Nine Months of Traveling During Covid

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.

Recommended Reading: February 2019

The quest continues. For the last several months, I’ve been reading only unfamiliar authors, or authors that I haven’t read in a decade or more.

Here are some of the best books I’ve enjoyed lately. (All links Amazon US)

Rec Read image-Hayley Finn

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

Book-length narrative non-fiction, when done well, is top-of-the-line reading. I picked this up at Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Santa Fe, NM and had a feeling that it would be an astounding story. It did not disappoint.

The Osage tribe of Oklahoma was the richest group of people in America for a few years in the 1920s. Why? They were sitting on some very profitable oil leases, and many had expensive cars and chaffeurs and mansions. This alone would’ve been interesting – but then, horrifically, they began turning up dead. Two, then four, then eight, then twenty-two. Then the nascent FBI got wind of the murders and dispatched a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to investigate. What he found was a county-wide conspiracy among the white power structure to murder natives for the headrights, and no method was too terrible–bomb, strangulation, poisoned needles, hammer, auto accident.

It’s a peculiarly American story, focusing on sudden wealth, racism, and murder. There’s an investigator trying to make sense of all of it. And it’s all true. Nearly every sentence integrates something from the historical record—a quote, a statistic, a testimony. It’s unputdownable and should be required reading in schools. Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese will be filming the movie version with Leo DiCaprio later this summer. Don’t wait—find a copy of the book now. It won a 2018 Edgar Award.

 

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz

Last time my path crossed with Mr. Díaz, it was ten years ago, and I was travelling across part of South America. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had just been released, and I carried it in my hand onto buses, into restaurants, in hotel rooms, etc. That book was great. No—it wasn’t just great, but obnoxiously, incredibly, awesomely, choose-your-adverbly kind of great. His voice on the page was nothing like anybody had ever seen, and in my own reading life, voice is everything. I’ll follow a great authorial voice anywhere, even to subjects I don’t care much about. Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Kaye Gibbons, Frederick Exley—their fiction voices are/were amazing.

Díaz is right up there with those stars. He released this collection of short stories in 2012, and it’s got the same look-ma-no-hands kind of passion, the same structural artistry, as Wao did. In fact, I don’t think enough people give him credit for taking unusual story structures and making them emotionally compelling. It’s not easy.

The stories here are all based on the same point of view: a young poor Latino guy in New Jersey pursuing misadventures in sex. It’s clear that Díaz is obsessed with women—finding them, luring them, charming them, using them, getting used by them, analyzing them, dumping them, getting dumped by them, remembering them.

I’m aware that Díaz got nailed by the #MeToo movement, and has some sins to atone for. And reading this book, I can see some reason for that, because this book is drenched in the hormones of a young man’s sex-addled brain. Still, I do separate the artist from the art, and this collection is definitely worth the read. None of the stories here is heads and shoulders above any other. They’re all terrific. Whenever Díaz is ready to publish something new, I’ll be here waiting.

 

Sonata Mulattica, by Rita Dove

I’d been meaning to read modern narrative poetry for a while, because it seems like a genre that’s ripe for a comeback. I’d also been meaning to read Rita Dove for a while, because she was our Poet Laureate for three years back in the nineties.

Then, while I was wandering the streets of the Printers’ Row Literary Festival in Chicago last summer, this title leapt off the shelf into my hands. It’s Rita Dove’s book-length narrative poem about the real-life story of George Bridgetower, a biracial violinist of the 19th century who was friends with Ludwig von Beethoven.

Man oh man, it’s a tour de force. This series of poems is told from various different viewpoints, in various different poetic styles, even including a brief stageplay. Dove takes her sweet time telling the details of Bridgetower’s life, and uses some pretty highflown language to relate those details. But that’s the nature of a poet, choosing opacity over clarity. It reminds me of the famous saying that a scientist takes something that nobody knows and says it in a way that everybody can understand, while a poet takes something that everybody knows and says it in a way that nobody can understand. That’s not a criticism. Today, poetry is meant to obfuscate. That’s kind of the point, at least in our modern conception of it.

This book got me juiced for the possibilities of the genre. After all, narrative poetry, if written in a conversational tone, could have a potentially huge audience. To my way of thinking, a lot of readers who don’t have the patience or time or attention span to finish a novel might be surprised how much easier it can be to get through a story in poetic form. Robert Frost wrote like this. James Dickey wrote in this form back in the sixties and seventies.

Me, I’m going to explore this genre further. Ms. Dove has inspired me. Isn’t that what books are supposed to do?

 

“There’s No Place Like Home” by Edan Lepucki

This is new: Amazon has commissioned a series of novelettes by famous and less-famous writers. It’s called the Warmer collection, and all of them are connected by the same theme: each is set in a dystopian future in which society is suffering severe climate change. The ‘Zon swoons over the series as “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting.”

That’s really purple marketing copy. A single breathtaking sitting. Someone fetch the smelling salts.

Seriously, those folks over in Seattle seem to have read my mind, because I’d thought of doing a series exactly like this. In fact, I did write a similar series of shorts for a ghostwriting assignment a couple years ago. I’d love to release them to the public, but, ya know, contracts, and, ya know, lawsuits. The pain of being a ghost. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Back to Lepucki’s story. It’s sharp and well-observed. The young girl who discovers her father’s suicide in an overheated Los Angeles of the distant future felt very, very real. The descriptions were accurate but understated. You could feel the slow way that oppressive heat and malnutrition wears down a family. And the small details, like Manitoba’s new role as a northern destination, a societal escape valve, were sharp.

Mostly I enjoyed the author’s world-building. It spoke to me. As someone who used to live in Los Angeles, I’ve glimpsed the future described here. In fact, the prospect of a dystopic waterless future of the haves v have-nots grappling under the broiling desert sun was one big reason I fled Southern California a few years ago. Returning to the upper Midwest, the land of great lakes and mild summers, has sent my happiness meter skyrocketing. There will be many more following this same path in future years as the desert Southwest slowly transforms into a kiln in coming years.

Anyways, read the story; it’s free in Amazon Prime as one of their Amazon Original Stories. I’ll be gobbling up the rest of the series shortly.

 

In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block

Another terrific anthology idea: Persuade America’s grandest mystery novelist, Lawrence Block, to put out the bat signal. He then persuades 17 respected writers to contribute one short story to his project–each inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. Each story is prefaced by the canvas that inspired it.

Hopper was best known for Nighthawks, but all of his uniquely alienated American scenes are crying out for some noir-inspired moodiness and madness. This delivers. It’s a sharp collection, and a lot of these stories hit the mark. They include pieces by Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Kris Nelscott, Stephen King, and many others. I didn’t care for King’s story very much—heresy!—but Craig Ferguson, the talk show host and comedian, contributed an expectedly wacky tale. My favorite was written by Joe R. Lansdale, who I’d never heard of. Michael Connolly and Lee Child round out the cast.

Fact is, we’re living in a golden era of short story writing at the moment, thanks to a digital world of publishing that has lifted almost all restrictions on story length. Oddly, I’ve been reading all these shorties on my phone, a Moto Droid. When I bought it a couple years ago, I swore I wouldn’t read on such a small screen, but that wall crumbled pretty quick, and I’ve found that it’s comfortable to use for short bursts. Also, this is probably the way more people around the world will be reading in the future, since a delivery platform for paper is downright impractical in many developing parts of the globe, such as Indonesia, which has ten thousand scattered islands. This is the best time in history to be a reader.

 

 

The Spain Tourmaline: $.99 Sale (Nov. 10 to Nov. 16)

Spain.Tourmaline.finalThe Spain Tourmaline is on sale for the next week (November 10 to November 16)! It’s only $0.99 — that’s 80% off regular price. Available wherever ebooks are sold:

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2BZDp2D

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2DbEQKB

Amazon AU: https://amzn.to/2JVI0n1

Amazon CA: https://amzn.to/2DdMyUr

Apple iTunes: https://apple.co/2FcAG80

Kobo US: http://bit.ly/2OBljVK

Also available at Scribd, Tolino, 24Symbols, Google Play, and other retailers.

Description

Dissatisfied with the tourist beaches of Costa del Sol, gemstone detective Ainsley Walker dreams of discovering the real Spain…

THEN

Her life changes when she accepts an offer to help an aging bullfighter find his jewel-encrusted sword for his grand comeback—an assignment that plunges her deep into the wild, beating heart of traditional Spanish culture.

Andalucía.

In the blink of an eye, Ainsley finds herself on a fast-paced adventure that carries her from bullfights to bull ranches, from tapas bars to tearooms, from Catholic processionals to Moorish patios.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, agony—

—and the ancient bonds of life and death.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

…comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Length: 71,000 words
Sixth in the series.

If you haven’t read The Spain Tourmaline, grab a copy today!

The Two Anthony Bourdains: Six Years Later

We lost a big one today. Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018) was a hero of mine. I never wanted to be him — a former heroin addict and fairly unhappy chef — but I wanted to be like him, if that makes any sense. I think millions of people probably felt the same way.

He was a phenomenally good nonfiction writer, with the type of authorial voice that you can’t teach somebody. As a television host, he and his team wrestled Parts Unknown to the ground and made it the best program on all of television. I really mean that. It was one of the only television programs that successfully dismantled the myth of the Ugly American — and tried to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.

Bourdain4

You can read thousands of gorgeous remembrances of him all over the interwebz, but nonetheless let me share one more piece. My own.

In 2012, I wrote a blog post here, on this site, about Bourdain’s tortured soul. It was a short piece, and only the second time I’d ever posted anything here. Here it is again:

The Two Anthony Bourdains

He’s an astounding writer.  He used to be a good cook.  And he’s been making good television for almost a decade now.

But Anthony Bourdain has an inner struggle.  A cleavage in his soul.

One half of him, the part born and raised in New York City, the place where people’s emotional shields are as high, hard, and glossy as the glass curtain-walls of their skyscrapers, hasn’t changed.

That’s the wisecracking part.  You saw this exhibited best in the Sardinia episode, years ago, the skinny dude in the black Ramones t-shirt, crouched on a rock, unleashing his sarcasm-plated tongue on the local caper farmers — until they reamed him for using utensils.  The former junkie putting his own needs above others.

Dostoevsky called this a state of “laceration”.  It doesn’t translate so well into English, but I think he meant people who have been pierced, and are aching with pain.  In Bourdain’s case, of course, he “pierced” himself, over and over again, with a heroin needle.  And he’s still aching.

But the other half of his soul has been blooming.  You may remember the Brazilian episode, in Sao Paulo, in which — confronted with a really nice woman and her stew — he finally let down his guard, shed the New York tough-guy shell.  It can be seen in other episodes too, when his empathy quietly emerges, especially during segments with troubled people.  Those are my favorite moments.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been advised to plate my characters with armor, and then throw them into a pool.  It’s a fascinating metaphor.  The main character is forced to strip herself of her psychic armor—because if she doesn’t, she’ll drown, and the mission won’t get achieved.

Bourdain has been “stripping” in public for years—not of clothing, but of his own psychic armor.  And he’s still got years of television (and lots of psychic armor) to go.  It’ll be exciting to see if him continuing to change, and to explore the world, at CNN.

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Go see it all.

Well, it’s still a big world. And you should still see it all. Without Bourdain, however, that task has just become a little bit harder.

RIP.