Text & Photos:
Demi Kerkhof

As we leave a place dear to us, most often, it’s because we finished what we were supposed to do: it can be exploring a country with a backpack, an internship, an extended surf trip or just living in a different place for a while. This prepares us psychologically in a way. It’s not necessarily going to be easier, not at all, but we know what’s coming. Whether we are ready or not, we have this commitment to go back to what is our daily reality. This time, however, was different, South Africa has been my second home for a while now, and funny enough I had just applied for the extension of my visa. I wasn’t even remotely close to my return date.

Most of us probably underestimated what was coming. I remember looking at the news before going back to Cape Town after a visit home for Christmas, not too concerned about the news of this new flu spreading in China. But as weeks passed, it started coming closer to home. Northern Italy got hit first, and having grown up on the Swiss border with Italy, my consciousness about the magnitude of the problem grew. 

Looking from afar, the southern tip of the African continent seemed far and out of reach. But as we soon learned, the interconnectivity that links us all and is so crucial for life and society as we know it, was soon to be our doom. COVID-19 started spreading and before we even knew, in the blink of an eye, it has affected most of us and has forced us to adapt and change from what is our daily routine.

I started questioning what was best to do, none of us has ever really been in this situation before, and as everything new, it takes adjusting. We are creatures of habit, and all which lies outside of that: gets our heart beating in excitement, our blood rushing out of adrenaline or anxiety. A new situation that we need to learn from and find comfort in. Make a new habit out of it. As much as I like the feeling of excitement of the new and the discomfort within it, this was different. Also new, but I experienced anxiety in a privileged choice I wanted and felt like I had to make. I was in a space where I had commitments and some mild obligations which I did not just want to leave behind.

So I waited, I watched the eye of the storm grow, for what still seemed to be that of a spectator`s seat. Until the first cases got registered in South Africa, and the first restrictions were set into place. The restlessness within grew, feeling that not knowing what to do was feeding my anxiety, I had a choice to make. I woke up the next day, with the urge to book a flight. As to back up my decision, the dive school I was doing my instructor development course at, announced it was temporarily closing as most other infrastructures around. I booked a flight back home, which seemed to be the most rational decision, being close to one’s family. And not to forget, I have the privilege of this choice as an individual, to leave a developing country, and leave to the security of a well structured, privileged country with a good healthcare system. Many don’t.

I watched the downfall of the world slowly, or rather quickly, flights grounded, countries closing borders and issuing travel bans. I started preparing for my departure. And soon enough, South Africa announced a 21-day nation-wide lockdown (going in two days after my flight), beaches closed, meaning that even surfing, my way to meditate and find sanity within the craziness of it all, was now seen as an act of rebellion. Stranded in a mix of strange and unknown feelings, still restless, but also conscious of having made the right call.

This all happened within the span of a week. 

And just as I thought everything was going smoothly within the chaos which was the world around me, the night before my flight out: a notification popped up. One of my flights got canceled, leaving me now theoretically stranded in Dubai. I froze, looking at my laptop screen incredulously, I couldn’t believe it, and now? Is there a worse feeling than being stuck in a place you had decided to leave? Breathe, time to act, calmly, no need to panic, not yet, panic is not going to solve anything, breath, I told myself. I called home. And with help, an alternative route was found. Close call, nonetheless, 48 hours later, after an overwhelming 3 flights, I was in the safe walls of my childhood home. A sense of restless relief and the start of a 14-day quarantine.

Part of me is absolutely wrecked of course that I had to leave under such circumstances and with that rush. But it’s also the awareness of it being something bigger, much bigger. Mother Nature is speaking and is having us sit down, the whole world is still, and listening. And even though it’s strange being in a place I haven’t lived for 5 years, and it takes a lot of adjusting and compromising, it is safe and comfortable, a commodity and luxury many people don’t have access to. Sometimes I forget: I should be more grateful.

It’s all temporary, a phase we all will and have to get through, together. For now, it’s time to pause, rest, rethink and react. We have given an opportunity to cherish what we have, and reflect upon our doing. Yes, these are hard times, but as our ancestors called to war, we are called to stay in the safety of our four walls, fighting the invisible enemy.

There is this saying in Italian “Mal d’Africa”, there is no proper translation in English however, the underlying message is this feeling of nostalgia a person experiences after having visited Africa and now has this urge to go return.

Mal d’Africa, a feeling that is recurrent every time I leave, this time however not by mere choice but rather by rational necessity and privileged decision. No proper goodbyes, just the swift memory and my surfboards left behind. I suppose that is the assurance I will be back soon enough when we have learned our lessons and grown from yet another new experience.

Stay safe, Stay home. 

Fotos Demi Kerkhof