There and back again: My journey overseas during the COVID pandemic

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KOIN reporter among travelers who rushed to return to America

When I left the United States earlier this month on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to New Zealand and Australia, coronavirus didn’t even register as a concern for me or my family. At the time, people were talking about proper hand-washing techniques, big businesses were doing extra cleaning, and Clackamas County had issued a state of emergency in what officials dubbed a “precautionary move.”

An unusual number of people were wearing masks at Auckland’s airport and it took two hours to get through customs, which a rental car agent said was due to new screening processes. But once my mom and I loaded up the rental car and drove out of the city, we saw no signs that a global pandemic was unfolding.

Plenty of toilet paper for sale at a store in New Zealand on March 15, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

We scoffed at the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores back home and wondered why toilet paper was in such high demand. On local radio, a host remarked that New Zealand has two giant pulp mills and would run out of toilet paper when it ran out of milk (this joke only works if you know that there are about as many dairy cows in the country as there are people). Even when we left the country on March 19, schools were still in session, rugby games were being played on local fields, and bars and restaurants were packed.

But things started to look more serious for non-residents on March 14, when New Zealand’s government announced anyone coming into the country would have to self-isolate for 14 days. At that time, we were sharing an AirBnB with, coincidentally, a man from Grants Pass, and a woman from China who had decided to stay in New Zealand until the outbreak in her home country subsided. We all discussed the news and my mom hoped that Australia, where we were planning to stay with family in 5 days, would hold off on taking the same action. My dad was already in Sydney (the friend he was staying with has since been told not to come to work for two weeks because he had an international visitor) and my sister and grandmother were starting their series of flights the following day. The next night, though, my phone was blowing up with the news that all visitors to Australia would be subject to the same self-isolation requirements.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to switch a flight three days before your departure date while in a foreign country, but our main challenge was international calling. We don’t have it on our cell phone plan, but my mom took her chances and called her credit card rewards program through which she had booked our tickets. The man answering informed her 6,000 (THOUSAND!) people were waiting for help and she should plan to stay on hold for up to 3 hours. We did not stay on hold. We frantically picked through a limited selection of brand new flights and finally booked a 6:20 a.m. trip out of Christchurch. My mother, who had never been outside of North America, vowed never to leave the U.S. again. We crossed our fingers that nothing else would go wrong (meanwhile, my sister and grandma had made it to LAX before getting the news about Australia. They spent the night in the airport and flew back the next morning).

We were fortunate. Nothing got canceled or delayed. We flew to Brisbane, Australia first where health workers covered head to toe in plastic and face masks waited for passengers to disembark and handed them self-quarantine paperwork. Before we could board our next flight, we were asked which countries we had visited.

A Delta flight from Los Angeles to Portland had more empty seats than filled ones on March 19, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

About 20 hours into our journey, we arrived at LAX. I was nervous about long lines at customs after seeing stories about travelers being stuck in line for hours on end at major airports for screenings. We made it through in about an hour, though. Crowds were small and mostly seemed to consist of American tourists and students trying to get home. Nobody asked us how we were feeling or took our temperature. They only asked where we had been.

While our first two flights had been mostly full, the plane that brought us to Portland had more vacant seats than filled. And when we landed at PDX shortly after noon Thursday, the airport was emptier than I’ve seen it in the middle of the night. Airlines are slashing flights and parking planes at a rate American Airlines CEO Robert Isom called “unparalleled in our company’s history.”

When I left America, life was business as usual and the travel industry was thriving. In less than two weeks, that all changed in a way I never could have imagined. Tour companies are being devastated and AirBnB hosts and hotels are dealing with mass cancelations as governments close borders and international travel screeches to a halt. No one knows what will come next. Hopefully COVID-19 is contained sooner rather than later. Hopefully all of these industries bounce back. Hopefully we can get back to exploring other countries, meeting new people, and broadening our horizons. The world is a wild, wonderful place full of compassionate people. Let’s not forget that as we retreat to our home countries.

Tongariro National Park, as seen March 10, 2020 (Courtesy photo)

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