Updated: Apr 18
This is a guest post courtesy of Todd.
It goes without question that we are experiencing an extraordinary time, where recent unprecedented events set us in various ways upon a course that was unthinkable a mere two months ago. For many of us, this meant weeks watching the latest developments unfold as our social circles became more virtual, our lives became more insular and our toilet paper became more valuable. For me, my time in the age of COVID began much like anyone else’s; over time, it went in a direction that I can only describe as unique.
As many of you know, I am a pilot and my work assignments find me traveling and spending time in some rather unusual places. As part of my assignment, I was to pick up a plane from the United States and fly it to Djibouti, where I was to spend the next several weeks performing some contract work. Since I was to head directly from Africa back to the US to run the Boston Marathon (where I was hoping to finally get my sixth WMM star in the process) once this contract period was over, my suitcase was packed with both warm and cold weather clothes and my hot and cold running kits were ready to go.
The other WMM medals on top of an unused Boston jacket. Perfect for those 35 degree days!
The trip came just as the US and UK governments began imposing some preliminary travel restrictions and increased checks on those arriving from overseas. Despite this, I had zero delays getting in the country and, aside from notably reduced crowds in both Heathrow and Dulles (Washington, DC), things appeared surprisingly normal. The trip across the Atlantic and the stopover in Germany were also uneventful, with the beer and spätzle being as tasty as I remembered. Our arrival in Africa was awesome, with spectacular views of Europe, Egypt and Sudan accompanying us along the way. Once we arrived and got settled, the routine of work and life set in. Near our villa, a production crew from India was filming a movie and, aside from the occasional swarm of locusts, life remained fairly predictable.
The country of Djibouti (and its only real city, also named Djibouti) is a very tiny nation that sits in a corner on the coast on the Horn of Africa, nestled in between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Despite its size, it occupies a very important strategic point in the world’s shipping lanes and therefore contains a very large multinational presence. Like any city, there are places in Djibouti that are safe and some that are not-so-safe. Fortunately, our area was near the embassy district and was about as safe as one could find. This allowed me to avoid the treadmill and keep my marathon training up by running along the local roads. Given that the temperatures often exceed 30 degrees by 0900 and the air is always humid, my training was relegated to predawn and generally my only company was a history podcast over the headphones, few early risers and the occasional stray dog.
Sunrise somewhere over east Africa. My wingtip is in the left side of the picture.
Training aside, life in Djibouti appeared to be initially unaffected by the virus. The grocery and retail stores were open, the restaurants were serving and the drive to work was the usual chaotic mass of trucks, pedestrians, scooters, goats and the occasional camel. Once the first case was discovered, however, things changed rapidly. The doctors offices and pharmacies were the first to require masks and distancing measures. The stores soon followed suit soon and, while the supply chain appeared to be intact, before long certain items became scarce. The restaurants closed altogether. Around this time, my scheduled marathons in Boston and Edinburgh were postponed by the organisers and rescheduled for autumn. Despite this, I decided to keep training but kept my runs to the area immediately surrounding my house to minimise exposure.
The author, pre-lockdown and pre-beard
The local governments’ measures were rapidly implemented, but their effectiveness was uncertain since widespread testing was not available. Djibouti is a poor country and most of the population is concentrated within the city, with many of the poorer people living in tightly packed slums. Multiple refugee camps are spaced throughout the country. This concentration of people and the obvious associated potential spread became a concern for everyone and to mitigate the spread and further introduction of more cases, the government closed the airport to all incoming and outgoing commercial traffic in late March. Only cargo flights were allowed. At this point, whoever was in Djibouti was to expect to remain in Djibouti until the airfield reopened. Obviously, this included me.
Over the next couple of weeks, the number of cases continued to rise and the government implemented further control measures. At certain crossroads, armed checkpoints began checking drivers and some of the more crowded streets were cleared and blocked off. Our travel was restricted to work and home only and, in between flash floods and intestinal adventures, my runs became increasingly limited. I rigged some cargo straps to serve as a suspension training system to maintain some sense of fitness and, since no means of getting a haircut exists, began trying to grow a beard and seeing what my hair would do once it passed the usual close-cropped length. I think it’s awful and that I look like a grey tennis ball, but my wife Nili and my dog Ziggy didn’t seem too disgusted by my appearance in our video chats. So I have that going for me.
The dog that follows me everywhere
As of now, I really have no idea on when I am going to be able to get home. The airport closure was extended a couple of times and the effective dates, as is the case with everything else, are subject to change. Obviously I would much rather be back home in London sharing my quarantine with my lovely wife and dog and virtually running with all of you, but I know that we are all being affected and that many, many people out there have it worse. The best we can do is remain positive, help them however we can and look out for each other. As events continue to unfold, what was once extraordinary became normalised and what was once normal became extraordinary. As an example, the Indian film crew is still here and, even though they’re not filming, are reclaiming normalcy by playing pickup games of cricket in the street when able. I go outside and watch them play, but I still don’t understand the game whatsoever. We wave and exchange pleasantries. The dogs still follow me around. My facial hair is still unsure whether or not it wants to do something productive. Nili and Ziggy are still in our flat in London, battling for dominance. We’re continuing to be careful and will be taking things as they come. I look forward to seeing and sharing a pint with all of you again in the arch, having post-race victory lunches, curry and quiz nights in person and to seeing Tim, Kerry and little Thea continue the club’s success.
Until then, stay safe my friends. Again, take care of yourselves and each other. See you on the other side!