Raja Ampat in Corona times

When I looked out of my airplane window I saw the paradisiacal islands of Raja Ampat disappearing from my sight. Lush green jungle-covered islands, surrounded by a bright blue and turquoise ocean. A scene from my dreams. Or at least from my bucket list. 

I’d only spent 10 days in beautiful Raja Ampat; an archipelago in West Papua, Indonesia. Raja Ampat is known for its birds of paradise, but mostly for its rich coral reefs, full of marine life. I guess it’s on every scuba divers bucket list. Definitely on mine! 

My long-cherished wish of joining a liveaboard in Raja Ampat came true, but unfortunately, I had to abandon my journey way earlier than planned because of the global Corona (Covid-19) crisis.

Two weeks earlier in The Netherlands

I left my apartment in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on 11 March, not even two weeks prior to my return back home. At that point Corona had already spread to the Netherlands. On 27 February the first Dutch person was tested positively to Corona and on 6 March Corona demanded its first victim in The Netherlands. 

Obviously very sad. But we played it down: “unfortunately, every year people die of the flu just like people die of Corona. Tragical, but also a fact of life”.  Some Corona-cartoons and jokes were sent in what’s app-groups and Dutch people tried to stay positive.

Our response to the Corona crisis has probably something to do with our culture, we are very much down to earth. Often something I truly appreciate, but in this case, it was very naive. 

Flying to Raja Ampat

On the first part of my trip, my flight to Doha, Qatar, everything went smooth and seemed normal. I had a 9-hour layover in Doha and I had booked a hotel to be able to rest a bit. Raja Ampat is really on the other side of the world for me, a 36 hours trip, and I planned to have a break in between. However, at Doha airport the consequences of the Corona virus were very visual. Everyone had to fill out a health form and had to be checked medically, in order to leave the airport and enter Qatar. The line was very long and I started wondering if I could return in time for my next flight if I would leave the airport for some resting time in the hotel.

Obviously, no one could inform me what the situation would be within 9 hours. The situation seemed to change every hour. Therefore, I didn’t dare to leave the airport and I chose to spend the night on a plastic chair at the airport. Afraid to fall asleep, because of the camera in my hand luggage.

After 9 very long hours, I could finally continue to Jakarta. This time the plane was only filled for 25% maximum. 

In Jakarta, I met my friend Kristel and we continued together to Sorong, West Papua, Indonesia.

‘Eat-sleep-dive-repeat’ on the Teman liveaboard

From the Sorong airport we were picked up by Stuart, the cruise director of Teman, the ship that would be our home for the coming 10 days. We met our fellow travelers: Jo and Kris (Australia), Linda (Finland, living in Bali), Michelle (Swiss) and Jen and Alex (Canada) and the fantastic crew, all Indonesians, except for Stuart (England). Of course, Corona was one of the first topics that we spoke about, but in the coming days this subject started to fade a bit to the background.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Teman liveaboard (our home for the coming 10 days)

Every day we started diving at 7am, had breakfast, chilled, dived at 11am, enjoyed lunch (with a cake as dessert every day!), chilled, dived again at 3pm, chilled, enjoyed dinner and drank a Bintang beer on the roof of the ship while gazing at the sky full of stars. When we saw manta rays swimming around the boat, we took a snorkel and jumped in. Or we grabbed a SUP and peddled a bit. ‘Eat-sleep-dive-repeat’ to the max.

It was fantastic; beautiful fish, manta rays, sharks, good company, amazing food… and all of it in the beautiful tropical setting. We were more or less floating in a postcard. 

We lived in a bubble during the first days. We were isolated by choice. Raja Ampat is remote and we spent our time on the ship or underwater. And we didn’t have any reception.

Once we did have reception again, we were overwhelmed by all messages. Alarming messages by my parents (not only sent to me, but also to Stuart and the Teman organization): “please contact the Dutch embassy. You should consider returning home as soon as possible!” And some messages by locals “Sorong airport will be closed tomorrow”. Fortunately, this message turned out to be fake news.

The Corona-jokes in the What’s app-groups were replaced by worrying massages.

I received information about the dreadful situation in Italy and figures comparing The Netherlands with Italy, stating that in two weeks my country would be in the same critical condition. I also read that Italy wouldn’t allow any patients over 65 years on their Intensive Cares anymore. This really hit me hard as both my parents are over 65… 

We were all considering what to do. Europeans were now refused to enter Indonesia, but we already had a visa and wasn’t Indonesia safer than our own countries at the moment? 

At this point the only thing we talked about was Corona. As Corona changed from an epidemic into a pandemic we were all affected by this global disaster. Were we all still able to get home? How were our families doing? Would we still have a job upon return? Some amongst us quitted their jobs before their vacation. Would it be possible to find a new job once home?

We knew we had to decide what to do quickly. But it was not easy as we didn’t have all information and the situation seemed to change within the hour. It felt as if we had to make puzzle whereby some pieces were missing. 

We slept on it. And the crew made sure we would spend the night at a place where we would have reception. 

Diving turned out to be the best distraction possible. My feeling of unease disappeared once I hit the water. But coming back up to the surface brought me back into reality.

According to the latest information most borders were closing soon. This made me decide to return home as soon as possible. I couldn’t forgive myself if something would happen to a beloved one and if I then wouldn’t be able to make it home. 

With the help of my mother I amended my flights so that I could fly back home three days later (2,5 weeks earlier than planned). Qatar changed the flights free of charge. Very sympathetic. 

A day later I was confirmed that I made the right decision; the Dutch government was retrieving Dutch citizens as Indonesia had turned into a Corona epicenter as well and according to our government Indonesia isn’t prepared sufficiently to treat Corona patients with severe symptoms. 

I tried to do some online grocery shopping for when I returned home. Even though our prime minister stated that there would be “enough toilet paper to poop for 10 years” I wasn’t sure if there would be any left in the supermarkets in my neighborhood as people where quickly buying a shitload (-sorry, I had to make this joke) of toilet paper and other products (something we call “hamster-ing” in the Netherlands).

The burst of the bubble

I still enjoyed the last two days on the ship as much as I could. We visited a mini island, Aborek and were shocked to see that local children covered their mouths when they saw us. Apparently, “white people” were now seen as bringers of the Covid-19 virus. 

On 22 March we left the ship. The Teman crew had taken such good care of us, our group felt safe and now we were on our own again. 

Suddenly everything felt insecure and every stranger as a potential source of danger. Were all borders staying open? What if one of my three flights would be cancelled…would I still make it home? Could I end up in quarantine on one of the airports, by myself? What would I find in The Netherlands? Was I traveling back to some kind of warzone? Would I get sick in the airplane or would I get the virus on one of the airports?

One day later I looked out of my airplane window and saw the paradisiacal islands of Raja Ampat, while flying home with mixed feelings. Feeling blessed to live in a country with a good health care system, but also feeling sad for all people affected by this virus. I was (and still am) worried about all my beloved ones; family, friends and colleagues. And I was thinking (again) about the randomness of the way and place where someone is born. Our government was retrieving all Dutch people home from Indonesia. But how about the Indonesians; the Teman crew and all other friendly Indonesians…(and of course people in other parts of the world with poor healthcare systems)?

My two traveling days seemed to last forever, but I made it home safely. Whereas some measurements were taken on the airports for people to keep their distance, the airplanes were packed. With only a small (and I assume useless) mouth cap I felt a bit underdressed compared to others. 

There were a few temperature checks along the way, but fortunately I didn’t have a fever, so I could continue my trip home. 

When I arrived in Amsterdam there was no one to pick me up. Everyone was in self isolation. The new reality. A lonely and anti-social time seemed to lie ahead. 

It turned out to be a bizarre time indeed. On the other hand, I now Facetime with my family daily and I’ve got time to put things into perspective and reconsider what is most important in (my) life. Health, family, friends, sharing and caring for each other, taking care of our planet and being thankful for what we have.

And it turned out to also be a time wherein people take care of each other. With creative and fantastic initiatives. My friends are sowing mouth caps for care workers, the company I work for is helping homeless people, entrepreneurs collaborate, neighbors take care of each other and so on. An anxious and sad time with a very thin silver lining. 

Of course I realize (once again) that traveling is a luxury. It’s a shame I had to end my trip way earlier than planned. But hey, my friends and family are fortunately still healthy. And Indonesia, hopefully we will meet again! 

Hang in there everyone, and stay safe!