What It's Like To Race Through 4 Countries During A Pandemic
3 continents. 50 hours. Zero guarantees.
“It looks like we barely made it,” said the British woman in the window seat next to me. “Russia just announced they’re stopping all flights in and out of the country at midnight.”
Until that moment, I’d been feeling pretty positive about leaving Vietnam. I was due to arrive in Moscow that evening, with a 14-hour layover before my connection was scheduled to leave. As I sat waiting for takeoff, doors moments away from closing, I had no time to make a very big decision: Head to Moscow and potentially get stuck in Russia, or remain in Vietnam for the foreseeable future?
The cabin crew, decked out in masks and gloves, didn’t have much reassurance to offer. While many countries had already closed their doors to slow the spread of COVID-19, Russia was late to follow suit. Now, in the final days of March, the country was set to ground all flights at midnight. My flight, one of the last out of Vietnam, was full of worried travelers, most of whom had been teaching English abroad. Everyone was wondering if they'd be able to get home.
I should have left two weeks earlier when the writing was on the wall, but I like to imagine that I and not world events have control over my freedom of movement, so I’d gambled and held out as long as possible. Too long. The pandemic was in full swing, and travel gets complicated when the gears of civilization grind to a halt. What lay ahead was an anxious race across three continents and 50+ hours in transit, with airports slamming shut behind me as the whole world closed down.
I’d arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve to begin location research for a book I’m writing set -- no joke -- against the backdrop of a pandemic that originates in Eastern Asia. There were mutterings of something happening in Wuhan as we settled into 2020, but it wasn’t front-page news yet.
By late March, the world teetered on the brink of full shutdown. At that point I was in Hanoi, where the government had taken extreme steps to manage the spread as only a semi-authoritarian communist regime can: by imposing strict mitigation measures and throwing the concept of individual freedom out the window. Some 40,000 people were in quarantine camps, and foreigners were being swooped up en masse.
Things were getting tense in the streets. Among the Vietnamese there was a general agreement that tourists were to blame, so it was becoming increasingly common for foreigners to get bad looks and denied service. In the expat region of Hanoi called Tay Ho, full-time travelers like myself met to stress-drink and swap rumors at a now-shuttered bar called Nameless. Some said it was time to get out. Others felt that Vietnam's success at keeping the virus at bay meant Hanoi was a safer bet.
Then the global consensus came: get home now or settle in for the long haul.
Three continents and 50+ hours in transit, with airports slamming shut behind me as the whole world closed down.
My family is in Seattle, which at the time was a coronavirus hotspot and thus not an option. After years of constant travel, Mexico feels as much like home as anywhere; I’m a seasonal regular at the sleepy beach town of Puerto Escondido. Plus, I speak Spanish, and the ability to communicate seemed like a bonus should everything get all Mad Max. I decided to go for it -- but getting there proved to be a unique kind of nightmare.
The first plane ticket I bought with a connection in Taiwan became defunct almost immediately when the country closed its airports a few hours later. Thus ensued two solid days of juggling money between various booking sites, a dozen hours on hold, more cancelations, more airport closures. I finally sorted out a route that seemed reliable: Hanoi to Moscow, Moscow to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Mexico City, then finally Mexico City to Puerto Escondido.
There were only two flights leaving the Hanoi airport that day. Embassies warned travelers that Vietnam could close the border at any moment. Some 200 people were checking into my flight in a last-ditch effort to leave the country. Masks were ubiquitous. The atmosphere was pure anxiety.
On the plane, doors closing, I found out the situation had changed in Moscow and my internal panic alarm began flashing. This could be my last chance to get out of Vietnam, yet I risked being grounded indefinitely in Russia. But my momentum was propelling me forward, and to go back seemed unthinkable.
I’m a traveler, and I go places. In the last couple years alone I’ve spent time in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey, Serbia, Greece, Tunisia, Italy, France, Mexico, and so on. I catch flights the way most people take the bus. Catastrophes are inevitable, but one way or another I always make it through. And if I ended up trapped in Moscow, well… I’d make it through that, too.
Things at Sheremetyevo Airport were quiet but tense. Only a handful of flights were still landing, and even fewer taking off, so the place was virtually empty. After a while, I was told, cautiously, that my flight to Amsterdam should be one of a few allowed to leave the next morning. It was 7pm. I had 14 hours to kill.
There were a few restaurants still operating, so I settled in for drinks with nerve-worn travelers in transit to places like Israel, Ireland, and France. Around midnight I checked into a pod hotel, which cost about $6 an hour and looked like what someone in the '70s thought the year 2000 would look like.
Around 3am I was woken by someone pounding on the door to my pod. As I struggled to figure out the light and lock they pounded again, this time with more insistence. I opened the door to three security guards who addressed me sternly in Russian (to be fair, Russian always sounds pretty stern). I gave a look of incomprehension, then they asked in English for my boarding pass. Presumably they were checking to make sure I wasn’t a permanent resident at the airport. I certainly hoped I wouldn’t be.
A week earlier I’d read reports of people becoming trapped in Russian airports after they arrived to find that entry visas had been canceled, but couldn’t afford last-minute tickets back out. As a result they’d been sleeping in terminals, washing in bathroom sinks, and eating whatever they could scavenge.
This was the fate I’d been fearing all along, and narrowly escaped: The next morning, scanning the big board to check my flight status, it remained one of just three flights in green. The rest was just a long list of red.
I, along with 20 others, was getting out.
The Amsterdam airport was downright apocalyptic. One of the few things I usually enjoy about an airport is the hustle and bustle, the people-watching, and meeting fellow travelers. But the airport had all the liveliness of a Radio Shack. Playground structures were devoid of children. Restaurants were shuttered. There were no announcements. Every other seat in the lounge areas had been taped off, ensuring that no two people could sit together. Over the course of my three hour layover, I had my temperature taken twice.
When we finally boarded the plane, we were only allowed on one at a time: a mere 50 people entered the 400-seat 747. Once we were in the air a sort of silent, miserable relief pervaded. All of us would at least make it across the ocean.
My biggest concern landing in Mexico City was that, in the 14 hours it took me to get there from Amsterdam, the Mexican government would have reversed its lackluster response to the virus -- but I was waved through customs with barely a glance. The airport was functioning more or less normally, though they were collecting health declarations and urging everyone to use hand sanitizer.
I spent the night at a self-entry Airbnb near the airport. At some point I ventured out for tacos. People were out living normally, for better or worse. I felt an enormous, if temporary, wave of relief just to pass 30 minutes as if nothing was wrong. At a taco stand I chatted with the owner about how every year he brought his kids to Puerto Escondido for Christmas. He told me to have a beer for him on the beach. The moment was surreal in its normalcy, even though I’d just circled half the globe and knew it was anything but.
Two weeks later, many of Mexico’s beaches and businesses would be closed. My expat friends back in Hanoi would be living under strict lockdown conditions. Travelers I know would be similarly grounded in Thailand, Cairo, London, Cape Town, and beyond. Others would spend enormous sums on last-minute, price-gouging tickets in attempts to get wherever home happens to be.
But in that moment, as the plane left Mexico City for Puerto Escondido, we were all heading to the beach, the sea and sand. It was impossible to know what would come next, so all I could do in that moment was enjoy the relief that -- for now -- the trip was over.
I spent the next two weeks avoiding human contact. I wondered when I’d be able to get up in the air again. Like everyone, my life of travel has been grounded indefinitely.
People like me live a wandering existence because we thrive on new experiences and enjoy bridging the gap between various cultures. I don’t even know what it’s like to be in one place for more than a few months at a time anymore.
What I do know is that someday this storm will pass, and when it does most of us will have a renewed vigor for leaving home and seeing the world. When that day comes, you’ll find me back on the road.