Travel in times of Corona Virus
It’s March 13th. Yesterday we returned to Bangkok and spent one more night at Home Mali Hostel. Last chance for Papaya and salted Mango and pungent street food in the alleyway. I will miss tropical fruit in Nepal! But at least I am assured of getting at least one healthy meal of vegetables and beans per day.
It’s mid-March and the worldwide spread of the Corona Virus is continuing at an alarming rate. Our host Krit has been struggling to make enough income from his now mostly empty hostel and the family has had to reconsider their plans for the future. As we chat with Krit on our last night, he shares that they are seriously considering moving back to Bend, Oregon and working in the restaurant that his wife’s aunt runs there. They will likely make the move in fall, once their second child is a few months old. Their international experience and Krit’s wife’s involvement in local politics has also given them a wider, and more critical, perspective on the Thai government and royal family. Krit cannot hide his disdain for their corruption and elitism. Little known to the general public, the young Thai king spends most of the year living in Germany, on vacation, and having affairs, according to Krit. The king is in fact one of the richest people in the world.
While needing to protect ourselves from Corona at airports and in cities has been a concern for Jonathan and me in the last few weeks, now the epidemic’s impact on our travel suddenly turns much more immediate: Orion, founder of Conscious Impact (the non-profit we intend to live and work at in Nepal) informed us last night that today is the last day that the Nepali government will allow any German or Chinese citizens (among other countries blacklisted) to enter Nepal without an certified health check and advance visa application. Nepal has only one (officially confirmed) case of COVID-19, but apparently the government realizes that it needs to take drastic measures to protect the country because it’s health care system would not be able to cope with a wide-spread epidemic. When we are in the taxi to the airport, Orion contacts us again with the latest update: today is the last day that Nepal will allow anyone to enter the country with a visa on arrival. This is getting serious. Are we going to make it? Or be confronted with yet another change of regulations when we get to the airport?
Sure enough, as we check in the cleck tells me that I cannot enter Nepal. She is reading the latest updates from Nepal on her computer screen and telling me that German citizens cannot no longer travel to Nepal. I show her my US passport and tell her that I will be using this when I get to Nepal, even though I entered Thailand as a German citizen. Thank Buddha, she is satisfied and we continue to the gate. We’ve barely sat down in the waiting area when I hear my name being called over the speaker. Oh no. What does this mean? I go over to the counter, both passports in hand, and am confronted with the same argument: Germans can not enter Nepal. I am really nervous now. I show the two flight attendants my passports and explain my plan again. They look at each other, then consult a third colleague. After a tense minute, they turn back to me and say: “OK.” Whew. They are really just concerned for me and make me promise that under no circumstances will I show anyone my German passport when I get to Nepal. “This doesn’t exist now”, one of the flight attendants says and I laugh and let out a big sigh of relief. “Nope. We never talked about it”, I reply. I sit back down with Jonathan who is reading the news on his phone and informs me that Tom Hanks and the Canadian first lady have been tested positive for COVID-19. Also, Air India has just cancelled the second leg of our flight from Kathmandu via Delhi to Paris on April 12. We get our temperature checked for the second time as we board the plane. The threat from Corona is starting to feel more and more tangible.
Not so for our fellow travelers, it seems. Apart from a few Thai monks and a small handful of Westerners, most of the passengers on our flight are 20 to 45 year old Nepali men, most of whom probably work in Thailand due to a severe lack of job opportunities in Nepal. The few of them who had been wearing masks when they boarded the plane now pull these off and leave their near-empty rows to go and sit close to their countrymen, playing video games and talking loudly to each other. One man even attempts to take the one free seat next to Jonathan and myself, even though there are so many other spots available. Oh boy. I will need to quickly adjust to a very different culture from the quiet, polite Thais. “Personal space is not really a concept for Nepalis”, Jonathan explains. I pull my mask tighter. I’m still happy we’re going to Nepal.