I flew into Kathmandu from Melbourne, Australia on the 15th of March 2020, and one week later I was transported to the Nala Monastery about two hours outside of the city to start teaching ESL to the monks. Just one day after my arrival, the national lockdown was ordered and I haven’t stepped foot outside of the monastery grounds since. I’m also living here indefinitely because commercial flights have stopped running and I won’t be prioritised for repatriation flights because I’m neither elderly nor travelling with children. Also, I’m not currently in the city, and so the journey to the airport (much less back to Australia), would be lengthy, complicated, and potentially dangerous.
But all of that aside, I feel incredibly lucky to be ‘stuck’ in lockdown/quarantine with some of the most giving, perceptive, compassionate, funny, optimistic, and open-minded people I’ve ever known. I’ve loved running around with the little ones, and speaking to the senior monks about life/books/movies/music/etc.! I’m always pleasantly taken aback by everyone’s wicked sense of humour, and the way they’re all readily willing to learn about and listen to – but never judge – my own thoughts and ways of living back home.
Indeed, without the lockdown, I don’t think I would have gotten the chance to get to know everyone as I have, and for this, I am extremely grateful. Also, I have much more space and opportunities here than I would have at home right now. I am able to practice simple daily luxuries, such as walking, getting some vitamin D and fresh air, and interacting with people. The interaction is non-stop (in a good way!), and I’ve never been bored here; I don’t have the pressing sense of a ‘lockdown’, nor do I have the itch to get outside, because I guess I’m already outside!
Every day there’s something to do; when we’re not teaching, my time is usually filled with walks around the football field, playing cards and having tea parties with the monks, attending puja (worship), chatting with the other participants here, and reading on the ledge of a terrace overlooking a jungle. This may sound repetitive, but the days hold variation in the little things like changes in meals and recognising new faces; I’m learning more and more to take and hold these things dearly. I would say the past few weeks have proffered a strange and unexpected turn of events, but many blessings in disguise nonetheless.
I think maybe the hardest thing about being on vacation during this pandemic has been judging the situation for myself and making decisions (as informed as possible) on whether I should stay or attempt to leave. Of course, government updates and news from home can equip me with information, advice and recommendations, but only I can make the moves to end my trip. The pressure of this decision-making has been my main source of stress here, with the other sources being supplied (toothpaste! lip balm!) and receiving enough financial support from home.
Sometimes I wonder whether I’m being naive or even stupid by choosing to extend my stay. It’s difficult because I arrived just before the lockdown ensued in Nepal, and so I’ve only ever been exposed to the attitudes of the monks and participants already here; everyone is relatively calm and relaxed and focused on the eventuality that the situation will even itself out and get better.
Although there’s that ‘danger’ of falling too complacent, or of underestimating the persistence and rapidity of COVID-19, I’m grateful for the attitude imparted to me by the monks. Their kindness, generosity, vigilance, and concern for my wellbeing give me confidence that I’ve made the best decision (out of my limited options) in staying on here indefinitely. Their ‘take one day at a time’ philosophy – which has been in place long before the pandemic’s onset – is not only something that is helpful to draw from perhaps now more than ever, but also something that I hope to keep for the future. I’ll take it away with me when I leave, whenever that will be.
By Annabel Chin Quan