The realization that we had to return home sooner than anticipated was devastating. In October 2019 my boyfriend and I began our travels in Latin America. We intended to travel until June of the same year and then return to the States to visit family and friends before jetting off on another international adventure. Despite our well-laid plans, Covid19 had other ideas. The global pandemic that had started earlier in the year had since spread to nearly every region of the world and had finally arrived in the Americas.
In March of 2020 South American countries began taking measures to keep their citizens safe by closing borders to foreigners and in some cases, everyone, including citizens. Mine and Brandon's original intention was to keep traveling for as long as possible and then hunker down in an area to wait out the storm. After doing research and realizing the devastating and long-lasting impact that the virus had had in China and other regions it soon became apparent that what we thought would last a month or two was going to last much longer. Having no knowledge of the Colombian health care system, no support network in the area, and with the uncertainty of how long the border and flight route closures would last we made the difficult decision to return home.
Our seemingly simple plan to rent a vehicle to drive from the town of Santa Marta to the airport in Cartagena where we would catch our flights quickly became more complicated. Five days before our flight the decision to shut borders was declared and two days later Brandon's flight with Jet Blue was canceled. In fact, Jet Blue had announced that they would no longer be flying to or from Colombia. Thankfully he was able to book a flight with Delta but time was slipping away. We were set to fly out on Saturday and Delta released that Monday they would follow Jet Blues example and this route would be closed for the indefinite future. Although extremely nerve-wracking, these announcements only confirmed we had made the right decision.
Each day felt like an eternity. Policies and regulations seemed to change every hour and it was overwhelming to keep up with it. Thursday evening the news arrived that Colombia would begin a shelter in place "drill" Friday evening. This meant that everyone was to stay at home unless going to the supermarket, pharmacy, or another essential location. Our flights were still running, however, it was uncertain if we would be able to make the four-hour drive to the airport as many of the main highways would be closed. To our dismay, Friday evening we discovered that our car rental company would be unable to rent us a vehicle since they had been forced to close their offices in Cartagena. Although grateful that we learned this the day before we were supposed to fly out we now had to find someone willing to drive us to the airport during a time when everyone was supposed to be at home. Luck was smiling on us though and the gentleman who drove us from the rental company back to our apartment was also willing to drive us to the airport. To say stress levels were high would be an understatement. Despite my best efforts to remain positive, I was concerned that our taxi drive (Señor Lopez) would be late, or not show up, or worse we would get all the way to the airport only to discover the flight was canceled! However, Señor Lopez did not disappoint, despite Colombians notorious reputation of always being late he arrived early! Since the shelter in place drill was in effect we encountered little traffic and the roads were mostly clear on our way to Cartagena.
As we drove through the tolls entering Cartagena we discovered that the highway was closed. I couldn't catch everything that was said between Señor Lopez and the woman in the toll booth but she allowed us through and just warned us that the police were monitoring the roads. I breathed a sigh of relief until I saw the Police blockade ahead. In front of us was another taxi being asked to turn around. I held my breath and was thankful that our taxi driver could be our voice during the exchange. I can speak Spanish but when confronted with stressful situations my brain has a tendency to shut down. The policeman looked annoyed as we approached. He rapidly informed us that the highway was closed and we couldn't pass through. My heart dropped. Did we really come all this way just to be turned around? Señor Lopez kept his cool and calmly stated that he was driving us to the airport and that we had a flight today. The policeman peered at us in the back and demanded to see our boarding passes, which unfortunately we did not have. Fortunately, I had a screenshot of our booking confirmation, and although it was in English, the officer could see the date of the flight. He frowned, but let us pass. What had seemed like a hiccup at the start when we were unable to rent our car had turned into a hidden blessing. I am sure we could have navigated the situation ourselves but it certainly helped that we had a native speaker with us. Twenty short minutes later we arrived at the airport, boarded our flight a few hours later and were on our merry way. Upon arriving home we spent fourteen days in quarantine and were relieved when neither of us exhibited any Covid19 symptoms. Our fears that maybe we had contracted the virus were abated and we could relax that we were both safe, as were our families.
Although saddened by the fact that our 8-month trip was shortened to 6 months I couldn't imagine being apart from my family during such a stressful time. The uncertainty of the future can definitely be overwhelming, but in these unsettling times, I try to focus on the things that I do know. I do know that these 6 months traveling in South America were amazing. I learned a lot about myself, the world and the things that I want out of life. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to travel and see different parts of the world and experience a different way of life. The travel restrictions that have since been put in place have heightened my awareness of how privileged I am to have had this incredible experience in the first place. I remain optimistic that in the not so distant future I can return to this traveling lifestyle and continue exploring the world. In the meantime, I am thankful to be near family and loved ones, grateful for a job that allows me to work online and for my health. Each new day poses its own physical and mental challenges but I am certain we will get through this. For now, it is important to take care of ourselves and others, stay home and stay connected.
I hope you are all staying safe and healthy.