Over the past month I’ve been conditioned to have a pen in one hand and a beer in the other anytime I’m talking on zoom. However, last week I had a call of a different kind. Instead of shouting over the drunken slurs of friends attempting to confirm which year Dustin The Turkey entered Eurovision, I found myself trying to distinguish the words of Belfast rapper and DJ Dena Anuk$a. This time there were no inaudible quiz answers to talk over, but rather a shaky internet connection and some repetitive thudding noises.
“It’s some of the staff playing volleyball outside, they do it everyday”, she groaned.
Dena has been on a private island in the Maldives since January, working as a DJ at an exclusive resort and as you may have guessed, the current pandemic has her firmly planted there for the foreseeable future. She is also a neighbour of mine and before departing she told me about receiving a mysterious DM and being invited to work on a luxurious resort. As I tried and failed to remember the full story as to how she arrived out there, she rolled her eyes at me and laughed.
“Oh my god that sounds like my sugar daddy flew me out here.”
Correcting me she continued, “This company messaged me a year ago and saw that I was a DJ and they worked with female DJs and they were interested in bringing me over to the Maldives. I didn’t really believe it was a real thing because it sounds very shady… after the first few messages we then lost communication for like a year.”
“Then the director of the company emailed me again and was like ‘would you be interested in going to the Maldives in January for three months, going to an island resort and DJing there?’ I was cautious, but it did turn out to be real and it was really chill for the first while until Corona happened. Then obviously there were less guests coming in and I had to stop DJing because the resort was losing money. That’s why I stopped DJing and I’ve just been chilling for the last few weeks.”
If it wasn’t crazy enough already that she got booked for a sweet gig in a remote paradise, then getting locked down on the island because of an unprecedented pandemic would surely tick the last box for any post-crisis, Hollywood film.
Like most people, Dena overlooked the seriousness of the situation when she first heard of the virus spreading in distant China. But when staff members began leaving in droves and guests flocked to the mainland to catch flights home, she quickly realised it was no laughing matter.
“Usually this resort has 200 guests, but right now there are six. A lot of the staff have gone. Right now there are about 80 staff left and a lot of them can’t go home because the airports in their home countries are closed. So they might be stuck here for 5 months, they don’t know.”
“Also we can’t leave the island, when we were told that, that was the turning point for me”, she said.
“One week ago they stopped the lock down and some of the staff went to the city to pick up some stuff because we hardly have any supplies here. We don’t have face washes, shampoos and the shop here doesn’t have a great selection either. So anyway a bunch of people went to Malé [On the mainland] and literally the next day they put the lock down back and everyone that went and came back had to go into quarantine, so they’ve had to stay in their rooms for two weeks”.
It’s a strange position to be in, but there are benefits beyond the natural beauty of the resort. Because no one is allowed on or off the island, the transmission of COVID-19 has been all but nullified, with an on site nurse testing all residents everyday for the virus. It’s a safe space to be in with social distancing not necessary due to the unique circumstances.
While being restricted to the clear waters and white sand of the island doesn’t sound too shabby, Dena raised her voice over the cheers of the winning side in volleyball to remind me about the financial hit the remaining guests are taking. One family that arrived six weeks ago are unable to return home to Dubai because all its airports are closed. Additionally they are continuing to pay for their time on the luxury island, albeit at a reduced rate.
While UK airports remain open, Dena’s chances at returning home to Belfast any time soon are looking increasingly bleak.
“With the flights this is another thing that is really shitty, a lot of companies are taking advantage of the situation,” she told me.
“For example Qatar Airways have raised their prices. A flight should be around $800 normally to get home, but at the moment it’s about three grand. It’s around $700 to add a bag and I came here with three bags.”
“I was looking at some flights yesterday and the first flight that seems reasonable enough was the May 3 so my agency was sending it to me for the resort to book because the rest of the flights had 20 hour layovers in airports and ridiculous prices. But I just heard today that all BA and Qatar Airways flights have been cancelled so that one that was showing up on May 3 is actually not available, so I have no idea when I’m going to be able to get back… Hopefully some time in May, but I’m pretty sure it’s not happening.”
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Things to do today 1. Have a drink 2. Get waved 3. Listen to my new afrobeat mix in my bio A post shared by Dena Anuk$a دينا (@denaanuksa) on
So for the moment, Dena is stuck on the island.
She’s level-headed though and recognises that obviously the conditions are better than being stuck in her small apartment in Belfast: She gets tested everyday; she can socialise with those on the island and is surrounded by natural beauty.
It’s without a doubt a more pleasant everyday experience.
However, the human mind works in weird ways and despite her current predicament she understandably still worries about her family – who are thousands of miles away.
With no return date in sight and some residual guilt weighing on her conscious about her unlikely situation, it is testing her resilience and putting a squeeze on her mental health.
“I definitely feel a bit disconnected and worried for my family. I have no idea how it feels to be locked down in the UK or Ireland right now, but can only imagine how frustrating/ isolating it must be. It’s a bit of a mind fuck to even process being on an island in the middle of nowhere while all of this is going on, and overwhelming to know the place I’m returning to won’t be the same for a long time.”
“I think everyone is in the same position and everyone is just trying to stay positive, it’s alright you just have to make the best out of the situation. There’s a nice group of people here but we do get bored, especially after not working for three weeks. We do have staff parties, there’s a movie night, karaoke night and a games room,” she explained.
“But I can’t really complain because I know I’m in a better position than most people are right now.”
Amid all the uncertainty and conflicting feelings over her bizarre situation Dena reflected on her first few weeks on the island, before the pandemic hit, where she decided to focus on herself to help her transition into working life there. With her actions feeling strangely prophetic, she’s thankful she took time for self-care.
“It’s weird because the first two months I was here it wasn’t so serious, but I was almost self-isolating, reading a lot of books practicing self-care and just kind of trying to keep a positive mindset so I think I prepared myself in a way for this.”
“It feels suffocating at times because there’s only so much you can do and it gets a little repetitive, but I always remind myself that I’m so blessed to be here right now.”
With rain clouds approaching and the scores settled in the volleyball game Dena took a moment to contextualise everything. She’d earned her first festival slot as a solo performer this year at the recently cancelled festival Forbidden Fruit and had numerous plans as head of the Belfast branch of female collective Gxrlcode scrapped amid the virus. But rather than complaining she was seeing it as an opportunity for growth.
“It’s a test of how you can deal with bad situations if you can get through something like this you going to be able to face a lot more in the future.”
Turning to the immediate future, she knew it was unlikely much was changing anytime soon, reconciling with the idea that she is safer staying put.
“I’ve been trying to contact the British Embassy to see if they send mercy flights, but there’s not enough people here so I don’t think they’ll do it. The Maldives is just not a priority for them.”
“For now I definitely think I’ll be safer here so I’ll stick it out for a bit longer.”