My international life during a global pandemic…
I left the US in September of 2020, back when very few were traveling and the second wave of the pandemic was a vague fear looming on the horizon. Getting out of the country was an ordeal. I’d compare it to threading a needle on a bouncing bus while wearing mittens. Let me explain.
Trying to arrive in Barbados, my first stop, was a comedy of errors. First came a month of cancelled flights by American Airlines, then a cancelled connecting flight in Dallas, then an involuntary 10-day stay in Miami Beach (expensive but not unwelcome), followed by a rebooking on LIAT airlines. (LIAT, I found out later, colloquially stands for Late, If At All.) That flight, however, required a forced 5-day stay in Jamaica, in quarantine, while waiting for a new connecting flight to Barbados.
It was my only option, and once I arrived in Jamaica, I was greeted with the task of finding a new PCR test (as my last one had expired) in a developing Caribbean country, on a specific day (Wednesday), at a specific time (3 pm), to qualify for the 72-hr PCR rule that Barbados had in place for arrivals. Achieving this was a feat that required the help of the PR guy at my hotel, who placed a personal call to the actual Jamaican Minister of Health (a childhood friend, he explained), whose office obtained me a single spot at one of two private clinics on the island. The private clinic only took cash, which had to be paid on the morning of the exam, and I was tagged onto the butt end of a large group of people. By the way, Jamaican authorities also placed a mandatory app on my phone to monitor my whereabouts, though it’s not clear that anyone ever followed up on that. I left the phone in my hotel to go out for dinner twice. Color me rebellious, but I hadn’t been to that island since age five and wanted to see what I was missing in Kingston.
Finally arriving in Barbados, I sat in another mandatory 8-day quarantine during which time carb-heavy foods (pasta, club sandwiches, fries) were brought to my hotel room door three times a day. I felt like the Christmas goose being fattened before the kill. Leaving the room wasn’t allowed, either, even though I could hear the ocean crashing just twenty tantalizing meters away. Later, after being released, I discovered that while Barbados had zero cases of covid, they still enforced all the new global protocols. So I spent the next three months wearing masks everywhere, getting temperature checks in the forehead, and accepting squirts of gel — you know, the same old drill, but on an island with no virus whatsoever. They’re not particularly good at independent thinking, those Bajans. (This observation was echoed to me by a couple Bajans themselves.) If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’d gone there precisely to escape the virus, not to pretend it still existed.
Still, Barbados is a tropical paradise, albeit one with excellent wifi and a Michael Kors outlet. They tell me that Grenada is the most unspoiled island in the Caribbean, and I hope to check that out too, along with Dominica and the Grenadines. I’m going back soon.
Next stop was Colombia. Landing there in January was fairly easy. That country requires a simple 96-hour PCR test, which was easily gained in Miami, and the movement around that terrific country was mostly unrestricted, though there were occasional surprise weekend lockdowns in Medellín that were barely enforced. I’d been to Colombia before, for several months in 2014 and again in 2019, and the people are the most friendly of any place I’ve ever been, next to Puerto Rico.
I avoided Bogotá until the end of my two-month stay there, since the covid-19 situation was so precarious through January and part of February. In fact, if the world ever suffers a pandemic like this again, my advice is to head to warm cities such as Medellin in the months following the winter holidays (January and February). The post-holiday viral bulge there was less pronounced, thanks to the “eternal spring” climate that allows so much outdoor dining, outdoor activities, and outdoor socializing. Bogotá suffered a much larger increase in post-holiday cases simply because of the colder climate there, and the subsequently greater numbers of indoor parties and socializing during the holidays.
In rural areas such as El Eje Cafetero, the open-air coffee region where I stayed for two weeks, locals told me that there was absolutely no virus there until November 2020, months after it’d gripped most of the world, and very little transmission of the virus once it arrived. My hired driver said there’d been a total of two covid deaths, both over age 70. There really is something to be said for fresh air and ventilation in avoiding viruses (see the end of this article). I would guess that better overall health, owing to a life of agricultural labor, probably played a role too.
In March, it was onto Peru, for which I gained another PCR exam in Bogotá, this one administered by a sadistic nurse who jammed her swab into my nose with enough strength to crack a rock. I also discovered that Peru now requires face shields on all transportation — plane, train, bus, and auto. That was my biggest problem there, for reasons of 1) claustrophobia and 2) language comprehension.
It drove me a little batty to wear both a N95 and a face shield, because together they create a sonic bubble around your skull in which you can hear both your own breathing and your own words bouncing back at you. Regarding language, imagine going to an airport check-in desk and trying understand a female with a tiny, high-pitched voice speaking to you rapidly in a foreign language—while she wears two layers of facial protection and stands behind a plexiglass shield. I’m fluent in Spanish, but I don’t have superhuman hearing. Instead of asking people to repeat themselves, or inflict another excruciating hand-cupped-to-ear Torquemada-style interrogation, I would sometimes just say yes, and then hope that I’d hadn’t just agreed to a five-year term of indentured servitude. This was sometimes true in restaurants too, even excellent ones such as Maido. (If you go, make a reservation for the tasting menu, which was probably the best meal of my life.)
Overall, Peru was quite strict about covid-19, which I’ve learned is true in general, even before the pandemic. At Machu Picchu, for example, there were spotters standing throughout the historic mountaintop site—despite it being as open air as a place can possibly be—who were ready to reprimand anybody who took off the mask for even a second.
Still, that famous wonder of the world, as astounding as it is, was overshadowed by a day tour of the Sacred Valley I’d done a few days prior. My overall favorite site in Peru was definitely La Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, outside of Arequipa. Check out the slideshow here (text in Spanish) and put it on your next trip itinerary. I have to say that bathing in natural hot springs at 5000 m elevation in a hailstorm next to a mini-volcano while watching llamas wander by was a high point of the year.
Mexico, my current stop, has been more relaxed. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. There is no PCR exam required for entry, and I’d estimate that only about 75% of the people on the street in Mexico City are wearing masks (compared with almost 100% everywhere else). Sometimes I’m not sure the older people understand that they’re in the midst of a pandemic. I’ve seen older folks gathering in large groups in plazas for salsa or ranchero dancing, mostly without masks. So keep that in mind next time you want to curse out Americans . We haven’t cornered the market on intransigent jackassery, but we’re definitely the loudest.
I’m planning to get the J & J vaccine in another couple of weeks upon my return to Miami, and so will end a very unusual chapter of not only world history but also personal history.
Was traveling during a pandemic dangerous?
No more than staying at home in the US. After all, you can socially distance anywhere, in any country. In fact, I’d argue that a warm climate, good ventilation, outdoor activities, personal fitness, social distancing, and of course the almighty N95 mask are all you need to avoid any serious viral illness. Where you do these things matters very little. The only exceptions are those who are immunocompromised, elderly, or afflicted with metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc), in which case it’s best to keep oneself in the most developed country possible in case of hospitalization. For those of us in great health, I have yet to see any dangers in traveling during this pandemic.
Did people think I was crazy?
Yes—fear is much stronger than hope. Friends and even my own family told me to stay in the US during the pandemic. This would’ve meant an entire Great Lakes winter sealed alone behind closed doors, which seemed like a silly thing to do when I saw a second, even bigger wave of infections coming.
Plus, when the world says zig, I like to zag. I see this flexibility as a positive attribute during times of crisis—it’s the old principle of throwing yourself into the punch instead of waiting to be greeted by it. I cast aside fear and made judicious decisions regarding risk, starting with the miniscule IFR (infection fatality rate) for people my age (1 in 400, which includes the obese). And there was my own suspicion that I had already had a mild five-day case of covid-19 in January 2020, long before it became A Thing.
As a result, I safely explored four new countries, visited bucket-list sites for half price (Machu Picchu), gained tons of new Gemstone Travel Mystery ideas (just wait!), made a lot of money working online, met a ton of new people, and even fell in love.
Would I do it again?
Yes, absolutely. Choosing to travel internationally during a global pandemic was one of the best choices of my life. “Crisis” is the Greek word for something like “turning point” or “decision” — something all good storytellers should know — and I’ve benefitted personally, financially, literarily, and emotionally from this one.
It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.