Last night, my cat set her tail on fire. Since our quarantine began, Karina’s been lying in front of the furnace in the living room, languidly stretching every 30 minutes or so until she finally drifts to sleep. But last night was different; last night she got closer and closer to the flame with each backbend, until suddenly, the tip of her tail caught fire. Karina, unconcerned with the blaze, flicked her tail around with slow, mechanical movements until the flame smoldered, eventually going out in a puff of air. Karina has not been handling quarantine well, and sometimes, neither am I.
I didn’t always sit around watching my cat self-incinerate. Before this period of pandemic-induced quarantine, I traveled. I jumped off of a shipwreck in the Nile and trained with the Icelandic circus. I swam with wild dolphins in Kaikoura and competed in a dragon boat race in Hong Kong. For the past 10 years, I have structured my life in a way that allowed me to travel often, albeit not always glamorously. Now, like many travelers, I find myself grounded with only my boyfriend, three roommates, and Karina for company. Unlike many of my family and friends quarantining in my home country of the United States, in Argentina (my chosen country of residence for the last four years), I can’t exercise outside or even go on a walk unless it is to the grocery store, pharmacy, or bank.
On my sluggish days, I sleep for 12 hours, eat two pieces of cake, and complete only one of five things on my urgent “to do” list. However, for most of quarantine, I have felt healthy in all aspects of the word, and I attribute that to skills honed on the road. Lessons I learned from bizarre situations in places most unfamiliar to me have prepared me to deal with this strangeness of being on somewhat of a house arrest. In the travel cycle of moving, adapting, and evolving, I gained exactly what I needed to stand still.
In the evenings, I sit by the blue-orange flame of the furnace and remember the places and people that taught me how to think before reacting, to communicate my needs, and to wait.
It was around midnight when the screw went into my foot.
“Guys, ow, ow, OW! Stop walking. Stop.”
“I stepped on something.”
I was hopping on one foot now with the injured foot behind me.
“It’s in my shoe. It’s—”
I swung my foot around and caught it with both hands. A rusty screw, about three inches in length, was sticking out of the bottom of my knockoff Converse Allstar. I could feel the end of it inside my foot where it had wedged itself after piercing through my sole.
This was my introduction to New York. I had come to visit an old college friend the week before my move to Buenos Aires. A group of us had left a game night in a friend of a friend’s apartment somewhere in Queens. As we walked to the subway, we passed a quiet construction site where an unassuming screw stood upright. Engaged in the conversation, I hadn’t seen it and ended up stepping directly on top of it.
Ellie and Chelsea rushed to my side to support me as I cradled my injured foot. I took a deep breath and for a second considered my extremely bad luck, recalling a similar injury in Indonesia two years prior when broken tile had sliced open my foot at a hotel pool. While waiting for the hotel’s doctor to inspect my foot, I had only concentrated on the pain, on how I could stop it, how uncomfortable I felt, and how I would experience even more pain if I needed stitches.
At the time, I was enrolled in a yoga teacher training, and my yoga teacher was at the pool when the accident occurred. She sat by me while we waited, and calmly told me: “Pain is just resistance to change.”
“Is this part of my training?” I had asked, exasperated.
“Yes,” she replied.
Realizing I had no other options, I tried changing my perspective to think of the pain as only a change and how my body was responding to this new change. Rather than focusing on the sensation of the pain, I focused on it being a process, which would eventually end, and maybe serve to teach me something. Weirdly enough, the pain started becoming manageable.
Now in Queens, I took another deep breath. Focusing on the sensation of rusty metal in my foot wouldn’t help. I had to do what was in my power to manage it. I went into action.
“Ellie, get my phone out of my pocket and call my mom. Ask her when I had my last tetanus shot.
Brian, call that guy whose house we were at, and ask him to give us a ride to the hospital.
Chelsea, help me unlace this shoe.”
Everyone began their assigned tasks, and soon I was lying on a nearby bench with my foot elevated and screw-free. I pressed bloody tissues against the wound with my right hand, while my left held the phone, my mom telling me it had been 10 years since my last tetanus booster. Our ride pulled up, and we drove to Mount Sinai Queens Hospital.
I remember how Ellie and Chelsea stayed with me in the hospital, the prick of the needle of the tetanus shot, the quiet laugh of the physician disinfecting my foot as I made inappropriate jokes about the brand name of my fake Converse (Hoes). I remember how New York felt quiet and calm that night as our Uber drove across the bridge back to glowing lights of Manhattan. And I remember it being a weirdly good night, knowing I could handle this pain and more.
Now in quarantine, I have a choice to immediately react to challenges or take a breath and consider my response and my ability to do something about them—even if the ones facing me now are more mental than physical. For instance, rather than sulking about not being able to see my parents for the foreseeable future, I can strengthen my connection to them by calling them more frequently and taking more time to talk to them on each call.
And it furthered the importance of communicating my needs calmly and clearly to others—a lesson that was also learned, albeit more humbly, from the time I broke a toilet in China.
I had always had a problem squatting.
Standing in front of the toilet I had broken for the second time that week, I panicked. How would I explain this to my Chinese homestay family? When my college group had arrived in Shenzhen for a program of English teaching and cultural exchange, they had graciously let me into their home. They had given me their prized guest room, complete with a steam room and an adjoining bathroom with a western-style toilet—I was grateful for this amenity in my room since the toilet in the hallway was a typical Chinese-style toilet, one of those squatty ones imbedded in the floor.
I had tried to use these toilets at the school where my teaching team was stationed, but my squat was too high. After two attempts the first week, in which I had to clean the floor and realized I had gotten pee on my tights, I discovered a western-style toilet at the Starbucks near the school. I used that one on my teaching breaks, and had the homestay one for the evenings. I thought my plan of avoiding squat toilets was foolproof—until the toilet in my room broke due to bad plumbing.
After I broke the toilet the first time and the plumbers left the house, my hosts asked me not to use it anymore.
“We have another toilet in the hall,” my homestay father David said, referring to the squat toilet. “Please use that one.”
I tried using it once, but out of desperation secretly returned to using the guest room toilet until it broke again. That was when I realized the time had come for an open and direct conversation with David and the family.
“I, uh, broke your toilet again.”
“What? I said not to use that toilet.”
“Yes, I’m really sorry. I kept using it because I have trouble squatting.”
David and Suki, my homestay sister just looked at me, heads cocked to the side. My homestay mother, not understanding English, descended the stairs to see what was happening.
“Look,” I said, walking to the middle of the room and popping a squat with my butt only slightly lower than my knees. “I can only go this far.”
“But it is so simple,” David said as he crouched down in a perfect squat.
“Yes,” Suki chimed in. “It is very easy.” She squatted with us to demonstrate as David explained in Chinese to my homestay mom, who had started squatting, too, and then I had to explain to them about my physical limitations, with all of us squatting in their kitchen.
My homestay family was understanding when I was finally clear with them. We reached a solution about the toilet—I could use mine sometimes but also had to keep trying to use the squat toilet.
Living with them taught me that it’s better to be upfront, especially when communicating difficult realities that stem from different perspectives and needs. Now in quarantine, I draw on this experience when I have to be upfront about difficult circumstances, like telling my friends I will not be breaking quarantine to come to their house, but that we can video chat instead—I want to see them, but I’m not willing to risk my health (or theirs), and that conversation can be tough.
We will all have to be patient until the next time we can see each other as we used to. Patience is probably the most useful skill to have during this time, and it’s one I learned from another group of friends in a dusty church compound in Kenya.
“May I ask you a question?”
“When you first arrived, why did you have a staple in your nose?”
This was the start of one of many conversations I had during the summer of 2011, the summer of the continual wait. The question—referring to the retainer in my septum—was asked during one of our longest weekly waits: the wait for the 12 p.m. leadership meeting to begin. I had spent the past month in Kenya as an intern writing scholarship video scripts for an NGO that was aiding in the rehabilitation and education of street youth. And on this day, most of us had been there around an hour and a half at this point, in the courtyard of the church where our NGO was headquartered. We would regularly wait two hours for those leadership meetings, and when the stragglers would finally show, vague explanations were generally offered with the excuse being to the tune of “somehow, I could not arrive on time.”
Everything we did required waiting, partially due to tech issues, but also due to the general cultural acceptance of tardiness, something I was not accustomed to in the United States. Accomplishing even the most tedious of tasks sometimes required a colossal effort—including the task of standing here where the Kenyan sun burned overhead at its full midday capacity, beating down on all of us.
At first, I hated the waiting. I found it disrespectful to those of us who were on time. Yet, as we waited, we began to bond as a team. Slowly, I began to see the waiting for what it was: an opportunity to build relationships. I could respond to Moses’ question about why my septum was pierced—I had gotten it after a trip around the world as a symbol of how it had shaped me—and he could tell me about Kenyan cultural rituals, like how a newborn baby’s umbilical cord is buried, and that location serves as the answer to where they are from (rather than the city or town they were born in). The team could trust each other more because we knew each other more. I learned to embrace the wait rather than fight it, and that has probably been the most important ability I’ve gained since the pandemic, and subsequent quarantine period, began.
You probably already possess a tool belt for quarantining. As travelers, we have undergone reverse culture shock time and again. We have chosen to pursue unfamiliarity and discomfort because we knew those experiences would teach us how to live our lives with gratefulness and empathy. We have learned how to adapt to new cultures and situations, the latter of which we most assuredly are doing right now and will do again, as the new normal continues to evolve. Most of all, we know that this quarantine, like a trip, is only temporary. We know it will end—we’ll hug our loved ones, we’ll tell them we missed them, and we’ll do all that face-to-face rather than at a distance.