Notes From The Home: Quarantine And The Ascent Into Madness

An ongoing, unfiltered account of our quarantine experience at The Elephant’s Nest in Cote d’Ivoire

Day 90(ish)

It’s been 90 days. More than that probably. I stopped counting a while ago. It’s not even quarantine anymore as much as it is just forcible voluntary isolation. We can technically leave our guesthouse. We are free to go into town, eat at restaurants, go to the beach, hit the bars. Our friends, Olga and Franco, did just this and left last week. However they have a luxury we do not, which is a vehicle. Normally I am more than happy to be on foot but these days I would kill to have wheels of any kind to get around the city. But more than that, I am ready to leave this city.

Out of our original gang of five (plus Jason who didn’t socialize with us often), Gabe and I are the only two left. And maybe that has added to our decision to bail on Africa and try and get a flight out of here.

If you’re like me you’re thinking, “Why the fuq did you spend three months waiting for borders to open if you were just going to decide to leave anyways??”

To that I say, “Thank you, unhelpful Shoulder Conscience Bully. Our true other options didn’t present themselves until a week ago so we are PLAYING WITH THE CARDS WE ARE DEALT….!”

I digress…

Truthfully, this was both the most heartbreaking and relieving decision we have had to make since arriving on the continent. We have accepted the fact that we probably aren’t going to be able to travel the way we want to at least until next year. Leaving means getting to a place where we can post up for the foreseeable future; somewhere we can make some money and live cheaply while doing it; somewhere with the opportunity for socialization and free mobility. That place is Cambodia.

Leaving also means abandoning our plans until “later”, which usually means never. Not to be pessimistic but we’ve gotten a taste at how difficult West Africa is to travel around. Once we leave, I am definitely not going to be chomping at the bit to come back here. Realistically, if we leave, we will be forfeiting the Morocco to South Africa challenge and adventure entirely.

At the end of the day, completing this journey is kind of just an ego thing. Sure, we can come back and do East Africa (which was the part both of us were the most excited for anyways). Even if we have to wait until we’re “old people” (don’t give me that, you know who you are/aren’t!), South Africa will likely only get easier to travel around. In general, the majority of people we have met out here have been closer to our parents’ age than to our own, so that’s a motivating statistic I try to come back to.

But even if it is all just an ego thing, it’s still a thing. Completing this trip was a lot more for me than just getting from point A to point B. I wanted to know that I could do it. There’s a difference between doing something and doing something. This trip was about “finding myself” and as cliché as that is, fuck it, it’s good for you. I truly believe that challenging yourself to step into the unknown is objectively good for you. But honestly, I’ve learned more about myself during this time of quarantine than I did on the road.

When you’re hitchhiking and traveling you have to be “on”. You have to be ready to socialize, tell your life story, ask about other people’s, and be truly interested even if you are exhausted and are just looking for a ride/place to sleep. It is a good exercise in resilience and compassion and gratitude but it is not great for self examination. Being isolated from the world with your only minor interaction coming from other “roughin’ it” travelers or local people who don’t speak your same language and will probably never be able to see the world as you see it…that’s a recipe for true self evaluation.

Which brings me to my next point…

I have really been struggling with maintaining my yoga routine as the mosquitos are also fans of exercise, which they get in the form of ruining mine. I have maintained my meditation, though, and have so far completed 30 days in a row. I’m now up to doing 40 minute “sessions” (it just feels so clinical to describe them that way).

Anyone else into meditation? I find that, even if it makes me confront some shitty truths, it is the most beneficial thing I am doing in my day to help me determine what matters and what doesn’t. Key words “help me” because getting your brain to fully shut off is a struggle and I find that it takes me probably half of my session to get to that point.

I’d previously “tried” meditation before but in classic Sarah fashion I didn’t “get it” right away and thus abandoned the practice entirely. If you’re like me, keep trying, literally everyday because, my friends, this is really an amazing practice and is now super necessary to me maintaining my sanity. Although, I guess that’s what I said about the yoga too.

Ahhhh classic me. Picking up hobbies, becoming obsessed with them for a month and then dropping them completely in search of something new. Anyone got any tips on how to break this habit?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Day 37

Our comrade Mitchell left today.

He managed to score a Swiss repatriation flight and is making his way back to Canada. I am envious he is leaving. Not because I would like to be going home but because he gets to have an adventure, albeit a limited one. Even just to be able to go to the airport, go through immigration, board a flight…oh what I would do to break up the monotony of isolation!

Every conversation these days goes like this:

“How are you? You know, besides everything.”

“Yeah, good, you know, besides everything.”

And then you speculate about how long things are going to last, throw in your two cents about what everyone else is doing wrong, list this ways you’re trying to stay busy, ask for recipe or book recommendations, and maybe try to keep things light because, really, you need these conversations with Other People to remind yourself that you aren’t actually going anymore insane than the rest of the world is right now.

As for me, I have become super attached to my morning workout routine. Like full on, crazy girlfriend IfYouLeaveMeIWillKillMyself attached. Some days when I wake up I am overcome with the desire to just lay in the hammock until it gets too hot to do so thereby forgoing my workout. I’ve given in to this temptation once and it was a disaster. By noon, I felt like a complete failure, was consumed with boredom AND a debilitating backache. I spent the rest of the day drinking beers (which are too expensive to do so), scrolling through Facebook, and constantly refreshing my email becoming increasingly irritated that none of the publications I submitted pitches to had responded.

It was a day not to be repeated so each morning I force myself out of the hammock and into the living room where I do my yoga and various other exercises surrounded by dogs running around, flies testing my patience and balance, and twelve other people all going about their own daily routines.

It’s not perfect but it is necessary. Now I am concerned about how I will keep this up when we leave here. Even though we walk at least 5 km a day carrying 10 kg packs when we’re hitchhiking, I still was horribly out of shape when we arrived here. Now I am just out of shape so I’d like to keep this progress going and I will be happy if I can make it to “shape” by the time we leave here.

Before Mitch left he told us about a philosophy called kai zen. His translation was constant positive change. It is my new mantra and it is a difficult time to adopt this one. These days change is hard to come by. Positive change is even harder. Being on the budget we are on is a saving grace keeping me from spending my days sucking down beers and binge watching TV shows on our hard drive.

One of the most frustrating parts about this whole quarantine thing is the stagnancy of each day. There isn’t even an entity for us to be at the mercy of. We are just waiting. Everyday is essentially the same which is basically me finding ways to entertain myself until I can start prepping for the next meal. Being in Cote d’Ivoire, our ingredients are limited so meals eventually start to become repetitive, despite Olga and my resourcefulness and creativity in the “kitchen” (which I should remind you is a single burner outside).

The idea of change is almost too surreal to entertain. Being stuck here we can’t let ourselves think too outside the box because we have no choice but to live in the box for who-knows-how-long. Getting too ambitious could be the downfall of our fragile sanity, which is only maintained by acceptance of our reality. There are only so many things we can do to physically improve our situation. And that’s probably why I am so attached to this workout routine. It is basically the only avenue I have for kai zen.

The last time I wrote, we were about to pay for another two weeks worth of “rent”. Those two weeks were up a few days ago and once again, we’ve paid for two more. Our visas have been renewed for another 3 months. When we first arrived we were sure that one month would be plenty of time. Now, we worry about what we would do in the event that three more months won’t be sufficient. I’m still not stressing but I am definitely not chilling either. I am ready to leave. I am scheming for ways and I have even contemplated abandoning the rest of the trip for the sake of being able to just go somewhere, anywhere else but here. But that’s the thing. We can’t. And even if we could, we really can’t.

The entire world is in the same situation and I don’t know why I can’t shake the feeling that Everyone Else is having some big party and I wasn’t invited. I’m having Life FOMO over nothing. We keep doing this thing where we scheme for places we could be besides here.

“If only we could find somewhere we could wait this thing out…and maybe work…and maybe hang out with friends…oh and finding a place we can go somewhere to grab a beer would be nice…”

But these are all things that just don’t exist right now. This is the place. This is legitimately the best possible place we could be because we are at least with friends. But I still can’t stop my brain from going down that “but what if we…?” rabbit hole, which is fucked!

It probably wouldn’t be too bad if people in Abidjan (or from the looks of it, Africa in general) were actually abiding by the “restrictions” put in place to curb this thing. But they aren’t and as a result, honestly, neither are we. We’re better than the locals but we still walk to the market, check out fruits and veg by inspecting them and putting back the ones we don’t like, walk home, and then wash our loot with basic tap water. We wear masks inside the market but every time we go to make a transaction we have to take it off to haggle with the lady trying to sell us shit at an inflated price in a different language. We wash our hands when coming in to the compound but the staff here definitely don’t always. Public minibuses called massas are still running and the other day we passed by two carrying ten people each, displaying the full spectrum of “masks” from actual surgical grade to a t-shirt wrapped around someone’s face.

This is the reality of a pandemic in Africa. Countries have closed border indefinitely but are still only carrying out a couple hundred tests per day. They have curfews in place but people still congregate outside until the cops show up, scatter, and reconvene when they leave. There are hand-washing stations outside of boutiques but 15 people will be crammed inside breathing all over each other as they shout orders to the cashier. Taxis are only allowed to carry two people at a time and grocery stores only allow 15 people to enter at a time but every single Sunday service is slammed full of churchgoers.

Closing borders around the world is a necessary part of curbing the spread of the virus. But here it is just a pointless inconvenience. From what we’ve read, the majority of cases in West Africa were not brought by tourists but were brought by diplomats, members of government, and elites who used their power and status to bypass measures put in place to screen people coming into the country. Now it’s out of control and yet places like Ghana are easing restrictions because the informal sector of society cannot function under a lockdown. Markets are reopening, bans on the number of people allowed in public gathering are being relaxed because so many people live hand-to-mouth here that it is impossible for them to survive in the conditions required for a lockdown to be effective.

And this brings us to our biggest fear: things will reopen locally. Essential items like food and supplies will continue to be allowed to come into and leave the country. Locals will be allowed to continue their daily lives more or less undisturbed. But because nothing is really being done to stop them, cases will rise, which means borders will remain shut.

This is the nightmare scenario for Gabe and I, and really all of the other travelers here. We are all beginning to formulate backup plans. And maybe it’s foolish but none of us are ready to pull the trigger. It’s still too soon. But I’ll be honest, it is beginning to feel like the line is getting finer by the day between “too soon” and “too late”.

Day 21

So I make hot sauces now. Today’s batch is a more classic onion and garlic base but the pineapple-mango was a smash hit. This is my newest outlet but it is not the only one. I have overcome the devastation of losing our footage and am everyday more and more grateful for the group we are stuck here with.

We came here as travelers with empty ambition and no direction. Now, I am reevaluating our entire approach to not only this trip but to the future in general. What do we want out of this website? What do we want to do with all of this footage (well, future footage since the previous stuff is lost)? What are we trying to accomplish and what are we working towards?

We came here thinking that our goals were to grind out articles, cultivate a following of readers to ultimately make money from our blog. How? We didn’t know. We were basically illiterate when it came to understanding how to profit off of our travels and it turns out we were going about it all the wrong way. It seems obvious now: going about something for the sheer point of making money is totally antagonistic to everything about us. We don’t give a shit about money. That’s one of the reasons we do what we do!

We aren’t planning on travelling like this forever and while we are, I don’t want to live behind a laptop constantly updating a blog, desperate to attract viewers, dedicating our time to write click-bait articles filled with SEO keywords instead of substantive anecdotes. Good news is, we don’t have to!

Three weeks, countless conversations, a few inspiring documentaries, and an ongoing daily process of becoming more comfortable with each other later and I feel like a new person. Our friends here are amazing and each have brought their own special twist to our lives that we hadn’t even realized we needed.

Two weeks ago we paid Chloe upfront, anticipating that by this time, we would be on the tail end of the quarantine. The borders would probably be opening soon and we would all be getting ready to continue our travels and our lives.

Tomorrow is the day we paid through and it is not looking like we will be leaving any time soon. Honestly, I’m not stressing. I feel like I am just starting to acquaint myself with the changes I am about to implement in my life and in our travels. I am motivated and am tapping into a whole new realm of possibilities for what we can accomplish on this trip and others. I’m writing again, submitting pitches to publications as well as getting back into working on short stories. I’m learning to be creative again. I’m asking questions of myself without being both afraid to discover the answers or determined to find them. I’m allowing myself to molt and scheming of ways to up-cycle what I shed.

The bells haven’t driven me crazy and when the day comes to leave this place, I have the feeling I will miss their chimes or rather the feeling I had during my time in their presence…nah, fuck that. The bells can stay. I’ll take my progress and my new friendships with me.

Day 18

Homemade tortillas stuffed with avocado, pineapple-mango salsa, plantains, and refried beans. All ingredients are local and everything is homemade with love!

Each day we get more creative and end up indulging in more epic meals. Olga is a god send as she is resourceful, like me, and can make a delicious meal out of the bare minimum ingredients. Together…we are a force to be reckoned with.

We have decided to cut to the chase and collaborate for basically all of our meals and our combined powers have produced veggie burgers with tzatziki sauce, peanut butter curry, and tonight’s breakthrough meal: tacos with homemade tortillas.

It’s game on.

Day 17

Africa is taking everything from me. It has taken so many material things: a phone, a camera, a hard drive, a Kindle, a computer, a pair of shoes, a piece of our hammock, hundreds of dollars in the form of visas. It has taken immaterial things as well, primarily five months worth of footage, everything we have done from Morocco to Cote d’Ivoire, all of the adventures, the challenges, the rides, the people…all erased from our hard drive in the blink of an eye.

Today is a tough blow. Africa is a hard and often times unforgiving continent. And here we are, stuck in Cote d’Ivoire, and Africa is once again taking something from me: time.

A bit cheeky, isn’t it? Complaining about my things that have been lost when so many locals on this continent will only ever own maybe one of the things we have lost on this trip. We are stranded in paradise. We have fresh fruits, fresh veggies, cold beers, clean water, a shower, money in our bank account that allows us to purchase frivolities such as butter and yogurt with which to make treats that remind us of home or of other places we have been privileged enough to travel to. We have other people who speak our language and share our privileges. We have entertainment in the form of ping pong, Foosball, computers, countless films and documentaries, cards, the Internet. We are safe behind walls and have access to medical care should we need it. We have news from embassies of our home countries, which are still offering us a way out of this country should we decide we no longer want to “slum” it in the third world and prefer to return home to a lifestyle more suited to our upbringing. I am typing this on a new computer, in the shade, sipping ice coffee while a fan cools me off from the otherwise relentless stick of the hot, humid, Ivorian afternoon. A few days ago, we piled into the Toyota SUV, with TV’s on the backs of both the driver’s and the passenger’s seats, AC blasting, as we drove past checkpoints to lounge on a deserted beach most locals don’t even have access to.

And yet, I have the gall to complain that this country, this continent has taken anything from me. How selfish am I? What more could I possibly want from this experience? To think that I am upset that I no longer have the same amount of things I left home with and cannot accept that I have only traded in things for memories and experiences. This quarantine (regardless of the fact that the bells will most certainly be the death of me) being one of them.

I am not really upset. I’m just bored. For some reason I anticipated being immune to the realities of a global pandemic. I still am bored and still catch myself scheming for ways out of this situation. But why? We are living more comfortably now than we have in the past 5 months. We have everything we need and access to everything we could want. I get annoyed with myself for slipping into a pointlessly, frustrating, woe-is-me loop of American materialism. You would think that all of this free time would give me a chance to reflect on how good we have it. And honestly, I have been. But too much free time makes the mind wander and I’m only human. We were not meant to be cooped up behind walls, no matter how large the space behind them is. Some days it gets to me. Today is one of those days.

Africa is taking everything from me. But maybe it is taking the things that I didn’t need anyways. Maybe it is doing my spring cleaning for me. Taking things I would never have parted with willingly but that are necessary to part with in order to learn those invaluable, painful lessons you seem to only be able to learn during periods of extreme vulnerability. I am aware, now more than ever, of how difficult it is to fully shake the comfort, real or perceived, material things bring to my life. I came to Africa thinking I had overcome the “needs” affluence tricks you into craving. I was beyond that. I had pulled the silver spoon out of my mouth and was more than happy sipping from the communal wooden ladle. And it’s not that anything has changed.

But I realize that I am not there yet. I have not overcome my privilege and maybe it is not even possible or wise for me to do so. Maybe ridding myself of THINGS is not necessary and maybe it is okay to live one foot in each world. Maybe I am fooling myself that a wealthy, white girl from the US could ever fully understand what it means to live “without” and those who do would probably tell me that the desire to do so is a direct reflection of the amount of privilege I have. Living “without” is not a lifestyle choice for most people and I am grateful that for me it can be.

Hard drives can be replaced. Although the footage has been lost, the memories haven’t and, regardless of how cliche that is, it’s comforting. We never used to document our travels so we had nothing to lose. Now we have and it’s crushing. Now our adventures have another purpose and we feel this obligation to track them and categorize them and maybe that has distorted the whole thing. Not necessarily in a bad way but maybe losing this footage is a way for us to reconnect with why we are traveling, what is it for, and for whom?

Day 17 of quarantine…somebody please find a vaccine for this virus so I can spend my time thinking about the next destination instead of my next existential crisis.

Day 14

Yes, perhaps we started this account later than we should but today is the day I realized we are stuck here for the foreseeable future so today is the day I decided this page was going to be necessary. I knew we couldn’t leave but today is the first day it hit me that we wouldn’t be leaving for quite some time and the first day what that would mean sunk in. So today is the day we begin this account. Two weeks in, as the cabin fever has already taken hold.

We have a living room now, complete with a shelf for dry goods and a counter top where our burner sits. We are pooling our food supplies with Olga and Franco, the other couple here so we have a little community going. It’s starting to feel normal and going outside into the world feels strange. Even though nothing really has changed. In fact, if it weren’t for the Internet, we would have no idea anything was amiss in the world. Sure, there are shops closed and the taxis are not overflowing with people and the streets are not loud with the everyday commotion of locals on the move and the bars are barricaded and the music has stopped. But we have only known this place this way. We can see the signs of life before corona, but we arrived after the onset of the virus. To us, this place might as well have always been this way.

It is easy to get lost in the ample time we have here. It is the incessant bells of the church next door that bring us back into reality. They ring every hour, first in a monotonous succession marking the hour followed by the same melodic 4-note tune, which will surely drive us all insane by the end of it and will probably be the last sound I hear before I die (even if that day is 100 years from now). It begins at 6 am, which is now my wake up time, although I often don’t leave the hammock until after 7. I have begun a yoga routine again with some Pilates added in to hopefully improve my core strength, which I desperately need to continue this trip, but also just in general.

Booze is not cheap enough for how much time in the day we have to drink, which is actually a blessing but feels like a sick joke.

We have already finished the 10-part Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary (which was the second go-round for some) and after every episode we would segue into long and sometimes heated conversations about the best ways to change the world. Most nights we shared the experience of having twisted dreams of war. It was quite the way to become acquainted with a group of strangers.

I’m confident we’ll make it through the quarantine without killing each other and, best case scenario, we’ll have new lifelong friends. Neutral scenario, we’ll have yet another interesting story for the books. Worst case, we get destroyed both physically and emotionally from the unrelenting amount of flies and mosquitoes which both seem hellbent on ruining our lives.

Stay tuned for further ramblings on….NOOOOOOTES FROMTHEHOME!

3 Comments on “Notes From The Home: Quarantine And The Ascent Into Madness

  1. A raw and honest account. You are not alone – we are going through similar but different stuff here…keep well xx

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  2. Hang in there, Sarah. We’re all in this together. My new exercises help me to start & end each day in a better mind set. I think of 3 things I’m thankful for on that morning or night. It really helps me! Love ya lots. Aunt Laura

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  3. I hope gabe is getting in shape too during this time. Id love to see a ripped gabe come out of this

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