Stranded in paradise

“Ten complete strangers are stranded somewhere in Latin America due to a global pandemic. They have to live under lockdown together in a house, uncertain of when they will be able to go home and be with their families again.” This would make a good reality TV show concept, don’t you think? Well this is not brought to you by the creators of ‘Big Brother’ but is based on a true story… my story. 
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Stranded in paradise

In February 2020, I set to experience Mexico and its diverse landscapes during a 4 month-trip around the country. A solo traveler and adrenaline-seeker, I had planned a route that would take me to some of the most daring adventures around the country. After exploring the capital and its mountainous surroundings during my first month, I was excited to move to the beach! On March 15th, I landed in Puerto Escondido, a beautiful beach town situated on the coast of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I checked into a hotel called Casa Losodeli and then braced myself for weeks of surfing and diving into the waters of the Pacific. 

While I geared up for my ocean adventures, the rest of the world was facing a tsunami which few saw coming: Covid-19. Although the virus was rapidly spreading in Europe and Asia, it arrived much later in Mexico. False claims that corona could not “survive in tropical weather” and that tequila consumption could easily “kill” it, led many to ignore how serious the pandemic was. The virus eventually creeped into Mexico bringing the whole country into a panic by the end of March. Street hawkers began to wear masks, restaurants exclusively offered take-away service, and the only alcohol-based substance that was legally allowed to be sold after 6pm was hydroalcoholic gel. 

Mexico was coming to a halt, but life carried on as usual in the bubble of Puerto Escondido. I still swam in the ocean twice a day at sunrise and sunset. Despite following the progression of the pandemic, my environment played the role of a shield which protected me from over-thinking and worrying excessively about the virus. As a matter of fact, I felt safer in a small town by the ocean than I would have had I been in a city like Paris, my crowded hometown. When the French government urged citizens traveling abroad to return home, my parents called me everyday begging me to get on the first flight back to France. I was suddenly faced with a dilemma:

should I go home and be with my family during these uncertain times or should I stay here in paradise?

Spoiler alert: I stayed. Attempting to go home in the middle of a pandemic would prove to be an uphill battle impossible to win. Everyday, Europe-bound flights were cancelled and delayed for hours/days, to only then be cancelled again. Purchasing a plane ticket was just as much a challenge; they were either sold out or priced at the ridiculous sums of 4,000 to 5,000 euros. The most frustrating part in trying to make sense of this situation was the lack of information. Airlines, embassies, consulates, municipalities; they were all as clueless and overwhelmed as I was it seemed. 

Stranded in Puerto Escondido - Benedicte King
Stranded with strangers turned friends

One morning, I was headed to the hotel’s reception and was surprised to find a dozen other guests there too. Liz, the hotel owner, cleared her voice to make an announcement: “Puerto Escondido is officially under lockdown starting today so we will be closing the hotel. Foreign tourists who are already in the hotel are advised to quarantine here, as hotels and Airbnb’s are not allowed to accept new guests. This means unless you manage to get a flight back to your country, you are advised to quarantine here until the lockdown is lifted”. 

The decision: I was stranded in Mexico and would have to stay in Puerto Escondido. After hearing the news, I chatted with the other guests for a while. Each of us had individually decided to spend the lockdown in Puerto Escondido with a group of complete strangers. We were such a diverse bunch, covering almost all continents; Austria, Congo, Germany, India, Mexico, Spain, Taiwan, U.S, Venezuela.  Despite hailing from different backgrounds, we all had one thing in common: the will to turn this unusual situation into a memorable time. 

One of us immediately created a group chat on WhatsApp which he cheekily named ‘Quaranteam’. This group chat became the center of our interactions and is still active until today. On the first evening of lockdown, we agreed to all meet up and watch the sunset together on the rooftop of the hotel. This would turn out to be one of the many traditions we created during the lockdown. 

Over the following five weeks, each one of us would volunteer their individual skills and resources to the benefits of the group. In the morning myself alongside another guy would lead yoga practice and fitness classes. Later there would be Spanish lessons offered by a girl from Venezuela, During the day everyone went about their own business unless it was a special day like Easter when we organized an egg hunt or a birthday then we would throw a pool party. Every evening there would be a themed diner, followed by movies, card games or karaoke. There was never a dull day, it was our own version of Club Med. Although the beaches were closed we could still see the ocean from the rooftop of the hotel, where we gathered every evening to watch the sun setting on the ocean. It was a beautiful bubble in which coronavirus and the realities of the outside world did not exist. 

Was there any drama you ask? Of course, I told you it would make a good reality show! Romances soared and fell, opposing personalities clashed and emotions sometimes got the best of us. My favorite thing about being under lockdown with strangers is that getting to know each other and exploring the different group dynamics was a daily distraction to me. It was an emotional rollercoaster. On most days I was extremely happy with my decision to have stayed in Puerto Escondido and on other days, I wished to be with my family. However, even during these moments, I received an incredible amount of support from the Quaranteam. Sweet little notes, chocolates and hugs which made all the difference on the roughest days. 

The hardest part about this adventure was accepting its end. After 5 weeks of lockdown, flights resumed and restrictions were easy; it was time to go home. The goodbyes were heart-wrenching; everyone was crying, hugging and holding on to each other. We had grown so attached to this group but eventually came the time to burst it. Knowing that what we had experienced was unique made it even harder; fate had brought us together in a way that could never be replicated again. On the day that I left, I sent a message to the group chat which read 

“Thank you for the adventure of a lifetime”. 
Thank you for the adventure of a lifetime

If you ask me what has been my biggest adventure in Mexico, I will not mention the incredible Mayan pyramids, or the world-class famous waves of Oaxaca. Instead, I will reminisce on those 5 weeks stranded with 10 complete strangers, the bond we created and how much this experience has taught me. Ultimately, traveling is not solely about discovering epic spots to show on Instagram or even learn how to free dives with sharks. It’s also about making hard learning how to deal with the unexpected, thriving in the unknown and figuring out how to turn darkness into light.

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