'Stuck in paradise': Woman on weekend getaway ends up stranded for 18 months

·4-min read

It's difficult to imagine a life without coronavirus, lockdowns and face masks - but one woman from the UK has just experienced the pandemic for the first time after a weekend getaway last March left her stranded abroad for a year-and-a-half. 

Zoe Stephens, 27, originally from the UK, went to Tonga for a weekend while living and working in Beijing.

When the world went into lockdown due to the spread of Covid-19, she was essentially stuck in Tonga, which still hasn't had any cases of Covid-19 during the pandemic.

"I'm probably one of the few people in the world that has never had to wear a mask before," Ms Stephens told CNN Travel in April this year.

"I haven't worn a mask during this whole pandemic. I think it's gonna be pretty weird to go into a world where so many people are wearing them."

Zoe Stephens was stuck in Tonga since March 2020, unable to return home. Source: Instagram/tongadiaries
Zoe Stephens was stuck in Tonga since March 2020, unable to return home. Source: Instagram/tongadiaries

She flew into Tonga from Fiji at the start of last year, after the latter recorded its first Covid case.

Ms Stephens stayed through Tonga's three-week lockdown, telling CNN it was "pretty intense" and that people were only allowed to leave their home once a week to get groceries.

For the first few months, she was sure she would return to China. She told Forbes recently it took her about eight months to realise she was going to be stuck in Tonga for a while.

But she made the most of her time abroad, house-sitting for a family who could not return to Tonga during the pandemic and started her master's degree in communication remotely.

While she didn't have to worry about the virus circulating the community, like many, she did suffer a loss in the last year.

Tonga has not recorded a single Covid case since the start of the pandemic. Source: Getty Images, file
Tonga has not recorded a single Covid case since the start of the pandemic. Source: Getty Images/File

Her grandmother died of Covid-19 early on in the pandemic, when there was no chance of her getting back to the UK and at times she found her stay isolating, despite being used to being away from home. 

"Certainly, the idea of being stuck in paradise is certainly appealing — but I think in reality, no one wants to be 'stuck' anywhere," she told Forbes.

Ms Stephens said she gave back to the Tongan community while she was over there and she started a marathon and raised money for the Tonga Animal Welfare Society.

She also documented her life on Instagram and Youtube and is now writing a book about her experience.

Traveller experiences Covid restrictions for first time

Ms Stephens recently started her trip back to London, via New Zealand and South Korea.

She said on Instagram she is expected to land in London on Friday, but her journey back home has already brought about things those living with Covid are now used to.

"Mask and hazmats. It’s all finally hitting me," she wrote on Instagram. 

"1.5 years in Tonga; 1.5 years without Covid. Now to enter a pandemic for the first time."

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While her 18 months stranded in Tonga was tough at times, Ms Stephens told Forbes it taught her to "chill out, slow down and enjoy".

"Before I came to Tonga, I used to think spending a week in one country was a lot. My time was so precious I would count down my minutes and never give myself a spare second," she said.

"Now if I miss a day or two of work, a few days even...well, that’s just life. I think when I go back I'll probably take a part of this with me. But only to a certain extent. Life in the UK is different, and you can’t be spending days chilling out on a beach. 

"But that being said, having been able to sustain myself for a long period of time whilst not working a five-day week has definitely made me see things differently, and I know from now on I’ll always value time over money; I’d always rather work less and earn less.”

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