A Guyanese student navigates life during lockdown in T&T

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Story and photos by Vishani Ragobeer

In January, when I just returned to Trinidad for my second semester at the UWI, I could hear the sweet sounds of ‘pan’ from my dorm room. The Exodus Panyard, home to one of the popular steelbands in the Twin Island Republic, is, as we say in Guyanese parlance, ‘right up de road’.  

Those were simpler times when my friends and I could go see Exodus perfect ‘Dear Promoter’ and get caught in the rain with nowhere else to go. The times when we would get back to our Hall-of-Residence on campus at midnight, only then realising that we had assignments to do. 

My Grenadian friend, Shereece Victor at the Exodus Panyard moments before the rain soaked us

At the start of this semester, there was no real routine for me. Sure, classes, assignments and unfortunately, cooking were daily requirements. But, there was also life at Freedom Hall, the endless suite of Caribbean ‘spiced’ activities on campus and, of course, Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival season. But, that was all before COVID-19 became a real thing. 

I’ll never forget the date; it was March 12, a Thursday. I was feeling pretty miserable, owed to the political developments unfolding at home. On this particular Thursday, though, I had my 9AM lecture, an interview and then, two events- one of which was a Phagwah celebration.

Thursday, March 12- Celebrating Phagwah on campus

It was a long day that was about to get much longer. My Guyanese friend and I, both covered in Phagwah powder, walked home. I took my phone out of its protective covering (a Ziploc bag) and I waited for it to connect to the WiFi. Suddenly, there were hundreds of Whatsapp messages. Trinidad recorded its first case of COVID-19. 

That night, COVID-19 was all we could think about. My friends wanted to purchase vitamins from a nearby supermarket located and I went – clothes still powdered. No one, not even at the filled food court, paid me any mind.

Months later, in September, campus did not return to normal. The food court area (pictured) was empty

The next day, Friday the 13th, we had our last classes on campus. Campus closed for a week and then extended, well, until now.

The night before Shereece’s flight back to Grenada,we lit birthday starlights in our Hall’s backyard

My friends began returning home- some back to their homes in Trinidad and others back to their home countries. Over the next few days, we did what we could to keep spirits high. Another Grenadian friend made cocoa tea and soup for all of us at Freedom Hall; my Bajan friend baked cookies, and we cleared out the tuckshop.

Scattered across the five Halls are rooms, much like this one, filled with marked boxes and bags of students’ belongings

Borders were closing rapidly and there was not much time to pack our lives back into our suitcases, much less worry about unused groceries. In the months to come, sudden departure would become a norm. 

As our friends began returning home, one-by-one, country by country, they left their groceries behind. Some we were grateful for, and others… well, they couldn’t be eaten

There were a few of us, from Freedom Hall, who could not leave in March nor in the months after because repatriation flights were either unavailable or too pricey. After the decision was made to close our hall (which later became a step down facility for repatriated Trinbagonians), we moved to Canada Hall, at the southern end of campus. 

My Bajan friend, Josiah Drakes returning to Canada Hall after purchasing groceries from the ‘YOU WEE’ Supermarket (yes, that’s the real name) just outside the South Gate

We joined other students from Trinity Hall there, on MArch 23. Our time at this hall only lasted for about five days, when we were told that we had to pack and move (again) to another hall of residence, the Sir Arthur Lewis (SAL) Hall. 

SAL Hall was a few minutes away from campus, closer to the Exodus Panyard. One of the delights of staying at this hall was that it allowed for easier access to Mt. St. Benedict’s (pictured) eventually

The situation was getting worse. Moving us to SAL Hall, with the rest of the students, was an attempt at keeping us safer. By this time, we made a complete shift to the virtual delivery of classes and we realised that this COVID-19 pandemic was not going away anytime soon.

My Trinidadian friend, Justin Ramnath attending a class on his tablet from his room on SAL Hall

Trinidad and Tobago was attempting to ‘get ahead’ of a major spread of the virus. Weekly, we listened to Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley impose new restrictions. In these earlier months of the pandemic, we only left the hall to purchase supplies and whenever we did leave, we would use the campus shuttles. 

Our new place of residence close to the Tunapuna Market and every Friday we were able to go there to our fresh fruits and vegetables

There were no late night food runs to Curepe, studying in the library after midnight or visits to Urban Grounds for… stress relief.  We were entering into the ‘new normal’ and could only navigate the circumstances presented day by day. 

My Guyanese friend, Akarshini Singh (right) and I making roti and chicken curry; In keeping with the ‘lockdown’ trend I tried learning how to cook decent meals

I did not have the motivation for this internet school replete with its internet exams and internet assignments. My work was reduced, so finances were a concern. I was constantly worrying about my loved ones. And, Guyana’s elections and the pandemic were engaged in a battle of endurance- if you know what I mean.

I found my daily solace (unless it rained)  sitting outside this emergency exit

Weeks become months. The semester was coming to an end and for us Guyanese students at the UWI but also at the HWLS, UTT and USC, repatriation flights finally became a reality (though organising these were a ‘jhanjhat’ and a half). 

The first repatriation flight to Guyana was on June 19. It was the only international flight leaving the Piarco International Airport that day

I could not get home then, so I did the most logical thing- I signed up for summer classes! And how did I cope with the departure of my friends and the further isolation? Netflix. 

Lights out point to the unoccupied rooms throughout SAL Hall

Aside from school and life’s responsibilities, I turned my focus to creating. This photo series became something I intentionally engaged in and I began documenting my life and for some of my friends at the hall. 

Another Guyanese friend, Indira Singh, who didn’t leave on the first set of repatriation flights getting some fresh air on a bench in the SAL Hall Courtyard

My friends did what they could, finding ways to cope in the ‘new normal’. 

Justin (left) took up window gardening and baking became an almost everyday habit for my Antiguan friend, Akil Toulon

Gradually, parts of ‘outside’ opened up. Social distancing, mask wearing and constant hand-washing were second nature. Once we were keeping ourselves safe, we could go for strolls (because you weren’t ever going to get me to run), beach trips (until they were closed AGAIN) and DOUBLES (so much doubles!). 

A breath of fresh ‘outside’ air from (less than halfway up) Mt. St. Benedict’s featuring Akil, Justin and myself

Eventually, just after the new semester and academic year (2020/2021) began in September, I was better positioned to travel home. The day before my flight, after completing my swab-up-nose test (a PCR test for COVID-19), I went to pay for my ticket. There was a mixup, however, and I couldn’t travel on this repatriation flight. Sigh. I went back to Hall, looked at my packed suitcase and empty room and refused to unpack. 

I spent the next few days cooped up in my room, succumbing to my feelings. Annoyed, irritated and frustrated. The importance of personal hygiene saved me from my lethargy, until a few days later, when I had the urge to visit campus. 

Six months after my last class on campus, I walked along the same path I did on March 12 when I received the Whatsapp messages about Trinidad’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 (Akil Toulon photo)

My campus seemed as though it lost its very life. Afterall, the hoards of students scurrying from class to class and the idly ‘liming’ students were not there. The ‘pelicans’ weren’t flying around. This was an unparallelled beginning of the academic year.

My protracted stay in Trinidad also came to an abrupt end, just as abruptly as I am going to end this photostory. I slowly started to unpack and accept that I had to stay a while longer. Just as I put my clothes back into the drawers and bought cereal (my staple food), I received a call from Caribbean Airlines. There was a flight in three days, and I had a secured spot. This time, there was no mixup. 

A mere few hours  before my 6AM flight, I packed my life in Trinidad back into my suitcase, hoping to come back sooner rather than later

 

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