Travel in the Times of Corona — a Journey Back and Forth
March 22, 2020
Going on a 3-week trip at the peak of a world pandemic was a bad idea but an interesting experience. This is a brief of what it was like, traveling and changing our plans, as news unfolded and borders were shut down.
Before leaving for a 3-week trip from Canada to South America, I thought it would be interesting to write about the experience of traveling when a pandemic hits the world. While I was feeling stress about going in airports and airplanes before going traveling, after a very short period of time my worries have shifted to more humanity- and geopolitical-related concerns, like will I be able to cross a bunch of borders to get home?
This post is a summarizing our entire journey, from pre-departure, all the way cancellations, changes, news coverage, health aspects and immigration policies. All posts are available here (and were written on the go, so they might be a bit more robust).
Before we left, and as I realized this is getting real, I started doing some research on how does the virus spread and what are some best practices to avoid it or eliminate it. By now, there’s tons of info on that, so I’m going to avoid repeating, but this is a really informative video from Vox about Soap vs. Virus:
My absolutely favorite was this piece from National Geographic, that was most informative and useful before I went on the first flight. Research has been done on how diseases spread on planes. The first myth I smashed is about the circulated air — air on airplanes is filtered with hospital grade filters (HEPA), where 99% of microbes are captured, and the filtering happens every 3 minutes (in fact, during some flights on this trip by LATAM, as part of the pilot’s intro they mentioned this exact fact).
The risk on planes, like anywhere else, is either from direct transfer (i.e. someone shamelessly coughing or sneezing onto you) or touching contaminated surface and then passing it on to your respiratory system, via your own face. The diagram below (from that NG article) shows nicely what are the best places to sit on a plane, and luckily for the window-seat-lover that I am, window seats are the safest (but that’s more because they’re farther away from other humans, rather than actually anything about a window).
Research by Weiss (Penn State) and Hertzberg (Emory). Figures available on https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/01/how-coronavirus-spreads-on-a-plane/
And so, our journey started with guaranteeing window seats on all flights (for some extra 💰 sometimes) and lots of sanitizing on my side, while trying to convince my oh-so-optimistic partner it’s a good idea and that the virus is everywhere and we should scrub with alcohol pads everything around us.
OJ in a scrubby moment on a brand new 787–9
At first, it took some convincing. But as time passed by, and more and more people around us were wearing masks and gloves, the idea of scrubbing all surfaces with alcohol pads seemed much more reasonable even to my partner, and it became a habit as we boarded each of the too-many flights we had (I believe it was 7 flights in 6 days).
America vs. Elsewhere
An interesting theme throughout the trip was the huge differences between how US parts of the trip went, to other parts.
When it came to the flights, anytime we were on an American Airlines flight (3 flights total, two of which international), the crew seemed nearly unbothered with the situation. No one was wearing any protective gear, neither masks nor gloves, and there was a business-as-usual feel in the air (that to me felt more like head-in-the-sand).
However, whenever we were on a LATAM flight (the largest South American airline), the approach was 180° different. The crew was wearing gloves the entire time (also, super fashionable ones, that matched the uniforms like it was always planned), and wore masks whenever they were interacting with food and passengers. On almost all of the flights, hand sanitizers were available (either in the galleys, or handed out by crew), and the safety instructions were followed by guidelines on coughing, sneezing and washing your hands.
Starting with our departure from Montreal, checking the news has become an integral part of the trip.
By the time we landed in our destination, we learned that Canada has issued an avoid all non-essential travel warning to all countries, but we were already half a globe away, so we kept on following.
It seemed like every few hours throughout the whole trip, we got pieces of news from across the world, that gave me the general feel that the world is going into chaos (but my optimistic partner was still faithful that it’s all going to be ok, and Chile is in fact doing much better than anywhere we came from, which objectively, it was).
With the flux of news, it was very hard to actually enjoy the traveling part of traveling. Whenever we sat down, or were not engaged in hiking, sightseeing or exploring, my phone was out, my data was plunging and my stress — spiking.
After getting the most rocking news of the trip (Chile is closing down its borders AND Canada is closing its own borders, on the same day), we had to start acting, and my pessimistic self had to realize that it’s no longer pessimism, but realism. That’s when we rushed to the ticket counter in the airport, and started our journey back from the beautiful Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, to the capital Santiago, to be closer to an airplane that can take us home as possible.
As we were waiting for our flight back (two very-very-very long days) we found it very hard to get some reliable information, as different sources had different versions for government border closures or travel bans.
Here are some examples —
Can UK nationals fly via or get into the US?
My partner is a UK citizen, so this question kept on popping for us anytime we found a flight via the US (which was the vast majority of times).
UK nationals could enter the US if they didn’t come from EU/UK/Ireland, according to CNN
A somewhat confusing report on USAToday saying that residents of the UK (in previous reports, it was UK nationals) will not be able to travel to the US. Nothing here about country of origin.
My partner also contacted the British embassy in Santiago to get official information, but all that was provided was “contact your airline for further information”. Great Foreign Affairs there, not-so-United Kingdom!
Will Canada allow residents who are not Permanent Residents/Citizens entry after the border closes?
This was the key issue for us. By now, we know the official policy has changed and it does allow permit holders (students, temporary workers) entry back to Canada, but for about 4–5 days, this was absolutely unclear.
Speaking to the Ottawa hotline for Canadians abroad, the information I got regarding this (two days after PM Trudeau announced border closures) was: Foreign Affairs does not have an official policy on this. This will be up to border agents to decide. This, obviously, was not very informative, as we were at the point where we had to make some decisions: do we try and make it back to Canada where we have a home and healthcare coverage? Or do we head to our home countries, where we haven’t lived for years, and our healthcare is not guaranteed?
We spent a lot of time on this one. Contacting a Member of Parliament; friends who work with government officials; our workplaces, where colleagues helped by getting in touch with immigration officials; immigration officials on LinkedIn; Tweeting to media outlets for support/info. But there was very little knowledge to share. Finally, two days after arrival in Santiago and waiting for our flight, a friend sent us a message on WhatsApp (also known as the most up to date news channel) with information from a press conference where a minister mentioned we should be able to go back.
Even after this statement, it’s been a good few hours until this made it to official news channels (in French only) and over a day to main English Canadian outlets.
Bottom line, this piece of news was so highly sought after by us, and thousands of others in our status, but nearly impossible to verify or get our hands on. And it made everything much more stressful for a whole lot of days.
Borders shutting down
Lots of border closures have been put in place in the past week. Being abroad in a foreign country (Chile), barely speaking the language, and with plans to go into two other neighbouring countries, was clearly not easy.
Very quickly we cancelled our plans to cross into the less-stable Bolivia, since we preferred not getting stuck in the middle of the desert without being able to cross back to Chile, or having to go to the not-very-safe La Paz and be stuck there until we manage to get out.
What we left behind, in Northern Chile
The day after that decision, we learned that Argentina, our next destination, is shutting down its own borders, so we cancelled the second part of the trip and booked an earlier flight back. Chile was still doing good, and we hoped we’ll at least be able to complete the Chile part of the trip.
But, the day after that, Chile has announced its own borders are closing, and that was the final straw. Before we knew about Canadian border closures, we started preparations to go back to Santiago and fly out. But within minutes we found that Canada will be shutting down as well, and, well, that sucked.
America vs. Elsewhere
In this A vs. E segment, we’ll talk about official policies this time. While the US limited traffic from Europe and early infected countries (Iran and China for example), it seemed to be doing very little in every other regard.
Coming into the States from Canada on our way down, one couldn’t guess there’s a global epidemic in place. JFK was functioning as usual, maybe with a bit less passengers and a few more masks on staff. But, it seemed like it was by choice: TSA agents were not wearing masks/gloves in most cases; nothing was asked about symptoms; and people were crowding together even more than usual.
JFK crowds definitely not keeping a safe distance
In contrast to that, even before landing in Chile we could already feel the difference in mindset to the outbreak. Flight attendants were handing out COVID-19 forms to fill out, asking about symptoms and places visited in the past weeks. When getting into the border control section of the airport, a crew of thermometer-people were taking incoming passengers temperatures from a safe distance and with protective gear, and just before clearing to leave the airport, a nurse station was set where someone (I’m assuming a nurse) went through all the details to make sure we are aware of the symptoms and what to do in case we present any.
The Canadian effort to stop the spread: a notice sheet 🤷🏻
When we arrived back in Canada, I was somewhat disappointed it resembled more the US than Chile. No actual medical assessment was done en masse, and the CBSA agent simply asked if we presented any symptoms. While the government in its announcement said airlines will deny boarding from people presenting symptoms, no one checked or asked us anything when we boarded in NYC.
This was my most stressful vacation ever. I’m a productivity-oriented person as it is, so usually when I’m away traveling there’s some built-in stress in trying to do as much as I can, learn as much as possible, discover new places and experience foreign tastes and flavours.
This was a different kind of stress, clearly. It was always present, and affected how I enjoyed my time there, even before it started going south rapidly.
As a couple, we did well, dealing with each other, I believe, although we have two very contrasting opinions. If I were traveling by myself, I would’ve probably returned to Canada after 2 days, while OJ would maybe have stuck around a bit longer and tried to enjoy Chile a bit more, rather than heading back to Canada at ridiculous prices we ended up paying.
I can definitely say this makes me almost 100% confidence that my June trip to Israel will be cancelled (even if things will slowly go back to normal by then), and I’m not sure how quick will I be to go on my next big vacation. I do need one, that’s for sure, after all that’s happened.
We’re on day 2 out of 14 of our self-quarantine period, coming into Canada. This trip is officially over, but I might follow up, halfway through quarantine, with some post-trip impressions.
In the meantime here’s a notion link that a friend of a friend shared, with some useful tips and advice for anyone starting their own quarantine. Check it out, I found bits of useful advice in there.
Wishing all a healthy rest of 2020 💕.
This article was originally published here.