ON March 28, St Elizabeth native Kevin Thomas sang a COVID-19-inspired rendition of Happy Birthday to himself, used one hand to cover his mouth and the other to ‘blow’ out the candle on his birthday cupcake. After his first attempt to put out the tiny flame failed, he abandoned standard English and burst into patois, “Ah wah kinda cangle dis!” He then energetically fanned the stubborn flame until it accepted defeat. All this took place from his newly-rented apartment on a small island called Zamalek, in the middle of the Nile River in Cairo.
The video, posted on Facebook, is amusing and perfectly captures how he’s keeping his spirits up and trying to inspire others despite COVID-19’s scuttling of his plans to celebrate his birthday with friends in Zurich. He was alone but opted to exercise his version of “social distancing” by not blowing on his birthday cupcake, he explained.
Thomas, who lives in Saudi Arabia, has been stuck in Egypt since March 7. “The two-week ban on flights ends [today],” he told the Jamaica Observer about 2:30 am his time on March 29. “I will call the embassy, but more than likely the ban will be extended indefinitely.”
Later, Reuters reported that the ban on international passenger flights had indeed been extended. It also reported that, in the Gulf Arab Region, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of confirmed cases with 1,200 as of early Sunday morning.
Back when life was normal, in the first week of March, Thomas travelled to Cairo for a weekend jaunt. It’s just an hour and 45 minutes flight from where, for the past eight years, he’s lived and worked as a home room teacher for international schools. In a world transformed by the pneumonia-like disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Thomas now spends his days calling the local embassy and airlines for updates. Even though he’s come to terms with the idea that he may not be getting out of Cairo anytime soon, he has to try. He said, at his request, Jamaica’s foreign affairs ministry has put him in touch with the nearest consulate, in Jordan. But while everyone’s sympathetic, there’s nothing they can do as there’s no travel allowed in or out.
Cairo is now much different from when Thomas first got there. “[On the streets it’s] very far from the usual hustle and bustle and jammed roadways; and at curfew [7:00 pm to 6:00 am] it’s totally empty,” he said.
His Facebook posts chronicle the fun he had there pre-COVID-19 — and later his frantic efforts to get out of Egypt before the borders closed. A week after his flight was cancelled he got word that they were again being allowed out for a short while. “I ran to the airport immediately but needed to have [COVID-19] test clearance. It was a Friday (like our Sunday) and the only lab that the Saudi authorities accepted [results from] was closed,” he explained. “I did [the test] early Saturday morning, picked up the results on Sunday at 1:00 pm, [was] booked [to leave] on a flight at 4:40 pm… but the flight [was] cancelled just before departure.” After that, a two-week ban was imposed on passenger flights.
Originally staying in hotels and Airbnb-listed properties, he got the apartment in Zamalek a week ago. For almost US$800 a month in the upscale neighbourhood, he gets what he describes as “quite a nice place” when compared to other options. It has two bedrooms, living and dining rooms and a study. It’s owned by a friend of a work colleague and Thomas pays weekly in case, by some miracle, he gets to leave soon. But the rent is an unplanned expense as his accommodations are usually covered by his job when he’s at home in Saudi Arabia’s commercial centre.
He’s still getting a salary for now and says he’s managing financially, but admits to being a little concerned about job security. He’s been unable to join his colleagues in offering his math, science, and English classes online because Wi-Fi challenges prevent him from securely accessing their Google Classroom on his cellphone. In the early days he used the Wi-Fi in cafs, but those have all been shut down as Cairo is on lockdown except for essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies.
He passes the time by reading… the old-fashioned way, with actual books. He’s struck by the irony of the topic being explored in one of the tomes he now turns to, so the days don’t drag on. It’s called The Travels of Ibn Battutah. “It’s about travelling [his passion] and we are under lockdown,” he explained. Thomas has been to over 70 countries, living in five cities for extended periods of time. “[Now] Cairo will certainly make it six,” he noted.
He was back in Jamaica for a family visit in early January and, for a while after, his Facebook posts showed photos of the country’s culinary delights. He’s missing those now as there is, as he puts it, “nuttin Jamaican” to eat in Cairo. “[I] could eat a patty right now,” he told the Observer. “[But] Cairo Kitchen serves some traditional, healthy and very tasty dishes. A meal from there is quite big and can serve two to three days.”
He will need to make those meals last, as he is stuck in Cairo with no end in sight. But he’s still keeping his spirits up. Asked if he’s still OK after news that the ban on flights had been extended indefinitely, he said, “Yeah man! Gonna have to be good indefinitely.”
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