Personal Insights: Cork couple travelling world reveal how Covid-19 reaffirmed faith in humanity

Young Irish couple, Seán Noonan and Judy Walsh, were in the middle of a global travel adventure when they became stranded in Martinique during the Coronavirus crisis. Here they describe what happened and their new found faith in humanity and its innate kindness.

Judy and Sean prepping sails for an Atlantic Crossing
Judy and Sean prepping sails for an Atlantic Crossing

On Sunday March 15 of this year Judy and I were kindly welcomed on board a yacht which doubled as the home of retired English couple after only a brief correspondence online. The next morning we were due to leave the Caribbean Island of Martinique to set sail for Columbia.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 had other plans and later that day we learned of the impending closure of the Colombian border due to the virus. Caught totally unaware, on Monday morning we found ourselves waving goodbye to the yacht from the marina. The English couple had decided to sail to Grenada while Judy and I tentatively chose to remain in Martinique to assess our options.

Suddenly, we were without accommodation on a small Caribbean island while the whole world began shutting down around us. It was over four months since myself and Judy left Cork and we had been thriving, but now at the drop of a hat, we were completely out of our depth.

Ordinarily we both tend to be pretty circumspect by uncertainty while traveling, although this didn’t happen overnight.

It began in France in 2017, when we were dropped directly to our destination by a kind-hearted Belgian couple, after sceptically sticking out our thumbs. Giddy with the success of this first experiment, and after several more lovely experiences Judy and I realised that we preferred chatting with generous strangers from the comfort of their cars, to sitting on hot, cramped buses.

Since then, hitchhiking has become our modus operandi while abroad and on the whole we refrain from booking transport or accommodation. Instead we carry a tent as backup and rely on the kindness of strangers to get around.

For example, over the course of two weeks hitchhiking in Romania, not only did we see much of the breath-taking countryside, along with several historic towns and cities, we were also able to spend time with, and get to know, countless incredibly good natured people.

Hitchhiking has been the perfect way for us to explore several countries and although each day is unknown, it has taught us to embrace uncertainty and to welcome the opportunity to switch off from the outside world by living from moment to moment.

Hitchhiking on a cold Moroccan morning.
Hitchhiking on a cold Moroccan morning.

In Martinique, we felt so exceptionally lost because it was these methods of travel which contributed greatly to our vulnerable position and although talking to others at the marina bar and reading articles about people in similar situations gave us a degree of solace, we still blamed ourselves for a large portion of our predicament.

Yet for now, all we could worry about was our own fate. Should we flee for home like so many others, or try to hunker down in the Caribbean to weather the fast approaching Covid-19 storm? This was a massive decision and the prospect of choosing wrongly was genuinely scary.

The next eleven hours were spent glued to our phones at the marina bar, less than 200m from where we bid farewell to the English couple. Here, myself and Judy informed ourselves fully on the pandemic, looked at flights home and accommodation options in Martinique, while contacting friends and family members to ask their opinions on our best course of action.

Throughout the day we vacillated incessantly in a paralysis which only worsened with each new piece of information received.

Returning to Ireland would have felt like giving up on our long dreamed of adventure. But that was a stupid reason to stay; Safety should come before fun. Yet, could we even get home? Would we only make it half way and get stranded because of cancelled flights?

 Last glimpse of land leaving the Cape Verde Islands, setting off to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Last glimpse of land leaving the Cape Verde Islands, setting off to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Would travelling back through crowded airports and poorly ventilated aeroplanes expose us to the virus? Even if we made it home, what would happen? Neither of us had jobs to return to, and would we increase the chances of a family member getting sick just by virtue of another potential virus carrier in the home?

While returning to Ireland was likely frought with risk, neither did we want to stay somewhere potentially unstable. Would Martinique be able to stock its supermarkets? Would the island continue to receive medical supplies? Would we have somewhere safe to stay long-term?

Lastly, did we really want to remain in the Caribbean, thereby forgoing the support networks we would have at home, and opting to be isolated from our family and friends for an indefinite period of time? Completely alone, we might then face a society which didn’t take quarantine restrictions seriously and could turn inward and apocalyptic.

Although we had to acknowledge the unpredictability of societal matters, much of our concerns could at least be alleviated by Martinique’s EU membership. As it is a French Territory, one would expect that the island should continue to be supplied.

Furthermore, there would be free healthcare and greater homeward travel links from the island. Given the complexity of our situation I do not believe that there was a “correct” decision to be made; only an informed one, and this was reflected in the wide range of advice offered to us by everyone we contacted from home.

After hearing Macron's national address that evening, we realised a decision urgently needed to be made as France’s lockdown was to begin at noon the following day.

Our decision was to stay, even if that meant we could be on our own.

Loggerhead turtle swimming off São Pedro beach, Cabo Verde.
Loggerhead turtle swimming off São Pedro beach, Cabo Verde.

Issues of this magnitude were not something we ever expected to face when we left Ireland on November 7th, and from day one in Marrakech we became almost totally oblivious to the outside world. After three weeks hitchhiking and surfing in Morocco, we flew to the Canary Islands and from there crewed on several sailing boats until eventually reaching Martinique.

For us, the first mention of the Coronavirus came via a message to the boat’s satellite phone somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Although we were alarmed, due to our remote location, the virus seemed more like news from a distant planet. Our detachment from global affairs continued in the Caribbean due to the paucity of Wi-Fi while living on boats, our two week sojourn at a beautiful but isolated farm in the mountains of Dominica, and finally, the sheer excitement at the prospect of sailing to Columbia.

It was only when this plan came crashing down, that the bubble we had been living in was burst, and after choosing to remain in Martinique, all that remained was a daunting covid-filled future.

Swimming mid-Atlantic, 1500 miles from land.
Swimming mid-Atlantic, 1500 miles from land.

In order to stay in Martinique, securing long-term accommodation was an absolute must. As hostels and hotels seemed likely to close, Judy booked us an Airbnb before we headed away from the marina for a final night of camping. The following morning we woke to a gut-wrenching message from our hosts, that they were cancelling the booking due to the quarantine.

Mere hours before the lockdown was due to begin and with the money drawn from Judy's account, we found ourselves questioning the decision to stay. With no other option, Judy and I headed straight for the property. The walk proved far more exhausting than anticipated, but incredibly when we stuck out our thumbs, a kind Martiniquan man pulled over and drove us to the address. It seemed that luck might finally be on our side.

But when a Frenchman named Dénis emerged from the house, we realised that we were in the completely wrong location, and that the address supplied by Airbnb did not compute with Google Maps. Now with less than an hour until the quarantine regulations were due to begin, things did not look good, and to make matters worse the phone number we had for our hosts kept ringing out.

Understanding the gravity of our situation, Dénis enlisted the help of his Martiniquan neighbour who somehow established contact with the husband of our host. Upon hearing our desperation over the phone, he miraculously changed his mind and agreed to let us stay.

Dénis then went massively out of his way and drove us the half hour to the property leaving both of us exceptionally grateful that people were still willing to look out for strangers in these uncertain times.

For the first few nights in the Airbnb we were rather wary, as we felt that our position was quite tenuous, and on top of this Leo’s sombre Patrick’s Day address served a sobering blow to our morale. But when our hosts began to bring us care packages of food, we started to feel more at ease and it seemed as if our relationship had turned a corner.

We were very grateful that they allowed us to stay on beyond the initial five nights that Judy had paid for, and completely dumbstruck when they informed us that they were not going to charge us for the remainder of our stay, no matter the duration. In return, we help out in their large garden as much as possible although keenly aware that we can never fully repay the debt we now owe.

Over a month ago, myself and Judy ended up in a precarious situation facing a daunting decision. With great trepidation we chose to stay in Martinique and only time will tell if this was the right call. But thanks to a great deal of luck and the unwavering kindness of other people who have not allowed Covid-19 to overrule their judgement, it at least appears that it was not a poor decision.

It is obvious now, that it was naive of us to think that we could outrun this virus, and in the future I’m certain that we will stay more in tune with the affairs of the world while travelling. Both of us are also aware that when the pandemic eases and the world starts moving again, we are quite likely to have to cut our journey short and return home.

En Route to the farm in Dominica.
En Route to the farm in Dominica.

Yet as Judy and I sit outside on the deck of our Airbnb, having just received another care package of food, it appears that we have found our own support network here in Martinique.

While this pandemic is greatly changing how we as humans interact and challenging us all in infinite ways, it has only reaffirmed our belief that people all over the world are capable of great kindness no matter their situation. We have eternal gratitude for everyone who has helped us and can only hope to pay it forward as best we can.

Sean and Judy's submission is part of a digital initiative on irishexaminer.com called Personal Insights.
As part of the Personal Insights initiative we are asking readers, creative writing groups and writing enthusiasts in general to share personal essays chronicling an experience which has impacted their lives and any learnings from that life experience they would like to share with a wider audience.
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