Do you remember those Hollywood movies about sudden civil war or tsunami catching people off guard in foreign countries? I always thought the plot of these films was way too unrealistic. Well, until I almost got stranded on a tropical island in the middle of Pacific Ocean during coronavirus outbreak.
I can foresee your reasonable question: why in the world do you travel during the pandemic? In my defense, when I left the States in late February, there were only 10 people (all evacuated from China) infected and quarantined. What can go wrong? I was not heading to China or Asia (in fact, I cancelled my already booked trip to Hong Kong and Philippines). My destination was New Zealand and Cook Islands. At that moment it was one of the safest countries to be with only 5 people infected. So, I made a decision to travel.
First 2 weeks were not interrupted by the Coronavirus at all. Nobody wore masks, no panic and very few discussions about it. Also, the fact that I was traveling to the village like settings and avoiding big cities, helped. Surrounded by nature and very little of Internet exposure, my trip blissfully continued. Meanwhile as the USA was getting hit hard with the virus and panic was rising there, not in NewZealand.
Last leg of my trip included Cook Islands. Very remote islands in the Pacific , 5 hours away from the big land. Every step of my trip was book and prepaid. Let me remind you, New Zealand is a very expensive destination. Thus, any changes or cancellations would cause a significant money loss. If I felt the situation was not safe for my well being, of course money would not be a question. However, it didn’t seem as serious as in other countries and I carried on with my trip.
Imagine my surprise when upon arrival at the customs in Rarotonga (Cook Island), the officer with a smile whispered to me : “If I were you, I would not get off this flight… You might not be able to get out of this island”. Hmmm was it a joke? She did say it with a smile and a strong islander accent. It was also 2 am and I was exhausted from a sleepless night. Did I misunderstand something? Was it an odd form of greeting or joking? I was confused, but also very tired. My only desire at the moment was to get under the blankets and sleep. I decided I will figure it out tomorrow.
As I was waiting for the shuttle driver to collect other passengers, I connected to the 30 min free wi fi (courtesy of the local government to arriving tourists) to let my mom know I landed safely. Little did I know, it was the last wi-fi I got on the island.
As the lazy days on the island rolled by, I somehow sensed I needed to get connected with the world and check my flight status. The Internet access on Rarotonga is through the old fashioned Internet voucher. Expensive, unreliable but also the only only option you got.
And here you go….The moment I plugged in to the web my phone exploded with the emails, missed calls notifications and worried messages. Turned out as I was soaking in the emerald waters, the world was going down….My entire itinerary just shuttered on pieces. The flight back home to the USA has been cancelled as New Zealand announces total border shut down and all planes grounded. I had 1 day left to make it to the last evacuation flight from Auckland to the USA. Scrambling to make a fast decision and put together my emergency plan, I tried to get a hold on airlines. As you can imagine, I wasn’t the only one. At that moment thousands of people all over the world were doing the same. I had to ask for help and called home in the USA to ask to buy me a return flight.
Here is the video I took while still at Rarotonga Island, not even knowing if I will be able to escape…
Later that day I was standing in the crowd of hundreds of other passengers, as it turned out JetStar sold more tickets than number of sets on board. To avoid overcrowding at Auckland, they were only letting board those individuals who can show the proof of their flight leaving New Zealand. And I already knew my flight Auckald – Los Angeles was cancelled, meaning I would be stranded on the island indefinitely… Luckily, I am one of those people who can think fast in critical situations. I turned up a thick Russian accent to make sure whatever is going to happen, I can fix it by saying it is not what I am trying to say, bad English, blah blah blah. At first I told the truth my flight was cancelled but I will get on the evacuation flight. I regret it instantly as the office was about to turn me away and called the next in line hoping to be a passenger. I momentarily changed my statement and said he misunderstood me and my flight WAS GOING to be cancelled, but it is still on the schedule. To prove my words I showed him the screenshot I took weeks ago of my then upcoming flight…. It worked! He rolled his eyes and sighed, but printed my boarding pass!!! That’s all I need for my island escape.
Never ever after cutting my traveling short was I happy to return home.
And only after I cozied up in my pajamas and hid my face in the blanket I truly understood what had just happened. While on the road, adrenalin kept me going and not letting my guard down. I haven’t slept for 48 hours to make it back home, but I wasn’t feeling tired. Nor me any anybody else have been through pandemic or global borders closing previously. I wonder how other travelers handled it? Did they panic ? Were they scared? How did they feel about all of this? To answer the question of what would I’ve done differently, I would honestly say nothing. I would still go for my trip! Was I scared? No. Possibly because I wasn’t sure what it was I was facing. I also accepted this as a part of adventure. No trip ever goes perfect or flawless, I wouldn’t even want it this way. This too shall pass.