After Being “Covid Trapped” For 16+ Months It Is Time To Finally Go Home

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swim with whales go home

After Being “Covid Trapped” For 16+ Months It Is Time To Finally Go Home

For those who have been following my story, I’ve been “stranded”, or “covid trapped”, on a small island nation in the south pacific called Tonga for the entire time of the pandemic, unable to go home. Tonga has a total population of less than 100,000 and is one of the remaining 5 countries in the entire world that has yet to have a single case of COVID-19. We are still coronavirus-free. And I must be one of the few Brits, or indeed people in the world, who can say that they’ve yet to have worn a mask throughout the entire pandemic.

I put “stranded” in quotation marks because it’s hard to answer the question ‘are you able to leave?’. There are times when I have been really stuck here due to no flights. There are times I’ve been pretty stuck here due to lack of flights and availability. There are times when I’ve heard other Europeans have made it back home. And there are times when I’ve not tried to get back home because of high case numbers and lockdowns in the UK. And I suppose there’s the self-stranded aspect of not really wanting to leave an island paradise at some points…

But that might all be changing, as my time in Tonga truly feels like it’s coming to an end. And once again, I find myself more often saying “I’m trying to leave next month.” There are a few different reasons why I have reached that conclusion, as well as some reservations I still have about leaving.

A Brief Backstory On My Situation

I first came to Tonga in March 2020, and tried to leave the very next day after borders started shutting around the world, without much success. I have been living in the island nation, and have called it my home, ever since.

A LOT has happened since March 2020:

  • I mostly lost my job
  • Got stuck out of the country I usually live and work in (China)
  • Picked up running
  • Became mum of three dogs and a house on the beach
  • Ran a marathon
  • Started learning Arabic
  • Set up the Tonga Marathon
  • Started studying my master’s degree
  • Picked up tennis
  • Trained A LOT
  • Finished my master’s degree
  • Set up the second-ever Tonga Marathon and ran 100km.

I really don’t know how I can keep progressing from this, and I don’t really fancy training for 100 miles. So I guess that’s why I see my only option now to leave. I feel like I have finally run out things to keep me busy and things have run their course.

My House & Dogs

I was lucky enough to be able to housesit during my time in Tonga. Without the house, there’s no way I would have been able to stay here for so long, only working part-time! Tonga is not cheap and this house was truly a godsend. It also came with three dogs and a cat – who have certainly managed to keep me company!

tonga paradise
Studying of a morning in my Tonga paradise

Running

I picked up running when I first got stuck in Tonga. I needed something to let all my energy and emotions out… At first, I could only run up and down the road multiple times since there was a strict lockdown for 3 weeks and you couldn’t leave your village. Then, I started running more and more. I built it up from 5km to 10km, to 10 miles and then my first half marathon.

Running was everything I needed at the time. It helped me get out of the house, was an activity that’s fairly low maintenance and I didn’t need anyone else to do it with me. It gave me an outlet to release all the energy I had – and it gave me a goal.

It has been a really important part of my life in Tonga, for helping me get through the times, but then also for how it has surrounded my life here. It has also lead to so many other things, such as the Tonga Marathon…

tonga paradise
Marathon training for TAWS sponsored marathon run raising money for the animals in Tonga

The Tonga Marathon

One of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life is not running the marathon itself, but trying to organize one in a country where

  1. I have no connections, and
  2. Organization is secondary to anything else.

But I said this from the start, and it really did come true; Whatever happens on the day it will work out. Because it’s Tonga, and that’s how things work here.

In October 2020 I ran my first marathon and invited others to join me. I wanted to run to raise money for TAWS, the only animal charity here in Tonga – a country that doesn’t even have a fully qualified vet. After that success, me and a group of friends started planning an official Tonga Marathon 2021. We started thinking about it in 2020, and in January 2021 started planning for an event that would take place in July 2021. We had 7 months to get it done. And yet, in the first 6 months, we hardly managed to do a thing.

Getting sent from organization to organization, ministry to ministry, trying to get official permissions, insurance, etc. But no one wanted to take responsibility.

tonga marathon

TAWS (Tonga Animal Welfare Society)

In the end, we did it our way. We just went ahead with everything in the little time we were now left with – and it was a massive success. We had over 50 people taking part, including runners and volunteers, about 50% of which were locals and the rest foreigners. We had a 5km run, a half marathon, and a full marathon. The full marathon followed my route from the previous year, going from one end of the island to the other, and we created a new half-marathon and 5km routes.

We raised about 10,000 TOP for TAWS altogether. They will use the money to help bring in medicine for the dogs and animals in Tonga, as well as go into schools to educate people on how to properly care for their dogs. LOTS of other stuff as well.

More on the Tonga Marathon 

 

100km RUN

As part of the Tonga Marathon 2021, I decided I needed a new goal. Something big. To raise big money for TAWS. In January 2021, I decided I’d train to run 100km. It took up my life like a full-time job. I trained in some capacity every single day of the week, training about 2-3 hours a day – whether that’s running, yoga, or CrossFit.

To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I was never really a runner. I’d picked up everything online and just… trained myself. I really didn’t know if I could do it or not.

Before I ran 100km, I had two goals I wanted to complete.

  1. Run one 50km
  2. Run a total of 100km in one week.

After completing both of these goals, I felt confident enough that I could run 100km in one day.

And I was probably a bit too cocky, a bit too confident. Because it was awful – way more awful than I ever imagined. One of the worst times in my entire life.

But.

I did it.

The Run

I ran 100km – the exact circumference of the entire island. It took me over 17hrs and for about 7 of those hours it rained non stop. It was truly not a very enjoyable experience, but one that I am personally so proud of. Proud that I set myself a goal and worked hard to achieve it, and proud that I managed to do something to raise money for TAWS who need it so much.

The fundraiser is still open and I’ll be closing it in the first week of August, but if anyone wanted to donate you can do so on my GoFundMe page.

tonga marathon

tonga marathon
You can still donate to the Tonga Marathon on Zoe’s GoFundMe – all money goes to Tonga Animal Welfare Society

The Journey to Go Home

The journey home will be a long and complicated one. I’ve written about flight experiences now and how different it is to before. Me planning to go home is not easy. I’ve got 3 or 4 flight connections and all of them have to match up exactly to fit within each airport’s transit rules. Some airports don’t let you transit at all, some countries don’t allow transit, and some allow within 24 hours.

There’s one flight a week out of Tonga, and it changes constantly as to what day of the week it leaves. So, you can see how it is a little complicated for me to get back home…

It’s one of the few times where if I think too much about it, I really do feel like the world is massive and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere.

What’s Next When I Go Home?

This question is terrifying. Would you give up a beautiful house on the beach and a comfortable lifestyle for the unknown? When I mentioned me ‘self-stranding’ myself, this is one of the things that has been running through my mind.

My previous job in North Korean tourism is far from being able to start up again. It’s likely to be more than a year. So I’ve had to let that go and find a different path.

I’ve been applying for jobs every day for the past few weeks. Trying to find something that I’d like to do, anywhere in the world – but I’m also pretty picky.

Needing at least one backup plan for when I get back to the UK, I’ve applied to do another master’s program for which I’ve been granted funding. It’s actually a pretty good backup plan. I like the idea so much so that I’ve rather given up on trying to find a job and quite like the idea of studying for another year.

But in reality, who knows. One thing I’ve learned about life, and my life in particular, there is no way to plan it. Go with the flow and if you don’t like where it’s taking you, get off that boat and get into another.

Final Thoughts Before I Go Home

It’s funny; despite my mixed feelings on Tonga, I look back and realize everything I have done during my time here has been in an attempt to stay here. I have tried non stop to get a job working for the local airline or tourism board for some kind of marketing or content creation role. I have also done various bits of freelance stuff here, but nothing has really taken off. And I suppose that has a role in my mixed feelings on this country where I’ve been highly motivated but have had a very hard time thriving. I thrive from being busy. I thrive from stress. I thrive from learning.

But that’s not Tonga. And no matter how much I try to embrace the culture here, my innate desire to always be on the move, to never rest, and to constantly be switched on has in a way held me back. Because in Tonga, a nation that closes entirely on a Sunday, there is little room for those who don’t value rest highly. And that’s OK. But, it’s not me.

In the end, everything I’ve done in Tonga has been through my own doing, seeing a need and filling a need; and one that is largely selfish. Creating YouTube vlogs, writing various blogs, setting up the Tonga Marathon, raising money for TAWS, and running 100km? There is very little information online about Tonga (I know I would’ve loved more before I came here), it is one of the world’s most obese countries, and has a massive problem with dog overpopulation. These were factors helping me over the past year to do what I did. But the real driving factor was my own needs; my own need to keep myself busy, and my own need to succeed and make a difference.

I suppose as long as you’re trying to so good, it’s OK for it to be a little bit selfish? 

The Next Update…

The next update will (hopefully) be from back in the UK and reflect on my time on Tonga. I will also share my feelings on being back in the UK, back in reality, back in a country affected by the pandemic. The biggest culture shock, or adjustment, may be being back in a population where people don’t know, or care, who I am.

Zoe Stephens
Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time traveling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube. You can see more about her life stuck on Tonga on Instagram @tongadiaries.

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6 COMMENTS

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful article and if you asked me for advice, considering how bad the delta variant is being around the world…. stay in Tonga. At least a while longer. You are SAFE there with no incidences on the whole island. That’s not a bad thing at all.

    But you gotta do you and I hope all works out well for you and I wish you the best of luck.

    • Feel free to leave. If you are willing to vaccinate, or have, your odds of contracting regular or Delta variant, and even noticing something is off are fractional at most, and odds of any significant symptoms even less, and odds of death zero. Press hype, they have to have something to take the attention away from the other things in the world that are much worse.

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