On March 19, 2020, the United States Department of State issued a Global Level 4 Health Advisory, warning all Americans abroad to return to the country immediately or risk being stranded by the fallout from the coronavirus indefinitely. This was only a short time after the President of the United States had been downplaying the threat posed by COVID-19, claiming that it would just go away on its own. International travelers began panicking, paying premium prices to get back to the States before all the flights were cancelled. Articles began to appear about travelers in countries such as Peru who’d been trapped in lockdowns that they couldn’t get out of.
When my Mom heard about this situation, she feared for my safety and wrote me an e-mail imploring me to return to the States as soon as I could. Looking at the footage of terrified citizens stampeding over each other to stock up on toilet paper, I thought differently. Los Angeles had quickly become one of the most dangerous destinations in the world to fly into. I checked into every other country in Asia, but they were all closing their borders. My thought then was to bus it down to Danang and try to kick it at the beach until the crisis blew over. My visa was still good for six weeks.
On the tenth night upon my return from Laos, I received a call from the front desk, informing me that Vietnam had officially shut down to outsiders, that all international flights were being cancelled, and that the police were coming to take me to a quarantine encampment. I jumped up, threw my things into my suitcase, and headed downstairs, leaving my two favorite shirts draped over the back of a chair, never to be seen again. The guy working at the desk told me the police would be there any minute, but hinted that if I checked out and left before they arrived, he could say he didn’t know where I’d gone. I threw some money and the key at him and hurried out onto the street.
No hotel would accept me without the extensive paperwork they now needed, but I found one that agreed to let me stay the night if I booked a flight that left in the morning. The other travelers in the lobby were agitated and in a state of indecision. One guy had to pay three thousand dollars for a one-way flight back to Chile, and he was relieved just to get it. There had been tons of flights to Los Angeles the last time I’d checked, but when I looked again there weren’t so many and the price had already gone up three hundred dollars. With a sickening sense of dread in my stomach, I went ahead and booked it, then went into a full-blown panic attack once I began to realize what I was heading into. I drank beer all night and still couldn’t relax enough to shut my eyes. Instead I rocked back and forth on the mattress in my small room, moaning out loud, in a deep death-trance.
By morning I’d decided to back out of it and cancel my flight, but when I went down to the reception desk, they urged me to return to my country if I could. If I didn’t, they’d have to call the police, and hotels all over the country were being forced to close their doors. They were expecting to get that call at any minute. I agreed to let someone call a taxi for me, but when it arrived and I was sitting in the back of it, making my way across the empty city, it seemed to be a nightmare I was having, not a scenario that would ever be playing out in real life. Somehow, I checked in at the airport, made it through immigration, and managed to make it on the plane, but my state of mind as I buckled myself into the seat was comparable to that of a lunatic strapping himself into an electric chair.
The journey, back to a country I hardly recognized anymore and didn’t want to be in, was now underway, completely against my good sense and my wishes.