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Solo Female Traveler Creates Meaningful Experience On the Island of Zanzibar During Covid-19

On March 16th, just as the world was closing down because of Covid-19, my friend and fellow traveler, Julie Heinz, moved by herself to a remote island off the coast of East Africa called, Zanzibar.


As the rest of us hunkered down with friends and family to ride out the storm, Julie made the decision to embark on a new adventure with a non-profit halfway across the world. I was curious how things were going for Julie so far from the comforts of home. Did she feel safe? What were her health care options? Has there been a silver lining?

Please check out our interview with Julie to learn more about her adventures in Zanzibar and how she’s creating a meaningful, unique experience for herself during these trying times.

How did you end up on the island of Zanzibar?

It started in January when I began a Fellowship in rural Tilonia, India with the nonprofit Barefoot College. Over two months, I fell in love with, and constantly marveled over, the work of the organization and the breadth and depth of the services it offered to women locally and globally.

I also knew that when COVID-19 began to spread I wasn’t confident of my safety in overpopulated India. So, I began to explore options for travel to remote areas where I could work and have less exposure. The first week in March, as I began to zero in on what I wanted to do, Barefoot College’s, Executive Director reached out to request my help with a communications-related project in Zanzibar, Tanzania. I knew nowhere was completely safe from COVID-19, so after lots of discussion with family and friends, I accepted her offer and am still here today.

You’re a single female alone on a remote island while this is going down. Are you scared? If yes, then why? If no, then why?

This is so true and it’s something I try not to think about too much. I’m literally on the other side of the world from the majority of my family and friends, in a developing country during COVID-19 - hello!

I have lived abroad before so this feeling of separation is not completely new, but the COVID-19 and the third world aspects definitely put a scary spin on it. I miss my family and friends and check in with family regularly to be sure all is okay.

Although I miss, and worry about, my friends and family, and wish I were closer, I am doing OK. My Barefoot College family has been incredibly supportive, and I’ve been extending myself to meet locals and connect with expats because that’s just part of what you do when you travel alone, build a community for yourself, which is the best part about traveling.

Lastly, I’ve reconnected with friends from the US who live on the mainland in Tanzania and in Kenya and together we’re watching the evolution of the virus unfold.

How has Zanzibar been handling the coronavirus?

Pretty steadily. It’s been a very slow spread here - poli, poli as they say (slow, slow). A week after I arrived COVID-19 began to peak in Europe. As a hot European tourism destination, Zanzibar began closing hotels and restaurants and discontinued all but two inbound flights a week. If anyone wanted to travel here they would have to quarantine, at their own cost, for two weeks before they were allowed to enjoy the island. This drove many tourists away, which helped prevent (and slow) the spread tremendously.

Beyond that, the government began releasing numbers to the public on a weekly basis, also circulating educational info about the virus, encouraging hand washing, social distancing, and the wearing of face masks.

What are your health care options in Zanzibar? Is there a clinic anywhere?

As anyone can imagine, the health care options are not ideal here, but basic treatment is available. There is a clinic in Matemwe, where I live, and two larger hospitals, public and private, are available in Stones Town, the main city about 45 min away.

Are you scared of contracting the virus? If so, why?

I am/was scared of contracting the virus for a few reasons.

First, coming from India, where people were taking the virus very seriously, it was scary to arrive in Zanzibar where the locals had a more relaxed approach. I’ve learned this country experiences many “rumors” about viruses, etc, making it more difficult for people to take almost any illness seriously.

Second, what I have come to learn is death is normal here. The house manager here attends probably two funerals a week due to different causes. They’ve experienced HIV/AIDS, cholera, yellow fever, malaria, etc. so infectious disease isn’t so novel.

Third, the local village lifestyle doesn’t allow for social distancing. This is what terrified me. What comforted me was the rural place I was located in is far from town. With no car (many can’t afford one) it can take 2-3 hours to reach town using public transport. This has comforted me the most.

Can you please describe your typical day during the shutdown? Do you have any routines or rituals that help you get through the day? Who do you see and talk to?

Most daily rituals include waking up for a beach run and then meditating, WhatApp conversations and zoom calls with colleagues, family and friends and signing off with some yoga and reading. The staff where I live, locals from a nearby village, are wonderful. They are super thoughtful and are helping me learn Swahili. If ever I feel overwhelmed, I just walk out to the beach and take it all in. The beauty of this place grounds me.

Would you be able to return to the United States now if you wanted to or if you got sick? If not, what does that feel like?

When I arrived I notified the embassy, so I’ve been receiving their regular email updates on numbers, and repatriation flights. Two flights to the US have been scheduled (at $2600 each!), with two+ flights to Europe. So I haven’t felt completely helpless - if I needed to return or at least leave the country I could.

Have there been any positives from all of this? What have you learned?

I never expected to be in Tanzania right now and because of this, actually think the positives outweigh the negatives. Spending almost six months in a developing country has grounded me and taught me to appreciate the small things. Add COVID19 and that is multiplied.

First, I’ve learned that risk can pay off. Initially it didn’t feel right to pack up and go home when believing I'm safe and there is a sliver of opportunity to improve myself and take part in a life-changing experience living in Tanzania. I felt that little bit of risk might open up unexpected doors, which it has. Strangely, I don’t know if I would have be any safer in the U.S.!

I’ve also learned to let go a lot more, to expect the unexpected and roll with it. That even in the wildest of times, there’s probably a method to the madness meant to make us stop and listen. (I honestly feel COVID19 was a message from mother nature to all of us to do that.)

And after living a life of go, go, go this forced me to stop and reflect, and maybe pick up some Swahili along the way. It’s taught me there is no reason to fight the things we can’t control; that we should just surrender and do what we can to make the most of the situation we are in, appreciate it, and see where the opportunities are for growth.

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