A few days ago Manchit and I went to JFK International Airport so she could take her flight back to China. She queued beside travelers dressed in full Hazmat suits (lab-ready goggles down to their slip-resistant shoe booties), or in hodgepodges of plastic-wear (rain jackets, ponchos, pant protectors) Frankenstein-crafted together; or wearing whatever construction-site dust mask and gloves they could find; or wearing nothing virus-preventative at all – except for perhaps an annoyingly increased awareness of their nose’s itch.
Over the past few weeks, Manchit and I went back and forth over whether it would be better for her to flee the quickly deteriorating situation in NY/NJ (passing through the hotbed of virus activity that is JFK) and back to relative safety (and a mandatory 14 day quarantine) and her family in China or to bunker down with my parents and I at the farm in NJ for the two or three (or more?) months that the virus is expected to rage.
Somehow the decision was made for Manchit to head out, and somehow I also failed to appreciate this decision’s ramifications until we were standing at the nearly deserted Terminal 1 drop-off section. As we embraced and the lone nearby attendant tried to look like he wasn’t looking, a few tears glistened her cheeks and merged into a pair of faint parallel channels. Twin barely visible streams carrying the weight of our fused anxiety. She turned and slipped beyond touch into the airport, and I retreated back to my apartment, a dull, barren place now devoid of her contagious echoing laughter.
With her fingers now playing Candy Crush in a timezone 12 hours to the future, clarity comes easily: whether for a day, a year, or a lifetime, there is no one with whom I would rather be quarantined…
But let’s be done with this bout of personal despondency before my mother begins to mime playing “the world’s smallest violin” for our relatively non-problem problems. Manchit and I have so much to be grateful for and unless there is a complete dissolution of world order, everything will be completely fine for us and we will be reunited before too long. A HUGE thank you to the medical professionals, truck drivers, supermarket attendants, nursing home staff, plumbers, and all other essential staff for continuing to work on the front-lines and enable the rest of us to safely retreat further behind our electronic screens.
At the end of January, Manchit and I were preparing to leave China and our first quarantine/business shutdown and were wondering if our flight would be cancelled before we hopped aboard. Even though we were ~1500 kilometers from the Wuhan epicenter, our city of Guangzhou had closed all karaoke halls, theaters, bars, and other public gathering places and people were avoiding the streets as if there was a *cough* plague. (Sorry)
Our excellent trip (to be further detailed through some later posts) through mostly Oman and Jordan, took us through numerous Coronavirus checks and medical questions at nearly every stage of the journey. These short glimpses into the rising international unease now feel like we were watching previews before the blockbuster main event.
At one point, ~6 weeks after we had actually left China (and well beyond the recommended 14 day potential incubation period) we were removed from a crowded airport line (something about one of us looking Asian being reason enough), and marched via official escort to a nearby medical office, behind our heads coming a steady torrent of accusatory whispers and not-at-all-whispered remarks – “Coronavirus.”
We answered the official’s inquires and were released back to the waiting horde, but this time everyone seemed a bit more wary of how close they stood to us. After 10 minutes or so of waiting to get to yet another check, we were once again removed from the group (this time at the end-point, a perfect place to stand and have the attention of ~100 disgruntled travelers), and go through the same process again. It was an annoying and dispiriting exercise at the time (as well as being a bit xenophobic), not only because we were singled out numerous times based on our appearance, but also because by doing so in front of 100 people, it allowed these travelers to easily and blatantly express their disgust, their fear, and even their hatred of “The Other.” (Importantly, at that moment, the cases were rising in Italy, but no one who “looked” Italian [or even was speaking Italian] was being pulled aside by the staff.) “The Other” is another nationality, it’s another ethnicity, it’s another sexuality or creed or color or whatever group of the moment that does not contain yourself. It’s something that you are not. It’s something different that you detest, that you shrink away from, that you fear.
That moment was a small, brief taste of what Asians around the world have been experiencing these past few months (and, of course, what marginalized communities have endured since the birth of time), and it is likely only a glimpse of what is yet to come as people (read: frightened Americans) look for a scapegoat to blame.
We absolutely need to be testing widely for the virus. We absolutely need to be keeping our distance to reduce the spread and “flatten the curve.” But let’s also try and remember the human in those that don’t look, act, or even think, quite like us. Let’s not give in to the easy stereotypes, quick racist quips, and fearmongering that only increase the divisions between the globe’s beautiful humanoid subsets. We are all in this together (*Cough* unless you are part of the world’s political and economic elite, whose actions have directly contributed to the current crisis, and who continue to drive wedges between the various socioeconomic partitions of the majority 99% *Cough*), and let’s try to remember that as life as we know it continues to change in the weeks and months (years?) ahead. *Cough*
Anyway, let’s take it back to the sunnier days of our winter 2019 trip and get out of this virus hullabaloo, at least for a moment. After heading out of China in the beginning of February 2019, we took about five flights before finally landing in Jayapura, Indonesia, on the far eastern island of Papua. We had planned to visit the city’s Papua New Guinean consulate, cross the nearby land border, and spend a month in PNG, but, alas, life (or Papua New Guinean regulations however you want to call it) had other plans. As the consulate would not issue a travel visa for Manchit, our focus turned to exploring more of Indonesia – certainly not a poor prospect at all!
We stayed for nearly a week in the nearby small town of Sentani with our absolutely lovely Couchsurfing host, Vina, as we planned a new trip for ourselves and explored the surrounding countryside. One of our favorite days in town was when we met her native Papuan neighbors and joined for a traditional feast. After hopping between various locals markets and a chicken farm (All meat eaters should be required to visit these kind of facilities, if only so they can remember the smell!), we returned home and helped the neighbors construct a subterranean oven. Layers upon layers of rocks (heated on a fire), tubers, marinated chicken, and other veggies were placed underground and covered. After about an hour, the entire mass was unearthed and we ate like kings.
It was fascinating to watch them cook in the old way.
Heading on from Sentani, we flew west to the coastal city of Sarong in West Papua, the entry point to the world famous Raja Ampat islands. After one night gathering supplies, we took two separate boat rides to head deep into the spread out collection of tropical islands.
Raja Ampat is, without question, one of the most amazing places we have ever been, and overall one of the best two weeks of our lives. As an almost painfully beautiful island paradise with a fantastically stunning underwater playground, this is THE PLACE to come if you have any interest at all in snorkeling, diving, underwater life, or just plain and simple beachside chillin’.
Tens of thousands of fish flying around you underwater and thousands of various shades and colors and scales. Tiny fish that barely glimmer under the sun, and large bad boys three or four feet or long. We saw TONS of sharks, most short and cute about three feet long, but I also saw a big one, at least ~10+ feet and close to shore… Was he waiting for someone? Unfortunately, the shark zoomed away as I began to swim closer!
Sting rays, and gorgeous, smooth sailing sea turtles. Dolphins too (but we weren’t in the water for those, unfortunately). And we can’t forget about the gigantic manta rays, huge airplane-style floating beasts 12 or 15 feet wide – but looking so gentle with large smiles upon the underside of their faces. Such a huge variety of fish and underwater wildlife, and then the coral! Reds, blues, yellows, greens, purples, browns, and everything else on the color spectrum twisted and turned into the most fantastical shapes: mushroom clouds, Grand Canyon-esque chasms, peculiar forests filled with “trees” seemingly drawn by a child’s hand.
And this is a world terrifically under threat from the dangers of man. You may swim through some of the most amazing underwater scenes and then all of a sudden float over the gray, dark, lifeless expanse of a boating channel. Dead coral. A lack of fish. Everything covered in a grim layer of death. Then, possibly even worse, there’s the trash that you find underwater and on the beaches. (“How is there STILL so much trash on these beaches in the middle of nowhere??!”) Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic pieces of junk – the various totems signifying humankind’s ecological failures.
Raja Ampat is still breathtaking, but the clock is ticking. There will come a time (and not too far off at the current pace) that man finally succeeds in destroying these last bastions of Earth’s pristine nature. Try to visit soon, and if you do go, please use one of the plastic bags you will undoubtedly find washed upon shore to gather up some trash. Earth lovers of the future (and today) will thank you!
Our first (and last) stop in the Raja Ampat islands was at local islander Sam’s homestay. The rough plan was to spend three or four nights each on a few different islands, but that never happened. Sam and his family were just too nice, the food was amazing (three meals per day, unlimited tea/coffee, and plenty of snacks), and the location was unbelievable (our cabin was located directly above the gorgeous water. When we wanted to go snorkeling we could just walk from our porch right into the water and begin swimming).
With almost no internet (we only could get a signal by climbing to the top of a nearby mountain) and no electricity during the daylight hours, our days flew by without much of the distractions of the modern world. Sunrise to sunset kind of days, tons of pristine snorkeling, jungle hikes, fresh coconuts, reading, writing, exercising… All in the middle of daily perfect weather and sun.
Two weeks on the island and, unfortunately, our time was finished. Hugs and fond farewells to Sam and his wonderful family and we zoomed off to the mainland for the final longboat ride, a few schools of dolphins jumped out and played in the water as we sped by. We stayed one night back in Sarong then flew out in the morning to Bali for a completely opposite island experience. Now we had our own pool, our own pool table, cheap drinks after going (nearly) sober for two weeks, high quality international dining options, and plenty of techno clubs nearby. All the healthy living from Raja Ampat was immediately put to an end!
After a few days in Bali, we flew off to Manila for a probably-much-too-long one week layover in Manila. Apart from the almost laughably horrendous amounts of traffic, some thieves slashing our bag in a robbery attempt (I only realized upon looking at the bag the next day!), and perhaps the worst tacos in the world – we had a lovely time!
From Manila our odd flying route finally brought us back to China, but this time further north to the cosmopolitan capital of the country so we could reunite briefly with some friends. We had both visited Shanghai before, so we skipped much of the regular tourist sites and instead went to a bunch of museums and galleries and a ton of parties with friends!
Stay safe, stay healthy, and help the front-line professionals by staying home! Sending love from our quarantines to yours.
D + M