Olivia and Raul De Freitas are currently on their honeymoon at a five-star resort in the Maldives, a nation made up of more than a thousand tiny, idyllic islands in the Indian Ocean, like a trail of shattered crystals scattered across a slab of blue glass. For years, the subject of the fantastical photo has spread through glossy magazines, featuring luxury overwater bungalows, in unreal aquamarine water, it was an obvious choice for their romantic getaway.
The couple arrived just married from South Africa, of which they are citizens, on Sunday March 22, planning to stay for six days. For a 27-year-old teacher and a 28-year-old butcher, the party “was an extravagance”, Ms De Freitas said. But since they hadn’t lived together before exchanging their vows, it would be a short, firecracker to launch their marriage.
Still, they had some concerns about the trip, given the editing travel restrictions imposed in the light of the new coronavirus epidemic around the world. But nothing specific that would affect them had been announced, and their travel agent assured them that, whatever the policy ahead, all South African citizens would be allowed to return home. Go and have a good time, they were told.
On Wednesday, they were advised that their country’s airports would all be closed at midnight on Thursday. Return flights to South Africa take five hours to Doha, Qatar, a three-hour layover, then nine hours to Johannesburg – so even though they rushed and could catch a flight, the complexity of leaving their remote island assured them I would never make it home in time.
While much of the world quickly came to a halt, the few other guests still at the station last week fled to their respective countries. The last to leave, the Americans, had to fight over permission to fly to Russia before returning to the United States.
The couple considered taking the 1.5-hour speedboat trip to the main island and trying their luck at the airport. But the Maldives had also announced its own lockdown around the same time, banning all new foreign travellers. If they left the complex, they might not be allowed to return. So they stayed.
Mr De Freitas, described by his wife as calm, took the strange turn of events in stride. Everything was going to work out and, besides, they were in heaven. Mrs. De Freitas, naturally, shared some of her husband’s joy, but sensed a Kafka-like logistical nightmare was about to ensue.
They contacted the South African Consulate in the Maldives and the nearest South African Embassy in Sri Lanka for assistance. A representative told them, via WhatsApp, that there were around 40 other South Africans spread across the Maldives, and their option to return would be to hire a chartered jet, at their own expense, for $104,000.
Anyone could share the cost, the message noted, but the government had only contacted about half of the 40 people; of these 20, many were unable or refused to pay. The fewer people on board, the more expensive each share would become. However, after several days of discussions between South African officials and the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the flight has still not been approved.
On Sunday, they were the only guests at their resort, the Cinnamon Velifushi Maldives, which is normally at full capacity at this time of year, accommodating some 180 people. (“Room rates start at $750 a night,” its website further states.) The resort embraces all of its island grit. There is nowhere to go. The couple reign as benevolent but captive sovereigns on their islet. The days are long and lazy. They sleep, dive, lounge by the pool, rehearse.
The entire resort team is there, due to the presence of the two guests. Government regulations will not allow any Maldivian to leave the resorts until they have been quarantined after their last customers have left. Accustomed to the unfolding of a hectic working day and engagement with a house full of guests, most of the staff, having become apathetic and lonely, adore the couple endlessly. Their “room attendant” watches over them five times a day. The catering team prepared an elaborate candlelit dinner for them on the beach. Every evening, artists still offer them a show at the restaurant of the complex: two spectators alone in a large dining room.
At breakfast, nine waiters stroll around their table. Hostesses, busses and assorted chefs move ostensibly, like commoners near a celebrity. The couple have a designated server, but others still come to chat over meals, refilling water glasses after each sip, offering drinks even as overflowing cocktail glasses are in plain sight, sweaty. The diving instructor begs them to go snorkeling every time they come across him.
There is something hopeless, even unsettling, about wandering through an empty space that is meant to be full. Lying alone, amid the silent, abandoned bank of beach chairs, the equatorial sun glistens from the sea to the horizon, browning skin and whitening driftwood. “We started playing a lot of table tennis and snooker,” Ms De Freitas said. Mr. De Freitas has also become accustomed to participating in staff football matches in the afternoon.
Somewhere, beyond it all, the world is teetering. After a early panic and local quarantine around a sick tourist, there have been less than two dozen reported total cases of novel coronavirus on the Maldivian islands; the majority of those diagnosed have already recovered.
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More recently, they had heard that flight clearances were supposed to be cleared by Monday, April 6. It was an extension of April 1, so those dates just seem to be penciled in optimistically. Never mind: the final wrinkle, they were told, is that the Maldivian airline crew assigned to the charter won’t be flying anyway, needing to rest for a day before their flight back to the Maldives. . But the South African government said if they disembarked they would be quarantined there for 14 days. He is, apparently, a deal breaker. And a flight from their country of origin is not offered as an option.
The lockdown in South Africa is supposed to last until April 16. But, like everywhere, the decrees on travel and movement are constantly changing.
“It’s amazing that we have this extra time,” Ms De Freitas said. But the financial balance sheet weighs heavily on them. Although the couple paid a generously reduced rate, the bill keeps getting heavier. Each passing day is a chip taken out of their savings that had been set aside for a down payment on the house.
To their endless honeymoon debt they can add the unknown price of two tickets on what could be an almost vacant 200-seat jet. “Everyone says they want to be stuck on a tropical island, until you’re actually stuck,” Ms De Freitas said. “It only sounds good because you know you can leave.”
On Sunday, April 5, according to the couple, they received an hour’s notice from the embassy, communicating via WhatsApp, to pack their bags. After saying goodbye and giving thanks, they were taken by speedboat to another five-star resort, where South Africans from the Maldives, about two dozen in all, are herded together. The local government told them it would subsidize much of the cost of their stay.
Their homecoming date? Still unknown.
As for the staff at their original hotel, they were told they had to stay for two weeks after the guest left. According to the hotel management, they were and still are paid.
Editor’s Note: After publication, this article was updated to reflect the new terms.