Two days before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I sat in the departure lounge of Cusco Airport. I had just spent the last week hiking through the Andes to reach Machu Picchu and I was preparing for the next leg of my journey to the Amazon Rainforest. I had heard stories about how the coronavirus was beginning to affect people’s lives at home in the UK, but that felt like a world away. As I waited at the boarding gate, I began to write.
Tuesday 10th March 2020 – Cusco Airport
“Being in an airport right now is surreal. Last winter, I decided to quit my job to go traveling. It seemed like the perfect antidote to eighteen months of commuting into London for my office job. Little did I know that making 2020 my year of travel… was maybe going to be a little bit questionable.
Last Thursday – I got Wi-Fi for the first time in a week. HOLY SH*T. Italy had gone down. The UK was in crisis. Events all around the world were being cancelled. Hand sanitizer was sold out. And apparently everyone had decided to panic buy toilet paper?
For the most part South America feels safe. In Peru, there are only two confirmed cases. Yet, about 20% of the people in this airport are wearing face masks. In the UK, six people have died. They were elderly or had pre-existing health conditions. But people are worried. I check the news when I get access to the internet, and I see the numbers rise and rise as another county goes into lockdown.”
When I reached Puerto Maldonado, entering the humidity and greenery of the jungle, the coronavirus simply became another topic of conversation. Amongst conversation about the weather, our travels and food, I remember asking “how many cases does your country have?”. At the time, I was overwhelmed that the UK already had a few hundred. Now we have nearly 300,000.
“I’ve met a Spanish couple, a French girl and two Mexicans. It’s strange – we’re so disconnected from real life here but we can’t help but share stories about what’s happening at home. Everyone is on edge about returning to countries in crisis.”
Wednesday 11th March 2020 – Tambopata Natural Reserve
The next morning, I didn’t think about the virus. I was up at sunrise to hike to a beautiful lake with the Spanish couple. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, but that didn’t matter. We were exploring paradise and birdsong filled our silence.
On returning to the ecolodge, the Spanish couple became distressed. They received news that Spain had become as bad as Italy and was about to enter lockdown. They needed to flee the jungle, and I panicked. I was due to fly home via Madrid in a fortnight.
“There’s nothing quite like desperately trying to text your parents from a place with no service, Wi-Fi, or electricity to make you feel isolated! I’m not going to have Wi-Fi again until Friday and I don’t know what to do.”
Eventually, I was able to get a text through to my mum. In case you ever need to know— the best place to get service in the jungle is sitting on a boat in the middle of the river. My parents did some research online and assured me that everything was fine.
“The conclusion is to stay in the jungle for now, have fun and check flights in a few days…”
Thursday 12th March 2020 – Tambopata Natural Reserve
My 23rd birthday. I kayaked alone down the Tambopata River at sunset. I was now the only guest in the ecolodge, and the most conversation I’d had that day was with the capybaras on the riverbank.
Without internet access, I had no idea the scale the virus had escalated to in just a couple of days. I emerged from the rainforest the next day with three missed calls from my dad and about a dozen messages— Peru was closing its borders that weekend and I needed to get out of the country as soon as possible.
“I’m coming home early. I am so disappointed.”
And so, instead of getting a bus to Bolivia, I was in an airport fleeing the continent just 10 minutes before South America shut down.
Monday 16th March 2020 – England
When I landed in Heathrow on Monday evening, I was expecting to be greeted by rainy skies and a hug from my dad. Instead, I was met by airport staff in hazmat suits and pamphlets telling me to “wash my hands”. When I did find my dad, the first thing he asked me was “do you have a temperature?”. I tried to hug him, but he said he shouldn't. I had been thrown into a country on the edge of lockdown that no longer felt like home.
“I’ve gone from a tour group and hostels, to almost complete isolation. The government advises against “non-essential socializing” and has shut down the schools. I find myself washing my hands so often that I think I have found a new layer of skin. I don’t know when I will next see my friends.”
The UK reopened most indoor social spaces at the beginning of July and life feels somewhat normal again. But sometimes it seems like we’re all playing some sort of game— if we pretend that it's safe, it will be safe. It’s terrifying to remember just how quickly everything changed in the beginning, and how quickly that could happen again.
Written by: Emily Young (Guest Contributor)
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