21 July, Veralugama, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

This morning I feel the horizon drawing in again.  So let me start last Sunday.  We were in this very house by the forest packing the car to drive across the country in the morning, the longest distance we’d have gone since lockdown. 

Over the weekend a sudden outbreak of COVID cases linked to a single residential rehabilitiation centre, was leading to wild talk of a ‘second wave’ in Sri Lanka, the terminology itself casually inflated on an island that has largely escaped having any COVID ‘wave’ at all.   This is not to underestimate either the risks – especially as one person tested positive after transfer to a prison facility – or the hope that a local outbreak would remind us not to relax so much.  It seemed in places like people had really thought the crisis was over and were shocked to find it still with us.

We too exhibited delayed-reaction/head-in-the-sand type behaviour of the sort we should have outgrown once and for all, five months ago.  We focused on how not to cancel our trip.  Should we leave immediately, we wondered, and drive through the night before a new curfew might be called in the morning?  Even conscious of elephant crossings at night and the grave risks of falling asleep at the wheel, we did think about it, more than usually desperate to go, more fearful of renewed locking than I would have predicted.  We didn’t do it but we packed the car in a state of tension – it wasn’t just the risk of cancellation but the fact that what used to be an ordinary journey now felt momentous.  A suspected wild boar in the bushes nearby helped to heighten the moment.

Nothing happened overnight and in the morning we made our omelette sandwiches and set off as planned – the plan being not to stop at all on the 5-6 hour drive except once for the loo in a place we’d decided would be the least busy.  Indeed, when we pulled up to Habarana Rest House, it was closed.  But a woman playing with her daughter outside one of the rooms told me just to go in and use the toilet anyway.  Her daughter, the same size as our son, was so delighted to see another child she rushed up and threw her arms around him.  We their parents caught our breath, as one does now, though we would still never stop them.

Several hours and a mess of children later – this time my son and his three much beloved older cousins – I found the stillness to realise we had arrived as intended.  My husband was putting our son to bed and my brother was talking to his daughters as they got themselves ready to sleep.  Sitting in the living room outside, I heard my brother talk to his girls about the long history of Anti-Semitism, the Second World War, the abrupt loss of Palestinian homeland and the aggressions of modern Israel.  He did it exceptionally well of course, that didn’t surprise me.  As snatches of the conversation drifted out to me in the quiet of the sitting room, across from the quiet of the lagoon, I was preoccupied with something else.  I was struck just how normal the moment felt, after so long, and what a relief it was. 

About two months ago, in slightly eased lockdown we’d gone for a drive in the evening and the three year old, as if aware the drive was a sop and not the real thing, said to us ‘when the curfew and quarantine are over can we go to the cousins’ house?’ We have since told him that the quarantine isn’t really over though the curfew is – but we wanted to come good on what we’d promised him, who missed people most.  And here we were.

After two more lovely days with our family, we drove on to our best of beaches a little further north.  Kavan napped in the car and Kusal and I talked.  We’ve always had time to talk to each other, never more so than in lockdown, but again I was struck suddenly by a sense of space around our conversation – after months, the horizon was at the horizon. I cannot really describe to you my relief.  There is surely something about travelling distance.

One afternoon I saw a crab scuttling along the beach and nearly ran to get Kavan, only gently to remind myself this time it wasn’t a snatched outing, we would be staying here some days and there would be other crabs.  The abandon of missing a moment felt special in itself.  We spent three days in and out of sand and sea, we bought and steamed lobster because we could just about stretch to it at no-tourist prices, we explored the ruins of a grand old house next door and  when we left it was to the heart-breaking wails of a boy who wanted us just to ‘leave me at Trincomalee!’

We made two stops on the way back – once to buy buffalo curd at Kantale (obligatory, pandemic or not) and then again for the toilet at the place we’d stopped before.  This time it was the father of the family who let us use it. We realised the connection because we recognised him suddenly as a waiter at Habarana Rest House whom we’d chatted to in the pre-COVID life when we stopped here for tea on the long drives that were much more customary to us then.  He’d told us then he had child the same age as ours.

As I write this morning, Kusal and Kavan are out at work on a nearby coconut estate.  Kusal texts me a photo of our son scooping out the insides of a king coconut. Also by text, we agree we must find ways for him to return to an existence out of doors; at least some version of a life he used to live, in which he accompanied his father on all manner of errands and loved visiting the market and the bank.  Another text arrives – it is my father this time.  He says our polling cards have arrived.

18 July, Munich, Germany

Remembering the first day of school, 12 May, 2020
By Kian Hein, 11

After two months of home schooling, I was excited to learn that I was to be one of the first children to go back to school.  I did not have many days left in primary school and the teachers wanted to prepare us for secondary school. I was looking forward to going back, seeing my friends and catching up with them.

Before going back, the teachers sent us a list of extra things we had to bring to school, like disinfectant, spare masks, a small towel and a packed lunch because the canteen was closed. We also had to watch a video that the headmistress made with instructions on how to behave at school when we go back. She said that things would be different from how it used to be and that it was very important to be careful and to obey the new rules because of COVID.

I was the only child on the school bus and felt nervous and excited at the same time. I had my mask on the whole time. When we got to school, we had a very nice welcome by the teachers who cheered us with homemade ‘Welcome Back! We Missed You’ banners when we entered the building one by one. I was very happy to see my friends again although we were split into different (smaller) classes and had many strict rules to follow.

At first it was very weird because of all the rules and many things were no longer allowed. Most of the school had been closed off. We had to wash our hands properly or use disinfectant when entering and leaving the classroom. During lessons, everyone had their own distanced desk. We sat on our own so we could pull off our mask, but only when everyone else was seated.  

During recess we had to wear our masks and every class had a play area. I was a little sad I could not race to my friends, but instead I had to stick to my play area and only interact with the children from my class and no one else. I got used to it after a while and we didn’t have to use a mask during recess after a couple of weeks (but still had to wear it when entering and leaving the school building for recess).

We were not allowed to sing or to play football because we would have had to share the ball, so we played tip kick instead. But least I could see my friends and teachers for real and not just on my screen.

12 July, Saône-et-Loire, France

By Antonia Lloyd

After 105 days of family confinement in our small Oxford home, we have escaped to one of the most underpopulated parts of Europe – Saone et Loire, the most southern Burgundy region, renowned for its white chardonnay grape, sleepy countryside, and stocky white Charollais beef cattle.  Never has the cliché ‘like a dream come true’ felt so real.

The last four months of social distancing has felt horribly tough and relentless yet, undoubtedly, we have been the lucky ones – we aren’t part of the army of key workers that have had to combat the virus at close quarters; haven’t faced the breadline like many families with food banks to rely on; or dealt with the anxiety of one of us having to recover from contracting Covid-19. Our life has simply felt repetitive and slowed to an unprecedented snail like speed with one constant centre of gravity: our home.  The weekly ritual of Vita and Amelia home schooling, Harry home working, and myself freelancing on an avalanche of free consultancies for prospective TV jobs that will hopefully happen, has been an unusual social experiment of living together day-in-day-out at work and at play. Teenage angst, work stress and constant deadlines have taken their toll but, all in all, it has been a manageable experience which is more than many can probably say. Mental health issues nationwide, school regression, and long-term unemployment weigh down the majority in our immediate society, and if we have dodged these, then we are the lucky ones.

And now, we are fortunate enough to have found ourselves in a rural idyll, an overgrown French country farmhouse requiring attention inside and out.  The desire to prune, trim, mow, clean, tile, paint and make jam is overwhelming, and at last the opportunity arises to stop consuming constant negative stories about the pandemic. A new location – wherever it might have landed – is a rush of fresh air to the lungs, giving life and hope to our tired and repetitive set of routines. Here local worries and country issues replace the global fears that we’ve obsessed over for months.  Our 91-year-old neighbour, Fernant, who lived through the Second World War here, has run out of fresh grass for his nephew’s pony, so we now have a lodger in the form of ‘Night’, an inappropriately named Belgian-born cream coloured mini Shetland pony that is as least night-like as you can imagine. His days are spent roaming around the field gorging himself on sweet grass while his kind eyes lure us over and elicit head pats, carrots, and the urge to plait his mane. Night has won us over; although we have renamed him Jean which is more befitting our gentlemanly friend.

Our other lodger is a local half-starved grey cat called Felix, whose owners have long given up on him, that we renamed Chevalier a few years back – a great idea of my nephew Idris who at the time was knight-obsessed.  Back then Chevalier was a handsome moggy with elegant poise and a full coat; it seems Covid times have been tough on him too and he has re-emerged a skeletal version of his former self, or a ghost, as Vita calls him. We feed him daily with a food that promises reimbursement if a transformation of vitality doesn’t occur within 21 days- never has the brand faced such a tough test in such unprecedented times.  After several days his ribcage is less visible and his coat is fuller, but his lethargy is somewhat worrying and at times I wonder if he is indeed dead as he refuses to move when the car passes close by him. It strikes me that many people, like Chevalier, will emerge from the Covid experience a shadow of what they once were with life less technicolour and varied than it once was. The challenge now is to pick ourselves up and learn to live alongside this virus and find the colour, joy and space wherever that may be.

12 July, Kolkata, India

By Puja Bhattacharjee

The fire ants are everywhere!

On the bed, on my towel, the desk and of course near every bit of food. Last year the situation became impossible. One morning, I woke up to painful stings. I crushed the ones on my body but could not figure out where they were coming from. I got up, intending to give the bed a good shake with my pillow. As soon as I lifted my pillow off the bed, I saw a sea of red ants underneath it. I fled to my parents’ room to complete my sleep.

A few moments ago, I took a shower, dried myself, and was putting on my clothes when I felt sharp stings on the left side of my body. I knew immediately the buggers were on my towel. My parents use regular insect spray to get rid of them. I cannot stand the smell of Hit – the insecticide they use. This year, I prepared in advance. I researched online and found that tea tree oil is an effective natural remedy against fire ants. The ants use scent trails to communicate with each other. The strong odor of tea tree oil interferes with that.

I keep a spray bottle filled with water mixed with tea tree oil near me. I use it whenever I see them invading my space. Initially, I sprayed it on a line of fire ants on the bathroom wall, and they literally froze on their tracks. As if someone had cast a spell.

They can get even inside unopened packets of bread and other food. The other day my dad was transferring an unopened pack of peanuts into a jar when I saw these evil creatures through the transparent plastic. On closer inspection, we found the peanuts at the bottom were just empty shells.

These assholes disappear along with other insect assholes in winter. I have never looked forward to the winters like I do now. Also, aloe vera is a priceless plant. I dabbed some aloe gel on the areas where they stung me. Now I feel much better.

12 July, Balapitiya, Sri Lanka

By Shalini Jayasinghe

We are like birds of a feather flocking together; recently let out of our cages, on a close family trip to the ‘River House’ in Balapitiya.

We take the highway from Kohuwala to reach Balapitiya, stopping at the halfway point in search of the famous Monis Bakery biscuits. We have thought of them longingly through lockdown. But sadly the shop is closed. Soon we turn off the highway, and pass through the hustle and bustle of Dharga town, the charming beaches of Induruwa and the luxurious hotels of Bentota. This was after a quick detour to the local post office, on account of an unwelcome traffic fine. From then on we are on high alert for any and all markings, on the black and white tarred road.

It is a narrow winding road to approach the ‘River House‘, fenced on either side by trees and branches. Lightbulbs illuminate our drive, like a grand welcome and make us curious. Is it for the upcoming elections? Is there a temple event in the area? We drive on to find our new home for the weekend, with its sprawling verandahs, swimming pool, and views overlooking the river and gardens with king coconut trees, anthurium flowers, cardamom and much more. It seems like the perfect place to relax, while social distancing. Our first night passes with a barbeque and a belated birthday cake, driven all the way up from Colombo.

In the mornings we are met with a range of colourful fresh juices; melon, mango, lime and pineapple. We take a boat ride down the Madu River, wishing we‘d brought along some of the juice to quench the sweltering heat. But soon the skies become slightly overcast and we are enthralled by the sights on the river. We see black comorants and white cranes on stilts, catching fish. We even see a monkey or three. Fishermen row by in little boats to catch prawns and more. There are over sixty islands on either side of the river. One is called bird island, known for its birds; another called five cents island, I ponder why; and the biggest island has its own ATM for bank transactions. Fish massage centres line the banks of the river.

I was most excited to stop at the cinnamon island. There we are welcomed with glee, with a hot cinnamon tea, into wattle huts with thatched roofs and long wooden benches. They tell us the cinnamon is good for lowering cholesterol and reducing diabetes. The cinnamon peelers are male and female. One shows us how they use five tools to complete the peeling process, and how they dry the cinnamon peel on coir string racks for a week, in the open air and away from the sunshine. The peelers sell cinnamon sticks, cinnamon powder, and cinnamon oil made from the leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. Due to COVID-19 the numbers of visitors to the island have reduced, as has the peelers’ daily income. I buy the sticks, oil and powder. I think of using the powder in a fresh juice drink. Pineapple blended with one king coconut (with pulp), and two teaspoons of cinnamon powder. When cooled it is very refreshing.

On the way back, we enter through the mangroves. We opt to take photographs at this point. Just as we begin to approach the villa, it begins to rain and the guide is quick to open the boat‘s canvas hood and protect us from the rain.

In the evening, when the weather improves, the uncles are commissioned to fly a colourful kite for my granddaughter Amisha, who is one and a half years old. The kite has travelled all the way from Negombo, to Colombo and now to Balapitiya. The string has only come from as far as Nugegoda, bought from ‘Hulangs’, just before the trip. The kite is purple, red, yellow, blue and white. The wind is not great for kite flying, but Amisha watches keenly as it rises. Soon it gets entangled with a king coconut tree. Her mouth becomes the shape of an ‘o’, and the word ‘OH!’ escapes her lips. It is a spontaneous reaction she often has, when something goes wrong. We look for a long pole to get the kite down, and walk it back safely inside, for Amisha to fly another day. We avoid the water monitor creeping around the garden. Zain and Tahani, the neighborhood children, will also want to see the kite when we get back to Kohuwala.

Back inside, we learn that the function down the road is actually a party thrown by a local businessman for his daughter‘s attaining of age. In the evening music and fireworks are in the air. The businessman is a well-connected fish dealer; we are told all kinds of meats and drinks are on offer for hundreds of invitees, under a large red and white marquee. We settle down for our own drink. This time instead of water, water, Amisha asks to gulp down ginger beer, ginger beer. She has rapidly grown up, during lockdown.

Our trip soon comes to an end. With heavy hearts we return, hearing that a second wave of COVID-19 may be hitting our lovely little island. We maintain a steady mantra. Masks are for the nose and mouth. Not for the chin. Wash your hands for 20 seconds, with soap and water. Social distance. We are back at home, being protective of ourselves.

11 July, Los Angeles, California, USA

By Ruth McKee

For several days my 10-year-old son has been excitedly talking about a plan. He wants to go out into nature somewhere, away from all people, and “survive.”  What does he mean by this? I am not entirely sure, but he says he does not want to go on a hike, bike ride, play a game, or have a plan. We are each allowed to take three survival items, he tells me. I say I’m packing water, snacks, and my phone in case we actually get lost.

I think I know what he is looking for. There are no vacations this summer, but since the parks and beaches and hiking trails re-opened, we’ve been doing a lot more outdoor exploration. We go at odd times, to be sure to keep contact with others to a minimum. We spend our days locked up at home, then go to the beach at sunset, when everyone is packing up. We wear our masks and keep our distance, but over the past four months my children have grown to be more wary about meeting another human out in nature than a snake or a bear. 

As the weekend approaches I research some open spaces. I warn the boy that it’s going to be extremely hot – he is not known to last long in the heat. But he still wants to go and I am not going to be the one to discourage a child who has spent the majority of his unstructured summer in a horizontal position on the couch, binge-watching superhero shows. When it’s time to head out, he gears up in his survival outfit: long pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt and snow-boots. I remind him about the heat, but he is unfazed. My nine-year-old daughter dresses to match me in shorts, a tank top and hiking boots.

We drive about forty minutes to my chosen location, a camping area with a waterfall at the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. It’s right on the edge of civilization and as we approach, a sign tells us that the area is closed for the weekend, only open on weekdays. I tell my disappointed children not to worry, we can come back here some weekday soon, it probably would have been too crowded it it were open. For today, there are lots of open, wild spaces in these mountains, we just have to drive a little further to find one. 

So we drive up into the San Gabriels, into territory we have never explored: past an enormous dam and reservoir, filled with coppery-green water; over an untrustworthy bridge; through an area suddenly packed out with families who, with water-parks closed, have come to dip their toes into mountain streams. The temperature outside is oppressive, and my kids would like to do the same, but instead we keep driving, saying we’ll come back here on a weekday, too. I promise them it will be cooler at a higher elevation. There will be trees and shade if we just keep driving up, up, away from the heat and the other humans. 

After a while the other cars fall away, and the mountain range stretches out in front of us. We get out of the car to look at the view, and listen to the quiet. There are no other cars coming down this road. No sounds of traffic, construction or helicopters, just the buzzing of insects in the scorching heat. We never find the perfect open space to explore, to get safely lost and try to survive, but for a moment we stop and marvel at the distance we have managed to put between ourselves and the rest of humanity.

6 July, Delhi, India

By Anandi Mishra

Today was more or less the same as yesterday, which in turn was the same as the day before. This is not broad brushstrokes of generalization being painted over all my days, but a mirror in which I see a messy blur. All the 106 days and 105 nights.

*

When all this is behind us, we will very seriously be demarcating our time as the before times and Covid times. They will be marked by clear signifiers. For me, one of the markers of Covid times will be cooking as much as I can, even sometimes unwillingly. I would love to look back at this as a time when I managed to work on some of my friendships and willfully kept unwanted ones at bay. I will remember it as a time of unforeseen kindness from some unknown people, as a time of unforgiving summer and equally harsh landlords. But by the time we get to the other side, the collective exhaustion, the mass delirium might get too much. 

*

I have slowly become far-sick. For a place and a time, I have no inkling of. For a people I have not seen, for an era that might be behind or too far ahead of me. Far-sick for an unknown life. 

*

In the before times, I was a peripatetic. I moved cities, left relationships and people. Now, like most of us, I feel as if I am the one left behind. All the same, the numinous quality to these days and nights does not escape me. The darkness of some still days stays with me, as does the lightness with which some nights glide by. Most other days are a cluster of gloaming moments. Earlier, I would have felt an especial agent of the greyness, but I have become tetchy. The days stretch out in their vast emptiness. And my patience, the exact opposite. I am irascible, snappy but true to the bone. 

*

Some sleepless mornings things are in a lock jam. I feel like a rusted old gate manning some ancestral property the heirs don’t really care about. 

3 July, Dubai, UAE

By Mrudvi Bakshi

This particular morning, I woke up yearning to revisit some of my childhood memories, perhaps in an attempt to find some optimism in these turbulent times.   Pulling out my journal and sharpening my pencil, I let those good times roll on paper – my first dance at school, first fight with a classmate, the big fall that left me with a broken tooth or the painting competition that fetched me the first prize. Memories came rushing back and I jotted them in the pages of my journal as if it were just yesterday. The one where I got my elder sister into trouble for something I had done made me feel guilty for a bit but deserved a special mention.

An undeniable sense of relief engulfed me, as I unfolded these beautiful stories of the past.  Honestly, during the last couple of weeks, my mental health hasn’t been faring too well. While some days are manageable, others are emotionally exhausting, triggering a sense of anxiety, frustration and irritation. 

Dubai is now completely open for business and while everyone seems to be out acclimatizing to the new normal, here I am still cooped up indoors trying to find legitimate reasons to step out. With work also substantially slowing down, I’m finding it difficult to clock in even two hours of work on a daily basis. 

It’s now late in the afternoon and I decide to ring up my Nani in India. A zestful woman in her 80’s, she tells me how the lockdown has ruined her otherwise healthy lifestyle by impairing her walking routine. She then goes on to whine about how the incessant rains in Mumbai over the past few days have wreaked havoc in a city grappling with its staggering COVID-19 cases.

As we speak, I see her struggling to switch to the video mode, insisting on showing off the cat shed she built for her four strays, rescued earlier this year. 

Nani, an ever so benevolent, mischievous and fun loving person always manages to light up my day, while she narrates some funny incidents that took place over the last few weeks.  

After an hour-long conversation we say goodbye. She looks at me with expectant eyes and says,

“It was wonderful talking to you beta, keep calling, you kids are all I have.”

“Love you, Nani,” I say.

3 July, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

I am restless, dissipated, finally feeling confined.  Suddenly it feels too much to live and eat and work and play in the same room.  To some degree, we did it before lockdown too, but it feels different now.  I suddenly find I can’t concentrate on work when my husband and son are negotiating a jigsaw or reading a story or arguing behind me.  Then I find it hard in turn to think of activities for my son when my husband takes his allocated hours at the computer. I wouldn’t dream of complaining about these things.

I haven’t carried a handbag since March.  I don’t really need to – I rarely go anywhere on my own anymore.  My husband and I go shopping once a week between 10 and 12 on Friday morning while our son is with his grandmother.  We go masked and armed with sanitiser and that slightly pressed feeling we have when out in public now, anxious, hot and trying not to touch the itchy cotton stretched across our faces. If we run out of something midweek, we don’t replace it.  Because of a stray vulnerability I am especially shielded – I go out less than my husband does, I also don’t drive.  Our son who might need it most, goes out least of all. 

If we’re up early enough and enthusiastically enough, we walk in the park while it’s empty.  The three year old wears a mask only as an accessory, not to be left out.  We can afford to let him pull it on and off, hallmarks of bad mask practice, only because the risk of infection is evidently low in Sri Lanka at the moment.  We go to visit another part of our family, we have been to the houses of three sets of friends.  Tonight we counted – since the middle of May when the lockdown eased in our ‘high-risk’ part of Sri Lanka, we’ve been to 17 different places including a supermarket, a market, a pharmacy, three ATMs, two parks, the edge of a forest and the ocean. We started with the ocean and took a few weeks to succumb to the supermarket. It seems like a lot of places when we count them on our fingers but who would have imagined previously we could trace two months of movement on our fingers or even remember at all.  We now live on tiny planet confined to its axis, the horizon a measured two metres away.

Last night, while Kusal was working I talked to two friends on the phone, something I’ve rarely done in recent years. It reminded me of the way we talked to friends on the phone when we were young – trying to make sense of the life we found around us.

The first friend I spoke to was in London, we have known each other since we were 18. She rang already laughing, after reading a disgruntled text message I’d sent.  We compared notes and narrowed it down to a sense of abandon we are missing from life as we knew it before.  ‘It isn’t even that I would necessarily want to be in muddy field at a music festival,’ she said, ‘I’m just conscious that I may never do anything like that again’.  I said ‘I just wish I could do something unplanned – nowadays I go out for purpose, I never sidetrack into something else.’  We have learnt a lot about contentment of late but lost some exuberance. 

The next friend I spoke to lives just twenty minutes’ across the city.  We talked about the feeling that people have made it through lockdown and emerged into trouble.  So many people we know have fallen and broken bones since the end of lockdown.  We know the worst of everything is yet to come but some part of these last months – the uncertainty, grief and anger in them – is already coming home to roost.

This morning at the supermarket, Kusal and I bumped into several people we know (this is not unusual in Colombo).  But we were all awkward – happy to see each other but what do we talk of now?  Our easiest conversation was with a woman we barely know – whom we’d seen almost every day through lockdown because our children befriended each other playing on the empty street outside our houses. I felt faintly compelled to explain our embarrassingly heaped trolleys – that this particular morning we were re-stocking dry goods to prepare for a second lockdown should it come. But then I glanced at our friends’ trollies and they didn’t look all that different.

I have nothing to complain of but I’m conscious of losing focus. During the lockdown we had a gentleness, we always ate with our child, we spent quiet times playing board games with him, we cycled in our deserted streets, we looked after each other, we were all present.  We felt closer to the rest of the world then than we do now – conscious it was there, quieted.  Now we feel the distance, the world is peopled and noisy but at arm’s length.  We often wonder where a day has got to, our parenting is at its lowest ebb, we shout at our child, he rages back.  There is no stillness to be found in the house though we search and search for it.