“Why did you get back to Italy?”
That’s the most frequent question I got in the past days. In my previous post I wrote that I was enjoying my quarantine in Brazil and that Italy was just an escape route. Who follows me on Instagram could see that things were going pretty well and I had no intention to leave soon.
So why the sudden change of mind?
I had the luck to be stuck in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I don’t believe in God or anything, but if I ended up at the hostel just then, probably I was meant to stay. Honestly I wouldn’t have considered quarantine in any other hostel I had been during my trip. Not because this was absolutely the best, I’ve been in many very good hostels. But this was the only one with direct access to the beach, it was in a remote place, but still well served by supermarkets, the weather was perfect, with nice people, of the right size (most of the other hostels would have been too big, with too many people to quarantine) and with a very good wifi. It was literally ticking all the boxes.
On March 22nd lockdown was announced in most states of Brazil, including Rio Grande do Norte which is where I was. That day the two owners of the hostel, Roy and Esteban decided to close the hostel to the public. To be fair it was already a few days that nobody new was showing up, but then it was official. The breakfast was not going to be served anymore, we were going to do turns to clean the place and the rent was brought down to a minimum price.
Days were passing quickly and we were all pretty happy. Everyone was concerned when looking at the news, but given the magic of the place, you only needed to put down your phone to relax and be happy. Just looking at those palm trees and the sea, feeling the breeze on your skin, while swinging on the hammock with the sound of someone making a caipirinha just next to you..
Then of course the people there. Some of them really looked without a problem in their life.
As I promised in the previous post I’m going to describe the people one by one here, if you’re not interested and just want to know why I left, just skip this section.
Pau a Spanish guy who started travelling not long before arriving in Pipa. For this reason he was a bit stigmatised by everyone at the beginning. The guy had flown from Spain to Brazil less than 2 weeks ago, he could carry the virus…I know shit times, but well, eventually we got over it.
He was all day relaxing on the hammocks, smoking funny cigarettes and putting cream to his foot. Apparently some bug entered his foot and was seeding eggs inside the skin, expanding everyday more…it was pretty disgusting. However, Pau seemed to have the situation under control, putting a cream every two second and keeping his foot up all the time. A great excuse not to move from the hammock.
Pau is a great talker, he talks a lot. He was starting from the moment he would wake up until he was going to sleep. Always smiling and in a good mood, a contagious good mood.
Martin, from Argentina. He was completely on holiday, I don’t even think he was reading the news. He arrived with a friend a few days before the hostel shut down. They had been travelling in South America for 3 months and were coming from the north of Brazil. His friend left the day after they arrived, afraid that Argentina would close the borders. I remember seeing him from my bed, at sunrise.
When I woke up later, I met Martin in the kitchen and I asked what he was going to do, expecting him to leave as well. However, he replied with all the calm in the world, sipping his mate “No, I’m staying here till the end of all this, boludo!”.
Martin as well, was always in very good spirit, chilling on the hammock, playing some weird game on his phone and sometimes trying to fish without any success. I talked to him yesterday, he went fishing more regularly since I left, still nothing…
Roy, from Argentina as well, is one of the owners of the hostel. A guy who’s had a “very hard life” for the past 5 years. He inspires calm and relaxation just looking at him. The first day I met him he was like “That’s where I live, I’ve had this hostel for 5 years and I don’t need to wear a t-shirt…never. The weather is always like this.” He speaks a mix of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He does it on purpose, but I think that by now he forgot how to speak proper Spanish.
From the first moment this whole mess started he was one of the most attentive, taking precautions and reminding others to take precautions. He kind of had no choice, but to stay there at the hostel, although he was kind to keep us all there. He could have easily kicked out everyone, but that wouldn’t have been his style I guess.
Sjors, from the Netherlands. He was just on a two-week holiday and it was the third time he was in Pipa to meet his friend Roy – they had met the previous time Sjors was there.
Sjors works in a food company which didn’t close for the pandemic, so he had to get back to work. However, when he discovered that his flight back to Holland was cancelled, he didn’t seem to bother much. His reaction was “Ah ok…longer holiday”. He contacted his embassy and just waited for an answer for a good week.
Sjors was always with a cigarette and a beer in his hands or making some caipirinhas, he was properly on holiday.
One day I woke up unusually early for a work call and Sjors apparead in the kitchen all dressed up with his suitcase in his hand. The embassy had told him to buy another flight, as they were not going to pay for anything until there were still commercial flights. He had then found one and was about to leave that same morning.
We were about to say goodbye when his phone rang. He had a couple of calls and then he reappeared from his room, just wearing his swim shorts (as usual).
I was like “What’s up?”
“My flight was cancelled…” shrugged and headed to the fridge, cracked a beer open “What should I do…” and went to his favourite hammock.
Eventually he left the day after me. The guy had to go back to work.
Chema has been living in Pipa for 5 years, he was doing a bit of back and forth between there and his hometown in Spain. This time he was meant to leave at the end of March, but as things got bad in Spain he decided to just stay in Pipa.
He was exercising every morning, going for walks on the beach and eating good food. He always had some fishermen he knew delivering him freshly fished fish (say quickly 10 times “freshly fished fish”).
Then he was often reading some book on a rocking chair (ah those rocking chairs were so good, at times better than the hammocks).
Chema as well was in a good spirit all the time, even though he was always keeping an eye on the news and in touch with his friends and relatives back home.
Franzi from Germany, she had been in Pipa since December for surfing, for the place, but especially for Roy. They are together. She was the most sporty of the bunch, going often to surf, playing hula-hoop and making bracelets…ok the bracelet thing is not very sporty.
She wasn’t sure whether to stay or go back home, by mid March her embassy gave her an ultimatum either she was going home within two weeks or she had to prepare to stay there for a long time. She was worried as she had already extended her visa once, so staying longer could have been a problem, but apparently there is no need to extend the visa now given the situation of emergency. So she decided to stay.
Then there were 5 more people, but I don’t have the picture of them unfortunately.
One is Damiano, Italian as well. He came to the hostel just before it all started. Being in touch with his friends and family from Italy, like me, he already knew what was going to happen and rather than keep travelling decided to find a good place where he could stay to quarantine. Damiano had been travelling South America with a van which he has currently parked in Colombia, for some licensing reason which I don’t exactly remember, he couldn’t come with it to Brazil.
He works as a chef and during the quarantine he always cooked some very good dishes for all of us, he made cakes and homemade pasta. He didn’t look so carefree like Pau or Martin, he was often on a call and in the end he decided to go back to Italy a few days after me.
Then there was Catherine, half Italian half French. She was travelling for a while as well. She had already been in Pipa earlier during the year and by mid March was in Bahia, but as soon as she saw that everything was about to stop she rushed back to Casa de Jack (that’s the name of the hostel) to spend the quarantine there. I think she never really thought about going back to Europe.
She was eating mostly fruit, like her lunch was often an entire pineapple and nothing else. She loved swimming for hours with the dolphins in Praia dos Golfinhos (Dolphins Beach), she was going there everyday, not a bad quarantine.
Finally, Esteban was the other owner of the hostel, still from Argentina. Even though he was always there, he only moved to live in the hostel a few days before I left with his two sons, Paco and Camilo. They used to live in another house, but given the situation they decided to move to the hostel and quarantine by the sea. The three of them were surfers and were going surfing at absurd hours…like at sunrise, which there was at 5.30am.
One day I met them while I was going to the bathroom half way through my sleep. I was still pretty drunk as I had stayed up late drinking with Pau, Martin and Sjors. Looking at Esteban and his sons with the surf boards under their arms, was like when heading back home in the morning from a night out and you cross people going to work. You know the feeling…a mix between shame, uneasiness and the thought that you could never do whatever they’re going to do in that moment.
Esteban was really fun, he was cooking incredible stuff for his sons and as per Roy he was very attentive taking precautions. Unfortunately I had no chance to meet Esteban’s sons much as we spent just a couple of days together and we didn’t have many occasions to speak, but we played a few games of dice which was pretty fun.
So ok all this shit…but back to the question. Why did I get back? It all sounded perfect.
Well, first of all, as I mentioned, it was all good as soon as we were not watching the news. Some of us didn’t care too much, but I was concerned. I always read a lot of news, in any circumstances, and of course in this period that didn’t help to keep the mood up.
Still, I was able to enjoy the situation, as soon as I was having a chat with Pau I was feeling good, I was going to the beach and feeling completely fine, but then my mum was calling. I could feel that she was getting more and more anxious day by day. I was trying to explain that I was safe, that I was in a good place with good people and most of all that Brazil was not as they believe it is in Europe.
Yeah, because in Europe everyone thinks that South America is much more behind than what it is, that is the second world, but that is absolutely not true. Brazil is surely one of the most unequal countries when it comes to wealth, but it’s a country much more developed than people might think. For some aspects it’s honestly more developed than Italy. Then of course it depends on the region, the North East is not like Sao Paulo. But even the North East is not the rural place Europeans who haven’t been there have in mind. It’s not what I had in mind before going there.
I should have been better at explaining myself, to reassure my mum that I was in a safe spot. The problem is that there were some things which didn’t make me feel 100% safe in the first place.
First of all, the number of people and the fact that not everyone was as careful as I was. We were 12 people, so 12x times more chances to screw up.
Secondly, there were not many people left in Pipa (as it’s a touristic place and all tourists had gone), but they were all very relaxed. Supermarket staff were wearing face masks, but not all of them. They all had it, but some of them just had it hanging on their neck, without putting over their mouth and nose, like if they were obliged to have it, but they didn’t really bother.
There was a bigger supermarket where they would let in just a limited amount of people, but then the town was full of small corner stores where people were happily talking to each other, hugging and so on.
Third, if I was really getting sick and I needed an hospital it could have been a problem. I don’t know how Natal hospital is, but I never had a good image of it in mind. The papers were saying that by April the sanitary system in Brazil would collapse (that didn’t happen yet and I don’t think they’re even close to collapsing…but well).
Plus I’ve had my hospital experience in South America already. Two days cost me more than £800, so that aspect concerned me a bit. I got even more worried when I found out that my insurance wouldn’t cover pandemic. I googled it and saw that there are no insurances covering pandemic.
By the way, yesterday I got an email from my useless insurance. They made a new policy covering pandemics and from today I’m getting ads on Facebook of insurance covering pandemics…
Finally, my biggest source of concern was the Brazilian president Bolsonaro. He described the virus as a little-flu, he called to reopen all activities as normal, to stop the quarantine as Brazil couldn’t stop. Luckily Brazil is a federative state, where every state has their own government and they can keep a certain independence from the central government. They’ve got their own police forces and can make their own laws, all the 27 governors except 2 (the Amazon states of Rondônia and Roraima) opposed Bolsonaro and declared the state of lockdown.
That was good, but surely having the government on your side would help. In Italy the government was forced to put very severe fines to keep people inside, as many people ignored the lockdown measures. In almost every country the governments are helping companies and unemployed workers, but what would happen in Brazil? Would the single states have that much money and to help their population without a job? Maybe Sao Paulo yes, but Rio Grande do Norte? I don’t think so.
If people don’t get any help by the government they would starve and in that case they would be forced to go back to work, nobody can stop them. They would be “either I die or hunger or I die from the virus”. The difference is that I could survive the virus, but I cannot survive without eating. Things could get very ugly there.
Basically I would have felt safer in any other South American country, but Brazil. Everyone seemed to have taken measures way earlier than Brazil. Indeed, it can be seen now that Brazil is the only country where the situation is out of control over there.
Furthermore I was thinking, maybe the region where I’m staying is isolated, it’s tropical (hoping the warm temperatures would at least weaken the spread of the virus), maybe it’s safe. But still, cases are growing exponentially in Sao Paulo and Rio, which are the only exit doors from Brazil. I cannot go anywhere from Natal. If they close Sao Paulo and Rio, we’re stuck and for how long? What if the situation improves in Europe and degenerates here?
Still I thought, I don’t care. I want to risk it. That is just the worst case scenario, if you live imagining always the worst case scenario you stop living. I really don’t think I’m gonna get stuck here, somehow something will happen, maybe my embassy will bring me back.
THE EMBASSY AND THE TICKET
All the backpackers I knew (from other countries) were urged by their respective embassies to fly back home as soon as possible. They got emails and messages on their phones. I had got nothing – and not because I’m resident in London, none of the other Italians I knew got anything either.
So I contacted the Italian embassy. They said that they had no recommendation, it was a personal choice and that Alitalia (which had been nationalised just a week earlier given the crisis) was going to do repatriation flights until the end of April, from Sao Paulo to Rome 3 times per week.
I checked the flight, it wasn’t too expensive. About £500, to fly from South America to Europe, with a direct flight, in this time of crisis…pretty good to be honest.
Furthermore I could change the date for free or cancel it and get a voucher valid until the end of the year. So I bought it for the 9th April, just a random date, I was already thinking of moving it at least a few days later, as it would have been nice to spend my birthday there (11th April).
There is to say that when I booked the ticket, I had already excluded the idea of going back to the UK. Britain was heading towards an Italy-like situation (or even worse) just with a bit of delay. The British government had been too slow to take measures, with that fucking herd immunity theory they wasted too much time…two weeks.
I remember chatting with my friends in England, all serene, all saying “Oh in Italy it’s really fucked up, we’re just buying toilet papers and washing our hands” and I remember articles from Italian from from the futures like this one: A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future.
In this occasion it was more clear than ever, until people don’t get burned they would keep touching the fire. Until they don’t see people dying around them, they don’t take measures. Their thesis was that people in Italy are older…fuck off, seriously.
Now speaking with my friends in England sounds like speaking to my friends in Italy 3 weeks ago. Even though they can still go for a walk, but that honestly makes sense, you can authorise Britons to go for a walk, but you can’t authorise Italians to do so. It’s a question of discipline and respect of the rules. Britons would go for a walk and nothing more, Italians….
As I woke up that morning, I switched on the phone. Email from Alitalia “Your flight has been cancelled”. I checked quickly online, all flights had been cancelled – the ones that the embassy had assured me were working until the 30th April at least.
There was only one flight left…2nd April “Fuck that’s tomorrow!”.
My first reaction, I laid down in bed again, looked at the sea and smiled. “It’s done then, I’m staying here, no more doubts, there is no way I can get to Sao Paulo today”.
I head slowly to have breakfast. I ate while thinking how to say that I was not going back to my mum, who was always more anxious and had lost her mum just two days earlier (my grandma passed away, not corona related).
I thought I’m gonna kill her with this news. I can’t do that.
I checked the flights online from Natal to Sao Paulo, there was nothing, all sold out. After all, there was only one flight per day left, as all the others had been suppressed.
So nothing, I got a bit nervous, but there was nothing I could do. I talked about this to Damiano and he said “Ah c’mon, surely they have a place on the plane, maybe it’s not online. Have you tried to call them?”
I didn’t think it was gonna work, but eventually I tried to call. I had nothing to lose.
“Yes, sir…there are 5 seats on that flight actually, it leaves at 15.20 from Natal”
That took me completely aback.
Natal was 2 hours drive away, it was almost 11am and I was sitting having breakfast just with my shorts on (as usual, it was impossible to wear a t-shirt even at night in that place). All my stuff was spread in the room, I had clothes hanging on the rails and I had to go to the ATM in the town centre to take out the money to pay the hostel. In short, I wasn’t ready.
Plus, I had the number of a taxi driver, but I had to check whether he was available and, most of all, if he was still operating.
The lady was still on the line “So what should I do sir, should I book it for you?”
I had no more time to think, I was leaving…for good.
“Yes..book it, book it”.
While I was paying over the phone I started to get my stuff ready, brush my teeth, getting dressed, all together.
Then I called the taxi, it was available and coming in 15 minutes.
I had no more time to think, I was leaving…for good.
When I finished my calls I hung up the phone and went back to the room to finish packing, Pau was waking up then, still laying in his bed.
“Hey what’s up?”
“Ah ok, to which beach? Golfinhos?”
“No, to fucking Italy”
“What? Where?” He stood up from the bed quickly.
“Yeah man I’m going to Italy”
I felt sorry for Pau, I didn’t tell him anything, not even that I was considering leaving at some point in April, for him it really came out of the blue.
Catherine was also there and asked:
“At what time is your flight?”
“You don’t have much time…Probably you won’t make it”
“I knooow” and I rushed out of the room, running to the bank, in flip flops and with about 37 degrees outside.
Sparing more details, I eventually made it to the airport on time. It was over.
So that’s how it went. It’s difficult to explain, because I thought a lot about what to do, but in the end I had to make a rushed decision. Probably that was the only way for me to leave, if I thought on it a little longer I would have stayed.
That was the last flight of Alitalia, but surely I could’ve found something else, more expensive, with a few layovers, but still if I wanted I could’ve made it.
Also even if I was getting stuck there for long…who cares, it’s not that there is anything to do here in Europe, now or anytime soon.
I have the luck to have a job which I can do from everywhere and even in this time I do have a lot of work, so I don’t have any particular need to save money.
But well, it’s done, nothing serious in the end. I just gave up my quarantine in Paradise for a quarantine in Hell. Who knows for how long. That would have been a nice life experience, would have been a nice story to live and to tell. That group of people could have been my friends for life. That environment and lifestyle, so different to what I’m used to, could have changed me in the long run. Instead now I’m the house where I grew up, where I know every corner of it, counting down the days. Waiting for life to expire (ahahah that’s drastic as fuck, I don’t really think this, but it sounded too good…waiting for life to expire).
Anyway, I’m trying to see the positive aspect of this. Now that the world is paralysed the best thing to do is to be productive, to learn new skills, to do some extra work which I always wanted to do. I have a huge pile of things to do, so that so far I didn’t have time to get bored yet. The aim is to do as much as I can in this time, so when the world will unlock, I will be able to resume from where I stopped, from Pipa in Brazil.