Rewind Six Days
Sunday. 15-03-20. Bogota, Colombia.
The dark clouds rolling over Bogota from the mountains are an ominous sight that seems a fitting parallel to everything else that’s going on right now. I just returned from a quick trip to the corner store for a re-stock of groceries and beer to pacify our quasi-isolation before departing Colombia in two days.
This isn’t exactly how I expected to be spending my final days in the country but then again, those expectations were from a different world.
As I type this, we’re still sorting out what exactly we’re going to do or, more importantly, how we’re going to do it. Returning home to Canada is now the obvious choice. But there are stepping stones to that process that involve long wait times with insurance companies and airlines in a time of unprecedented call volumes.
Two weeks ago, like many, I brushed this whole thing off as the disease of the year.
I witnessed and survived SARS, Ebola, MERS, West Nile, swine flu and Zika — all from the comfort of my first-world living room I should add.
I’ve even survived a nasty bout of dengue fever while in Vietnam. And I walked away with nothing more than a disappointing visit and a newfound respect for mosquitos.
But this isn’t like any of those things. And this isn’t about me.
Things are changing. What’s happening right now is unprecedented in recent history.
For now, all we can do from where we are is wait and hope for the best.
Thursday. 19-03-20. Edmonton, Canada.
Day 1 of Quarantine
I mentioned above that things are changing. I wrote that four days ago.
Things have changed.
We’re now back home in Canada, although home is a bit of a superficial way of putting it.
Four days ago we finally made the decision to pull the plug on the trip. The decision didn’t come easy, though we’re confident now that it was not only the right call, but the only one.
The Decision to Leave
Our initial plans saw us flying from Bogota to Cancun. We would head south to Puerto Morelos where some family from home was flying to meet us for a couple of weeks. From there, we would make our way back to our beloved Oaxaca where we would spend the final month of this trip.
Due to earlier warnings, we called off the family visit first. Those visiting are in the at-risk age group and we decided it would be for the best.
Mexico at this point had very few reported cases — far less than Canada. The two of us debated long and hard what to do. At first, we considered sticking to our regular plan somewhat and staying in Mexico. We could extend our stay in Puerto Morelos and weather the storm.
We spoke to many friends that work in, or are directly connected to, the health and medical field. Professional opinions were mixed as to what would be best for us and everyone else.
Ultimately, however, we decided that heading back to Canada was in the best interest for everyone.
I’ll dig deeper into these reasons later on in this post.
The Journey Home
The journey home was an interesting one for us. Though at the same time, a common story for thousands of other travellers right now. And while we faced some chaos, we were in the lucky group.
Tuesday. 17-03-20. Bogota, Colombia
Stuck in Bogota
Last-minute flights from Bogota to Canada are either ridiculously priced or unavailable. Thankfully, we still have our previously-booked flight to Cancun. And due to the relative lack of panic in Mexico, there are still plenty of affordable options from Cancun back to the U.S. and Canada.
We make our way to the Bogota airport around 11am to catch our mid-afternoon flight. Though at check-in, we’re told the flight had been cancelled — two days prior.
“We emailed you about the change,” the InterJet worker says, “to ‘raymond…… @ someemailhost.com.”
Raymond? I don’t actually hear the rest of the email address. I stop listening after ‘Raymond.’
Clearly, things had gone wrong in the booking process.
Thankfully, they can bump us to the next flight to Cancun, at 3am tomorrow.
As well, our United flights from Cancun have free cancellation and we are able to find another flight that will get us to Houston in time to fly home.
Essentially, our day-long layover in Houston ends up moving to Bogota.
So we sit. For nearly 12 hours, we sit on the concrete floor of the Bogota airport. Occasionally snacking on crackers or grabbing a beer to ease the mind-numbing boredom, we wait.
We watch the departures board nervously as flight after flight flashes from “On Time” to “Cancelled.”
Line-ups grow as frustrated travellers wait to speak to their airlines. Eventually, more and more leave the airport. Most on foot rather than flight.
Finally, at 11pm. Hungry, exhausted, and half-drunk; we pass through security and await the final boarding of our flight.
Transit in Mexico
Wednesday. 18-03-20. Cancun, Mexico.
Arriving in Cancun, things are immediately different.
Different and concerning.
Back in Colombia, there were obvious steps in place to prevent the spread. Signs were on nearly every door, airport staff wearing masks and gloves. Regular announcements on the intercom about washing hands and using sanitizer.
At restaurants, every second table was closed to limit contact between people. Drinking fountains were turned off and signs were in place explaining why.
In Mexico, everything appears normal. I think I see maybe three or four people wearing a mask in the entire airport. No signs, no warnings, no concern.
People are regularly drinking from the fountains as though news of the contagion hasn’t yet reached them.
Flights too are functioning as usual. There is little worry that we won’t get out.
After a quick (and much-needed) breakfast of (very tasty) ramen (and beer), we board our next flight.
Our only concern at this point is whether or not we will be able to make our next transfer.
Eerie Calm in Houston
Houston is a trip.
We’ve flown through George Bush Airport on several occasions in the past. And it’s always been absolute chaos. Long lines, frustrated travellers and irate TSA agents were the norm.
We’re worried about the three-hour layover being too short.
Especially considering that early that morning, while still in Mexico, it’s announced that Canada and the United States would be closing their borders.
The problem is that if you’re flying through the U.S., even just in-transit, you still need to pass immigration and enter the country. If the border closes before we land, we’ll find ourselves in a “Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’” type situation.
Upon landing, however, things are far from the norm.
The airport is a ghost town.
This is the airport equivalent of that scene in “Devil’s Advocate” when protagonist Kevin walks into the streets of New York City to utter emptiness. A more relevant “28 Days Later” mirrors this scene when Cillian Murphy’s Jim steps into the abandoned streets of London.
Alright, so those examples are a bit of a stretch (and that’s enough movie references for one post.). But things are not normal.
We, along with a handful of others, walk straight to immigration and pass without any out-of-the-ordinary questions.
The only thing different is that we are pulled aside later for a random inspection of our bags. Two very friendly agents chat with us casually as they comb through our things. Soon, we’re back on our way.
This part, I can only assume, is because they were simply bored.
Grabbing a quick snack and a beer at one of the many completely deserted restaurants, the bartender informs us that nearly half the staff of the entire airport had been laid off the day prior.
With this uneasy thought in mind, we pick up some very important quarantine supplies from the duty-free shop and board our flight home.
Why We Chose to Go Home
Friday. 21-03-20. Edmonton, Canada.
Day 2 of Quarantine
Last week we were in the beautiful town of Salento, in the mountainous coffee region of Colombia. Our plan saw us settling into a small fishing village on the Yucutan Peninsula — sipping corona rather than thinking about it.
Today we’re sitting in an apartment overlooking a snowy parking lot in Canada.
As mentioned earlier, the decision to end the trip early didn’t come easy. Nor did it come quickly — at least not when compared with the speed this whole event has progressed.
But the reality is that returning to Canada was not only a safe decision, we feel it was the most responsible thing to do.
Mexico is a good country with an above-average healthcare system. But are they capable of handling a full-on outbreak? With the apparent lack of cases in the country and still-open borders at the time, a lot of travellers look at Mexico as a safe place. Many people, hundreds — thousands even — have continued their plans to spend spring break on its beaches.
If by chance an outbreak did occur, what impact would we have by being there? The best-case scenario is that little would happen, and our tourism dollars would slowly-trickle into their economy as we purchased food and supplies.
But what if we got sick; even for something unrelated to the pandemic? If hospitals were at capacity, would we even receive treatment? And if so, would we be taking a hospital bed from a local?
The same is said for food and supplies. That last bag of rice, head of broccoli or any number of sustenance-giving essentials. As a traveller — a tourist visiting for pleasure — why would myself or Kylee deserve it any more than a possibly far-less-fortunate local?
This isn’t an issue specifically for Mexico either. It just happens to be the country that our decision involves.
I’m not here to question the ethics of such issues. Personally, I believe that humans are humans. We’re here to share with each other.
But the truth is, we could leave, we had the ability to fly home. We have shelter, food and people to take care of us. So choosing to stay — simply for our own comfort and convenience — is where things get questionable.
There are a lot of travellers who choose to remain overseas, for many different reasons. And that’s ok. Many people have lived abroad for some time, they have a home in their destination. Others don’t have the luxury of packing up and heading home.
For some, heading home is a worse option than staying put.
We’re lucky. So incredibly fucking lucky.
We managed to get out of Colombia before borders closed and flights stopped. Our flights through Mexico and the United States worked out and arrived safely in Canada.
Thanks to our friends and family, we were to find a safe place to quarantine back home upon our arrival. We’re the lucky ones.
There are thousands of other travellers out there who are stuck in limbo. Many of them are trapped in lockdown, unsure of when they’ll be able to get out.
It Will Get Better
Saturday. 21-03-20. Edmonton, Canada.
Day 3 in Quarantine.
Things are tough right now; for everyone. There are few industries or people that won’t be affected by this situation in one way or another.
Now, more than ever, is the time to be compassionate. Reach out to your friends and family. Whether they’re self-isolating, quarantined, or temporarily in a locked-down country awaiting help.
Stay in contact with each other. Be kind. Help each other.
This will pass.
It will get better.
It always does.