Up in the air while the world shuts down
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill as airlines were grounded, borders were closed and cities went into lockdown. This story, which was originally serialized in three parts in the Korea JoongAng Daily, relives the experience of being thousands of miles from home when everything stops.
Adventure of a lifetime becomes a race to escape
If you’re in a last-minute scramble to book a flight, Havana is the last place in the world you would want to be.
There’s internet in Cuba if you’re willing to work for it — accessed by hourly vouchers that can only be bought from vendors in person.
But you don’t visit Cuba to get on the internet. The country’s old-world charm attracts visitors from around the globe curious to see a place that hasn’t been upended by modern technology.
Havana in March is beautiful. But as we stood downtown in the shadow of stately colonial buildings, with the warm Caribbean sun glinting off the polished hoods of the brightly-colored vintage cars lining the street, we failed to appreciate its charm. According to the ladies in front of us in the queue, it was going to take at least a couple of days before we would make it to the front of the line for the Copa Airlines customer service desk to buy our ticket out of Cuba.
We didn’t have that kind of time. The coronavirus was already in the country, and panic was beginning to set in.
Sitting in a cafe in Busan on a rainy November day in 2018, my wife Jinsil and I first started to plan a trip around the world. We’d talked for years about long-term travel and finally decided that now was the time to do it.
We drew up lists of where we’d most like to go and then looked at maps to see what was realistically possible. After a few months working out the details, we settled on a plan that would take us through 22 countries in seven months.
We booked the first flight immediately so we couldn’t change our minds.
By the summer of 2019, everything was planned. We’d spend the winter in the Southern Hemisphere, in Bali, Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, then head north to Central America and the United States in spring, before continuing east to Europe and Africa in the summer. We’d booked our flights, organized most of our accommodations and purchased all the travel gear we could find.
All of our plans were in place, the t’s crossed and i’s dotted. We only got one thing wrong: Leaving in December 2019.
We left Korea in the early hours of Dec. 19, by which point at least nine people had reported symptoms of an unknown coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
We were watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks explode over Sydney at roughly the same time the World Health Organization (WHO) was first told about what would become known as the Covid-19 novel coronavirus.
By the time the virus really started to hit headlines we were halfway through a monthlong road trip around New Zealand.
At the start of February, New Zealand banned anyone traveling from China from entering the country, and reports of racism toward Asians quickly started increasing. We were wary and started imagining racism wherever we went.
It’s strange to remember now, but the racism really seemed to be the more viral threat at that point — fanned by news reports about the coronavirus being spread by Chinese travelers. We weren’t worried about the health risks at all; our only concern was Jinsil traveling as a Korean in a world that felt hostile toward all Asians.
In early February, weeks before the number of cases in Korea would shoot up because of the Shincheonji cluster in Daegu, we realized that Covid-19 was not just a Chinese story, but a Korean one as well.
On Feb. 7 we left New Zealand for the Cook Islands, a remote island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Cook Islands is in free association with New Zealand, meaning it is a self-governing country, but it relies on its larger neighbor for defense and foreign affairs. As a rule, if New Zealand immigration lets you in, the islands are supposed to.
A Korean passport changed things dramatically. Korea at the time had just 24 cases, and we had left the country more than a month before the first one was reported, but when we reached the Cook Islands’ immigration, the official took one look at Jinsil and sent her for further screening. Although our passports and documents clearly show that we both live in Korea, they were only interested in her.
Following a pattern that we would see repeated again and again over the following weeks, Jinsil was sent off to a separate desk and questioned at length about her health and movements.
It’s now obvious that this extra scrutiny was a good idea, but the fact that I was never called up for questioning despite living in Korea and being as much of a health risk as Jinsil suggested there was a definite xenophobic undertone to these checks.
Although the impossibly remote Cook Islands was scared and cautious, everything seemed entirely normal when we arrived in Los Angeles a week later.
No questions were asked when we landed at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 15 — our temperature wasn’t taken, and outside the airport, the streets of Venice Beach and Santa Monica were packed with people. Even at this point in mid-February, the specter of the pandemic should have been looming over the United States, but on the ground, it felt like we were a million miles away from danger.
A day later, we entered Mexico without any issue.
By that time it had become clear that we were very lucky to be outside Korea. While we were traveling around Mexico with no concerns whatsoever, the number of reported cases back home was rapidly climbing. All of a sudden, people seemed wary of the fact that we were from Korea and we were on edge whenever we introduced ourselves.
At that point it really seemed like we’d timed our journey perfectly. We were outside Korea, where cases were shooting up, and there were no serious outbreaks anywhere we planned to go. We were worried about everybody back home but were able to continue gallivanting around Central America without a care in the world.
We assumed that by the time we returned to Korea in July, the whole thing would surely be taken care of like the Middle East respiratory syndrome scare a few years earlier.
We flew to Costa Rica on March 5, the day after the country closed its borders to anybody traveling from Korea. We didn’t know if we’d be turned away at the border or thrown in a cell somewhere. In reality, we were briefly stopped until we proved we’d been in Mexico for three weeks.
At that point there were 97,343 cases confirmed worldwide, with 5,756 of those in Korea. By the time we left Costa Rica on March 15, those numbers had shot up to 165,201, with 8,162 in Korea.
On March 11, when we were high in the cloud forest mountains of Monteverde, the WHO declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic. Rather than panic and head for the nearest airport, we continued our journey as planned.
We took a series of buses down to the coastal city of Quepos for our last few days in Costa Rica.
Quepos isn’t an especially touristy town despite being a 20-minute bus ride away from the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. Its downtown consists of a few grimy streets and a surprisingly fancy marina where American sport fishing boats are tied up.
Appropriately, the cheapest place to stay in Quepos was the run-down Best Western Hotel & Casino Kamuk. It was here, as we sat on the terrace watching huge flocks of black birds swoop over the mudflats, that we finally had to accept that we couldn’t continue traveling like nothing was going on.
We had agonized for days over the decision. We were very aware that it was starting to feel like the coronavirus walls were closing in, but it was also inconceivable that we’d have to give up on something we’d spent so long working toward — we’d barely had a conversation in the past year that wasn’t related to this trip. We still had 15 countries to visit, with meticulous plans for each one, and over 20 flights already booked. We were scared that even the smallest change would trigger a domino effect that would bring the whole thing crashing down.
In the end, we had to face the facts. Our immediate plans were focused on Cuba, the United States and Britain. Cuba reported its first three cases on March 11, but by that point the United States had already passed 1,000 and Britain was nearing 500. Globally there were more than 100,000 cases reported, and the number of deaths was rapidly rising.
By the time we left Costa Rica on March 15, Italy, Spain and parts of China were already locked down. We weren’t worried about traveling to Cuba, but we were starting to get scared that we’d get stuck there, stranded as airlines around the world were grounded. If we did manage to make it out of Cuba we’d be on our way to New York City, which was already gearing up for a spike in cases.
Things started to really fall apart the day before we left Costa Rica.
On March 14, the United States announced that it was extending a travel ban on Europeans to people from Britain. My British passport was now potentially a target, and the family members we had arranged to meet in New York City were grounded in London.
Our plans were crumbling, but we had absolutely no idea what we should be doing about it. We hadn’t accepted that our trip was completely over, so returning to Korea — in hindsight the only safe option we had — wasn’t even an option. Instead, we kept going.
On March 15, we flew from Quepos to San Jose and on to Mexico City as planned. Arriving in Mexico City International Airport, we went straight to the departures desk and tried to cancel our flight to Cuba.
After four hours waiting in line, the airline refused to give us a refund or credit. Defeated, we checked into a grimy hostel in a dodgy neighborhood close to the airport and spent the evening sitting on a lumpy futon trying to work out what to do next.
We had three options: stop travelling, lose money on pre-booked flights or risk everything and keep going.
Continuing traveling indefinitely no longer seemed like an option. As well as disruption, we were now seriously starting to worry about our health. We’d managed to pick up masks in Mexico, but they were flimsy fabric dental masks and offered us no real protection.
With most of our life savings invested in the trip, we weren’t yet willing to give up or take the financial hit of canceling all those non-refundable flights.
What we really needed was a safe haven where we could lie low for a month or so, we thought, and then we’d be able to pick up where we’d left off once everything had blown over. We could even get there using all our existing flights — all we had to do was change the dates.
Welcome to Cuba. Now, it’s time to leave.
We woke on the morning of March 16 ready to fly to Havana. We had a plan, and we were confident it would work: We’d move all our flights forward and be in Britain by March 20, where we could wait it out for a bit until things got better — we’d probably even be able to stick to our plan of going to Iceland on April 6.
The only problem was Copa Airlines. The Panamanian carrier, our ticket from Havana to New York City, was very kindly allowing all passengers to change flights for free over the phone. The catch? They never answered the phone.
With the help of family in Britain and the United States, we spent the night in Mexico City calling Copa’s Mexican, U.S. and international phone lines but never got through. By the following morning we were starting to panic. There’s a Copa office in the center of Mexico City, so at 7 a.m. we called an Uber.
After a 45-minute drive into the city and a 30-minute wait on the street with all our luggage, a security guard told us that the Copa Airlines office was closed for the day. He didn’t know why — it was a normal Monday in the middle of March.
We had five hours before we needed to board a flight to Havana, and our flight out of Cuba was still weeks later than we needed it to be. A quick Google search told us there was another Copa desk in the airport, so we jumped in a taxi and spent an hour racing back across town. When we arrived at the airport, we discovered that Google was wrong.
It was now just three hours before our flight, and we had spent the entire morning racing around Mexico City chasing phantom Copa Airlines offices. We were stressed, tired, and regretting eating so many tacos the night before, and we still had to go through the lengthy process of buying a Cuba tourist card — another two and a half hours of queuing.
The only options left were to fly to Havana and try our luck at the Copa office there or miss our flight.
We landed in Havana at 6 p.m. on March 16. Cuba is an intimidating place to visit — it has infamously strict border control measures and even in 2020 there is a sense that once you enter the country you’re on your own. Laws are strictly enforced and most travelers can’t rely on any support from their embassy.
We had no idea what sort of reception to expect in Cuba. The number of cases in Korea was rapidly increasing, and we didn’t know if we’d be allowed to enter the country. Despite our fears, we had no problems at immigration. Just four days later Cuba would completely close its borders.
Two days in line?
We were staying in the spare room of a huge old colonial apartment with our hosts Juan Carlos and his father Juan Carlos Sr. We wanted to change our flight out of Cuba as soon as possible, and both Juan Carloses were confident that the Copa Airlines office would be open the next day.
In four days we needed to be on a flight from New York City to London, but that evening, we weren’t at all worried that we had no way of getting there in time — we were sure we’d head to the Copa office in the morning, change our flight and then spend two days drinking mojitos and smoking cigars in the Caribbean sun.
The Copa Airlines office in Havana is on the third floor of an office block. By the time we arrived as it opened at 9 a.m. the following morning, the queue went out the door, along the terrace past all the other offices and down the stairs. We joined the back of the line.
By 10:30 a.m., we were still standing in the same place. The office was open and there were people in there, but the line had not moved at all. The women in front of us were from Venezuela and trying to find a way home. They’d been queuing since yesterday and expected to be there for another day or two.
There was no way we could spend two days standing in line. We only had a couple of days in Havana, and we didn’t want to spend them standing outside in the heat and humidity on the third floor of a grey concrete office block waiting to book a flight which could already be full.
Our whole perception changed standing in that queue. The idea that we might have to spend two days in line petrified us — suddenly the situation was way beyond our comprehension. Spending days queuing for things seemed like a thing of the past — it was something you studied in a history class, and now it was quickly becoming a reality.
For the first time we realized how serious the situation was and how cut off from the rest of the world we were in Cuba. We were isolated, we had no flight that would get us to New York in time and we had no way to easily keep track of the news.
Suddenly the only thing that mattered was getting out of Cuba. We felt trapped, and we were desperate to get to a country where we wouldn’t be so restricted. Changing the Copa Airlines flight wasn’t going to work, so we gave up and found a nearby hotel where we could access the internet.
There was a flight that evening from Havana to Miami, one of the few daily direct flights between the two countries that Washington permits. We couldn’t book the ticket because U.S. sanctions stopped us accessing the website, but with a little help from family in Britain we were able to get two of the last tickets on the flight.
At 11 p.m. on March 17, just over 24 tumultuous hours after we arrived in Cuba, we flew to Miami.
We arrived in the United States just after midnight on March 18. The country had reported more than 6,000 cases of Covid-19 and over 100 deaths, but there were no medical checks or questions asked at the airport.
After a few hours of sleep at a nearby hotel we were back at the airport trying to find a flight to London. We had a flight booked from New York on March 20, but finding ourselves in a different part of the country two days earlier than expected, we were hoping we’d be able to change the date.
Almost immediately after entering the airport we discovered that would be impossible — our ticket from New York was with Virgin Atlantic, and we couldn’t find a customer service desk. With no other options in Miami and a flight to catch from New York to London in two days, we bought last-minute tickets to New York, sprinted across the airport and were in the air just 50 minutes later.
We landed in New York at 3 p.m., almost the exact same time we’d left Costa Rica three days earlier. We’d slept those three nights in three different countries and spent the days rushing between queues and flights while constantly trying to call customer service hot lines. We were stressed, exhausted and starting to feel ill.
At some point during those three days, Britain had started to look like the light at the end of the tunnel. It was Nirvana, the Holy Grail. All we had to do was get there and everything would be O.K. We could rest, recover and then keep on traveling once everything had blown over.
But we had to get there first.
Nowhere to go but home, if you can get there
In New York, we immediately joined the Virgin Atlantic queue. The governor of New York had declared a state of emergency nearly two weeks earlier, restaurants and bars were closed and we were worried about being exposed to the virus before visiting family in Britain.
Two hours later, Virgin declined to change our ticket. We’d booked with a travel agent, and the airline refused to touch the reservation. We were going to be stuck in New York, soon to be the most dangerous city in the world, for two days.
Manhattan was out of the question — with everything shuttered, there was nothing to do or see there, and we really didn’t want to run the risk of catching the coronavirus on the NRQ Line. Ideally we would have spent two nights in the airport, but the only hotel was so overpriced that we had quite literally flown from Mexico to New York via Cuba and Miami for less money.
In the end we were rescued by a friend who picked us up and drove us to a hotel near her apartment in Flushing, a suburb deep inside Queens.
The two nights we spent there felt like the opening sequence of a low-budget dystopian movie. The streets were empty, shops were either closed and shuttered or the shelves had been picked clean and the only food available was takeout served by masked waiters.
When we arrived in New York the state had recorded 2,382 Covid-19 cases. When we left two days later that number had shot up to 7,102. Even at that point the enormity of what was about to happen was starting to become clear — one of the few New Yorkers we were able to actually speak to told us that he had been told to expect the current social distancing measures to remain in place until the summer of 2021.
After two days eating takeout pizza on the bed at our budget hotel we finally left New York at 9 a.m. on March 20. As we touched down in London seven hours later, the captain tearfully told us that he and the crew didn’t know when they’d be allowed to fly again or whether they’d keep their jobs.
With this sobering message ringing in our ears, we entered Britain. Arriving in the country there was no attempt to check our health or where we’d traveled from — we both entered through the e-passport gates and left the airport without talking to anybody. An hour later we were in the countryside with family.
At this point Britain had just under 4,000 cases reported and nearly 200 deaths, already more than twice the number of deaths in Korea. Despite these obvious red flags, it still felt like we’d reached safety. We were with family in a place we could stay for an indefinite period of time without having to worry about finding accommodation or food. Give it a month or so and we’d be able to continue with our journey, we told ourselves.
Lockdowns and quarantines
Three days after we arrived in Britain the country went into lockdown.
We were no longer voluntarily staying at Mom’s house; we were now legally stuck there. We could do essential shopping and leave the house to exercise once a day, but anything else was forbidden. Without a car we were trapped in the middle of the country and, even if we could resume our trip, we didn’t know if anyone could legally drive us to the airport.
The start of the lockdown was the moment we had to accept it was game over. The walls had been closing in for weeks, but we’d managed to convince ourselves that there was a chance we’d be able to keep going — we were due to fly to Iceland in early April and then on to Africa in May and there still weren’t any travel restrictions that would affect our plan.
But when lockdown was announced on March 23, we realized we had no option but to give up. That the British government, which had spent months bucking the global trend and refusing to put any real restrictions in place, had suddenly accepted the need for a complete lockdown was a serious wake-up call.
If we didn’t find a way to return to Korea immediately, we faced potentially being stuck in Britain for months, trapped in a house with eight other people, sleeping on an air mattress on the floor with nothing to do and no way of making money.
What had seemed like a safe spot to lie low for a month now seemed like it could become a prison. There were four different families all locked down in the house, including three toddlers — we were essentially running a kindergarten out of the kitchen. If we could get out it meant less pressure on everyone else, less food to prepare and less stress.
There was now fierce competition for tickets out of the country. With lockdown in place, nobody knew when airlines would start canceling flights. There are only a few daily direct flights between London and Seoul at the best of times, and indirect options were quickly disappearing.
Panicking, we bought the first tickets we could find — an Etihad flight with a painful 15-hour stopover in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
Just a few hours after we booked that flight on March 23, the United Arab Emirates announced that it was closing its borders and grounding all planes from 11:59 p.m. on the day we were due to depart. We were now left with a flight to Abu Dhabi that theoretically could go ahead and a flight from Abu Dhabi to Seoul that would definitely be canceled.
Nobody at Etihad could tell us if we were flying or not. After two agonizing days trying to find out if we were going to make it to Korea, get stranded in Abu Dhabi or never leave Britain, Etihad canceled our flight just a few hours before we were due to take off.
Getting back to Korea was starting to feel like a race against the clock. More countries were grounding their airlines every day and the only direct flights available were on impossibly expensive business-class and first-class tickets.
The next few days were spent frantically scrambling to find a way home — the closest we came on the first day was a KLM flight that was canceled as we tried to pay. Finally, as things started to look really helpless, Korean Air announced extra flights, and we managed to book two tickets leaving Heathrow Airport on March 28.
We still had no idea whether British lockdown rules allowed us to get a lift to the airport, so we contacted the police to get written permission to travel — nobody, including the police, was sure whether we actually needed this or not, but they wrote us the lockdown equivalent of a hall pass to be on the safe side.
We landed at Incheon International Airport on March 29 and were required to download two quarantine tracking apps. Our temperature was taken before we could legally enter the country, the first time anyone had checked our temperature since the pandemic began.
We took a taxi straight from the airport to our apartment. While in the taxi we got a phone call from the local government office that showed just how efficient the quarantine tracking apps are.
“I can see that you are not in your apartment. Why have you left your apartment?”
Once we explained that we hadn’t actually made it home from the airport yet, the official apologized and called us back later. Similar mistakes would continue to happen over the next few weeks, but the phone calls we got were always good natured and slightly apologetic. These tracking apps, which have been criticized as invasive in other countries, clearly work.
The day after we arrived we were tested for the coronavirus. Just eight hours later we found out we were both negative.
For the next two weeks we were quarantined in our apartment. We had to report that we had no symptoms on the two apps every day, and the local government office and the hospital where we were tested phoned us most days to check how we were doing.
By the end of our two weeks in quarantine the local government office had delivered a huge donation box of packaged food, two boxes of fresh produce and a load of cleaning equipment, hand sanitizer gel and face masks. Officials would come by most days to check how we were doing and even brought bright orange biohazard waste bags to take all our trash away.
Although the Korean measures might seem invasive, after weeks of stress and confusion as we bounced from country to country trying to work out how to stay safe in an entirely unpredictable situation, having the Korean government make all the decisions for us for a couple of weeks was a huge relief.
Being cooped up in an apartment without a garden or balcony was stressful — one day we propped our front door open and were quickly told off by a visiting official — but it really felt like a necessary evil and we didn’t begrudge it at all.
In Britain we’d gone to supermarkets to help with shopping, and it really felt like we were just rolling the coronavirus dice. In Korea, a combination of donations and the comprehensive delivery services meant we could be perfectly comfortable and safe stuck inside.
Over the three weeks that followed the World Health Organization announcement that Covid-19 was a pandemic, we traveled across six countries on three continents and found ourselves under some level of lockdown in the United States, Britain and Korea.
All 22 of the countries that we had planned to visit have now either closed their borders or introduced mandatory quarantine measures. Even in Korea, where things have largely been under control, there are now signs of a new spike in cases. It will likely to be years before a journey like the one we had planned is possible, assuming the budget airlines that make that sort of travel possible are still in business.
But there are signs of hope. Containment success in places like New Zealand and Australia — and to some extent Korea — suggest that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, although it may still be a long way away for a lot of countries.
If containment measures work, the only way to maintain them is to continue to limit travel. The reality is that until a Covid-19 vaccine exists, there’s no responsible way to move around the world without the risk of carrying the virus with you.
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]