So this is a real-time update for a change. I still have two more posts to write from Ethiopia, and then the blog carries on to India by way of Bahrain. But as anyone knows who has followed the blog, it’s always lagging behind the times. Looking back in blog years while in Ethiopia, “coronavirus” was nothing more than a passing headline from China.
So I am fast forwarding to present day, one reason being because I have received several “Where are you now…Are you okay?” emails. But more so because I want to remember…
I want to remember why I would consider getting up from my umbrella-shaded sun bed where I have been basking, riding the gentle waves, or watching the sun set every evening. I want to remember why I would set down my piña colada or my Chai tea cup at afternoon tea time and pick up my phone to stay glued to breaking news on Twitter. I want to remember why I would consider trading an abundance of fresh red snapper cooked in the tandoori grill accompanied by cold Kingfisher beer, eaten while sitting on the beach by candlelight with my toes buried in the sand in favor of empty supermarket shelves. Why would I consider hurriedly packing up my damp swimsuit and sarong, and rush to board a packed plane, swimming instead straight into the eye of the storm?
India has thus far been notorious for having low COVID-19 case numbers. Some say it’s their hot weather. Rumor has it airborne viruses can’t withstand temps above 27°/80°F. I say it’s likely because half the country doesn’t even KNOW about the virus. I had a conversation with a beautiful young sari-clad woman selling her handmade jewelry on the beach. When she extended her outstretched hand to shake hands, I said “It’s nice to meet you, but I am sorry I can’t shake hands because of the virus.” (blank stare) “The corona virus. You’ve heard about it, yes?” (longer blank stare) “The corona virus that has been making people sick?” (shakes head “no” and walks off in pursuit of the next potential customer.) As the scientist on Maddow says, “If you don’t have tests, you don’t have cases.” But like everything, that’s changing rapidly.
While I fall in the column of “Love” when it comes to the “Love – Hate” relationship most have with India (a chapter I wrote about in my book,) it’s a fickled, fair weather love affair. I go out of my way to avoid the chaos by booking the highest class train I can find, booking only hotels that come with real traveler reviews, eating at tried-and-true restaurants listed on Trip Advisor. It takes a bit of work and planning to stay in love, because India is an out-and-out assault on the senses. And once you land on the massive, heavily populated sub-continent, there is no escaping it. India laughs in the face of “social distancing.”
For the past ten days, I have been in Palolem, a beach community in the narrow state of Goa along the west coast of India known for it’s beautiful beaches, abundance of seafood that swam in the ocean last night, and consistently cloudless skies at this time of year. Within that 10 days, the atmosphere has been changing daily as the news becomes more panic-stricken, and I wrestle with the difficult decision “Should I stay or should I go?” Here is a summation of my thought process:
Days One through Five: It’s a happy-go-lucky atmosphere here in my serene, idyllic Goan beach resort, luxurious by India standards. Days are spent alternating between languishing on my beach lounger, and swinging in my front porch hammock while reading my Kindle to the background sounds of the breeze blowing through the clattering palm fronds overhead. At night, the sounds of thundering waves crashing on the beach heard through my gauzy mosquito net work faster than a 10mg Ambien. People, both tourists and locals alike are warm, friendly, and approachable. Conversations waft through public areas such as the outdoor library, restaurant, and bar where topics center around the chalkboard of daily specials and the effect the wind direction is having on the waves.
Day Six: The dreaded virus begins to seep into conversations in the outdoor dining area. Topics have shifted from “Where are you from?” to “How and when are you going back?” For the first time since my most recent flight, I see my first two shopkeepers wearing face masks. And I begin to notice Italian accents. I’ve never thought I had a xenophobic bone in my body, but this must be how it starts.
Day Seven: Shubert, the front desk manager tells me he has been working cancellations all day. He taps the stack of papers in front of him with his index finger saying “All cancellations. From Europe.” I begin to notice more and more Italian accents being spoken around me, and wonder if they are fleeing the impending country-wide lock-down. One family has two small children who cough constantly without covering, spraying “aerosols” across the table, on the salt and pepper shaker, ketchup bottle, etc. I know children are not supposed to be affected, but still it’s unnerving, seeing the mother pour cough syrup into their empty juice glasses. I make a mental note not to sit at that table again.
My afternoon reading time shifts from my Kindle to my Android, as I search for news of border closings. Indian states such as Kerala begin enforcing closures. My expat friend who owns a guesthouse in Varkala, southern India, tells me the local authorities have instructed guesthouse owners not to accept anymore bookings until further notice. Norway is closed. Australia is enforcing a mandatory quarantine. Nepal just canceled the Everest climbing season for chrissakes! I make jokes with Cynthia, the receptionist that I am just going to live here in this beach resort to which she responds, “Ah, but madam, if the tourists stop coming, we will have to close, as everything in Palolem is for the tourists.”
Questions I have been asking myself, “Should I leave now while I still can?” turn from questions to actions as I begin to research flights. I don’t want to get stuck here. And I SURE don’t want to get SICK here!!
People are starting to seem a bit more standoff-ish. There is no more warm, open chitchat in the beach chairs or across the table at four o’clock tea time. I even have to stand up and reach across the table to accept my lime soda from the waiter…he isn’t coming any closer. I feel as if the xenophobia is being turned on me now, the “foreigner.”
Day Eight: I spend most of the day in an argument with myself. The rationalist in me argues that I am giving in to fear-based thinking, to media hype, and I am better off riding this out here in the small beach community of Palolem. The fatalist in me argues “Live for today! When it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go!” But the pragmatist in me argues “It’s not the virus that’s going to get to you. It’s the viral frenzy!” I exchange emails with four different friends I have worked with in the travel industry over 25 years; One from the UK, one from Australia, one living in New Orleans, one living full time in an RV…it’s unanimous. “Am I over-reacting?” I ask. They all respond “No! Get back while you still can!”
I book a flight. The website says I can change the dates without change fees. I figure I’ll eventually use the ticket to get home, even if I change my mind, deciding to postpone.
I pay an extra $300 to get a flight leaving out of the smaller Goa airport. The cheaper option out of Mumbai would necessitate a five hour train ride and a taxi from the train station to the airport. I’ll do just about anything to avoid Mumbai. Please don’t let me end up in Mumbai! The shortest distance between two points appeared to be Qatar Airways with only one connection, in Doha, Qatar. When I booked the flight, Doha only had 17 COVID-19 cases. The following day, they had 439. I ask the front desk manager about how I might obtain a mask for the flight. He makes a couple of calls, then tells me “I am sorry, madam, not even the hospital staff can get masks now.” I go on youtube and learn how to fashion a face mask from a folded bandana and two elastic hair ties.
Day Nine: It is really starting to feel like “White Flight” here. All day long, I hear the clackity-clack-clack of roll-aboard suitcases bouncing across the pavestones outside my window. I pass Shubert in the reception area, and ask him how is day is going. “More cancellations.” We chat about how rapidly things are changing, about countries shutting down, airlines cancelling flights, and he tells me about two people who were denied boarding last night to Australia. I joke nervously about how this all reads like a dystopian sci-fi novel.
Day Ten: DFW, my home airport and end destination is all over the news. As one of the 13 designated “screener airports” allowing flights in from Europe, customs is been overwhelmed on the day before the European ban is to take effect. Reports of lines from three to seven hours long are all over the news. The customs area is now a veritable petri dish. I start having second thoughts about my departure, just 12 hours away now. I am to leave at 3:40am, so I have a conversation with my driver. Goa airport is 90 minutes away, and I have a car confirmed to pick me up at 11:30pm. “How late can I let you know if I change my mind?” He tells me I must call him by 9:00pm if I decide to cancel.
I have a two week tour scheduled through Pakistan that begins April 4th. I have made full payment, and am now within the “no refunds” period. Yes, I have traveler’s cancellation insurance, but their policy states “Fear of travel is not a justified reason to file a claim.” The tipping point comes for me when the owner of the tour company makes the offer to refund the cost of the tour, less deposit to be rolled over to another tour at another time. Once that obstacle is removed, it all comes down to which feels better…a lesser risk of catching the virus in a country where most practice Ayurvedic medicine and think nothing of raw sewage running alongside the sidewalk? Or a potentially greater risk of walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” to get home? At least if I get sick in the US, I have clean drinking water and a stable toilet seat. No toilet paper, mind you, but at least a toilet seat.
At 9:00pm, I call Satar, the driver, and tell him my trip to the airport is a go. I quickly finish packing my bags and steal off in the cool of the night, choking back the tears and feelings that after 80 countries, for the first time, I have chickened out. As I follow my driver carrying my suitcase on his head down the dark narrow path to the main road, I turn for one last look and listen. “Bye Bye, Paradise,” I say aloud as an old family friend used to say.
I am now back in the USA as of last night. Three crowded airports, two international flights, and one Uber ride home. I was braced for the worst, armed with my homemade bandana mask, hand sanitizer, and sterilizing wipes left over from Ethiopia. But I would say only one out of 20 people were wearing masks. There was a questionnaire asking if I had been to the list European countries, Iran, China, or South Korea. And how many days had I been in India. But no temperature screening. And customs was a “non-issue” thanks go Global Entry. I had an unbelievable “zero” minutes wait.
This is one big advertisement for “Global Entry.” If you are an international traveler and you don’t already have it, GET IT NOW! It costs a hundred bucks, but many credit card companies will credit the fee as one of their perks. It’s a bit of a pain initially, as you must go in person to an airport location to be interviewed, photographed, and fingerprinted. But as for yesterday at least, it paid off in spades.
I will “self-quarantine” in the Winnie for the next 14 days so as not to risk giving it to my 91 year old Mom. It’s torture waving at her through the glass door, but there is absolutely no other option under the circumstances. The Winnie feels like a “safe house.” Back in my little cocoon, insulated from the mayhem. And when I get sick of the view, I need only to start the engine. In times of a pandemic, it’s good to be an RVer, carrying ones home with them.