Late-breaking news: there's been a pandemic while you were away

A full-scale disaster unfolded as we switched our phones back on after nine days of Colombian beaches and jungles

You can learn a lot about yourself in times of crisis, but you learn a hell of a lot more about the person you weather said crisis with. Best to strap in and bite your tongue. A lifetime of three weeks ago, my clever, rational other half and I went on a holiday to Colombia. He’s a man who rarely travels without a first aid kit, gaffer tape and a multi-tool thing allegedly essential for “survival”. I rarely travel without what he assumes are decadent luxuries – basic toiletries, to the rest of us – and three more books than I could possibly read. It’s a delightful match.

For eight or so days, we adventured on the country’s Caribbean coastline, trekked the jungle and landed on remote beaches far away from phone signal. It’s fair to say we were late to the memo. Turning our phones on after a self-imposed period of isolation was like watching a disaster film unfold. First, on a six-inch screen squinting at ticker tapes of rolling news. Then in full-blown Technicolor as Cartagena went into lockdown, with face masks being dealt out on street corners and a strict curfew enforced by police.

“Trust you to be stuck in a jungle in the middle of a global pandemic,” messaged one friend. And then another, and then so on until, yes, it became clear even to me that this wasn’t a situation I could talk or luck my way out of.

In my mind, I was the buoyant, easygoing optimist while he was the doomsday pessimist preparing for everything that could possibly go wrong. “Have some chill!” I insisted, having activated an extreme variant of my “let’s just roll with it” gene. A city-wide lockdown while you’re stuck overnight in a bus terminal surrounded by brothels? Not ideal, but, OK, fine. Hotels kicking out tourists for fear we’re carrying coronavirus? To be expected, we’ll deal with it.

Gracefully, without a single “I told you so”, he was right about the worst-case scenarios almost every time. It was five days, four cancelled flights, the US, Canada and Germany refusing to let us transit through, with hours upon hours in airports from Cartagena to Bogotà to Mexico City to Madrid before we finally made it back to London. Home, frayed, and quarantined. Still very much the lucky ones.

Parental guidance

They can be petulant, irresponsible and hard to please at the best of times: how is everyone else coping with their parents? An initial sense of relief that mine would be riding out the crisis in Pakistan rather than in their multigenerational home in Peterborough has been replaced with head-in-hands worry. Are they taking it seriously enough? Are they definitely socially distancing? How will I get there quickly if either of them needs me?

One friend says her parents were repeatedly sent links to reports from Italy to get them in a proper, sober mood. Another is living in Singapore and buying groceries online for his folks in Sheffield to keep them at home. One dad has suddenly prioritised buying compost above all else. Another promised his daughter he wouldn’t drive to the airport to pick up his mate… and then went on the train.

Three friends have parents with cancer. “It’s so stressful!” messaged one from the hospital. “People are not following the two-metre rule outside. How am I supposed to protect my mum?”

•Nosheen Iqbal is an Observer columnist


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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