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I’m Stuck at a Closed Hostel in Uganda. Will I Be OK?

This is my new normal.

My days are spent dodging snails for a morning garden yoga session, deciding if this is going to be the day I dare to skinny dip in the pool, making videos against the lush oasis I’m now stuck at, and remembering the 7 p.m. national curfew before I go out for a sunset photo walk.

Things have rather escalated in the past 40 days. I arrived in Uganda via overnight bus from Kenya set for a few months of adventure in East and Southern Africa to write, party, make some money off my side gig in sales for a new app for tourism businesses, and stay at hostels for free in exchange for some help with their social media (or anything really).

My first stop was Jinja because it’s lush and beautiful, located right where the Nile begins, and it had been a good vibe when I first visited for a festival over six months ago. It was a strong start with sunny poolside workdays and scouring the town for the best pool bars with new friends. But where there were people to chat with over a Nile Special Lager a few weeks ago, there are now spiderwebs, overgrown grass, and snails (so many snails).

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Julie Olum

Uganda closed all borders for passenger movement on March 22—a government directive that I found out about that very Sunday while preparing to jump in the pool, not having considered my last chance to leave the country and go home. But the sun and water hit just right, so I brushed it off after about an hour wondering why this uneasy feeling wasn’t quite enough to pack my bags and make the two-hour journey to the border of Kenya. As places to be stuck in a pandemic go, I wasn’t doing badly.

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Fast forward through a mish-mash of what felt like both the longest week ever and a hazy six-month period, and the hostel is now closed to all guests (another government directive). I have three dogs and a family of three in the cottage behind me as neighbors, in on mandatory quarantine after flying in from a “Category 2” country. Their dramatic arrival is really when the penny dropped.

One morning soon after the first case was diagnosed in Uganda, there was heightened activity and some frantic-sounding phone calls at the hostel, with talk of “police” and “they’ve stormed the campsite” being stage-whispered. The manager of the said campsite and his family had flown in from South Africa and not been screened on arrival in Uganda or instructed to self-quarantine for two weeks, like most of the country believed was the protocol. The people from the area caught wind of this and were less than happy with the now increased risk of the virus right in their village. The family made a break for it, headed to the main hospital for testing, and was placed under two-week quarantine at one of the cottages at our by-then-winding-down hostel—not without a couple of cars full of officials from the ministry of health and some local news crews. The last two German guests took shelter beside my peaceful reading hammock, not wanting to be associated with any potential pandemic spreading.

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Julie Olum

Maybe it was the white coats, gloves, and masks, or the eerie silence of the bar area where summer playlists were gradually replaced by presidential addresses, or the scurrying of bored little dogs—regardless, it was time to embrace alone-time in my cottage, grating fresh ginger and waving at the guards and remaining staff from a safe distance.

Being a digital creator whose side gig had just become my main income (before being put on hold indefinitely), I’ve embraced the uncertainty and jumped into a routine of staying active, picking a book to read and a series to watch, meditating, creating every day, and maintaining gratitude for this enchanting place I’m essentially “stuck” in. Weekly morning trips to the central market for my fresh produce are calm, swifter and more intentional than my usual browse-y shopping. My plant-based kitchen adventures are getting bolder every day. After lamenting my dwindling skincare products and the lack of my favorite brands in this little town, I found aloe vera in the compound and made my own face toner and hair conditioner at the table where my fresh flowers sit. The night of the last full moon, after a little wine-induced post-dinner nap, I woke up at midnight to the most perfect, clear sky and took a dip in the pool, a few leaves and dead dragonflies be damned.

The only hint that things will go back to what they were 40 days ago is the guest information booklet I’m still working on for the hostel to print and place in each room. It will be ready for the brave first few who will leave their homes when they’re told they can. Until then, I’ll quietly float in the simple joy I’ve stumbled on and wish the best for those less fortunate than me today.