How Three Years On An Island Prepared Me For Life After A Pandemic

Life has changed again…

 

When I wrote my last blog post called Everything Has Changed, I had no idea what was around the corner.

At the time, we’d just moved away from our sleepy Tongan island and returned to fast paced Australia to try out a whole new way of life.

We’d bought a bus house to live in, so we could keep our nomad spirit alive and wake up in a new place every few days.

We’d gone back to school. And we were preparing to start a new business.

Now less than two months later, our tiny home on wheels is parked indefinitely, all non-essential travel in Australia is banned, and we’ve rented a studio apartment under a friend’s house.

School has been cancelled.

And our new business collapsed just moments after it launched out of the starting gate with boundless, enthusiastic promise.

Our income took a hit, too.

We love the furry (and human) neighbours in our new pad…

Until the coronavirus pandemic we were (just quietly) feeling pretty chuffed with our progress over the last few months.

We’d found a small business niche that was perfectly “us” and already had clients booked before we’d even decided on a business name, built a website or done any advertising.

We were living in our bus, hanging out with family and friends, waking up at the beach some days and watching the sunset on vineyards the next.

Moving back to Australia after four years in Tonga was always going to be a huge adjustment but we were feeling pretty proud of how well we’d gotten our $h!t together.

And then splat.

Everything changed again.

Although it’s probably not correct to say it changed again.

It’s more like it’s changed back to how it was when we lived in Tonga.


I’ve lived in isolation before

 

By choice, I’ve spent more of the last few years living in isolation, than not.

I lived in Tonga for four years, three of which I spent on a tiny 18 hectare off-grid island with about 25 other people.

For two of those years, I worked entirely online so my job required very little contact with the other island dwellers. Most days I would only see my husband, a handful of colleagues at lunch in the restaurant, and the guests I would wave to as we crossed paths on the beach.

Of course, there’s a big difference between being cooped up in a studio apartment in the suburbs and being isolated on an idyllic tropical island in the South Pacific but, having now experienced both, I can tell you the feeling of being cut off from family, friends, health services, material supplies and resources is about the same.

On the island, I was physically separated from my loved ones for long periods of time, only catching up on video chats when the wind was blowing the internet in the right direction (and organising virtual trivia nights since way before it was cool).

There were no shops, cafes, bars, gyms, cinemas or events.

You have a chocolate craving? Too bad. Eat a papaya.

Want to see a new movie? Good luck streaming it on 2G…

Aside from eating my lunch in the same restaurant every day, everything in my life happened within the walls of our little bungalow.

It was our home, my office, gym, school, cinema, yoga studio and bar.

At one point, I didn’t leave that tiny patch of coral for over three months.

My isolation bubble

So this experience of “isolation” is not new to me. I’m a good few years ahead of everyone.

In fact, one of the main reasons we decided to leave the island was because I’d had enough of being isolated.

I wanted to hug my family.

I wanted to attend a Tiny House festival, take Esperanto classes, and learn Tai Chi from a human (not a video series I bought online for $59.95)

And I wanted to sit with friends around a dinner table, have a belly laugh and share a bottle of wine.

Because at some point, drinking the whole bottle on my own would no longer be sustainable…

Yep, we left the island and came back to Australia so we could be with the people!

Which is pretty funny, right? Given how this year has gone down…

Because not only can I not do any of the things I came home to do, but Tonga is one of the only coronavirus-free countries in the world right now and probably the safest place to be.

But aaaaanyway…

Since the pandemic, there’s been so much I’ve wanted to tell you.

Not just about how to navigate life in isolation, but how to handle what comes next — when you leave your personal island and step back into “the real world”.

Because that’s the real kicker…

I haven’t felt up for writing a blog post until now because everyone’s experience of the pandemic is so different, so I wasn’t sure I could say anything to help or cut through the coronavirus noise.

When the coronavirus first took hold and everyone was told to #StayHome, there was a sudden rush of blog and social media posts telling us this was an opportunity.

We now have the time to do all the things we wanted to do “someday”! It was the time to scan and digitise all your old photos, or dig out that half-finished cross-stich. Or learn Swedish.

And of course, this was the time to Marie Kondo your closet! Even though this may well be the worst time to do it, when it’s harder to redistribute your old belongings (so everything just ends up in the garage vortex, never to emerge again).

We were told we have to “make the most” of the pandemic, until one bold Twitter-bug tweeted:

If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either:
1) a new skill
2) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business
3) more knowledge

You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline

The backlash was instant.

From there, the world seemed to spin around in its heels and start telling us all to lie down and watch Netflix.

Go easy on yourself.

Your worth is not measured by your productivity.

It’s ludicrous to suggest you “make the most” of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, left countless unemployed and sparked a global economic free fall.

It’s ok to just survive.

You don’t need to start or finish anything.

Just BE.

So what’s the best way to cope with isolation?

 

Look, I have no idea, and neither does Twitter.

This is not a one-size-fits-all scenario so we have to stop trying to know everything and just release control. Actually, we probably need to accept we never had any control to begin with and sit with how uncomfortable that feels for a while.

The simple truth is most people around the world right now don’t have the luxury to deliberate over how they should handle this because they’re in survival mode, busier now than they ever were before.

They’re parents holding down their full time jobs while also having to homeschool their kids, even though it’s been 20 years since they’ve done long division or written a haiku poem.

They’re shop assistants who have to find the courage to leave the house every day when all their friends’ Facebook profile badges are screaming at them to #StayHome and #SaveLives.

They’re lime farmers desperately trying to work out how to make the world buy their surplus of little green citrus balls now that everyone’s stopped going to bars and drinking Mojitos.

And they’re the people who find themselves homeless, hungry and unemployed because their livelihoods crumbled when doors and borders were closed without warning.

But let’s imagine for a minute you do have the time and space to ponder the different ways you can cope with this, you will probably find you respond much the same as you do when a loved one is gravely ill in hospital.

Some people need to be productive, chase the doctors for updates, Google medical conditions and research possible treatment options.

Some people prefer to sit by the patient’s bedside, cracking dad jokes and trying to make them laugh.

And some people arrive at the hospital with 48 pies and sausage rolls to feed not only their own family but the nurses and everyone on the ward (I’m looking at you, Auntie Madeleine).

In fact it’s probably normal to swing through every one of these coping mechanisms, depending on the day.

Because all of these responses are an act of love in times of fear and grief.

And I’m pretty sure grief is an emotion we’re all feeling on some level right now — at least that’s the twisting pain I get in my belly when I see my parents but can’t give them a hug.

So let’s not look to the internet to work out how we should be coping or what we should be “getting out of this”.

If you wanted to emerge from the pandemic with a new skill and a new business? Go forth and conquer. I’m cheering you on from the sidelines.

If you wanted to spend three months lying on the couch in your pyjamas watching re-runs of Friends? Knock yourself out. We’re on a break…

And if you’re a multipotentialite you probably want to start a business on Monday and watch Netflix all day Tuesday, then maybe learn a bit of Arabic on Wednesday, but you can’t do the online hula hoop class you planned on Friday because you’re too hungover from accidentally drinking that bottle of wine alone on Thursday, so on Saturday you make a colour-coded spreadsheet of everything you want to achieve next week and, well, Sunday is a day of rest, so why don’t we just write this week off and start fresh on Monday, eh?

Yep, all that’s fine too. Just follow your inspiration without judging all the random places it’s probably going to take you right now…

Do whatever you need to do to feel mentally fit and happy because it’s important to not only cope with isolation but prepare ourselves for life after isolation.

Because take it from me, it might not be as easy as you think to readapt to the life you had before…

 

For me, the hardest part was getting back to “normal” 

The truth is, even though Myers Briggs insists I’m an extrovert, isolation has not been difficult for me now and it wasn’t difficult when I lived on the island.

Without much contact with the outside world, I felt protected in some ways, and not at all impacted by global or outside events.

I was also unbelievably productive on the island, getting huge amounts of work done every day. Life slowed right down to a pace I felt comfortable with and my progress felt peaceful.

My world had shrunk and I felt safe.

But I was excited to come back to Australia and fully expected to run joyfully back into the arms of the chaos of modern society. I couldn’t wait to see my family and friends, and go to the cinema and Thai restaurants and Momo festivals and dress up parties…

But if I’m honest, emerging from life in an isolated environment hasn’t been that easy for me.

Although I feel I’ve always swung between introversion and extroversion, I found I’d actually settled into an entirely new state that can only be described as “hermitversion”.

On one hand, I felt a yearning to reconnect with my community and my people. But on the other hand, I felt quite safe and happy in my little bubble, cut off from the outside world. Even if I recognised that probably wasn’t healthy…

When I left the island, I found myself feeling anxious going into social situations, and I was extra sensitive to noise and the energies and emotions of the people around me.

Once upon a time, I loved going to concerts and festivals or out wandering in the city, but now I couldn’t stand being in crowds or anywhere that “bustles”. I was easily flustered and had trouble focusing when there was too much going on.

Just after I got home, a storm caused a power outage when I was on the train north from Sydney and I got stuck in a crowd of people inside Hornsby station. I was elbow-to-elbow with thousands of other commuters, all trapped between the platform and the ticket barriers, and I had a quiet panic attack.

Trapped in the train station before the pandemic…

And that was way before I had any inkling the people smooshed around me might have a virus that could kill hundreds of thousands of people.

Another issue was I didn’t feel comfortable making plans too far in advance because I’d gotten used to just waking up each day and doing whatever inspired me.

So when I came back to Australia I tended to keep my schedule free all the time, only sending messages to catch up with people at the last minute — when it was a sunny day to sit on a cafe terrace, or a rainy day for the cinema.

But that rarely worked out, because in Australia people’s lives are so busy they can usually pencil you in sometime around next April… So when my own calendar started to fill up as a result, and I looked a month ahead and felt like every minute was accounted for, I started to feel suffocated and overwhelmed.

Also, ever since my entire life existed within 18 hectares, driving 30kms to visit a friend felt like it required as much energy as flying to Borneo. So even though I’m a nomad who loves to travel between different countries, suddenly local travel in cars and on public transport felt exhausting.

I was working hard to overcome all these little quirks when the coronavirus swept me (and everyone else) back into an island-like bubble. Now suddenly Australia slowed down to a pace I find quite manageable…

So as the world gets a hold on coronavirus and the restrictions start to lift, I think it’s important to know there may be some different challenges ahead.

Of course, there will be an initial rush of excitement when the bubble pops and we’re allowed to skip joyfully out to greet the world. And for some people life will return to normal and they’ll never look back.

But for others, they might be surprised to find themselves easily fatigued or anxious while doing things that were second nature a few months ago.

If your return to “normal” life feels harder than you think it should, I want you to know that’s ok.

We may not even recognise the changes that have happened inside us until the government tells us it’s safe to do the things we’ve spent months being told are too risky — like flying overseas, using public transport, eating in restaurants or going to a concert.

Just as these normal things suddenly became risky a few months ago, you might expect these risky things to just feel normal again, like flipping a switch.

But it might not work like that for everyone.

A lot of people have pointed out that we’re not all in the same boat with the pandemic, but we’re all in the same storm. But I’m not sure I agree with that either.

Because for you, life in isolation might have felt like diving into the warm Mediterranean Sea from a catamaran on a sunny day.

Or maybe it’s been a tornado sh!t show like in that movie Twister.

And you’re the cow.

Remember the cow?

But whatever storm we’ve weathered, we’ll probably find we’ve picked up some fun new quirks and idiosyncrasies — some “mental wobbles” we’ll be faced with as a result of living through the biggest global upheaval since World War II.

So don’t judge yourself for any of the emotional debris that washes up for you over the next few months — whether that’s a choking fear when someone reaches out to shake your hand, or unbridled ecstasy when you drop your three year old chatterbox off at daycare for the first time.

It’s all perfect, even if it doesn’t feel easy. Forgive yourself when it feels hard, and mentally prepare yourself now that the descent from Mount Everest will be a different challenge to climbing it.

For me, my approach to reintegrating into the real world was to take it extremely slowly — always doing less than I thought I could manage because I have a tendency to take on too much. We didn’t even tell most people we were back in Australia for the first month we were here.

The next step was to reconnect with just a handful of people (instead of everyone at once), always trying to push myself beyond my comfort zone a teeny bit more each time and getting back out into the world slowly.

At the same time, I scheduled myself plenty of “hermitvert” time in between to recharge my batteries.

I had to use the word “no” a lot more, and try to do it without making excuses for myself.

Now that I’m laying my own “mental wobbles” bare in a blog post, I also wish I’d been more honest with people about how that initial return to reality felt at the time. Because sometimes these feelings lose their weight when they’re bundled into words and spoken out loud.

After about 4 or 5 months, I felt like I had more social energy and I was getting back into the swing of things, but when the coronavirus isolation started, my biggest worry was I would undo all the progress I’d made since leaving Tonga. So to help keep me connected with the outside world and pushing the barriers of my social comfort zone, I made a decision.

Even though the borders were closed and all flights were grounded, I was not going to stop travelling.

Coronavirus has not stopped me from travelling

I’ve been living a nomadic, transient life for almost 19 years.

19 YEARS.

That’s almost half my life I’ve been wandering and working my way around the world, bouncing between 59 countries.

This year we said we were “taking a year off” from travelling because we only had trips planned to our home bases in Tonga, Nepal and France.

Travel is a huge part of our lives so David and I talk about it a lot, but about 2 weeks into coronavirus isolation I noticed all our conversations were feeling very pandemic-heavy.

When we weren’t talking about work, our business or our course assignments, we were rehashing the latest virus updates. I was tuning in for every press conferences and absorbed with the news.

We weren’t leaving the house or seeing other people. So we weren’t having different experiences we could come home and share with each other. Our conversations started to feel like a dark cloud closing in on us.

So I had an idea… (because I’m a multipotentialite, and I have 10 ideas before breakfast)

During the pandemic, I decided we would keep travelling. We would create a messy game with no rules that allowed us to virtually travel to a new country every few days…

I printed out the name of every country and autonomous territory in the world (226 according to one free print-out I found on the internet) and put them in a drinking glass. Now every four days or so, we randomly draw out the name of a country and start planning a virtual trip using whatever resources we have available to us.

Pull a country out of a hat (glass)

The first place we landed was Guatemala — a country I was booked to visit in 2018 before I ruptured a tendon in my hand and had to cancel.

So we whipped up a batch of Guatemalan guacamole (made with oregano, white onion and lime juice) and escaped into the Heart of the Mayan World and Guatemalan documentaries like When the Mountains Tremble

Out on my morning walk, I listened to a podcast speech given by Guatemalan Nobel Peace prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú Tum… then at night, David and I sipped Caribbean rum and listen to Guatemalan radio while we cooked and tried to speak Spanish together.

Finally, I booked myself a Tz’utujil lesson online with a Maya woman in Guatemala, and over Skype she taught me (in Spanish) the basics of her indigenous language from her home on the shores of Lake Atitlán.

It had been years since I’d spoken Spanish, so the conversation was difficult and awkward at first, but the perfect way to break free of my corona comfort bubble and connect with a friend I was just meeting for the first time.

Already after a few days, David and I found that not only did we have a lot more to talk about that had nothing to do with the virus, but there was a lot more laughter in the house.

So we drew another country from the cup and virtually travelled to the Netherlands, a country I know well on account of being the granddaughter of a Dutchman.

We cooked hutspot and snert and danced around the kitchen with The Netherlands Top 100 streaming on Deezer. Then we ate speculaas cookies and got sucked into the Netflix series Toon, a comedy about a socially awkward jingle composer in Amsterdam who accidentally becomes an overnight internet sensation.

We quickly realised that watching foreign shows was the perfect way to escape reality and genuinely disconnect from everything around you.

You have to read the subtitles so you can’t get distracted and reach for your phone, or stress about work, or start mentally calculating how many Easter eggs you’ve eaten that day.

Then almost two weeks into our virtual world trip, we arrived in Jamaica, much to the delight of my reggae-loving, rum-appreciating husband. It was there, with Bob Marley wailing in the background, I discovered JAMAICAN BANANA BREAD.

My Jamaican Banana Bread! I bake now…

It’s all the goodness you love in ordinary banana bread but with a shot of rum and a dusting of coconut.

Didn’t know Jamaican banana bread was a thing? Here’s the recipe.

You’re welcome…

From there we spent a few days in the overseas US territory of Guam, then onto Monaco, Latvia and yesterday, we arrived in Iran. So this week we’ll be enjoying saffron kebabs and the entire online video library of Jafar Panahi — the film-maker banned by the Iranian government who had to smuggle his footage out of the country on a USB hidden in a cake.

Even as the world has locked down, we’ve found a way to keep exploring…

We’re still connecting with strangers, learning about new cultures and forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones with new languages and recipes — all from within our little bubble.

If you want to play along, I’m going to try to break free of my social media apathy and update our virtual journey on Instagram. If anyone’s interested, I’ll also start a new blog post in the next couple of days with all the countries we’ve visited and the resources and recipes we’ve found. If your country comes up, please feel free to contact me to add other resources you think will help us on our virtual travels in your homeland!

But for now, I’ll leave you with an Iranian farewell…

Ghorbunet beram!

I’m told this is an affectionate way of saying thank you and goodbye in Farsi.

Apparently it roughly translates as, “I’ll sacrifice myself for you”.

I’m sending love to you, whatever your situation, wherever you are in the world.

Be kind to yourself,

Laura xx

P.S. As the world is no longer travelling, I’ve decided to give away my eBook Work the World for free. Sure, it might not be much use to you at the moment from a travel perspective, but there’s an entire section that lays the foundation for finding work online or exploring options for starting an online business that could be handy right now… You can download Work the World in just a few clicks and if you find it helpful or you have any questions or comments, please I’d love to hear from you!!

Laura Maya
ABOUT Laura Maya

Laura Maya is an Aussie-French nomad, writer and alternative lifestyle coach. She’s the author of Work The World and curator of the free self-coaching program GPS for the Soul

Laura has been working and travelling the world slowly since 2001 — exploring cultures, writing stories and learning languages in almost 60 countries. Now she helps other restless and curious souls design a life they love by exploring alternative ways to live, earn, explore and impact the world.