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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Record scratch


A week ago, I was flying high. I was coming up on two months in Liberia and feeling settled, challenged, and happy. On one of our weekly Skype calls, my dad asked me about the highs and the lows... and it was hard to think of serious lows. Sure, there were annoyances and frustrations. My air conditioner broke in the middle of the night, leaving me panting in front of an open window, and stayed broke for a week. The washing machine once took four hours to finish a load of my laundry... and then broke for a week. ATMs sometimes ran out of cash. Work had its tough moments, as I navigated a new environment and tried to learn enough Stata to avoid being found out as the imposter I am.  

But overall, if I had written this a week ago, it would have been a chirpy update about how well things were going. I faced a steep learning curve at work, but it was a curve I wanted to be on. The challenging work was balanced out by lazy Sundays reading on the beach. In lieu of a one-bedroom apartment, I had opted for a room in a shared apartment rented out by a church, the Monrovia Christian Fellowship, and what it lacked in luxury it made up for in community. 

There were seven other people living here and, as introverted as I am, I found I really enjoyed having folks to chat with while I was cooking or to drink Club Beers with while sitting on the porch. It was a nice group of people who were all excited about exploring Liberia. We walked to the market in Central Monrovia and saw the chimpanzees at Monkey Island and had plans to spend a weekend in the surf town of Robertsport. Coronavirus was a frequent topic of conversation, but it was mostly humming in the background, like the weather.

Last weekend I joined a group for a trip to Mt. Nimba, the tallest peak in Liberia, which sits at the border with Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. It was carved up for mining and the nearest town is still basically run by ArcelorMittal. For our meals, we drove up to a guarded gate, walked through rows of identical shipping containers housing miners, and ate in a company canteen. It felt very post-apocalyptic and I joked that I wouldn't be surprised if we came down from the mountain and found that civilization had ended.

Of course, you know how this story ends, because you're living some version of it too. In the course of a six-hour car ride on our way back from Nimba, as I bumped over a dirt road in the back of a 4x4, the ground shifted beneath us. We read news that Liberia had had its first case. President Weah addressed the nation. We learned that Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc, the two major international airlines connecting Liberia to Europe and onwards, were suspending their flights. The Peace Corps announced its decision to evacuate volunteers worldwide (there went one roommate). And the Netherlands and Sweden strongly advised students abroad to come home (there went four more). 

To be clear, most of those falling dominoes were connected to the global state of affairs, not specifically to the situation in Liberia. Liberia still has just three cases (all of them named-and-shamed in press releases), but the government has taken the ebola experience to heart and is taking it incredibly seriously. Liberia has closed schools, churches, restaurants, and beaches and will soon suspend the remaining West African flights, from what I understand. Many motorcycle and taxi drivers are wearing face masks, there are hand-washing stations outside most buildings, and someone takes your temperature before you enter the grocery store. 

As I watched all my roommates leave the country, I felt a bit like a person in a disaster movie who stands still and watches everyone running as the Godzilla slowly comes into view. It felt a bit like I should start running too. For now, my organization has advised us to stay in place, since there isn't really a safe place to travel right now. In terms of current case incidence, if not in terms of health system capacity, we're better off in Africa than in the United States or Europe. We of course had the individual choice to go home - a decision I had to make quickly because flights were shutting down fast. I opted to stay here. I hope I did the right thing, especially since I won't be able to leave, at least not easily, if I need to. The Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory that the State Department just issued made me particularly nervous.

In the course of the last week, I went from living with seven other people to living alone in the church. I went from working with a fun bunch of colleagues to working at home by myself. I went from hustling to launch a survey to having fieldwork postponed indefinitely. I went from weekly beach trips to looking forlornly at the beach from my balcony. In other words, I feel like the rug got pulled out from under me - just as I was beginning to really thrive in Monrovia, the kaleidoscope twisted and everything is different (how many more metaphors can I mix here?)

And you want to hear a bad joke? I decided to pursue jobs abroad in part because Austin was going to be working long hours as a first-year Big Law associate and so I wouldn't get to see much of him anyway. Now we're both sitting alone in apartments across an ocean from each other. If I was home, right now we could be playing one of the four different versions we own of the board game Pandemic. 

Though of course, all of this - my interrupted adventure abroad and the one-person pity party I've been throwing for it - pales in comparison to the terrifying slow-motion tragedy that is this pandemic. Every now and then I hit the panic button and worry about the health of my friends and family or (more trivially) that I won't be able to leave the country to come home for my friends' weddings in August and September. I read the articles about how long this could last and I worry that I won't be able to come home for another 18 months, a Rip Van Winkle reemerging after all my friends and family have long forgotten me.

On the bright side - in some ways being abroad has me well-prepared for this. After all, I chose to be socially distanced from my friends and family for a while. I already have a solid routine of online workout classes, a regular Skype habit, and a full queue on Overdrive for two libraries. In some ways this is a win for me, since my faraway friends are even more invested in keeping in touch than they were before. I've already done virtual happy hour and long-distance barre class and am looking forward to even more catch-ups going forward. I'm trying to focus on the good. Normally I love hanging out at home but feel guilty about not venturing out and exploring; now I have an opportunity to indulge in all my favorite introvert activities guilt-free.

I recently read The Dutch House and was indulging in my hobby of reading book reviews after finishing the book. One of them included a wonderful quote from Ann Patchett, on how all of her books are variations on the same story: "You're in one family, and all of a sudden, you're in another family and it's not your choice and you can't get out." 

I've thought of that often over the past few days. I thought I was in one story and now I'm in another. I went from "intrepid female traveller explores a new country" to "lonely girl waits out a global pandemic, one that could end civilization as we know it, on the other side of the world from everyone she loves." None of us are in the story we wanted to be in right now. I'm hoping that by taking this seriously we can write a better ending. 

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