(CNN) — Australian dancer Ashleigh Perrie was thrilled to start working on board the MS Zaandam. The cruise ship was due to travel through Antarctica — past penguins and sea lions — and onward to South America, while Perrie spent her days doing what she loved: performing.
But in mid-March, the Covid-19 pandemic caught up with the Holland America vessel and the voyage took an unexpected turn.
After a 60-day stint stuck at sea enduring multiple quarantines, ship-wide lockdowns and outbreaks of coronavirus symptoms among hundreds of passengers and crew, Perrie finally disembarked in the Netherlands and made the long trip back to Australia, via air.
Back in her home city of Perth, Perrie was subject to another mandatory quarantine in a hotel room for two weeks, without any physical interaction with the outside world.
To keep her mind active and engaged during this strange time, Perrie decided to get creative.
Each day, the hotel staff delivered three daily meals in paper bags. Before long, she’d accumulated a stack of them, and an idea began to form.
Perrie would fashion outfits out of the paper bags.
“I am usually quite a creative person, I love doing art and I studied art for a bit — and obviously we have a lot to do with costuming and design within the theater industry and within the dance scene — so I do love making bits and pieces,” Perrie, now back home, tells CNN Travel.
“But I think just the paper bags that kept coming and coming were really the inspiration.”
First things first, Perrie needed to collect enough bags to put her intricate costumes together.
“The first design that popped into my head was a gown, I wanted something very extravagant, very formal, and as detailed as I could get with the items that I had,” she says.
“But the first one I actually ended up making was the tutu, in the end, the “Bag-erina” as I called it, because I needed the bags to stay in the form for that one and for a lot of the other costumes, I had to cut up the bags and use different shapes.”
Alongside the ballet costume, Perrie created a tennis-appropriate outfit that included a racket, tennis skirt and visor which she called “The Maria Paper-pova”, a catwalk-style getup she named “Queen Quarantina” and of course, the extravagant gown she’d first envisaged, dubbed “Origami Diva.”
She constructed the costumes using whatever she could get hold of — the paper bags, of course, plus napkins, biodegradable containers and disposable cutlery — and using just a pair of scissors, sticky tape and a roll of cotton. As the project came together, Perrie shared snaps of her creations and little snippets of video of the process with her mom and sister.
Quarantine, says Perrie, wasn’t easy, but this was a fun, creative and exciting distraction.
“It was tough after being at sea for so long, and obviously we already had done three quarantine periods on the ship,” she recalls.
“So then coming back and having to face another two-week quarantine and not being able to you know, finally hug your family and friends at the airport when you arrived was tough mentally, just thinking ‘Oh, it’s a bit of a disappointment coming home.'”
But Perrie said she also appreciated the time to herself to come to terms with the situation — and her artistic outlet made the time fly by.
“It was time to wind down, it was time just for me to chill out and look after myself after everything I’d been through,” she says.
Eye of the storm
The MS Zaandam was in the eye of the storm when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the cruise ship industry.
Symptoms spread, four guests on board the ship passed away, and others tested positive for the virus.
As ports closed their door to the Zaandam, Holland America deployed a second vessel, the Rotterdam, to offer relief and pick up healthy guests, but in the end both ships became infected.
Passengers eventually disembarked in Fort Lauderdale in Florida on April 2, but crew weren’t allowed to leave. Instead, Holland America had to sail workers back across the Atlantic to the Netherlands.
“It was definitely a very challenging experience on board,” says Perrie, who came down with Covid symptoms.
“The entire ship went into lockdown, the company handled it amazingly — it was a very difficult situation that no one has really got any experience in handling. Our captain was brilliant. They did everything they could as fast as they could to stop the spread and to make sure all the guests were kept safe.”
Perrie calls the experience “a real test of mental resilience.”
“We had a lot of faith in each other, on board. Obviously, you had to stick with your fellow crew and get each other through the crisis. It was tough, but it was a very, very character strengthening experience, I think.”
At the end of May, Perrie’s hotel quarantine ended and she finally reunited with her family.
Before she left the hotel room, Perrie filmed herself modeling each of her creations — and tried her best to pack some of them in her luggage.
She squeezed some in there, but she had to abandon the majority for recycling.
When Perrie shared video of her creations on Facebook, delighted friends and family began sharing it online and it soon spread.
“I’ve had great responses from everyone, just people appreciating how creative it was and how amazing it was to be able to do that when you’re locked inside a room for two weeks and you haven’t got anything else to do,” says Perrie.
Right now, the cruise industry remains at a standstill — although the last eight cruise ship passengers returned home earlier this week, there are still many cruise ship crew stranded on vessels across the world.
Did the experience put Perrie off cruising for life?
No, she says, she loves how working on a cruise allows crew to travel the globe.
That said, Perrie hopes that the events of the past few months will bring about a re-examining of how the world reacts to a crisis at sea.
“The biggest problem we came up against was a lot of countries closing their borders, and the cruise companies trying to do everything they could to get us home, and just facing the difficulty of not having any sort of humanitarian help to let us disembark,” says Perrie.
“So, it would be interesting to see if, from this experience, something more positive can come out of it — and that maybe some policies can be put in place to deal with that sort of thing.”
In the meantime, Perrie’s just glad to have put a smile on people’s faces during a tough time.
“I think a lot of people are seeing it as a positive in the whole Covid pandemic and something nice to look back on,” she says.
She’s been contacted by a range of different organizations interested in her work — from a museum and art gallery, to an organization which works with women suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Plus, Perrie managed to nab a few paper bags that she’d yet to transform and squeeze them into her case, so stay tuned for more potential creations in upcoming weeks.