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.
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.
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.
The next day, Friday the 13th, we had our last classes on campus. Campus closed for a week and then extended, well, until now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
My friends did what they could, finding ways to cope in the ‘new normal’.
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!).
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.
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.