Boy Interrupted, Travel In The Time Of Covid. The spreadsheet had been tweaked and edited for months. Reviewed and rewritten. I had planned all my travels from January through October of 2020. And it was only October of 2019.
I had set high ambitions for the year with a list of 19 new countries. And of course, a handful of repeats. The new countries were broken into three trips.
February/March – West Africa
- Sierra Leone
May/June – The Pacific
- Papua New Guinea
- Solomon Islands
- Marshall Islands
August/September/October – Southern Africa
This was to be 19 new countries … and I was hoping for a 20th in either October or November. If you are a reader you might know I am trying to visit every country in the world. And at the start of 2020, I had traveled to 140 of 193 countries.
And then Covid-19 arrived. I am partially living in Bangkok. And the first case of Covid appeared on January 13th, making Thailand the second country to have an infected person. On paper, Thailand seem threatened. Thailand receives approximately 40 million tourists a year with about 25% arriving from China, the source of the virus. Yet as of March 18, there are only 212 cases. While I kept my eye on Covid during January, I still was not overly concerned.
In February, I began to plan for my upcoming travel plans. Before starting my 6 country West Africa road trip I was going to visit Berlin for two travel conferences. ITB is one of the largest travel conferences in the world with over 100,000 participants from around the globe. And I was also attending and moderating a session at the Travel Massive Forum which also took place during the first week of March.
The week before ITB’s commencement, it was announced that this giant conference was to be canceled. The German government decided it was too risky to welcome thousands of people from around the globe. But the Travel Massive Forum was still a go, with more of the attendees being local.
I boarded my flight to Moscow on the morning of March 2nd. As I waited from my connection to Berlin, I checked my phone. The Berlin Travel Festival which the Travel Massive Forum was a part of had been canceled. I sighed in frustration and read more of my email.
The organizers of both the Berlin Travel Festival and the Travel Massive Forum had come in contact with an infected person at the coworking space that everyone was working in. There is no way the conference could commence after the organizers had been exposed.
And after I landed, the news really hit home. One of my friends, Lisa Hubner, had been infected and was at home self-quarantining. She is part of the leadership team at Travel Massive. While she was ill, it was not serious enough to be hospitalized and Lisa has since thankfully mostly recovered.
In addition, to this person, my friend and the founder of Travel Massive, Ian Cumming, had also been exposed and was self-quarantining. Despite his efforts, it took him five days to be tested. And thankfully his test results were negative. Travel Massive is the world’s largest online professional travel network.
I did meet Ian once during my stay in Berlin. But it was a surreal meeting. I picked up some food for him and we met in a park near his apartment. We stood 15 meters apart in an deserted park, looking at each other, speaking on our phones. I dropped the bag of food on the ground and then stepped back. Ian approached and grabbed the bag. It looked like a very unprofessional drug deal.
I spent my week in Berlin and life went on. There was no social distancing. Restaurants and bars were open and packed. Virtually no one wore face masks. And despite the conference being canceled, thousands of people had already made their trips, ending up in Berlin. In fact, there were at least a dozen ad hoc events each day I was there. At this time, there were only a couple of hundred cases in Germany.
I was to fly to Dakar, Senegal to begin my West Africa road trip. I reviewed the IATA (International Air Transport Association) website on flight restrictions. Senegal had no restrictions nor any of the other countries I was visiting. Senegal had only several cases, and the other five countries, zero cases. It seemed like the coast was clear.
My thought process was I could go to West Africa and complete my month-long road trip before the storm hit. My theory was I could outrun the storm before Covid made a substantial impact. As I mentioned … this trip had been in the works for a over a year, and I had no desire to cancel my plans.
My plane touched down at just after midnight, early Sunday morning on March 8th. My temperature was scanned when I arrived on Dakar, and I filled out one additional form with some personal information. Otherwise, I was quickly stamped into Senegal my 141st country. The trip was on.
I met my guide/driver/friend, Marlon, who I had already traveled with on two previous trips and had met in Burkina Faso. This trip was to complete my last six countries in West African region. I was also being joined by two other friends, Craig and Phil.
We explored Senegal for the next eight days. There were no issues. There were still only a handful of cases in the country. The Senegalese went about their business as countries like Italy were inundated with hundreds of cases.
Everyday we monitored the situation, reading the news, checking with IATA, and reviewing posts on FB from other travelers in West Africa. I still hoped to barnstorm through the region.
On Sunday, March 16 we woke up in Senegal near the northern border of Gambia. Our plan was to drive to Gambia to spend several days exploring this skinny country. But today felt a little different.
Two of the staff members informed us that Gambia was closing their border. They had heard on the local news. We poured through the internet to learn what was happening. Marlon checked in at the nearby border as we continued with some morning activities at the lodge. Marlon returned in late morning and shared with us the border was still open.
We grabbed our bags and our quartet headed to the Gambian border. When stamping out of Senegal, a young lady directed us to an outdoor sink to wash our hands and as we walked over to the Gambian side, some immigration staff inquired about our previous travels, but otherwise it was business as usual at this busy border.
Later that evening, we gathered on the beach in Serrekunda, right outside of the capital, Banjul. The four of us sat outside as we munched on our dinner with a cold beer as we listened to waves lap up on the beach. A large party of western tourists dined next to us. This was our most sober conversation about the future of our trip. Some serious concern had seeped in.
My concern at this time was still not Covid-19, but the closing of the borders which had been accelerating around the world. There were still only a handful of Covid cases in the region (arguably, you could point out that there is insufficient testing). But, it seemed like borders were beginning to close like dominos.
While I did not mind getting stuck in Guinea-Bissau or Liberia for a week, I was extremely concerned of being stranded there for a month or two in a worst-case scenario. Some of these countries are undeveloped with poor governance and infrastructure. Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world and could be considered a nearly failed state. In an extreme version, I could be stuck in Western Africa for a couple of months, with the risk of food insecurity and civil unrest.
After much debate, the three of us purchased flights for the following day for Istanbul on Turkish Air, for their twice weekly flight from Banjul. Craig and I opted to fly to our homes in Thailand, Phil decided to wait out the storm in Turkey, while Marlon would drive back to his home in Burkina Faso.
As I sat in the lounge in Istanbul, munching on baklava, I noted the departure board. It looked like the storm had arrived.
On my way home.
On March 19, I am self-quarantined in my apartment in Bangkok. Borders are closing around the world.
While Covid cases are still limited in West Africa, more flights have been canceled and borders have begun to close. And also, just like there are ugly voices in the west who point fingers at other ethnic groups and other nationalities, xenophobia and fear are taking plant in Africa.
Some news from Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, the U.S. Embassy noted a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment after cases emerged there. “Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services, being spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19,” a security alert said. Too be honest, I traveled to Ethiopia years ago, and I was chased and stoned, so this is somewhat typical behavior from the locals.
And there was this report from Liberia.
As I write this on March 19th, there are still less than 300 confirmed cases in Thailand and around the world 212,799 with 8,787 deaths in 168 countries. More countries are banned from flying to Thailand, while others are encumbered with additional requirements before entry. Bars and restaurants are rumored to be closing, while many festivals and events have been canceled.
So for now, hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Stay healthy and be safe.