Escaping the Coronavirus: My 36-Hour Travel Nightmare

In March of 2020, I had the adventure of a lifetime escaping the coronavirus in a harrowing travel nightmare experience I will remember for the rest of my life. For the last 12 years, my life has been dedicated to promoting the sites, culture, and food in locations that are far off the beaten path. I do this in the hopes of getting people like you to experience their magic for yourself. I also like to ask my viewers “Where have you been?” so I can find out where they’ve traveled and what they’ve experienced. 

In those 12 years, I’ve had my fair share of beautiful experiences, but I’ve also had some scary moments as well. I got violently sick in the Sahara after accidentally swallowing some well water that had been poured on my head and had to go to the hospital. I’ve been on harrowing flights with turbulence so intense I literally thought I was going to die. I once nearly got into a fight with an aggressive vendor in Morocco who wasn’t happy that I refused to let him screw me over. I came down with the worst case of food poisoning of my life on a train from Delhi to Agra in India, which lasted seven brutal, punishing days.

But nothing I’ve gone through was as terrifying as my recent experience trying to get home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as the world shut down around me. It left me panicked, exhausted, petrified, and at times, close to despair. This is my experience escaping the coronavirus, my 36-hour travel nightmare.

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By the beginning of 2020, I had traveled to 76 countries on six continents. But there was one country at the top of my must-visit list that had eluded me: Bhutan. I had been fascinated by the culture and sites there for years and had been dying to go. But because I rarely travel strictly for pleasure and mostly travel for work purposes, I’d never been. But when MyBhutan, the Bhutanese tourism board, reached out to me and asked to partner with me, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. It was a dream come true!

My trip to Bhutan was scheduled for March 5 through March 15, 2020. By this time, COVID-19 had become a full-blown disaster in the neighboring country of China. It broke my heart, as I’m extremely fond of the people there, having traveled there in both 2015 and 2019. The virus was already starting to spread to other locations around the world, including the state of Hawaii, which I had explored just weeks earlier.

But outside of China, the number of cases was still relatively low, including in the United States. There were also no cases in Bhutan or India, which I’d have to travel through on my way there and back. Escaping the coronavirus was a concept in the very back of my mind, and the thought of it causing a travel nightmare wasn’t yet on my radar.

Check out the Top 10 Things to See and Eat in Suzhou, China

While I never get sick, I decided to take some precautions in the days leading up to my departure. Because I knew I’d be in close quarters with people, I bought a Respro Techno face mask. These special masks have a built-in combination filter that protects against air pollution and airborne pathogens. I also bought hand wipes, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizer to keep myself and my surroundings clean.

My flight for my first leg of the journey—Miami to Doha, Qatar—was nearly empty. But I wore my mask just to be safe, even though I had a row all to myself. I immediately used Clorox wipes on every surface near me and used hand sanitizer before and after every meal. I repeated that process as I flew from Doha to Kolkata, India, and again from Kolkata to Paro, Bhutan. After landing at Paro, they screened me to see if I had a fever and asked if I had recently been to China. I hadn’t, so things honestly couldn’t have gone smoother.

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The Adventure Begins

I spent my first day in the country high on life. I was finally in the country I had read and dreamed about for years! There, I met up with my incredible guide from MyBhutan, Tsheten; drove three hours to the city of Punakha; and dipped my toe into the world of Bhutanese cuisine and got a taste of the local culture at the Punakha Dzong festival.

I loved watching the performers, clad in colorful outfits and vibrant, traditional masks, dance and sing. It was downright magical. All the while, I filmed as much as I could. Bhutan is still relatively unknown to most, so I wanted to film episodes that showed just how remarkable it is. I hoped they would entice more people to consider Bhutan for their next trip.

But everything changed the following morning, March 6. I awoke to paranoia and barely-suppressed panic around me. The first case of coronavirus had been confirmed in the country: a 79-year-old American tourist who had been exploring with his girlfriend and guides. The entire mood changed drastically overnight from joyous to tense and extremely concerned. The Bhutanese people were scared for their safety, as the virus had entered the country via a foreigner.

The MyBhutan team informed me that my itinerary now had to change. To curb further spread of the virus, I could now only visit the same places as that American tourist. That limited me to the cities of Punakha, Paro, and Thimphu. Everywhere else was off-limits to me. That meant that the four days I’d set aside for venturing into the interior of Bhutan were now scrapped. My entire itinerary going forward had to be rewritten on the fly.

A Change in Plans

While my guide and I re-built my itinerary, the Bhutanese government closed its borders to all foreign flights. They did this to minimize the chance of more infected people coming into the country. They were taking no chances when it came to the coronavirus spreading within their borders, and though it affected my travel, it wasn’t a full-on nightmare. Yet.

Even with the initial shock at the news and disappointment that I could no longer visit some of the places I’d been looking forward to seeing, I decided to make the best of it. The government was doing right by their people, and the situation was way bigger than me and my re-jiggered itinerary. At this point, I was just happy I’d made it into the country before it had closed its borders.

Outside of the initial concern, day two in Bhutan went off without a hitch. I went back to the Punakha Dzong festival to catch another day of festivities. But the vibe there was quite different from the jubilant, celebratory atmosphere the previous day. The air felt heavier and a bit more somber. The traditional mask-wearers were joined by festival-goers decked out in masks of a different kind. Everywhere I looked, locals wore medical face masks. Also, the amount of hand sanitizer I saw being used exploded as the day wore on.

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I wasn’t too paranoid in terms of my own health that day. Nor was I particularly concerned as my re-organized adventures in Bhutan continued over the next several days. Outside of my food- and waterborne illnesses in Morocco and India, I’d been perfectly healthy for over twenty years. Anyone who has seen my videos knows I eat tons of crazy foods when I travel. But when I’m at home, I’m very conscious about eating healthy and exercising regularly. I never get sick. That said, I still used my wipes and hand sanitizer often because I didn’t want to risk contracting coronavirus and spreading it to others.

I watched from afar over the next five days as news bulletins came in from around the world. I also got regular updates from my family in Miami, who grew increasingly concerned as the days wore on. The situation was getting more dire seemingly by the hour. The number of cases in the U.S. was growing day by day. Italy, a country where I have many relatives, was quickly becoming a hotbed of coronavirus infections. Thankfully, my aunt and uncle in Gubbio were fine, as there were no reported cases in the Umbria region. I breathed a sigh of relief but still felt a growing concern for my aging parents in Miami and other at-risk people I know.

Then, on March 12, escaping the growing number of coronavirus cases exploded into a total travel nightmare. That morning, I woke up to the news that India would close its borders to foreign travel within 24 hours. My return trip home, scheduled for three days later, was supposed to take me to Kolkata, India, then to Qatar, and finally, back to Miami.

Leaving Bhutan

Around the same time that this news broke, the World Health Organization announced that the coronavirus outbreak was now officially a pandemic. Almost immediately, the United States announced a ban on all flights from continental Europe. With the Indian border closing imminent, and no idea if the U.S. would announce bans from Asia or the Middle East next, I was in full-on panic mode.

Scared and emotional, I contacted my wife Ana back home in Miami, as well as my parents. They were adamant: I needed to get out of Bhutan immediately and get to India before their borders closed. A limited number of flights fly between Paro Airport in Bhutan and Kolkata per day, and I needed to make sure I was on one of them. For a while, I considered trying to find a last-minute flight to Nepal in case I didn’t make it in time. Luckily for me, my friends at MyBhutan found a flight that would get me into Kolkata before the foreigner ban went into effect.

My other issue was the cost of a last-minute flight. Because I had bought my ticket with miles on Qatar Airways, I couldn’t switch my flight. The best I could do was get my miles back, but I still had to buy a $2,500 USD ticket for my last-minute flight. Thankfully I have travel insurance, so I made a claim in the hopes that they would help me get that back.

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This whole time, I was a wreck. Escaping the coronavirus was proving to be a major travel nightmare and headache. The uncertainty of everything, the health implications as cases continued to rise around the world, and knowing that if anything else went wrong, I could be stranded thousands of miles from home and not be able to see my wife and daughters for weeks, maybe even more…I was scared. It’s the most terrified I’ve ever been while traveling. I’d gladly take a hundred turbulent flights or hostile, aggressive vendors over escaping this coronavirus travel nightmare.

With the window to get back into India narrowing minute by minute, I dropped all of the rest of my Bhutan plans, woke up at 4 a.m., and made a mad dash for Paro Airport. I caught the very last Bhutan to Kolkata flight at 7 a.m. and arrived at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport one hour later. I landed 16 hours ahead of my connecting flight to Qatar.

Kolkata is one of the largest and most bustling cities in all of India, so it’s always a loud, chaotic, busy place. I’ve visited the city many times in my travels, but I’d never seen it quite this frenzied. Upon landing, they made me fill out forms declaring where I’d been, where I’d be staying in the city, and when my connecting flight was. I likely would not have been allowed to enter India at all if I hadn’t already had a connecting flight scheduled.

Arriving in Kolkata

I made it to my hotel in Kolkata with every intention on staying put until I had to go back to the airport. Before my trip, I had planned out several things I wanted to do and eat in Kolkata during my layover. I even reached out to locals, who sent me tons of suggestions about their favorite restaurants and which dishes I should eat there. But my family was nervous that I could contract coronavirus during my travels, so I figured staying put would be best for escaping the coronavirus and this travel nightmare I found myself in.

Then, my travel buddy and fellow Miami native Carlos from Volpe, Where Are You hit me up. He had been exploring Kolkata for some time and wanted to link up with me. The fear that I wouldn’t be able to get back home had grown within me exponentially over the past few hours. I checked the local news and saw that there were no known cases of coronavirus in Kolkata, a city with over 14 million people in its metro area. In fact, there were no reported cases in the state of West Bengal at all!

I weighed my options carefully. I could drive myself crazy in a hotel room, worrying about escaping the coronavirus and everything else that could go wrong in this travel nightmare, or I could do something productive. One of the things I thought about is my livelihood as a travel content creator. I knew that, between the footage I’d filmed months earlier in Kerala, India, as well as my adventures in Bhutan, that I had over 50 episodes worth of content that I could release every other day over the course of 100+ days.

Check out the Top 15 Things to See and Do in Kolkata, India

While 100 days of content may seem like a lot, I was listening to experts saying the pandemic would get worse before it got better and that the world could potentially be on lockdown for months. I hated to think what would happen to me and my family if I ran out of content to release and make earnings from if the pandemic continued into the foreseeable future.

I knew I only had a few hours to act. The prospect of filming more travel episodes with Carlos in India, my biggest market, as my travel future was looking more and more uncertain, sounded like a good idea. I’d get to hang with a friend, get some work done, and get my mind off of my worries. So, I put on my Respro Techno face mask, grabbed my wipes and hand sanitizer, and headed out with my camera and gear in tow.

Precautions in Kolkata

As Carlos and I filmed, I noticed that the city was taking the coronavirus threat very seriously. People wore face masks everywhere we went, and they were readily available for anyone who wanted one. There was also hand sanitizer available at every restaurant, and before we could enter any of them, we were checked to make sure we didn’t have a fever.

One of the food adventures Carlos and I filmed is a pani puri challenge. I’d filmed a similar video in the city of Tezpur in the state of Assam the previous year. Pani puri consists of a hollow, crispy dough ball that is punctured and filled with a mix of potatoes, onions, and spicy, sweet, and minty soups and chutneys.

Check out my VIDEO: 100 Rupee Pani Puri / Puchka / Golgappa Challenge – Indian Street Food Challenge | Tezpur, India

The thing is, like many Indian street foods, the vendor usually hands them to you. While this usually isn’t too much of an issue for me, in the midst of a global pandemic, I didn’t want to take any chances. I used hand sanitizer before and after eating. Carlos and I also asked the food vendor to use some before he prepared and served our puris.

He was happy to oblige, and Carlos and made sure to keep the space around us clear of people. All in all, I wound up filming three extra episodes of David’s Been Here. They’ll be coming to my YouTube channel toward the middle of the year. Carlos also filmed three episodes, which will drop around the same time on his channel.

With my head clearer and three more episodes in my queue, I made my way back to the airport. Finally, well after midnight, my 16-hour layover had come to a close. Having traveled through Kolkata many times, this airport is usually one of the busiest I’ve ever visited in my life. But now, as the Indian border was closing to foreigners, the airport was like a ghost town. It was actually quite eerie and unsettling in a way because, under normal circumstances, this airport would be a constant flurry of activity.

Leaving Kolkata

They were very thorough and checked every page of my passport. As for my flight itself, Qatar Airways made sure they were prepared. Every airport employee wore masks and had hand sanitizer, both of which were also readily available on the plane. I could feel the panic and the fear in the air. It was truly unnerving. Escaping the coronavirus wasn’t just my travel nightmare—it was everyone’s nightmare.

The flight had very few people on it, so the airline implemented a form of social distancing. Every passenger on board had an entire row to themselves so we wouldn’t be within a six-foot range of one another. My 3 a.m. flight from Kolkata to Doha took another six hours, so I landed in Qatar at 9 a.m. I can’t tell you how relieved I was that I’d made it to Qatar without any U.S. bans on flights from the Middle East. With only a 90-minute connection there, it was the first time in nearly two days that I felt certain I would make it home.

Sixteen hours later, I peered out my window to see the familiar south Florida coastline below. My heart leaped at the thought of running through my front door, scooping my daughters up in my arms, and never letting them go. If all went well, I’d see them within the next hour or so.

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I expected a bit more when I landed at Miami International Airport, though. After some very basic questions about where I’d traveled and if I felt sick, I was free to go. The lack of real screening at the airport really concerned me. How many potentially infectious people had passed through and into the city due to the lax protocol in place? That said, I was thrilled to be back on American soil, on my way to my home in South Miami. Escaping the coronavirus was a 36-hour travel nightmare. And even though there are still challenges ahead of us, I’m glad to have that chapter behind me.

As of this writing, that was five days ago. From the moment I stepped inside my house, I voluntarily entered social isolation. I have not left my house since then. My wife Ana and my daughters Melina and Siena and I have been hunkered down, and will be until at least fourteen days pass to make sure none of us is contagious. We don’t want to unwittingly infect anyone, least of all the people in our lives who are in high-risk groups. I can’t say it has been easy, but it’s 100% necessary.

Thankfully, when I’m not traveling, I work from home, so I’ve been able to edit episodes of my web show and take care of other business matters with ease. Of course, I’ve taken breaks here and there to play with my daughters, who are my best friends and my pride and joy. The main thought that popped in my mind again and again while escaping my 36-hour coronavirus travel nightmare was my babies. The idea of not holding them, hugging them, kissing them for weeks or more. We’re together again now and it feels good.

How to Stay Healthy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

I know this public health crisis is hard. As an active 34-year-old man, the last thing I’m used to is being stuck inside for potentially the next several months. I get it. Our lives have all been impacted by this virus, whether we’ve contracted it or not. In just a matter of days, it has completely changed the way we live our lives. And they may not return to normal for some time. But until then, I’m sharing some simple tips we can all follow to slow the spread of the coronavirus while keeping ourselves and others safe.

1. Stay at least six or more feet away from everyone.

The coronavirus isn’t technically an airborne pathogen, but it can travel up to six feet via coughs and sneezes. Aerosolized droplets containing the coronavirus can hang in the air for up to three hours indoors, making it easy to breathe them in. Staying at least six feet away from others can lower your chances of getting sick, and of you getting someone else sick.

2. Wear a mask.

If you have a cough or are sneezing, you need to wear a mask, even indoors. This will lower the risk of you infecting the people you live with. Also, wear a mask if you have to go out in public. This is more to protect others from you than to protect you from them. 

3. Use Clorox wipes or other cleaners that are known to kill the COVID-19 virus to wipe down commonly touched surfaces in your home.

This includes cell phones, laptops, computer keyboards and mice, remote controls, doorknobs, tables and countertops, light switches, toilet handles, and any other surfaces or objects you and your loved ones touch often. Check out these tips from the Centers for Disease Control on how to disinfect and sanitize your home, especially if you are living with someone who is sick. 

4. Wash your hands for at least 20-30 seconds every chance you get.

Keeping your hands clean can significantly reduce your chances of contracting the coronavirus. According to National Geographic, soap breaks down the virus’ protective outer shell, causing it to degrade. The soap molecules trap fragments of the virus, which are then washed away by water. Take extra care to thoroughly clean places people commonly miss, like your thumbs, the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and around and under your fingernails. To approximate 20-30 seconds, sing the chorus of your favorite song while you lather the soap on your hands.

5. Hand sanitizer is a must.

Keep a few bottles with you in case you run through them quickly. Use enough to rub all over both hands and wait for it to dry. Before you buy hand sanitizer, make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol, the strength needed to kill the coronavirus. The alcohol in the hand sanitizer breaks apart the proteins in the virus.

6. Use lotions or other moisturizers after washing your hands or using hand sanitizer.

It’s no secret that washing your hands and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer often dries out your skin. If the skin on your hands dries out, it could crack, which makes it very easy for nasty pathogens to get into your bloodstream. Apply lotion to your hands after every wash to keep your skin smooth, hydrated, and healthy.

7. Practice social isolation for the foreseeable future.

For many, this is the hardest tip to follow. But you must know that many of the people spreading the virus are carriers who have no symptoms. The only way to contain the virus and “flatten the curve” is for everyone to stay indoors as much as possible. While you can certainly contract the virus through touching contaminated surfaces and transferring it to your nose, mouth, eyes, etc., the virus mostly spreads through close human contact (handshakes, hugs, being in packed spaces). Avoid gatherings and crowded places at all costs. Work from home if you can. Don’t invite friends or family over. Don’t go to friends’ and families’ houses. Keep up with them via Skype, Facetime, text, or social media. Read books. Watch your favorite movies. Binge TV shows. If you have room to exercise, exercise. It’s good for your immune system. Just stay indoors as much as you possibly can.

8. Cough and sneeze into your elbow or into a tissue.

As I mentioned earlier, aerosolized bodily fluids containing coronavirus can hang in the air for hours after a cough or a sneeze. They can travel up to 13 feet, so make sure to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing to minimize the spread. Even if you don’t have coronavirus, you don’t want to spread a common cold or flu to someone else.

9. Stay away from people in at-risk groups at all costs.

While it’s true that anyone can catch the coronavirus and have a hard time fighting it off, people over the age of 60, people with underlying medical conditions, people who are obese, people with compromised immune systems, and smokers may have a harder time fighting off the coronavirus than most. Even if you feel fine, you could be a carrier and unknowingly pass it on to them.

10. Please don’t hoard supplies.

Lately, we’ve seen many people hoarding soap, toilet paper, WIC items, protective gloves, face masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaners. Entire shelves in grocery stores are bare and even online retailers are out of stock. Please be considerate and only buy the amount you need. Buying more than is necessary only makes it harder for others to buy the things they need to keep themselves and their families healthy. It also makes it more difficult for healthcare professionals, who need many of these items the most, to stay safe as they treat patients.

You can find much more helpful, up-to-date information on the coronavirus pandemic on the CDC website here.

Finally, I’d just like to say this. Escaping the coronavirus was a true travel nightmare for me. I want to thank everyone for their kind words and well wishes during those harrowing 36 hours.

Next, I know a lot of us are scared right now, and that’s understandable. But it’s important to not panic. Be kind to one another. Stay positive. Be patient and understanding. We will get through this. Someday, this will be a distant memory and we’ll be back to hanging out with friends and family, going to the movies, and celebrating at birthday parties. And traveling. We’ll definitely get back to traveling.

But until then, let’s look out for each other. And afterward as well. We’re all we’ve got, and we’re all in this together.

I love you. And I’m thinking about you.

Stay safe and I’ll talk to you soon.

David 

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