The coronavirus pandemic may be the most significant news event of our lifetimes, disrupting daily life in profound ways. Until a few days ago, Silvia Mordini said she didn’t really know much had changed.
Mordini left her home in St. Petersburg for a secluded retreat in Bali, Indonesia on the very morning Florida’s first two cases made the front page of the Tampa Bay Times. You could still find paper towels at the grocery store. You could still get a beer at a bar, elbow to elbow with friends without anyone side-eyeing you.
The term “social distancing,” so familiar now, had not yet appeared in this newspaper. It showed up the following day in reference to a new thing they were doing in far-away Washington state.
“I was frozen in time” she said. “It really feels like I was an astronaut that went on a mission and returned to a different planet. The world I left behind here has completely changed.”
Mordini, an inspiration and happiness coach, was leading a program for 20 people from 10 countries. The days were filled with 6 a.m. yoga sessions, silent vegetarian breakfasts and Powerpoint presentations on how to be “peace ambassadors” in the world. They walked for hours on the beach. They drank from fresh coconuts.
WiFi and cellular service were hard to come by at the Pondok Pitaya retreat center, Mordini said, but that wasn’t really the issue. Everyone participating in the retreat was taking a break from the internet anyway. They weren’t even going out into the small surrounding community.
“We were immersed," she said. “We were in our own isolation, we just didn’t realize the world was starting to isolate themselves.”
Indonesia suspended all flights to and from China in February. That was the only real restriction. The country did have two reported cases of the virus when Mordini arrived, but they were on another island more than 700 miles away.
The worldwide news did finally begin to break through in fragments of stories seen on social media, and posts about supplies that were utterly confusing. “I saw some kind of meme about toilet paper and I’m thinking, ‘Huh? This has to be a joke or something'."
Mordini realized she needed reliable information. She called the United States embassy in Indonesia. She said they didn’t have much to offer her. “Very quickly, it was clear there was no info,” she said. But others began to hear from their own respective embassies.
Germany was first to say the borders were closing, Mordini said. Then the Australians received a message: come back right now, or we don’t know how long you’ll be there. Poland sent a charter flight to Bali. The woman who got on it carried a letter from the Polish government in case she was stopped en route to the airport.
“It wasn’t really about the virus at that point, it was this huge logistics challenge," she said. “How do we get home when all the normal routes back to the West, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, they’re all closed? On top of that, we’re thinking, ‘Should we do this? We’re all safe right here. Traveling is going to expose us to great risk.”
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Mordini just wanted to get back on U.S. soil. Her journey included four canceled flights. She was looking at ticket options that cost $6,000 and $13,000. “Not for first class. Just normal flights.” She finally booked one for $800 that would take her to Japan and then Chicago. She could find nothing into Tampa at that point.
It wasn’t until she set out from the retreat center and returned to reliable phone service and urban areas that the changes — and the fear — really hit. Masks everywhere. Multiple temperature checks by government officials. She had to walk through a thermal scanner. On her first flight to get home, every other seat was marked with an X. In the elevator there were dividing lines on the floor.
“In Japan I got sprayed,” she said. “You went through this thing and had to spin around and be sprayed with disinfectants. At least that’s what I’m assuming that was.”
Flying over the Pacific Ocean with only about 10 people on the plane, she was terrified to eat. Even the almonds in her carry-on bag were freaking her out because she couldn’t wash her hands every time she grabbed one.
After getting to Chicago, she was lucky enough to get a flight into Tampa International Airport for only $29.
She walked through the door of her Crescent Heights home this week, exhausted, and immediately made a grilled cheese sandwich. She’s now in the middle of a 14-day self quarantine. She was surprised no one told her to do it, or even suggested it on the airplane or at the airport when they landed in Florida.
One final wakeup call: she naively went on Amazon to try to buy toilet paper. It wasn’t happening. A neighbor, who she has not yet met in person, loaned her some, and brought her groceries.
The experience was a shock, Mordini said, but not an altogether unfamiliar one. Her job, she said, is transforming “trauma into Dharma." Years ago, she was hit by a car and nearly died. That’s the event that inspired her current path. More recently, she suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her unable to see or walk. Part of her recovery was sitting in a dark room, doing nothing. No music, television or even reading.
“I’ve had this sort of scenario play out in my life before in some ways," she said. "So maybe I’m better equipped to manage through the radical changes that are taking place right now.
Her advice is to accept a “new normal,” because there is no going back to the way things were going to be before the pandemic. And to consider life in manageable chunks.
“You cannot step in a river in the same place twice, things flow forward,” she said. “We can’t think five year plans right now, or even one year plans, or even to the end of the year. It’s the next 30 days, or the next day, just taking things into small pieces and letting that be enough."
One specific idea: use this time without other social obligations to find ways to be kind.
“Thank you notes. Thank you emails," she said. “Think of all the people you’ve been meaning to say thank you to for, I don’t know. Years?”