We made it.
Home, that is. Deeply worried that coronovirus infection rates could strand us in a quarantine, lockdown or even illness if we stayed as planned in San Diego through March, we fled home to DC three weeks early. Within 72 hours of our departure, California became the first state to go on full lockdown. Talk about travel karma.
This wasn’t the first time COVID-19 touched our travels this winter. Already on the road when the first cases were reported in late December, we had been traveling with local COVID-19 advisories in Latin America for two months, long before any were coming out of the US government.
At first, the virus just lived up to being “novel” – a new travel experience. Way back in the good old days of January, when Americans were being told the epidemic narrative was a media hoax, public health nurses in masks were meeting our flights in Ecuador, handing out fliers about symptoms and preventions. Although the country did not have a single case of the virus at the time, signs like the one below were plastered inside airport bathroom stalls even in little Cuenca, where we wintered over,
By February 2, when we landed in the Galapagos, the disease produced an even more novel experience as every passenger’s temperature was taken before admission to the islands. The thermometer guns the masked nurses applied to our foreheads were a little creepy, but the proactivity was impressive, especially since the country still did not have a single case of COVID-19.
Less impressive was our arrival Mexico City exactly four weeks after that. No Ecuador-like precautions or advisories were apparent at the international airport of the world’s largest city, which made the jam-packed, hour-long line for immigration another kind of creepy. However, Mexico’s first case had been diagnosed only one day before. Just across the border, President Trump was assuring Americans coronovirus was “very mild” and would soon just “go away.” Under such circumstances, Mexico’s laxity felt forgivable.
What’s more, by a week later when we flew to the States, Mexico had stepped its communications up at least one small notch. Posters like the ones we had been seeing in Ecuador almost two months earlier were now on prominent display at the airport, albeit addressed entirely to passengers traveling to China. (The rest of us had nothing to worry about?)
That was more than the United States was doing when we touched down two hours later and walked across the skybridge from Tijuana into San Diego. Even as the U.S. was hitting 100 diagnosed cases, there was not a mask-clad public nurse to be seen, no fliers in the hands of immigration agents, no bathroom notices, no advisory posters, no thermometers. When we left San Diego for home a week later, there was not even a drop of hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas of the airport.
Still, we feel lucky. We left home before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in China, holding tickets for 21 flights in five countries. We made it to all of them without disruption or much risk of infection, mostly because Latin America lagged so far behind the rest of the globe in being touched. We got home safe and well.
Since our return to the States, LATAM, the Chilean national airline we flew on seven of our 21 flights, has cut capacity 70%. The Galapagos has banned tourists. Our intrepid guide to hiking in Cajas National Park outside Cuenca reported in to say the tour he led to Argentina shortly after we saw him escaped only hours before the airport was shut down to international travel. Our AirBnB sent the photo below to illustrate what the virus has wrought in Cusco, where we based to visit Machu Picchu.
We did not dodge a mere bullet on the road this winter. We dodged a cannonball.
So what if we arrived to a house we had largely run out of food before leaving four months ago and supermarkets that had been run out of food by panicked shoppers? There are worse fates than a little involuntary dieting. For one, a fellow passenger on our Galapagos cruise was a Chinese national. She was quarantined for four weeks after returning to her homeland, even though she had not traveled to heavily impacted countries and lives in Harbin, Manchuria, far from the China’s virus epicenter. Heck, at last count, 2,000 American tourists are still stranded in Peru with no prospects of leaving soon. That could have been us.
But we made it home, or what we call home now. The purpose of the month we planned in San Diego was to scout for our next home, on the other edge of the continent. When that move will take place, like so much more in our lives now, comes down to the course of coronovirus. Only time will tell.
For the time being, like the rest of you, we are hunkered in place and grateful to be here. In a pandemic, there truly is no place like home.
Tips from the Partout toolbox: We may be grounded for now, but we never stop thinking about travel. One of the ways we make sure to have all the “essentials” (a word taking on new meaning these days) when we leave for our next trip is to restock every last one of them when we unpack from the last one. Every travel-size container of shampoo or moisturizer gets topped off, every trip-size holder for over-the-counter medicines gets refilled, every half-used dental floss dispenser in our travel kits gets replaced with a full one. When life returns to normal (and it will), and we hit the road again (which we will), our kits will be ready to fly.
COMING SOON! Reflections on Staying-Put Travel