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Stranded in paradise: A Coronavirus odyssey (part 1 of 3)

Although originally published on Times of Israel on April 14, 2020, you are welcome to read this post here as well.

“I have a Platinum Amex card with hundreds of thousands of points. It’s yours — use it if it will help.”

“My friend works at the US State Department — I will get you on the phone with him — perhaps he can assist?”

“I know a rabbi in Jakarta in case you get stuck on your way — here’s his number — he’ll make sure you have meals.”

These are among the many Facebook messages I received in the last three weeks, while we were stuck in Indonesia as the world’s doors closed around us.

The messages were from every corner of the globe, often from people I had not been in touch with for 25 years.

My family’s journey home illuminated the best humanity has to offer.

* * *

The Wrong Kind of Success

My husband and I used to travel. This was PK (pre-kids). When we got married — first in a traditional Jewish ceremony in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, and weeks later by Elvis in Vegas while we donned full regalia for the occasion, including me dressed as Cher and my husband costumed as a Russian pimp complete with feather boa (because — why not?), we purchased round-the-world plane tickets and took off. We spent our 20s alternating between saving for travel and flying, experiencing new lands until we were broke again. We hit 35 countries in six years.

Once we decided it was time to start a family, my husband sauntered into our Manhattan studio apartment upon his return from work one winter evening and nonchalantly announced, “It’s time to go home.” Well, for me, home was Wisconsin, and I began to laugh. Sure, I thought, I could raise kids in Wisconsin! I know how to rear Packer-backers and girl scouts! His face, pensive, told me I had misunderstood. What he meant was… it was time to return to his home… Israel.

He had promised me when we got married that he’d never live in Israel again. He was happy in the USA, and as a citizen (born in Queens) he had the luxury of choice. On that day in 2004, he stripped me of that choice and while I stared at him, mute in disbelief, he started making plans for me to “make aliyah” (move to Israel) as I sat crumpled in the corner, contemplating whether or not I could learn to like falafel. I considered leaving him, but after extensive contemplation, I decided that I loved him more than I loved my address. We fought for a year, and I lost. Jerusalem was our baby-making destination.

We moved, I sat in government-sponsored Hebrew lessons for three years, and we began to procreate. It took me a while, but I am both strong and adaptable, and while giving birth to a series of four children, we bought an apartment and then a house, I became near-fluent in Hebrew, I founded a new career and then my own company, and slowly became semi-Israeli. Between business development meetings in Tel Aviv and baking challah on Fridays, I ran the house like I ran my business…. perennially frantic, but full of humor.

We had a life. A community. What some would call “success.”

But something was missing.

We had no time. No energy. No freedom. No adventure. We knew what each day looked and felt like the second we woke in the morning. By 8 p.m., we were both zapped of the energy required to have a productive conversation. Everything revolved around expectations, requirements, rushing kids to piano and swimming lessons. Our former travels peeked through our dreams and taunted us.

Like so many descendants of Holocaust survivors, we saved money. We weren’t sure what the money was for, but growing up with cautious parents, we learned that one day, scarcity would come. Every month, we saved. We spent our savings in our heads and in our weekend conversations a thousand different ways. We could perhaps build on to our modest home, creating enough space for each child to have his or her own room. We could enlarge the dining room so all of us could sit comfortably at the table for family meals, not knocking the walls with every scrape of our chairs. We could found a new business, break ground for a pool, bury a bunker in our yard in preparation for doomsday. The possibilities were endless and it was a favorite hobby to spend our savings in our heads.

* * *

The Big Trip

About two years ago, YNet, a prominent online Israeli news outlet, published a series of articles about Israeli families who traveled. Traveled as a lifestyle, not traveled as a vacation. These families, ranging from one to six children, were on the road, living out of backpacks and hostels, for anywhere from three months to three years at a time. We were intrigued. The following week, a new kid showed up in my son’s class. He was actually not “new new,” but rather, had just returned from traveling in India with his family for a year.

They had four kids.

We had four kids.

I needed to know more.

The two boys became friendly and we arranged playdates. Instead of my normal “I’ll pick you up at six, but please wait outside so I don’t have to take the baby out of the car,” I went in to collect him. I talked with the dad. I began to understand how such things were possible. Budgets. Apps. Putting jobs on hold. Unpaid leave. Visas. Exposing the kids to all the adventure that we craved. It was tangible. Possible.

I could taste it.

We made a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet expanded into 20 different tabs. We researched costs and planned a fantasy trip called “Family Yoga.” Neither of us had ever done yoga in our lives, but we imagined all of us on the beach learning together. We craved flexibility in our minds, our bodies, our priorities, and our lifestyle. We began the planning in earnest, 12 months out. We talked to the kids’ schools — the elementary school principal said, “When I took my five kids to India for six months, it was incredible! Take math books, Hebrew books, and have a good time. We’ll fill in the holes when you return.” The high school for our 14-year-old, however, was a different story. I sat with my eldest’s teacher as she became progressively more stone-faced. “You’re doing WHAT? You’re going WHERE?” She explained to me (the immigrant parent) that in Israel, the all-important end of high school exams begin in 10th grade. “She can miss ninth grade, but not 10th. If you want to go, GO NOW,” she insisted.

This brought us up short. Were we all talk? The teacher was serious. If we wanted to go, we had to go in 60 days. Not in a year.

We flipped the switch into high gear. My husband approached his boss and requested a sabbatical. I got my CFO on board, gave him power of attorney, promoted my long-time assistant to Managing Director, and bought plane tickets. I informed my clients. Fifty-nine days later, we were on a plane to Delhi.

We had no agenda.

No itinerary.

No reservations.

We had a map with circled cities, courtesy of a neighbor who had been to India before. We had intuition, curiosity, and a spirit of adventure. That, six backpacks, and 400 car-sickness pills (our 9-year-old is a barfer), and we were ready.

For our first two months, my husband and I made an agreement.

We each got to pick two things we despised about the life we left, and withdraw from them completely. This trip was about being free – so we naturally shed the things that made us feel caged. Logistically, this meant that he didn’t look at a computer or a phone – at all – ever – and I wouldn’t shower any kids or put anybody to bed.

It was blissful.

I didn’t cook, clean, or do laundry. We didn’t work. We didn’t have to be anywhere at any time. We didn’t wear watches, check any clocks, or know what day it was. It simply didn’t matter.

We discovered yoga, lassis and chai tea. We learned to like lentils and mastered how to pet cows in the street without getting stepped on. We discovered, the hard way, to avoid eye contact with monkeys. We took 14-hour bus rides. We slept on the floor. We shared rooms. We learned how to use a “bum gun.” We entered (and won) an Indian bride contest, complete with media coverage, extravagant costumes and screaming crowds of thousands.

It was everything we had dreamed of and more.

The Illusion of Invincibility

We started to hear about the Coronavirus when we were in Koh Phangan, an island in southern Thailand. We sat on the beach with friends, sipping beers and giggling about how crazy the rest of the world seemed to be, since we had started to receive Facebook messages that read, “Get out of Asia. Come home.” We were in the middle of a seven-month adventure! We were only on month five! We had overcome a significant dog bite in India that included government hospitals, several series of shots, including hemoglobin and rabies, stitches, and self-managed wound debridement, since the hospitals had no supplies. We had overcome visa trouble, with half our family stranded in one country while the other half moved forward into the next country. If we could surmount these challenges, we figured, we could overcome this thing called Corona.

We moved on to Bali, which, at the time (according to the Indonesian government, which we later understood was masterminding a major cover-up) was Corona-free.

We visited monkey forests. We ate foreign foods (yes, including cockroaches and scorpions). We learned to surf. The “come home” messages became more frequent and louder. But we were Israeli! We knew better! We were invincible and wouldn’t allow anyone or anything to pilfer our adventure from us.

In Indonesia, we received a 30–day visa upon entry which, for the paltry sum of $35, could be renewed for an additional 30 days. Perfect. What we did not know was that in order to extend the visa, we had to forfeit our passports to Indonesian immigration for 14 days. Two weeks before visa expiry, we submitted the passports and paid a lawyer to begin the extension process. A week went by. Things heated up around the world. We were not in possession of our passports, so we couldn’t return home even if we wanted to.

Sometimes, things are easier when there is no decision to be made.

We continued to travel, sheltering the kids from knowledge about what was happening in the world. School at home (in Israel) was cancelled. Malls, restaurants, and offices were closed. The messages to come home became progressively more frantic.

But nothing in Bali had changed.

We didn’t see or feel what was happening in the outside world. Knowing that things were heading in a precarious direction (our families were forwarding us articles and my husband had abandoned his screen ban) and understanding that we could not leave Indonesia without passports, we made arrangements to rent a walled, private house in which to self-quarantine. The morning before we moved in, when we were still in an extremely remote area near the base of a volcano, a local approached us and asked in broken English if we had heard of something called Corona. They heard it was a disease; did we know anything about it?

That quick exchange with the Balinese local made us realize just exactly how third world we were; if the local public had no information, that meant there were no precautions being taken. It meant that the Indonesian government had said nothing at all to its people. It also meant there was no healthcare system readying itself, and no resources to manage the shift to quarantine that we were seeing all over the world.

Once it dawned on us that there wouldn’t be any social distancing public service announcements or the like, we realized it was dangerous to be out, and we had zero supplies. We’d been traveling for six months and all we had was our backpacks, a clothesline, and a beat-up guitar (to complete the image of the dirty hippies, obviously.)

We drove our rented car to the supermarket, my husband stayed with all the kids in the car, since we didn’t want them in the store, exposed to the virus, and I commenced to try and gather several weeks of food so we didn’t have to emerge from the house. Attempting to do a significant shop in a foreign supermarket with unfamiliar products for an undetermined period of time is surreal. The supermarket was jammed with ex-pats, and I faced aisle after aisle of products labeled in Balinese. Was the can I was looking at tuna? It seemed like tuna. It was shaped like a can of tuna, but it said “ikan.” I Google-translated it, and came up with “fish.” Was it salmon? Sardines? Would the kids eat it? Should I buy eight cans anyway? After two full carts of groceries worth eight million Indonesian rupiah (about $500), with a clerk who said, “I have never sold this amount of groceries to anybody, ever,” we packed up and moved into the house.

* * *

And then we had to decide whether to hunker down until the world was healthy again… or to try to get home.


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