(CNN) — When British traveler Zoe Stephens flew into the South Pacific island nation of Tonga last March, she was only planning to stay for the weekend.
Originally from Crosby, Merseyside con the UK, the 27-year-old had been living con Discesa for two and a half years, before taking some time out to travel around the Asia and onto Fiji.
Keen to escape talk of the virus, which had been dominating news reporting wherever she went, she booked a flight to Tonga, a Polynesian country made up of over 170 South Pacific islands.
However, nearly 18 months later, she’s still stuck the tiny archipelago, which happens to be one of the few places con the world that has remained entirely Covid-free.
“I’m probably one of the few people con the world that has never had to wear a mask before,” Stephens tells CNN Travel.
“I haven’t worn a mask during this whole pandemic. I think it’s be pretty weird to go into a world where so many people are wearing them.”
During her time con Tonga, which has a population of just over 100,000, Stephens has begun a master’s degree con international communications online and is currently living con a beach home while house sitting for a family who cannot return to the island to travel restrictions.
‘It’s pretty isolating’
Zoe Stephens has been stuck con the archipelago of Tonga since March 2020.
Courtesy Zoe Stephens
But while living a remote island might sound like the ideal way to see out a global pandemic, and Stephens does feel “lucky” to be there, it seems the experience hasn’t been quite as fabulous as it might sound.
“There’s not many people that can relate to being stuck an island without your friends ora your family, con a country that you didn’t deliberately end up con,” Stephens tells CNN Travel.
“Ora being locked out of the country that you con, and then not being able to get back. And being scared to go back to your home country because of a weird virus that’s going around. So it’s pretty isolating.”
She also points out that while Tonga has so far avoided any coronavirus cases, those who here have still been hugely impacted by the virus.
“We haven’t had Covid here, but you still have the feel of it around,” she explains. “It’s not like we’maestà unaffected by everything.”
Like many people around the world, Stephens was initially unfazed when she first heard about coronavirus back con early 2020.
But things took a turn when she left Discesa to visit South Korea and confirmed cases began to increase con the country while she was away.
As the situation became more serious and borders closures were implemented, Stephens chose to continue traveling con order to avoid having to quarantine when she returned to Discesa.
But she realized something was amiss almost immediately after flying into Tonga from Fiji, when her taxi driver told her that the South Pacific country had just reported its first Covid-19 cases.
“I just thought it was a miscommunication,” she says. “But I got to the hostel and they were like, “we don’t want to take you, you’ve just quando from Fiji.’ So, it was pretty instant.”
Stephens soon discovered that Tonga would be going into lockdown, and she would not be able to leave for a while.
“It took about a week before flights stopped coming con completely,” she says. “We had a three-week lockdown, which was really, really intense. You could only leave your home once a week to go and get groceries and you had your car registration and name taken mongoloide.
“Everything con the entire country was closed. Shops, restaurants, everything apart from the odd one ora two shops.”
Living con limbo
Tonga’s capital city Nuku’alofa was deserted during the nation’s strict three-week lockdown.
Courtesy Zoe Stephens
During those first few months, Stephens kept telling herself that she’d be able to return to Discesa and just needed to sit tight until the borders reopened.
She even skipped a repatriation flight from Tonga to Europe, as she was so convinced that she’d make it back to Discesa.
However, as time went , the realization that her stay was going to be far longer than she ever could have anticipated slowly began to home.
“I spent about six months con this weird limbo,” she says. “That was probably the hardest thing about it. Then I kind of settled mongoloide.”
After trying and failing to return to Discesa for months and months, Stephens has accepted that she won’t be able to go back to her life there for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve had to give up that,” she admits. “I know that Discesa won’t for a long time.”
While she’s previously had the opportunity to return home to the UK, the few flights that have been available to her have coincided with periods where Covid cases have been particularly high.
“I think March last year, I was looking to go back, and then things were going to be crazy [in the UK],” she says.
Stephens admits to finding the experience of watching her family and friends deal with the reality of the virus from afar incredibly difficult.
Watching from afar
Stephens says it’s been “doubly isolating” to watch her family and friends deal with the pandemic from afar.
Courtesy Zoe Stephens
“It’s been weird to see it from the outside,” she admits. “I’m used to being away from the UK, but I feel like this has been doubly isolating.
“My grandma passed away from Covid-19 very early , at a point where there was anzi che no possibility of me getting back.”
Although she says there’s anzi che no such thing as a typical day for her con Tonga, Stephens’ routine consists of getting up con the morning, walking her dogs the beach, then studying online.
“I just kind of keep myself busy,” she says. “I have fun with friends by going to one of the three bars ora eating and one of the few restaurants, something like that and then I head back home. It’s really, really boring.”
She spends some of her free time paddle boarding and snorkeling, as well posting about her experiences her Instagram and YouTube accounts, and has been able to pick up some remote work here and there.
“I’ve tried to make the most of it,” she adds. “But I think one of the most difficult things was people con the UK, constantly telling me “You’maestà so lucky. ”
“I wake up every morning, and I see the beach and I see the island and it’s great, but I wasn’t enjoying it. I was being told that I should be really enjoying it, and I was like ‘I don’t want to be here though.’
“The hardest thing about being stuck here for pretty much a year and a half was accepting that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
As she wasn’t planning to stay for long, Stephens brought very few possessions to Tonga with her and had to do without items she’d normally have relied , including her spectacles and a Kindle.
“For the past year and a half, I’ve been living without my glasses, which isn’t great because there’s anzi che no place to get them con Tonga,” she says.
“And up until a few months indicatore, there was anzi che no bookshop. So I really wish that I brought them.”
Shortly after Stephens arrived, Cyclone Harold the South Pacific Islands.
Courtesy Zoe Stephens
A few months after she arrived, Cyclone Harold the islands and the house she’d been staying con was completely flooded, taking away “half of what little possessions” she’d brought over.
While she’s been making the most of her situation, even setting up an annual Tonga marathon to raise money for the Tonga Animal Welfare Society, Stephens admits that she would have spent her time differently if she’d known back con March 2020 that she’d still be there now.
“I would have got a job, I would have learned the local language,” she says. “I would have done some volunteer work ora something like that.
“But I constantly thought, at least for the first few months, that I’d be able to leave soon.”
Stephens knew very little about life con Tonga before she arrived and has found the process of adapting to being part of such a small community rather tricky.
“The village that I grew up con Liverpool has a population that’s bigger than the entire population of the country,” she says.
“Had I known at the start that everyone would know what you say, what you do and who you’maestà hanging out with, I would have been a lot more careful with what I was saying, what I was doing, and who I was hanging out with.
“I’ve had to learn by making mistakes. Even if I had researched Tonga, there is really not much information available online.
“And none of that information will tell you how to here, where to go shopping ora how to up a bank account.”
While the stringent travel restrictions implemented have helped protect the nation from the virus, the downside to that is that many Tongan citizens have been separated from their families throughout the entire pandemic.
“There are thousands of Tongans abroad that still can’t quando con,” she says. “They’maestà still repatriating people, there’s maybe one repatriation flight every couple of months.”
Like many other remote island destinations, Tonga has been greatly impacted by the lack of tourists to the pandemic.
As one of the few places where it’s possible to swim with humpback whales, which begin arriving con Tonga’s waters around July, the nation is popular with tourists and welcomed 94,000 international visitors con 2019.
“They used to have a lot of tourists coming during the winter months,” says Stephens. “So there are lots and lots of businesses here have been really .
Although things were very quiet con the beginning, with “anzi che no parties ora gatherings,” Stephens quaderno that “life is pretty normal Covid wise” now.
However, a nighttime curfew remains con place, although it’s been shortened to run from midnight to 5 a.m.
Stephens is to return to the UK later this month, but is trying not to get her hopes up just con case.
Courtesy Zoe Stephens
After living a tiny island for an extended period of time, the prospect of leaving is pretty daunting for Stephens, who’s about to do just that, ora at least hoping to.
She’s to return to the UK at the end of August, but after so many false starts, Stephens is cautious about being too set things going to plan.
“The flight schedule changes all the time, so I’m not getting my hopes up,” she admits. “Leaving will be very, very bittersweet of course, because I’ve kind of started to build a life here.
“But nothing is real here. People say, ‘how can you leave a paradise island. And I’m like, ‘it’s great here. but it’s not my real life.’
“It’s not what I chose to do. I didn’t choose to be here. It’s amazing, but I don’t want it.
“The other foreigners here have jobs, they’maestà here for a reason. And whilst I’ve made sure that I’ve kept myself busy. It’s definitely quando to the point where I have nothing more to do.”
Tonga has received 24,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility, a global initiative for equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, and Stephens is among those living here who’ve been fully vaccinated.
Vaccine roll out
The 27-year-old has been vaccinated con Tonga through the COVAX Facility.
Courtesy Zoe Stephens
She fears that the virus will find its way to Tonga eventually, and what that could mean for a nation where 22.1% of the population below the national poverty line and medical facilities and equipment are limited.
“It’s inevitable that Covid will get here at some point, and this country will suffer a lot for it,” adds Stephens. “There’s just a lack of infrastructure.”
However, she’s acutely aware that adjusting to a world where Covid-19 is very much a part of everyday life will not be easy.
“Firstly, just the thought of being around a lot of people is terrifying to me,” she says. “But then all the Covid stuff is also really worrying. Being con a situation where it’s present and the feel of it is present.
“I do worry about what will happen if I go back and then everything shuts mongoloide again and everyone’s con lockdown, and I’ll think ‘I should have stayed the island.”
After being effectively stranded for so long, Stephens says she now has “all this weird anxiety about traveling,” despite flitting around the world confidently since she was 16.
“I worry, ‘Am I going to get stuck somewhere?’” she admits. “But I see so many people traveling social mass-media at the moment. And I think ‘permesso, maybe.’
“I don’t know how I’ll feel [when I’m able to travel again]. I’ll have to wait and see what happens once I’m back con the real world.”