Community, collectivity, and COVID-19
The day before I left for Nepal on a one-way ticket, I was having dinner by the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok with a good friend. I took us to my favorite little restaurant in the city that serves Thai staple foods like tom yung soup and pad thai that you can enjoy while looking out at the beautiful river. The place is always packed, and this Saturday evening at the beginning of March was no different. We reminisced of our times teaching English in Korea together and toasted to our friendship and all our dreams for the future. So was life just mere months ago. That travel moment (or just life moment) of mine, which was just an average Saturday at the time, means so much more now.
I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when the coronavirus became known around the world back in January. Thailand was the second country to have recorded cases of the coronavirus, with the first case reported on January 13th.
The months of January and February are typically considered the high tourist season in Thailand, and so many businesses took a big hit. I traveled down south to Krabi in February and the owner of my hostel mentioned that he hadn’t seen such a drop in tourism in years. His bungalow property by the bay, which could hold over 70 people, had just over 15 guests the week I was there. (cover photo)
Even though the virus hadn’t been labelled a pandemic yet, basic precautions were put in place to help keep everyone safe. My Grab app (like Uber for Southeast Asia) would give me notifications to wash my hands, suggest wearing a mask, and to be mindful of my health and the health of others whenever I’d log on to get a ride. Our temperatures were taken before entering the island of Koh Lanta. When I landed in Kathmandu and got off the plane, we all had our temperatures checked before entering the airport and clearing customs and immigration. From what I’ve read and heard from other travelers, these measures weren’t yet in place in most parts of Europe and the Americas.
I’d been in Nepal only a few days when the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. Just like in Thailand, it seemed like tourism was going to be the first thing to take a big hit. Even though only one recovered case had been recorded at the time, Nepal knew they had to take drastic measures, and take them quickly, because their hospitals just couldn’t handle a big outbreak. The government immediately announced that they wouldn’t be allowing any new tourists into the country with visas on arrival. It looked like the spring hiking season in Nepal would be a quiet one. I was staying at a hostel near Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker district. I’ll always remember the sombre look on Bishal’s face, one of the managers of the hostel, when he had to tell his staff that the tourist season was over and that only a few could stay on board.
Only two weeks later, the country announced a full lockdown overnight and ceased all in and out flights. Travel between provinces and districts was also banned. I ended up staying for a month before returning to my hometown of Montreal, Canada, on a repatriation flight with other stranded Canadian tourists.
My adventures in Nepal didn’t go much further beyond the tiny backstreets of the Thamel district. Community meals were organized at the hostel, where a few people would go to the markets to pick up supplies for a few days, and we’d all chip in with the breakfast and dinner prep. Some of us would take pots of cooked rice and go out to feed the neighbourhood dogs every night. We’d take advantage of the warm afternoon sun and lounge on the hostel rooftop, chatting, doing acro yoga, or playing pool to pass the time. While I didn’t get to see or get to know much about Nepal, I’m grateful for these times on the rooftop and looking out at everyone else using their roof space. Watching people doing simple things like their laundry, kids playing ball, lighting prayer candles at night, or just sitting and meditating, gave me a glimpse of the Kathmandu I plan to return to one day.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I remember scrolling through the news and seeing videos and stories of people panic buying back home. The sense of community seemed to be lost as everyone reached to grab the last roll of toilet paper from the shelves. However in the few shops that were permitted to open just a few hours a day in Thamel, I was still able to find all the basics. I saw no one carrying huge amounts of supplies with them. Plus, most homes in Kathmandu don’t have that extra fridge space in which to store food. People weren’t hoarding hand sanitizer and the cases remained relatively low.
On my last night in Kathmandu I was chatting on the rooftop with a few other travelers over bottles of Everest beer; some of whom were staying put, and others leaving. One guy from Quebec, Michael, had been returning to Nepal every year for about four years. When I expressed some fear over a big outbreak happening in Nepal, his response to me was something I’ll never forget. “Nepali people have a stronger sense of community. They are very resourceful, they can live easily on dal bhat (the simple national dish of spicy lentils and rice) and they look after one another.” Michael’s explanation to me was very genuine, and they also reflected the lasting impressions countries like Thailand had on me. After ten years of traveling and living abroad, I realized I kept returning to certain countries for that sense of community. Even though I could never make them a full-time home and truly be accepted as a local, I could at least be a witness to it.
The question of whether to wear a mask or not I think is relevant here. When I go out for a walk here in my neighbourhood in downtown Montreal, about five percent of the people I see are wearing masks. This is a stark contrast to when I’d wander the almost abandoned streets of Thamel and most people (mainly locals, some tourists) would have their masks on. From my expat friends scattered across the continent in South Korea, China, Vietnam, and Thailand, I’m hearing that most people wear masks when they go outside. While in some situations it’s not necessarily mandatory, most people are doing it anyway. When I read arguments made that wearing a mask, if anything, is a symbol of collectivism and unity, I’m not surprised that this is a no-brainer in countries throughout Asia.
This is the reverse culture shock I’m currently dealing with as I quarantine in my hometown. Will we be able to successfully battle this thing as individuals, or as a collective? One of the many lessons I’ve learned on the road is that you can’t accomplish anything alone. I’ve been helped in countless ways by strangers I’ve met along the way, and it’s taught me to be more charitable at home. And as I spend a lot of my time reflecting on past journeys (and dreaming of what’s next), I think the examples that my beloved second homes in the world have given me over the years can be important stories and lessons for us all.
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Jennifer Richardson’s made a life for herself on the road. She spent years teaching English in countries like China, South Korea, and Thailand, in between her solo backpacking trips. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she is currently living her dream of traveling while she works as a freelance writer and editor. Her first book, Arrival Stories: Tales of Finding New Direction in Strange Places, is a collection of personal essays documenting almost ten years of travel. It’s available for purchase on Amazon. You can find her in coffee shops around the world, working on her latest travel piece.