Surviving a Pandemic Abroad

(*Image is screenshot from 2017 Ted Talk by Susan David.)

I am one week away from a flight back to the US. This will be my first time “home” in 1.5 years. (I use quotation marks around home because the US barely feels like home at this moment. I haven’t full-time lived in the US for close to 3 years now, and have no “home” of my own to return to- rather, I’ll continue going from place to place, thanks to the generosity of friends and my parents, until I sort out where “home” will be.) But before I get too sidetracked and turn this post into an entirely different subject matter (what does “home” really mean?), let me pivot and return to the theme at hand: living abroad during a pandemic.

One year ago, (well, one year and 4 days ago) I arrived in Brasil with the intention of spending 6-7 weeks, then (finally!!) making my way to Colombia to explore that country for a few weeks, before returning to the US and work by spring of 2020. I can’t say Covid-19 came out of nowhere; my mom started sending me WhatsApp messages about Covid-19 as early as December 2019. But I foolishly dismissed and disregarded this as some silly little virus/problem in Asia, and I wasn’t going to let that effect or interrupt my world travels. I retained this idiotic and dismissive perspective, even as Covid-19 began to ravage Europe, in what should have been a very clear sign that the virus was quickly spreading and no corner of the globe would go unaffected. Nonetheless, I suppose I wanted to keep my head buried in the sand as long as possible. I wasn’t ready to accept that a force beyond my control would bring a glorious year and a half of travel to a screeching halt. Heck, I was so unwilling to accept this that even once Covid-19 arrived to Brasil and I could no longer ignore it, I chose to remain abroad- for a variety of reasons I will discuss in more detail.

AS COVID-19 ARRIVED…

Let me back up and provide a narrative of how I recall things. I spent February 2020 (actually, a total of 5 weeks) in Rio de Janiero, learning Portuguese, making new friends, relishing the sunshine and beaches, and enjoying Carnaval. I then had a truly glorious week in Sao Paolo; I still have an article I was writing during my time there that I need to put the finishing touches on and publish. I regress… So, I had this wonderful week in SP, enjoying far more of a feeling of security and safety than I had enjoyed in Rio (despite feeling quite comfortable in Rio by the end of my time there), and falling in love with a vibrant city absolutely full of extraordinary restaurants, bars, museums, and parks. After the week in SP, I embarked on what was supposed to be a 10-day trip up north, one that would mark the end of my adventure in Brasil. I can still clearly recall that when I left SP to fly to Fortaleza, on a Saturday, there was still almost no discussion of Covid in Brasil. Absolutely no indication that anything would be closing down anytime soon. So I never hesitated to fly out of SP, because (again, refer to the above, about my having my head buried deep in the sand of denial) nothing re Covid was really on my radar. That all changed by the following Monday. I was in a true Brasilian paradise, Jericoacoara (“Jeri”), but instead of enjoying the tiny town and its majestic beach and surrounding dunes, I sat in my hotel room with the weight of reality on my shoulders: Covid had arrived to Brasil and the country was rapidly beginning to close, and I had to figure out what to do. After my time in Jeri, I was then supposed to fly to Sao Luis, and then make my way to another location recommended to me by so many Brasilians, but the owner of my Airbnb rental messaged to inform me that Airbnb was requiring her to cancel the reservation (and all others). Instead of stubbornly pressing ahead, I decided to consider the second part of my northern vacation sunk costs* and work on getting myself back to Sao Paolo as fast as possible.

[*Slight interruption as a warning for anyone booking reservations through third party websites, such as kayak, expedia, etc.- I can’t recommend doing this anymore. While all airlines, pretty much globally, offered refunds due to cancelled flights, because I had booked through a third-party site the airline wouldn’t issue me a refund, they continued to insist I go through the third-party website. And unless you spend extra money upfront when booking through these websites for “concierge service”, or whatever name they call it, it’s pretty much impossible to get any assistance or a refund. I used to massively prefer booking through third-party websites; Kayak was a particular favorite of mine. But for years it just meant you got to take advantage of their algorithms finding cheap flights or cheap hotel rooms. Now they lock you into a separate path of booking that excludes you from even the most basic of assistance that the primary sites offer. Having had several issues related to third-party website bookings, and ultimately spending as much- if not more- money than if I had booked directly, I would strongly advise travelers against using these sites anymore, unless/until reforms are made that better protect the consumer.]

Initially, that was because my flight to Colombia was leaving SP, although that flight was cancelled a week to the day before I was due to depart (as Colombia made the decision to close its boarders). But the more practical reason was not wanting to be stuck in northern Brasil (which is far more dangerous and has far less infrastructure) as the pandemic was arriving. As I weighed whether or not to stay in Brasil or return to the US, I was seeing a constant flood of news about how the arrival terminal and customs’ areas of US airports were crowded with hundreds to thousands of people, all huddled together for hours upon hours waiting to clear immigration on their way home. And I recall thinking: I don’t particularly understand this virus, but it seems abundantly clear it spreads person to person, so voluntarily subjecting myself to an environment where I would be at a higher risk of catching it seemed foolish. Plus, at the time, though Brasil was rushing to close things down and go into lockdown, I had barely heard of any cases so I felt like Brasil was doing what the US failed to do- get an early start on its response before things escalated. Weighing my options, I felt that the safer option was staying put in Brasil and not joining the tens of thousands of Americans abroad who made the mad dash to get home.

MY DECISION TO RIDE OUT THE PANDEMIC IN BRASIL

Even with hindsight, I would probably make the same decision again, even though it turned out Brasil spiraled into the 2nd most dangerous country in the world (2nd only to the US) for Covid-19 cases and deaths. Why? Well, at the time Brasil did have very few cases, and I was foolishly optimistic that by responding so quickly to implement quarantines and shutting down all non-essential businesses, things would pass relatively quickly and I could go back to enjoying a city I fell in love with (SP) the first week I was there. After all, you need weeks to fully explore all SP has to offer, so I thought: when this Covid-19 thing passes, I’ll have my chance. Also, I had starting dating a man who lived in SP, and decided it was worth staying put to see what happened with us; plus, figuring it would give me someone to quarantine with. That’s another topic I’ll save for a bit.

So with the decision made, I rented my first apartment for a month, and was super grateful I did so only for 1 month because I quickly realized: (1) this wasn’t ending anytime soon, so I needed to budget myself better; (2) with all outdoor spaces closed, including public parks, I needed to live somewhere with a bit of outdoor space; and (3) now that I was precluded from traveling and was at home all the time, with an abundance of free time, I wanted to adopt (or at least, foster) a dog. I figured: I was already mentally prepared to head back to the US and work (= a “settled” life again) by the spring of 2020, and a dog certainly eliminates many travel options, so why not? I lucked out by finding a gorgeous apartment with a private terrace that faced west/south (so I had direct sunshine for 6+ hours/day) and was dog friendly. That led to me bringing Lulu into my life, a dog I knew had medical issues (incontinence, which, as it would turn out, was the least problematic issue), and every single host of emotional and behavioral issues a dog can have. She definitely helped occupy my time, but also drained my ever-dwindling savings account. Nonetheless, I did everything I possibly could and worked with a host of professional trainers, in an attempt to help her improve to a point where I felt I could responsibly take her out of Brasil. In the end, she just didn’t get there so I had to make the tough decision to leave her behind, knowing that I had done (at least, financially) more than most Brasilians had the ability to do for Lulu, and knowing that she had the support and help of an amazing group of women (from the animal rescue) who would continue to help her rehabilitation until she could find a forever home.

QUARANTINE RELATIONSHIPS

That brings me to my next topic: relationships and the Covid-19 pandemic. There are so many layers of this to discuss, but I’ll stick to what has most affected me over the last 11 months: the unnatural pace of relationships given the pandemic, and consequences of such. For me, attempting to form new relationships during the pandemic- both of the romantic and platonic nature, has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful. And I think it’s because the pace we have to move at is just too much too soon. With my attempts at (two different) romantic relationships during my lockdown in Brasil, you go from first meeting/first date to being exclusive immediately (at least, for people who are taking Covid-19 and quarantine seriously). Once you decide to let someone into your bubble, you have to exclude all others to know that you’re not going to risk unwittingly infecting yourself and, by extension, your romantic partner. And since you become exclusive immediately, I ended up effectively living with the extremely new boyfriend within a matter of days. Yes, the rush of that can be exciting and exhilarating at first, but there’s a reason normal people take months, if not years, to get to this point- most people are not emotionally equipped to go from first kiss to living together immediately. There’s a reason we (do and should) stretch out the getting-to-know-you period: it gives us time to gradually open up, and for the other person to gradually open up to us, for a foundation of emotional intimacy and trust to develop before you start sharing all of yourself and your space. Too much too soon is definitely a thing, especially when you’re living in an environment where everything outside your home is closed (plus, factor in one or both people not working so having every waking hour of the day available) so you spend all your time inside, and together. So it was no surprise that both of my relationships crashed and burned in record time. (I can say that with a smile on my face, thinking: part of the Covid-19 experience.) But what I also found to be true is how this ended up also hurting platonic relationships. The most notable example of that is here in Mexico (don’t worry, I’ll fill in the gaps of how I got to Mexico shortly). One friend I made ended up becoming a close friend very rapidly (just as with romantic relationships, it’s easy to get lured into thinking someone is a “friend” or “close friend” before you really know them), and I found myself spending time with her (and her husband) on an almost daily basis. When I had to switch apartments, at the last minute, the place I was supposed to move into fell apart and I was left scrambling to find a new place to live when my new friend and her husband invited me to rent their spare bedroom. I had lots of reservations (first, their chihuahua was not social with other animals or people and I was [rightfully] afraid he would be territorial and aggressive towards my newly-adopted puppy, and second, living in a small apartment with new friends could be wonderful, but unless both of them are leaving the house for work daily that means being together almost 24/7, which could destroy the relationship), but I adored them, knew the rent I’d pay them was a mere fraction of having my own place, so I accepted. Well, just like the romantic relationships, there is too much of a good thing and about 5-6 weeks into this “experiment” they told me: because the number of people coming down with Covid-19 at his work was so high, it was better/safer for me to find somewhere else to live. This is a couple that had already contracted Covid, so while reinfection is possible, the risk was fairly limited. But I think they wanted their space back as much as I wanted my privacy (and, to not live in a house with such an aggressive dog that was constantly attacking my ridiculously sweet and social puppy), so I ate up the lie, thanked them for their generosity of letting me live there for 6 weeks, and was living in my own apartment the very next day, haha. Though things ended relatively amicably and there was no tension, the rush of: meet–> get along –> spend time together daily (because the female of the pair also wasn’t working so had an abundance of spare time)–> live together, proved to be too much, and we haven’t spoken since I moved out a month ago.

In that way, Covid-19 has shown me the gift that time is. In a world that is increasingly about instant gratification and speeding things along, what all of these relationships have taught me is that there is, and should be, a natural rhythm to things, and that taking things more gradually usually provides better outcomes in the long run. Heck, some people I met for only a day or meal during my travels- years ago- I am still in touch with and closer with than any of these folks, and I’m guessing it’s because, after that initial “pop” of good-feelings you get when you first meet someone you really like and want to know better (and I’m definitely not just speaking about romantic interest here), you typically go your own ways and maybe stay in touch through social media (or if you’re lucky enough to be in the same place for awhile, meeting up occasionally in person) and gradually get to know one another. As someone who tends to be impatient, this has all been a remarkably humbling and informative period.

THE HARD STUFF

But lessons learned aside, like everyone in the world, this has been hard. And I say that fully knowing I am so much luckier than so many. People often commented to me: you’re so lucky to be “stuck” in Brasil. I can only imagine that, in their mind, I was spending my days frolicking on a beach, passing my time enjoying a tropical paradise surrounded by beautiful Brasilians. That is exactly the opposite of what my life was like. Beaches in Brasil had been shut down since mid-March, and even if they were open, I was carless and living a couple hours drive from the nearest beach. Apart from leaving to walk my foster dog or go to the grocery store, I was stuck inside all day, every day, alone. I am your definition of an extrovert- I am someone who recharges when around others. This is likely what sustained me during my first 19-20 months of travel, and why I never felt a longing to return home or settle down. I was constantly engaged, meeting new people, learning new cultures, etc. But that all stopped, and when my first two attempts at romantic relationships failed (early on in my quarantine period in Brasil), I found myself all alone (save a very troubled dog) in an apartment, hours from anyone I personally knew (the only true friends I had made in Brasil were all in Rio), and a continent away from close friends and family. Initially, I kept a pretty good attitude about it all, and continuing with my intensive Portuguese language classes (3 hours/day x 5 days/week) was a lifesaver. That group, Paula, Olivier, Fran, and Luisa, and engaging with them (albeit, through Zoom) really helped me still feel connected and not quite so alone. Early on I also decided: since everyone in the world is basically going through the same experience, it could be a marvelous time to connect with people anywhere. So, as I had often done throughout my travels when seeking friends, I turned to a dating app and struck up conversations with men in Hong Kong, London, Singapore, NYC, and LA, to name a few places. And for a few months, it was really engaging and entertaining. I think so many people were looking for someone to connect with in some way, so having a pen pal in a different continent wasn’t so bad… until Covid-19 fatigue started setting in. And when the reality that we wouldn’t have the chance to meet (I’m not even talking romantically) for months or years set in, interest on one or both sides faded and most of those conversations died off. (Except for GK in NYC, who has been a saving grace and someone I speak to more regularly than most of the people in my life! So even for that the app was a win for me.)

By early to mid-June, after months of feeling quite isolated and bored, I hit a wall. I just couldn’t do it anymore and knew I had to leave Brasil. It was a hard decision, because I knew travel was still risky, and I also knew there was no other place I could go in the world at that moment where I would live as cheaply (my landlord in SP, who became a dear friend, gave me such an extraordinary rate on her apartment, given the circumstances, there was no finding comparably affordable housing anywhere else). But for my mental health, I had to be near to at least someone I knew and could go on socially-distanced walks with, even if nothing more. Plus, Brasil had provided NO guidance on how it was handling the visa situation and I had already overstayed mine (and fines are EXPENSIVE, keep that in mind), so I began to plan my exit. When I decided to “ride out” the pandemic in March 2020, I had no idea that the duration would go on for so long…

TRAVELING DURING COVID

Let me be abundantly clear: I am not talking about travel for fun, or to take advantage of a cheap flight. I’m talking about trying to go home – or closer to home- in the middle of a pandemic. It actually took me three different flights before I finally made it out of Brasil. Initially, I booked a flight to return to the US; my departure was mid-July. See, by early June the Covid situation had started to calm down and improve in the US, so by mid-June, when I booked my flight, I figured: with another month of improvement, things should be relatively safe for me to return home. (Keep in mind, returning home means going to visit my parents, both of whom are in high-risk categories for Covid, so all my travel plans were weighed against protecting them.) Well, within 1-2 weeks of booking my flight (into Miami, as it was the only non-stop flight out of SP at that time), Florida had a 2nd wave of cases that came crashing down, and daily numbers were hitting 60,000-70,000 infected, and I was terrified. In that moment I decided it was still too dangerous to risk a return to the US, so I decided to pivot. As Americans were (and still are) banned from entry into almost every country in the world, my options were limited. Seeing as how a primary motivation of mine, apart from a general sense of insecurity due to my visa situation in Brasil, was to be nearer to friends, Mexico made the most sense. I had gotten to know a few people when I was in Mexico City late 2019 through early 2020, which gave me a sense of community. And when you’ve had nobody for months, even 3 acquaintances feels like a community. Plus, Mexico is the only country in the world that never shut its boarders to anyone, so entry wasn’t going to be a problem. And I’d be a quick flight back to the US. So I switched my plane ticket for the first direct flight from SP to Mexico City, which wasn’t until mid-August. That was flight #2.

Well, about a week before my flight was due to depart, the airline informed me that my flight was cancelled. Absolutely no reason given. When I called I was provided with two options: reschedule for the next available flight at no additional cost (but, only if there was another direct flight within 15 days of the originally scheduled flight), or cancel and go through a lengthy process to request reimbursement. I tried to reschedule, but the next available flight was more than a month away, which meant I was responsible for the difference in cost of the ticket fare, which amounted to more than $1,000! NOPE. So I opted for the reimbursement (which did take months, but I did finally receive!), and booked myself a different flight to Mexico City, departure date of August 24. This was flight #3 and third time was the charm.

My airport and flight experience was unlike anything I’ve ever experience before. The international airport in SP is one of the biggest and busiest in the world, and yet, it was a ghost town. I am not exaggerating when I say it took me between 5-10 minutes, from the time I walked through the front doors of the airport, to check-in, drop off luggage, get through customs/immigration, and be sitting in the only café in the concourse open, waiting for my flight. The flight itself was only about 1/3 full, and lots of space meant nobody sitting immediately around me, which made me feel much safer. And I arrived to Mexico City with no issues at all, and thankfully, did not contract Covid during my trip.

The last time I was in Mexico City, I traveled non-stop around Mexico. This stay couldn’t be more different. The only times I’ve ventured outside the city have been by car and with friends. And I felt safe doing that because, I absolutely cannot write this post without mentioning this: PEOPLE WEAR MASKS EVERYWHERE. Not having lived in the US at all since Covid-19 started, I’m flabbergasted that wearing a mask became a political issue, because, it definitely isn’t outside of the US. In both Brasil (a country whose president is nicknamed “Trump of the Tropics,” so not exactly a liberal or progressive government by any means) and Mexico (where legit anything goes, all the time), I never once heard anyone argue about wearing a mask. I think people were a bit slower to get used to wearing masks all the time when walking around outside, but as for inside, it’s as common as having a shirt or pants on before you enter a place. It’s just the new norm, it’s accepted, people just do it without much of a thought given to it.

Mask rant over, returning to Mexico was absolutely the best decision to make. While my circle is small here, it’s existent. And while there have been periods during my time here where all restaurants and bars were shut down, things have mostly remained open for outdoor seating (albeit, limited hours) and winter weather was basically non-existent, so I’m still enjoying long walks in shorts and t-shirts. And having a super social puppy has allowed me to meet so many other dog owners- though always from a bit of a distance and fully masked 😉

WHY RETURN TO THE US NOW?

After so much time living abroad, why return now? Well, the practical answer is that my 6-month tourist visa in Mexico expires at the end of February, so I have to leave. And because I adopted a puppy here in Mexico, it’s not like I can just take off and go wherever (assuming I could easily travel to most countries, which I can’t, or I was willing to disregard risks associated with travel and Covid, which I’m not). Because I haven’t been back to the US in so long, it feels like time. Though it’s a strange feeling, and I’m going to conclude by going back to the start, because I’m not sure what “home” means to me anymore or where home is. Part of me is anxious about leaving Latin America- I’ve called LA home since arriving here in April 2019, almost two years ago, and am still in love with this part of the world. And especially in love with Mexico. But I would also be lying if I said: I didn’t want to crawl out of my skin due to boredom most days, that I didn’t want to go back to work, or that I didn’t want to have a place to call home. I’ve been living abroad for the better part of 3 years, mostly out of a single suitcase, so I know  better than most how little you need. Nonetheless, I like the thought of unpacking my suitcase, save for the occasional trip, getting all of my stuff out of storage (and praying after 3 years in storage it’s not all ruined), and remembering, once again, what “my” bed feels like, and a social network larger than a few people. It’s time.

If anyone made it this far, I appreciate your patience. I am extraordinarily lucky that I have managed to stay safe and healthy during this time and especially, that I have not lost any close friends or family due to Covid. But for anyone who has not been so lucky, my prayers go out to you.

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13 thoughts on “Surviving a Pandemic Abroad

  1. Very informative reflection. So glad you shared with all. What a year it has been for all of us. So glad you have “survived it ! Love you, Mom.

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  2. Safe travels. It’s been a trip. I’ve been flying throughout NA weekly since July. I’ve seen the ups and downs of Rep and Dem states. In the end I’ve always wore my facial covering! I actually went out for my first dinner at home with Eva since April a few weeks ago.

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    1. Thanks so much for keeping track of me and these posts. I am somewhat amazed we never crossed paths abroad seeing how much you travel. But hopefully we can get together sooner than later. Hugs!!

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  3. When I had to fly home from Thailand last year, having had my other travel plans cancelled and flights cancelled, I had a massive ordeal with Expedia trying to get my refund! It took about 2 months or more, but I managed to get it sorted in the end… definitely not going to be booking directly through them again in the future! 😅 Although I think I will use it to compare prices only

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    1. Such a pain, but so glad you got yours sorted out!! It’s really a shame, third party sites used to be my go-to, but these days it definitely seem like the downsides massively outweigh the savings. Though I too still like to check them out as a starting point/comparison 🙂 (Also, how AMAZING is Thailand?!)

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  4. Namaste,

    Happy you are safe. Muffi and I have received our first dose of the vaccine. Once pandemic is history come visit.

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    1. So appreciate you keeping up with me/this. I miss you and Muffi, stay safe and well and I’ll definitely make my way to see you all as soon as it’s safe.

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  5. What a journey, lady! Your posts have been a joy and thought-provoking for me. Will you continue it to describe the transition back to Stateside life? I hope so. While I’m no longer in DC (back in our beloved MO!), it and all of the friendships there will always be special to me. From our AFSP walks and events to the Baltimore NYE to so many random dinners and fun outings – I appreciate you as a such a caring, outgoing, open person. You’re awesome. Welcome (back to one of your) home(s)!

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    1. Thank you so much sweetie, for continuing to read and keep up, and especially for being the person who convinced me to start this to begin with. NEVER imagined the trip would go on so long, and it is fun to have this record of so many places I’ve been- and in such detail!! Not sure how much I’ll continue, though maybe! Definitely still behind on at least 1 (if not 2) more draft posts from Brasil.

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  6. What a journey! I’m glad you are safe. I have an American friend who was caught in Laos during the pandemic and has not made it home yet. I hope he writes about it. I will share your blog with him.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this! I absolutely love Laos but can’t imagine being stuck there for so long either. I hope your friend is doing ok and there’s definitely some value in writing and sharing the experience!

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