Missives from My Locked-Down Friends, From Siberia to Samarkand

On a rainy day in November I dropped a postcard into the “international” slot outside the post office in Greymouth, a quiet town on the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It was perhaps the most ambitious of the 145 postcards I sent in 2019, not because of its content, but because of how it would test the global postal system.

It was addressed to Sergey Yeremeev, who lives on the top of a hill near a blue and white church on Olkhon Island, a sliver of land in Lake Baikal in Russia’s Siberian region. As I walked back to my rental car, I wondered not when it would arrive, but if it ever would, or if it would be forgotten in a dusty pile at some mail relay station somewhere along the way.

By then, much of what had been a surreal, momentous and exhausting year had retreated into the haze of memory. Days after receiving his messages, I, like many New Yorkers, began self-isolating at home as Covid-19 spread through the state and the country. It made those memories feel more like dreams.

When I heard from Sergey again two weeks later, the situation had worsened. The winter tourist season, when travelers come to Lake Baikal to ride ATVs over the ice, was over and it had been a struggle for the many people who depend on tourism: The majority of international tourists usually come from China, which had been on lockdown for months.

Of the 51 places I visited last year (I never made it to the 52nd, Iran, because of security concerns), Olkhon Island felt the farthest away, a place where the light filtered through the sky like the sun was running out of fuel, casting everything in the glow of firelight through a door left ajar. Yet the virus had still made its way there, Sergey told me, with seven confirmed cases in a population of 1,500 people. Schools had closed and the price of vegetables was going up.

“We have the advantage to walk around as there are not many people in the neighborhood,” he wrote.

“I wish you a creative and enlightening quarantine,” Sergey wrote as a signoff.

I looked at my phone and found myself smiling, thinking of late nights talking to Sergey, the Siberian wind rattling the windows. Sometimes, he would close his eyes as he spoke, searching for each word with intense concentration. I wondered if, every Sunday, he still rang the bells outside the church he takes care of despite orders to stay home. I wondered if the wooden poles scattered across the island, totems of the indigenous Buryat religion, were even more covered in colorful prayer ribbons during this time of global desperation.

Buoyed by my conversation with Sergey, I started reaching out to others who had welcomed me during my year of traveling when I showed up to their cities, alone and lost. From inside my apartment, they suddenly were just as close — and just as far — as my friends down the street in New York.

During my year of travel, uprooted from the friends and family of home, I found a sense of community in strangers-turned-friends. When I think back to the places I visited, it is rare that my first image is of a landmark, a waterfall or a restaurant. It is the people that come to mind first and it’s those people I am most grateful for.

I dug through pages of scribbled notes and started reaching out, by email, WhatsApp and Instagram. I asked them variations of “How are you?”, a pleasantry that has taken on a newfound gravitas around the world. The replies flooded in.

“One day, the buses just stopped arriving,” she said.

She has found one silver lining though: a new addition to her family of three. Just two days before the Panamanian government announced a nationwide lockdown, a scruffy, black squirrel fell from a tree and into the river in front of their house. Carolina and her daughter nursed the animal back to health. It hasn’t left their side since.

“It’s a sound I’ve only heard in the mountain villages,” he wrote.

Hurshid is using the time to reconnect with family and read up on historical figures like Timur (or Tamerlane, as he’s sometimes referred to in English) and Genghis Khan, so he can be even more informed when his tours start up again. He has been reading the work of Persian poets like Omar Khayyam and Hafiz, who wrote, among other things, “If, like the prophet Noah, you have patience in the distress of the flood, Calamity turns aside, and the desire of a thousand years comes forth.”

It was from Amina El Abed, a communications consultant I met serendipitously and who turned into my de facto guide to the city, showing me its thriving nightlife, music and street food scenes. She wrote of many things: how her work was supposed to take her to Morocco, but instead she was sheltered in place at her family’s house, having not fully moved into her own apartment in time for the lockdown; how she had taken to online yoga classes but struggled with some of the positions because they made her feel old; how she stayed up until 2 a.m. every night watching the Spanish television series “Money Heist” with her brother and her dad because, as she put it, “nobody has plans tomorrow.”

I remembered talking to her at length about her life in Tunisia, how she had moved so frequently in and out of the country, following the trends of economic and political upheaval, but had finally started feeling at home. I remembered her telling me about an idyllic vision she had of an undefined future, out in the country and far away from the buzz of the capital city. Now she struck a different tone, a clear result of weeks with nothing but her thoughts.

“There is some solace in feeling that the whole world is in pause mode so you can breathe without FOMO,” she wrote. “But that’s a bit naïve, because most people around me don’t want the pause, they don’t need the soul searching and they can’t afford to spend days looking at the ceiling wondering if they’d be happier as a date farmer.”

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