed. All these precautions, when there are still only 3 cases and no community transmission, lead me to suspect that there’ll be no more planes to or from the UK until the UK is clear of the virus – which could be months.
The travel restrictions are not limited to flights. No yachts are allowed to arrive in St Lucia. From Al’s boat, I watched the marine police boat waiting at the entrance to the bay and intercepting any incoming vessels. The customs boat came around, checking names of boats to see that no one had snuck in overnight.
The chances of getting on a boat to sail back to Europe seem to have been diminishing. For one, there is a time limit. Hurricane season begins on 1st June, so I’d need to be north of St Lucia at least by then. Secondly, most boats stop off at the Azores, which shut its borders long ago. If I stuck to my plan of sailing home, I may end up waiting for more than a year, until boats start sailing back in May 2021. Too long, even for me, to wait.
So here I am, waiting for the last flight back to London for who knows how long.
This week I have been working at an ecolodge in return for a room and food. Sylvie and her son could not have been more welcoming of a stranger in the midst of all this madness. As her son had just arrived back from school in Martinique, and I’d arrived only a few days before, we practiced self isolation, each with our own kitchens and bathrooms, working 2m apart in the garden and dining at opposite ends of the table in the evening.
It felt good to reconnect with the land, to feel dirt beneath my fingernails and smell the lush vegetation in the tropical showers. The soundscape was new; birds, crickets and frogs chirping an ever changing chorus through the day and night. I watched hummingbirds feed from the moringa tree outside my room, and walked the dogs each evening to the beach or the river.
I could easily have stayed, and indeed have questioned my decision to leave many times. Am I cheating, heading home like this? Will I regret it in the future?
These are unprecedented times, and I know I’m not the only person making difficult decisions and changing their plans and behaviour. One upside is that it was £700 cheaper to book a return flight than a one way (!!), so if by some miracle this all blows over, I can fly back here (conscience permitting) and jump back on a boat sometime in the future.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing my family (from a safe distance) and refamiliarising myself with the place I call home; my favourite oak tree, the unique dawn chorus, the friendly flock of sheep and the lambs due in a couple of weeks, the secret corners of fields that hold so many memories, growing vegetables in the land I have known all my life. Investing myself without distraction in a place that I have been unable to justify doing so in for too many years. Exchanging this version of paradise for one of my very own (albeit 20 degrees cooler).
Really, there’s no question about going home.