Today marks one month since Kevin Garbaran and fellow Guyanese writer Scott Ting-a-Kee travelled to Trinidad for a two-week writer’s residency at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. It is also fifteen days after they were due to return home and cannot do so because of travel restrictions set to tackle the COVID-19.
“Adjusting to the idea that I will be stuck here for weeks wasn’t easy. I miss my family and my friends and I think of them every day,” Garbaran told the News Room.
The two young writers were selected back in January by the Department of Literary, Cultural and Communication Studies (LCCS) of UWI for the residency.
“Opportunities like this one are rare for Guyanese writers and I counted myself lucky to have been granted one,” Garbaran said, adding that “the thought that COVID-19 would become a pandemic hadn’t crossed my mind.”
At this point, the disease had not yet reached Guyana and would not do so until March as the country confirmed its first case on March 11. The first victim was a woman who travelled from the United States of America mere days before.
However, it was not long after his arrival in Trinidad on March 15 that he realised things were changing in preparation for COVID-19.
The highlight event of the residency was Campus Literature Week – an annual event organized by the students of the MFA Creative Writing programme. There, the young writer explained that students and writers from the wider writing community in Trinidad are usually invited to take part in daily lunchtime readings.
This year, however, following the guidelines for social distancing, the event was held online.
“Instead of live readings and discussions, we made recordings that were uploaded to the UWI website,” he said.
They were selected to attend Campus Literature Week, from March 23 to March 27, and read from their work at one of the daily lunchtime readings that are organised during that week.
He was still thrilled to have met Scottish-Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo on campus.
But his thoughts during the weeks preceding his visit –of busy walkways, meeting new students, chatting over coffee –were all thrown away as everywhere was empty, eerie and exuding a forlorn feeling.
The events at UWI ran up to March 29. But on March 19, Guyana closed its airports to all incoming flights.
Having learnt of this, Garbaran and his colleague contacted the Guyanese High Commission in Trinidad to inform them of their stay in the country and to seek any information or advice given the situation.
“After explaining who I was and my concerns about the border closing, I was asked ‘Am I to give you advice on your wellbeing?’ The phone was on loudspeaker. As a Guyanese, I felt embarrassed for whoever that person was on the other end of the line.”
Eventually, the High Commission responded only to say the airports are closed and nothing can be done.
Fortunate for the duo, the University made their stay comfortable, unlike some others stuck elsewhere.
“The university has made my stay here very comfortable. I’m safe, I have food, and internet access. Meanwhile, there are many people across the world right now who are stuck in cities and countries away from their homes and their loved ones, trying to survive in unfavourable, sometimes hostile conditions.”
Garbaran has had no symptoms of COVID-19 but remains on self-isolation until he can travel home.
“I’ve been symptom-free throughout my stay here so far. My days are spent in self-isolation, only heading out to get essentials when needed,” he said.
“I’ve been cooking every day, partially because I have to since it’s too risky to be going out for food, but also because it’s something to occupy my time…”
The local airports remain closed to incoming flights until May 1.
According to Chairman of the National COVID-19 Task Force (NCTF), Moses Nagamootoo, there are some 200 Guyanese on cruise ships and thousands in the United States who are waiting to return home.