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TRAVELING DURING THE PANDEMIC

For those of you who were wondering what happened to us overseas during the pandemic, I thought it only proper to write about it. It was a hairy experience!

After we finished up in Thailand and went to Indonesia, the entire world started freaking out. Our temperatures were screened as we entered Bali, and we were issued Covid-19 paperwork, which we were told we must keep in our passports at all times. On the papers, instructions were given to us as to who to contact if we became ill. Luckily, the disease had not really taken hold in that country yet, so it was business-as-usual for most of our time in Bali. But our worries grew as we got ready to fly out to the Molucca Island group. Air travel was still normal for domestic travel within Indonesia, but some international flights had already shut down. What if we got out there, and we couldn't get back? Maybe we shouldn't go at all? Maybe we should high-tail it home...

Pictures from New York and Chicago helped with our decision. By then, New York was the American epicenter. Huge crowds of panicked passengers were fleeing Europe, cramming airline terminals in overcrowded mobs as they waited to enter the US. So many of them were giving the virus to each other! No way would we walk into that maelstrom of disease! It would be better to enjoy a somewhat abbreviated stay on some remote islands, and then return when things were calming down. We decided to wait, but we kept a very very nervous eye on the airlines and the news, both internationally and locally.

As we waited to board the fourteen-hour overnight ferry to the distant islands, our first international tickets were cancelled, because they went through Thailand, and even the airport transit area was now closed to foreigners. We bought new tickets, using a different route. At that time, New York was exploding with disease. There were lots of articles on the web suggesting that maybe it would be wiser (and safer) to shelter in place in Indonesia than to return. The idea sounded ideal, except that Indonesian healthcare is terrible. If we actually got sick, over there, it would probably be lethal. With all that, we decided to come home early, but not too early. We wanted to come home on the last, empty flights from Asia. Our timing would have to be perfect. We were playing chicken with the airline system - a very dangerous thing to do! In the end, all five of us decided to risk it. (We were travelling with three friends, all importers)

On top of all those worries, the overnight ferry ride to the islands (on the government-run ferry) was something of a nightmare. We got on the ship and stood, waiting, hoping to get private cabins, for fear of getting the disease. All the cabins on board were already booked, but we'd been told that cabins that are normally given to the crew could be ours, if we were willing to pay a rip-off price. With our fears of the virus in the overcrowded dormitory rooms, which had beds no more than 6 inches apart, we were more than willing. As soon as the ferry got well underway, we contacted the ship's steward, who sold us two crew cabins at a ridiculous rate. They were private cabins, with private toilets, but they hadn't been cleaned since Methusalah had slept there. There were beds with stark, bare vinyl cushions, with no bedding or pillows whatsoever, and the wooden platforms that they were sitting on were literally covered in dead cockroaches. There must have been at least thirty dead ones in the room, with the occasional live one making an appearance. The air conditioning vent was broken, so we shivered in blasts of frigid air all night long. Naturally, we got sick from it.

Once we got to the islands, we decided that they were worth the arduous trip. They were beautiful! There was a live volcano there, which had created the lovely islands around it, but the best views were underwater. We spent about a week there, snorkeling every day, and we saw some great stuff. I got to see two big sharks, one of which swam like a bullet straight at me! At about fifteen feet away, he changed his mind, as he realized that I was not food. He darted away, leaving me in awe of him, There was so much spectacular sea life! Sea turtles, lionfish, moray eels, just to name a few. The reef had unfortunately suffered some bleaching, but it was still in pretty good shape. On our last day, our boat got right in the middle of a huge pod of dolphins. There must of have been over a hundred of them! At first, they were all sleeping, but they soon woke up and came around the boat to play.

Poor Dave had to spend half of his precious time on the islands on line, figuring and re-configuring our travel plans. Dozens of bookings had to be cancelled or changed altogether. We increasingly worried about domestic travel in Indonesia. If we got stuck out on the Moluccas, that would be a disaster. We didn't know anybody out there, like we do in Bali. If hotels and restaurants shut down, what would we do? Our next international flights went through Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. These soon got cancelled, as K.L. shut down virtually without warning. The same thing happened to Hong Kong. We decided to change our domestic flight to take us to Jakarta, the biggest hub in Indonesia, so that we would be most likely to find alternate routes home if necessary.

Our friend booked through Korea, and she lost hers too. Dubai shut down. Our last chance was Qatar. We found two seats in business class and took them, thinking we'd be safer. The country was closed to foreigners, but the airport was still open. But for how long?

We had cabin tickets on the return ferry. The ship itself was sitting at the dock, with four foreigners locked in on board. Apparently, the local government had held a meeting the day before, and had decided to ban all visitors to the islands, for fear of the pandemic. The poor folks on the ship had been stuck on board for three days, unable to disembark. Local guest houses were very kindly bringing them food. We couldn't blame the locals, on islands without a hospital and only one doctor, but we suddenly felt unwanted and unwelcome. It was time to leave.

The Indonesian government was definitely stepping up. Even in these remote islands we were seeing posters about hand washing and masks. Ferry personnel checked everyone's temperature before boarding. When we got off the ferry, and back onto the big island, we got screened again. We got checked again at our hotel. In the small city of Ambon, there were posters and billboards everywhere. People were learning about social distancing. The hotel was sanitizing. And this was still in March! I have to say, the Indonesian government was doing a bang-up job of responding to the pandemic. Even out in the boondocks.

We were very nervous about getting off the island chain. Some domestic flights were already getting canceled. We were flying with a tiny little airline called Batik Air. Would they still fly? Our hotel told us they would be closing the hotel in a few days. If we couldn't leave, then what would we do? Rent a house? Live there? I sat in our hotel room and sewed us masks, using an old tee shirt and some elastic from my luggage.

On the morning of our local flight there was no bad news on our email, so we went to the airport with fingers crossed. The airport was open, and they were taking passengers! Again, we got temperatures checked before entering the airport. Social distancing signs and posters were everywhere. The Indonesian President starred in an airport video about handwashing. Every second seat was blocked off in the waiting area. Passengers were social distancing and wearing masks. What a good job the Indonesian government had done!

In Jakarta, we arrived at the nearly deserted Novotel and got our temperatures checked at the door. We had to wait for our room, for some reason, which turned out to be a lucky thing, because several air crews showed up to check in. Dave recognized the uniforms. It was the Qatar crew! They assured us that, yes, they were still flying.

That evening, my cold, which I got from shivering on the overnight ferry, got worse. I was coughing badly, so I was afraid to leave the hotel room. I did not want to be denied reentry! I was very sure that I did not have Covid, because I have terrible lungs and R.A.D (Reactive Airway Disease) which means that, if I ever do get Covid, I will be instantly hauled off to the nearest hospital. I was fearful that the hotel would kick me out, so I sheltered in place for three days. On the second day, for a couple of hours I spiked a little fever, which really made me panic. What would happen if I was denied access to the airport because of a fever? Would they quarantine me in Jakarta, where I couldn't speak the language? Where I would be sure to get Covid. Or would we have to flee overland back to Bali and shelter there? If that happened, could we return to our little guest house in Ubud? The locals had been kicking all foreigners out of the hotels there. Would the family take us in and hide us? The back of the guest house was so isolated that maybe, we could get away with hiding there. But for how long? Months? A Year? What a nightmare!

Meanwhile, Dave was constantly checking the Internet. Every day, he went down to meet the Qatar air crews when they came in. Our friend Shawnne lost her flight, only hours before it was scheduled to take off. Panicked, she ran around the airport trying to rebook. She finally got a flight through Japan, but, in order to catch her second flight, she would have to switch airports. And this meant entering Japan. If they decided to close the country, she would be stuck in the terminal. It was her only shot, so she took the risk.

On the day of our flight, I was doing a bit better. We caught a cab to the International terminal. When we got there, the place looked absolutely deserted. In a place where there would normally be hundreds of cars lining up to let off passengers, there was only one other vehicle. As they pulled away, there was only one person visible: a broom-wielding airport worker. I passed the temp check with a smile. Inside, the departure boards only listed two flights that were not cancelled. Ours, and one other. Gratefully, we collected our boarding passes.

Once again, the Indonesian government had stepped up. We had to pass through a fan-generated Hydrogen Peroxide mist, sterilizing us from head to toe. Our shoes were also cleaned. Everyone was wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Airpport workers all had masks and gloves.

The flights were great. We were fearful that we would not be allowed to transit through the Qatar airport, but that was not a problem. It was such a relief to finally get on the flight to New York. I was talking to the crew, thanking them for taking us, telling them that I was grateful that they would risk flying to such a bad Covid hotspot. They smiled and said "Don't worry. We are giving ourselves a new motto: We are the airline that will get you home." I'll never forget that. They have my customer loyalty forever.

New York was a shock. There were absolutely no efforts made by our government to protect against Covid. No temperature screenings. No passenger tracing. No signs, no posters, no nothing! The Immigration officer who had to handle everyone's passport was not given either a mask or gloves. Customs officers wore none. When we flew domestically, there were no signs, no posters, no social distancing efforts made in the waiting areas. No wonder we are an epicenter of disease!

It was so nice to get home to Vermont! But unfortunately, Dave and I will not be returning to customer service at our store very often. See you when there's a vaccine!

        Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod

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