Stupid is as stupid does. I canceled my trip to South Korea when the CDC issued a level 3 warning. I did not cancel my side trip to the Philippines, which at the time had no warning level issued. By the time of my flight, a couple of cases had been reported in the Philippines. It wouldn’t be the first time I hiked in a forest in a 50 mph wind and besides, what’s one or two cases? Well, there is a reason things are said to go “viral”. The unchecked spread is exponential in a new population. Stupid is.
Before the trip, I searched through stores and tried to order masks and sanitizers online weeks ahead of time. The stores were wiped out and everything online was out of stock. I ordered masks reported as “in stock”. They have yet to arrive one week after my trip. I even looked for isopropyl alcohol and aloe gel without success in a vain attempt to roll my own. Just before the trip, I found one lone bottle of sanitizer in the travel section of a local supermarket where things are sold in travel size bottles. It turns out the bottle was an ounce over allowed size and I had to “surrender” it to TSA and the garbage. Stupid is. I should have checked instead of assumed so it is on me. But f**k that store, too for putting oversized containers in the travel section with all the correctly portioned out soaps, shampoos, and lotions. I ate seafood at the seafood market in Boracay: the two table restaurant with mismatched table cloths that cooked my fresh seafood meal had hand sanitizer for customer use. How come I can’t get any? For the most part, it was easy to find a hand sanitizing dispenser in every airport I set foot in. I thank the few people that squeezed a little sanitizer into my hands.
On the upside of travel in the time of the pandemic, I have an upgrade to first class. Not really, but when I get four seats to myself on a fourteen-hour flight, with the four blankets I get, I basically have a mattress and a bed. I slept a good (not quite solid) ten hours. First class ticket at steerage prices. On the downside of travel in the time of the pandemic, I have someone point a thermometer at my head getting on and off of every airplane. The mall and the hotel in Manila test temperature. Everyone has a temperature gun. Of one thing I am absolutely sure, I do not have a fever.
For the people I met and talked to, the coronavirus is the elephant in the room. I met two Brits that came from South Korea over a week ago, the trip that I canceled. They told me everything is deserted and shut down. They report the Hanok village was empty and the railway deserted. Half the fun of a Hanok village is watching people in costume walking around, so that seems like a bust. Effortless travel seems like an upside. The couple seemed rather animated and excited to talk to me, from which I infer that interaction, in general, is a rare commodity. Half the point of travel is to interact with people from different places. We want to connect with people, even if only briefly, not to distance ourselves from them, although, I might be old fashioned on this point. A group of people that look like they are together sit in a beach facing restaurant window on the same bench, each one looking down at their cell phones instead of at the beach or each other or at me. I see a number of women walking with their boyfriends on facetime. Is never-ending virtual contact what we want? I shudder at the thought. It’s tempting to wave over their shoulders to destroy their illusion of privacy. I wonder why they even travel. My scuba diving buddy is also from Korea from the same suburb Max is hiding out in, a young kid taking advantage of his closed university. If my choices are scuba diving in Borocay or listening to lectures at school, I know which one I would pick.
Everyone is wearing face masks except myself of course. (It’s really more like 75%). In LAX, a platoon of flight attendants and pilots walk by like a marching army in blue face masks. The facemask worn by a little girl riding on her dad’s shoulders looks cute. Another crying restrained toddler tries to vigorously shake the mask off without success. From my online reading, I have a hard time figuring out if the masks are actually any good. If they don’t have filters, particles get through. And you have to take the mask off for a selfie anyway or so I observe on numerous occasions. Personally, I miss seeing people’s faces. I miss seeing the pretty faces of women. I wonder if a prehistoric man had a similar thought after skirts and shorts were invented. What fun is people watching if they all have blue mask covered faces, or worse, those garish masks with gritting teeth painted over them? And how far off are hazmat travel suits? Are we turning the world into a giant condom?
In the course of a few days, the situation in the Philippines and the world is changing drastically. Images of street spraying come on the local news; I read an article from Forbes trying to explain the hoarding of toilet paper; more news in the NY Times of a tax holiday for working people. A pretense at being proactive; panic; using an event to facilitate an old agenda. Stupid does.
I watch on the local news as Duerte makes the command decision to shut down the Philippines. Containment. The island of Borocay will shut down on the 15th. Domestic flight travel is going to be suspended on the 15th. I’m lucky. My flight out is on the 14th but it also means I will be joined by thousands of people forced off the island trying to reschedule and rebook their flights. I have plenty of fear that I will be trapped. Any of a dozen things could go wrong: I won’t make it past a temperature sensor; someone on board will be reported with the virus; the flight will be canceled at the last second; I won’t make it off the island; god forbid I actually catch the virus. God help me if I sneeze. I have images in my head of getting gang tackled to the ground by a pack of zombie medical enforcers who cart me off to quarantine.
I’ve been warned by Risa from Leyte to get off the island early. At 4:30 in the morning in front of the hotel waiting for the ride to the ferry port, the hotel security guard escorts me to the trikes while a woman sweeping the sand path with a bundle of wooden sticks listens to the Eagles sing, “…we are all just prisoners here, of our own device…”. How appropriate. Stupid is.
I am at the ferry port in time for its 5 a.m. opening. I have to wait for a couple of ferries to come and go but the wait is not too bad with a boat leaving every 5 minutes. I’m glad I didn’t wait until later. I meet a couple from Stockton and a man from Germany dealing with the pain of rebooking a flight. They were scheduled to leave a couple of days later. I have images of the helicopter leaving the American Embassy in Vietnam in 1975 (yes I’m that old); of people jumping off the Titanic as its propellers are lofted into the air. In reality, the airport is crowded but I think everyone is in a quiet panic not quite an emergency panic.
So many steps. So much processing. Get to the port. Wait. Get off the island and catch a trike to the airport. Wait. Catch the flight to Manila. Get to the other terminal and re-enter getting past more temperature sensors. Wait. Get onboard the flight to Taipei. Wait. And again, get to the U.S. and into the U.S. In the U.S., one of the last trips for British Airways to the U.S. offloads. The Brits are all routed to further testing by the CDC. CDC employees donned in goggles and surgical masks and plastic faceplates await them. I use a hastily downloaded “Mobile Pass” to bypass an hour of lines. I thank the attendant there for the tip.
And finally, home, where I will self-quarantine for the next fourteen days waiting to live, waiting to die. (Sorry, couldn’t help borrow a melodramatic line from Titanic.) Hunkering down even though I’m not actually sure when I am hunkering and when I am not. Socially distancing myself as if that were anything new for me. Now I have an excuse. Plenty of time to contemplate the fragility and interconnectedness of the economy and supply chains and health of the world. Wondering if this is the way of things until a vaccine is distributed, maybe a year from now?