Our Covid-19 Travel Story

“Hello, Bao Bao! How are you today?”

“Teacher, I am so happy!”

“Why are you so happy?”

“It is New Year holiday. My family will go to Disneyland. I will see Mickey Mouse and The Duck!”

My Covid adventure started in January 2020. I was staying in a beautiful B&B in Sicily, safely unaware, when my online students began to bring me the news. It began slowly. Some students told me their vacations had been postponed for couple of days. Others expressed worry, but said Mom and Dad would protect them.

Bao Bao told me the following week that he had, in fact, gone to Disneyland and saw Mickey Mouse and The Duck. He also told me that his grandmother was in the hospital, and that his older brother was very sick and quarantined in his room. I heard more and more stories like this as the month progressed. Josh wrote a beautiful story about my continued Covid-19 adventure with my Chinese students, inspired by one of my students who drew masks on all of the class photos. Thankfully, my personal pandemic adventure did not start until a few weeks later.

Covid-19 Hits Italy

At the end of 2019, we made plans for my mother to come travel with us for a few months so she could see what our lives on the road are really like. She met up with us in Sicily in early January, then would accompany us to Southern Italy in February and Eastern Europe in March. The first two months went smoothly, and we had as good a time as any reunited family could have. On February 21, the region surrounding Milan in Northern Italy reported 16 cases of Covid-19 and was put under lockdown. Our flight to Skopje, North Macedonia was scheduled for March 7.

Via Milan.

On March 7, we put on our face masks (which we had purchased a year earlier in China) and headed from Lamezia Terme Airport to Milan Malpensa Airport. There was a drastic difference between our village in the south, where everything was still normal, and Milan, where we were some of the only people in the airport. Those who were there avoided each other like the plague. We met up with my mom’s travel partner, Ted, and continued our flight to Skopje, landing in the evening on March 7, 2020.

The next day, on March 8, nearly all of Northern Italy was placed under quarantine. By March 10, the entire country was under quarantine with over 230 Italians dead from the virus. Flights in and out of the country dried up overnight. On March 11, the country moved to a lockdown where all commercial businesses were closed except grocery stores and pharmacies. We made it out just in time… or so we thought.

A Reprieve: North Macedonia

Our first couple of weeks in Skopje were full of anxiety. On the one hand, Macedonia felt generally safe. By the time we landed, only one case had been reported within the entire country, and no restrictions had been put in place, so there didn’t seem to be much to be anxious about. On the other hand, we didn’t want to be “those people”. We self-isolated for a few days and took our temperatures regularly. On Day Five, we finally left the house for our first Macedonian adventure.

It was March 12. There were three total cases in Macedonia, and all were located in the city of Debar, which is almost 100 miles away from Skopje. Our temperatures were normal and we were not experiencing any symptoms, so we ventured out. We walked a couple of blocks from our lovely apartment and over to Gostilnica Ubac, one of the most highly rated restaurants on our side of town… and it was amazing!

Things were looking up. We were having an amazing meal, falling in love with our waiter, and with Skopje. At the end of dinner, the waiter asked us what we thought of the food. We told him how much we loved it and raved about how we would come back next week. He had a sudden look of concern and said, “No. You can not come back next week. Restaurant closed.” We insisted we would come the following week when they re-opened. He said “No. Corona Virus. All restaurants closed tomorrow and all days.”

Covid-19 Hits North Macedonia

We rushed home from dinner in a panic. I contacted my landlord and the US Embassy for confirmation on the news we had just heard. My landlord confirmed the news and the embassy sent back a form letter neither confirming nor denying. Should we leave? Are we going to get locked in our apartment like the Chinese? Mom and Ted are both over 60 with pre-existing conditions–will they be able to receive medical attention if needed? We decided to keep our eyes open and wait for news from the embassy.

On March 16, the Macedonian government closed the airports and banned all foreign travel in or out. The US Embassy finally contacted us after that, stating that the airports would close and that they would let us know when they reopened. We were now officially stuck in Skopje. On March 18, the country’s very first State of Emergency was declared and all official offices were closed. By March 22, a curfew was put in place from 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM.

Things moved gently, but also quickly. First the restaurants and bars closed. Four days later, it was the airport. Curfew went into effect six days after that. This slow approach made the transitions a lot easier, less frightening. As the days went on, there wasn’t any point that seemed too drastic, that maybe “this” was the moment we should start to worry. With an average of around 100 confirmed cases each day, it all just sort of happened.

Throughout April and May the curfews fluctuated on a weekly basis. For much of the time, we were restricted to our apartment starting at 4:00 PM each evening to 7:00 AM each morning. Seniors were restricted further, with an outdoor allowance of only a few hours each morning. Total lockdown was imposed most weekends, with no one allowed out between Friday evening and Monday morning.

Pandemic Life

We did pretty much what everyone else in the world did throughout the pandemic: we watched a lot of Netflix and tried new hobbies. I found a craft shop that occasionally opened during the day and purchased paints and other craft supplies. Mom painted a lot, Ted and Josh wrote their novels, and I tried my hand at drawing. Josh and I even picked up a small amount of Macedonian, asking our cashier at the grocery store for “two bags”, which she found very amusing.

Because we had two seniors in the house, Josh and I were often the only ones allowed outside. We collected groceries each day and did our best to describe any new sights or sounds we came across to the house-bound roommates. It felt like going on supply runs during the zombie apocolypse… especially on Fridays when we had to collect a backpack’s worth of supplies to cover us for the whole weekend.

By late May, curfews began to loosen and commercial business started to reopen. We finally got a chance to see some more of the country, renting a car for a road trip to Macedonia’s famous lake city of Ohrid. Things were starting to look up… except that Mom was running low on her medications. Then we got news that her mother had passed away back in the States. It was time for her and Ted to go home. But there was one big problem–the airports were still closed.

Emergency Evacuation

Our adventure to Macedonia was only meant to last four weeks, with Mom and Ted scheduled to go home in the first week of April. After three months of not sight-seeing and no cultural integration, June arrived and Mom and Ted were still in lockdown with us.

I have to be honest, I was super disappointed in the American embassy. We felt abandoned and forgotten. We watched the Australian, Swiss, Italian, German, and Indian governments fly their people home, but the best ours could do was offer us a lift on one of the above flights, if there was space (spoiler alert: there wasn’t any), and if we wanted to pay a ridiculously high price. I had always believed that situations like this were what embassies existed for, to help out Americans in difficult situations overseas. Now I’m left wondering if they are meant to help local Americans at all.

In late May, my grandmother passed away. This was a very saddening moment, but also one of great opportunity. It allowed for Mom to apply for an “emergency evacuation” (as if being trapped in a foreign land without the correct medication isn’t enough). After two weeks of grueling negotiations with the various embassies, on Day 99, we were able to get Mom and Ted special permission to cross the Bulgarian border, where they could catch a flight back home. By June 14, Mom and Ted were safely at home, while Josh and I worked on Day 100 of our Macedonian adventure.

Sightseeing in North Macedonia

By late June, the infection numbers were evening out and things seemed to be returning to normal. There was a mask mandate for anyone out in public, and the airports were still closed, but otherwise we were free to explore. After four months, we finally got our chance to tour the amazing country of Macedonia.

Skopje has a fantastic bike path running from one end of the city to the other. We explored every inch of it, stopping in at shops and eating whatever we could get our hands on. Our particular favorite snack was a burek with a side of Greek yogurt. The oily goodness of the burek paired perfectly with the tangy sharpness of the yogurt.

We even got the chance to visit the world famous Matka Canyon. It felt truly special to go back to normal for a day. We rented a kayak, went hiking, and even stopped at a pub for a quick beer on the way home. The airports may have been closed and the embassy was ignoring my plea for a new passport (mine was set to expire), but we were finally living again.

Getting Kicked Out Sucks

On July 1, the airports re-opened. We had hoped to continue our adventures in Europe, but much of the world had been closed off to Americans. I have to admit that this hurt my feelings a bit, but such is life. We opted to go to Albania to spend some time at their beautiful beaches. But, as mentioned, my passport was about to expire.

With the US Embassy closed throughout the duration of our visit, the expiration date crept closer and closer with no means of getting it renewed. I had fewer than three months remaining by the time the airports and land borders reopened. Anyone who has reviewed passport requirements by country will know that three months is the usual cutoff for allowing travelers to enter. It came as no surprise, then, that even after a heartfelt email to the Albanian Embassy, we were denied entry. I even visited the Macedonian Foreign Affairs Office in hopes of extending my Macedonian stay, which would allow me to renew my passport with local embassy when it reopened… but that was also denied. There was nothing else to do. We had to go back to the USA.

I purchased three different sets of plane tickets before one finally stuck. The others cancelled almost immediately after purchase (and didn’t refund until 3-4 months later). On August 14, 160 days after arriving in Skopje, we were on our way back to America. It was a really difficult moment for us. Not only were we leaving our new friends in Skopje, but we were abandoning this nomadic life that we had worked so hard over the last three years to create for ourselves. It felt like the end of an era.

Back in America

We spent the summer with friends in Oregon. While we were there, the state averaged 350 daily confirmed new cases out of a population of 4.2M people. Mask mandates were in place, but many restaurants were open for dine-in and we experienced few restrictions. We spent the season catching up on American culture and enjoying Oregon’s perfect summer weather.

Fall was spent in Idaho. The population of 1.78M people averaged around 1,300 confirmed cases a day. There was no state-wide mask mandate and almost no further restrictions. Many people were still masked and social distancing, but it was significantly less prominent than in Oregon. We filled the season with family visits and long walks along Boise’s beautiful Green Belt.

Starting Anew

After what seems like forever. We’re finally back on the road. Jen and Josh against the world. Nomad Life! We’re in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Out of the entire country, it had the cheapest monthly B&B rates at $900/month. As to be expected with the cheapest B&B in the nation, the apartment is… not great. BUT, it is perfectly located only one block from the beach and a short walk to the central pier. It is the off-season (and still mid-pandemic), so the town is a little sleepy.

There is no state-wide mask mandate in place in South Carolina, but here in Myrtle Beach, we have seen a large percentage of people wearing them. The state had been managing the virus quite well until Thanksgiving. Since then, the daily cases have been rising quite rapidly. With a population of 5.1M, SC has seen an average of around 4,500 confirmed cases per day.

Even with many of the businesses in town closed (either due to the pandemic or the tourist off-season), we’re still enjoying our stay. We’re continuing to self-isolate as often as possible while waiting to get our immunizations. We spend our mornings working online and our afternoons walking on the beach. I’ve collected six new birds, and have even re-connected with my Chinese students.

The End?

I know this probably isn’t the end of our Covid-19 traveling adventure, but it definitely feels like the beginning of the end. We have travel plans booked through June, my passport has finally been renewed, and Idaho’s Covid-19 vaccine is scheduled for the general population in May. I’m feeling hopeful and, above all, am so excited to be back on the road again!

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