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I’m off to Bali! It’s like the pandemic never happened. Except it did – and it hurt us all differently

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/08/2022 Brigid Delaney
Photograph: Made Nagi/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Made Nagi/EPA

I’m going overseas! Finally!! After two-and-a-half years of staying put, it’s time to travel again. OK, I’m just going across the metaphorical road to Bali, but still, I’m leaving the fortress.

The international departures terminal is empty except for the check-in queue for Denpasar, which is dense and slow moving, like trying to digest a bowl of bircher.

I take my spot down the end and set to work on practical matters. A friend has told me I need an international vaccine certificate, so I download the Indonesian app. Some of it’s in Bahasa Indonesia and is hard to understand. It’s got a low rating on the App Store. I’m not surprised given how clunky it is!

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I try to upload my vaccine certificate but it’s not linking so I upload a screenshot and spend the next 30 minutes typing in my details. I show the men waiting behind me the Indonesian app. “You need to download this, upload your vax certificate and fill out all the fields.”

Hours pass. By the time the three of us get to the front, the plane is ready to board.

But where are our international vaccine certificates? We show them our Indonesian apps.

“No, not those!” the airline staff say. “You need the one attached to your Medicare app.”

The men throw me a murderous look.

“Sorry!” I say.

The check-in clerk has to take my phone and manually download the Medicare app but I’ve got less than 10% battery and can’t remember my password.

Meanwhile the men are freaking out at their own counters. “But I’ve had four vaccines!” one man is saying.

The clock is ticking. Download complete.

“Run!” says the clerk.


My bag is scanned and then gets pulled off for checking. No!!!!!

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Any liquids, ma’am?

Any liquids? No! Do they think I’ve never flown? Do they think I’m some amateur? Do they think I’m not match fit?

The man in gloves is unpacking my things. Then he finds it and holds it aloft. A can of cold brew coffee. What’s that doing in there? Why did I pack cold brew?

“I’m sorry. We’ll need to throw this out.”

Fine! Fine!

My back is clicking. I am coughing. No! I am running. I am late. I am travelling! I jog along a stationary travelator, breathing hard like a hag. I’m back baby!!


There is a different atmosphere on the plane from usual. People are being nice, kind. They are helping each other stow bags, swapping seats so friends can sit together, showing strangers photos of where they are going. A young hostie lends his charger to a group of passengers, and at the end of the flight they are all swapping numbers, arranging to meet up in Uluwatu.

People are going on holidays – maybe for the first time in years – and this is the trip they fantasised about, the elixir to get them through the long lockdowns, the dream that is now real.


We get in late and the air is warm and smells of exhaust fumes and flowers on the turn. My driver talks about a big, once-every-25-years ceremony that’s going all week. We pass temples, with people spilling out on the roads; people on motorbikes, the men in white and gold suits and the women in long dresses belted with a wide sash. In the dark, going down familiar roads, it’s like the pandemic never happened. But of course it did.


I ask some Balinese I meet how they spent the past two years.

Wayan has worked in tourism for three decades – he works in an area near the oval at Ubud. He can do a great Australian accent. He spent the pandemic working on infrastructure projects, which he says was hard on his body. Decades of driving people to the airport had not prepared him for manual labour.

Wayan’s brother Made worked on a chicken farm and had to sleep outside with the chickens and hated every minute of it. Then the price of chicken feed went up and the owner went bust and he got a job building a road just out of Denpasar. Both jobs paid just enough for food.

Ketut is a third generation tourism worker, and when visitors stopped coming to Bali in March 2020 he had to decide whether or not to go ahead with his wedding. His family needed the money for food, so he used his wedding savings to tide four people over for the indefinite future. In the end he had a small wedding but had to borrow money from his village’s money lender, which he still owes but is not making enough to repay.


I get home and speak to a friend who once lived in Bali. She says she wishes she had been a Balinese person during the pandemic: “They have religion and family. They look after each other. We just have the government. You get your $750 a week. You won’t starve, but you don’t have the other safety nets – family, community, ritual, belief.”

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Many Balinese were struggling on an existential level during Covid. Starvation was a very real possibility for some. I didn’t know if it was really possible to compare the situations of both countries. I flipped the question for an uncomfortable moment. If a Balinese person had asked a random collection of Australians how they fared in the pandemic maybe they would have found a different type of bleakness: a surge in demand for mental health services, people drinking too much and without the positive counterbalance of socialising, a sharp increase in loneliness, the quiet desperation and blur of Zoom meetings, closed playgrounds, 11am press conferences, businesses broken, and not knowing when it would end.

The whole world suffered over the past two years, but what’s incredible is how different and specific each country’s experience and suffering, and furthermore each person’s experience, was to them.

Each person’s suffering is unique and terrible – both understood and yet not understood by others.

Milan Kundera wrote in Immortality that suffering is the most specific thing a person experiences – more specific than thought.

“The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and non-interchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.”

  • Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist


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