My Family Is Trapped In Paradise During The Coronavirus Pandemic, But It’s No Vacation

I am hand-washing our laundry for the second time in three days. The first time, I packed our wet clothes in a fury as we raced from the northern Balinese fishing village of Lovina to Denpasar, in the south, hoping to catch a flight home.

An hour into our drive, a mechanical issue with our scooter had us back at our homestay, our hastily packed, still-damp laundry now smelling of warm, wet dog.

COVID-19 is forcing my family to end our six-month Bali adventure earlier than planned.

My family and I live aboard our sailboat off the west coast of Canada. Both work-from-home writers, my husband and I homeschool our two youngest children. While living at sea offers us a peaceful and wildly beautiful life, it can make for some rugged and challenging conditions. So it was that we decided to spend the winter in the warm, tropical embrace of Bali.

Bali has long been a popular tourist destination known for its vibrant culture and spirited citizens. Spending six months in this magical land was to be a homeschooler’s dream ― language, culture, nature and global citizenry all wrapped up in one endless educational experience.

We arrived last October and set about exploring the island’s abundant temples, near-daily ceremonies and simply gorging ourselves on fruit. Then January happened.

Reports began trickling through to mainstream media about a small outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness out of Wuhan, China. On Feb. 1, I received the first email from the Canadian Embassy about the novel coronavirus with generalized information for travelers on following basic health precautions. We carried on exploring rice fields, taking jungle hikes and meeting locals who helped us along as we practiced speaking Indonesian.

I now receive a daily email with increasingly urgent language and instructions from the Canadian Embassy on the sole topic of COVID-19.

So, what’s it really like to be trapped in paradise during a global pandemic?

It’s scary. It’s beautiful. It’s filled with anxiety and fear and calm and peace. I vacillate between wanting to just get home and wanting to just stay put.

Do we risk exposure in the travel home or do we risk staying here? I live in doubt followed by firm decisions, only to encounter more doubt, rethinking and changing plans, and, through it all, daily life continues around my family and me.

Do we risk exposure in the travel home or do we risk staying here? I live in doubt followed by firm decisions, only to encounter more doubt, rethinking and changing plans, and, through it all, daily life continues around my family and me.

We have been staying at a homestay, Bali’s version of a bed and breakfast. Staying here long-term through the pandemic would mean renting a villa ― a home where we can properly isolate ourselves if the Indonesian government orders us into lockdown. And suddenly, a whole new realm of logistics opens before me of navigating morning markets and setting up a house with nothing more than the two motorcycle saddlebags worth of luggage we brought with us from Canada.

Our prime minister is urging all Canadians to return home while they still can. Easy for him to say; he has access to his passport and can simply book a flight. Our passports sit in hiatus somewhere in the mysterious recesses of the Indonesian immigration office, awaiting what had been a routine tourist visa renewal three weeks ago. Now that same routine visa renewal means we have no passports in hand and cannot leave at a moment’s notice. Or even a few days’ notice. We cannot leave.

We could cancel the renewal, perhaps. But how does one go about stopping such an official process? I speak broken, halting Indonesian. I can say: “No, finish, slowly, closed,” but I’ve no earthly idea how to even begin to say: “So here’s my logistical nightmare that’s full of ‘If this, then that, but if that, then this.’ Can you help me with it?”

I don’t even know the Indonesian word for help.

I am embarrassed at the realization that I once tossed the word “embassy” around with family and friends as though it gave me some sort of international cachet. I felt important, special, cool.

I now whisper words like embassy, WHO and confirmed cases to my husband, hushed and nonchalant, so my children won’t hear me talking about it. It’s not cool. It’s kind of scary.

I haul our wet clothes outside to hang on the drying rack. Coconut palms set across the blue sky and the rhythmic thrum of surf surround me. It is startlingly beautiful here. How can the world be falling apart when this place is so pretty?

“Mommy, is lunch ready?”

“Daddy, where’s my other flip-flop?”

“Mommy, can you fill up my water bottle?”

“Daddy, I want to paint.“

Where does lunch and art play even fit into a day’s plans that include emergency laundry, possible shady deals with a visa agent to expedite our visa renewals and emails from the Canadian Embassy?

The Gilgan family in Bali, Indonesia.

The Gilgan family in Bali, Indonesia.

I see Ketut. She and her husband, Komang, own the homestay we are living in. She and I speak only a smattering of one another’s languages, but enough to fumble through half-English, half-Indonesian conversations with each other.

We chat and laugh, saying the Indonesian government had better not put ration limits on chocolate. We stand apart, eyes searching to connect, as we stand at what would normally be a socially awkward distance between two people. One week ago, we were folded together in our laughter, bent over in our shared giggles. She would drape an arm around my shoulders. I’d rest my hand on her arm. We’d laugh, easy and normal. Not now. Not anymore. We laugh, still dancing together in the human delight of connection. But laugh at a distance.

On March 19, my husband got an update from our visa agent: Our passports were to be delivered later that day. We could finally book a flight.

But that was over a week ago.

We commence making a new plan. Yet another new plan. I’m so sick of new plans. My husband gets online and starts searching for a flight.

“Five thousand dollars?” I shout. “That’s too expensive. What are you thinking?” I blurt as he relays our flight options.

He flashes me a look. We’re both tense. I want to get angry, mad. I want to blame somebody. Not even blame, necessarily, but at least just yell at someone. Anyone.

“Mommy, can we go to the beach now?”

Breathe. This moment is fine. We’re all fine. It’s only the future that’s making me worry, feel tense. But the worry is wearing on me.

“Thank you for looking into flights. I’ll let you do that and I’ll take these two to the beach for now.”

And just like that, I’m back on the damned beach. Blue sky, palm trees, surf. A million miles away from headlines and wait times and busy signals and health certificates and rules of quarantine upon arrival.

We secure a flight out of Denpasar, Bali, that connects through Taipei International Airport in Taiwan before flying us — finally, finally, finally — home to Vancouver, Canada. We fly out in one week.

No less than two hours after booking the flight, smug smiles still plastered on our faces, the latest embassy email comes through. It reads: “At this time, we understand that transit may not be possible via Taipei in the coming days.”

What does “may not be possible” mean?

Turns out it means the Taiwanese government is closing its international airport as a hub for connecting flights, the Canadian Embassy confirms the following day. It means our airline has now contacted us with notice of our canceled flight. It means we are still here, in Bali.

It means we need a new plan. Again.

One week ago, we were folded together in our laughter, bent over in our shared giggles. She would drape an arm around my shoulders. I’d rest my hand on her arm. We’d laugh, easy and normal. Not now. Not anymore. We laugh, still dancing together in the human delight of connection. But laugh at a distance.

We wanted to introduce our children to travel and new culture and the resourcefulness that world travel incites. We’ve been granted the ultimate opportunity to teach our children to be global citizens. Beyond the language lessons, geography and discovery, there’s a chance to teach them patience and practicality.

Our skills as sailors serve us well in these uncertain times. Much like a passage aboard our vessel, we are at the mercy of wind and weather, currents and tides. We can check the forecast before casting off, but still, we must accept changing weather systems, equipment and system failures, and good-old-fashioned ups and downs in the mood and mindset of the crew. No sailing voyage is ever predictable. But it is filled with challenges and success, doubt and decision, beauty and wonderment. It is a living metaphor for life.

Thursday’s email from the Canadian Embassy raises doubt about the accuracy of Indonesia’s reporting of actual cases, suggesting only 2% have been accounted for. It warns that if we decide to stay in Indonesia, it is strongly recommended that we prepare for the worst and make preparations to be self-sufficient. Of his assessment of Indonesia’s situation, our ambassador writes: “The ultimate number of fatalities will be very high.”

I met a woman on the beach yesterday, a fellow stranded traveler. Like Ketut and I, we stood awkwardly apart as we chatted. I saw her anxiety, her fear, as she talked about her husband and children back home in Switzerland. She came here two weeks ago to visit an uncle. And now, she is alone and separated from her family.

Though I am facing wild upheavals of plans and choices, decisions and doubt, I am blessed to have my husband and children with me. I am privileged to be in a place that offers such natural beauty, a stark contrast to the realities of so many currently in isolation around the world. I suspect, too, our turn with mandated isolation is coming.

I’ve met many travelers and locals alike during the last five months, and perhaps the greatest reprieve I have from the emotional and mental turmoil of navigating a global pandemic in a foreign country is when I set aside all the logistics and the worry, pick up the phone or send a message and ask a friend, “How are you today? Is there anything I can do to help?” Our online world offers us instant access to loved ones ― not quite but almost as good as being there in person. Let’s use it. Let’s connect and chat and take care of and encourage and help and support one another.

Of the many new friends my family has made over the past five months, an aged gentleman by the name of Putu has brought me grand comfort. He is a holy man, a pemangku. He taught me a new Indonesian word: sinkankan. Literally translated, it means “allow it.” But Putu uses it to mean “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

Even as I write this, I don’t yet know if we are staying in Bali or going home. But I do know that a wise man taught me that while I navigate each day along my life’s journey, I have the choice to try and smile and say: “Sinkankan.”

Kate Gilgan is a writer, mother and hesitant adventurist. From a life at sea to a rustic wilderness cabin to life in Bali with their two youngest children, Kate and her husband Michael delight in family-style discovery and exploration. 

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