Malaga stretches along the blue coastal waters of Spain and is outlined with palm trees reminiscent of Florida. In a normal world, it’s the perfect place to pass through as part of a cycling trip from Spain to Norway—unless, of course, a global pandemic breaks out. As Lesley and David Hayward from York, England, have recently discovered, the difficulty is not simply in finding a flight home, it’s that even a simple bike ride in virus-laden Spain can be illegal.
Spain’s infections have lunged forward, with over 15,000 cases of the coronavirus and (as of writing this) almost 650 deaths, leading to a lockdown of the country and quarantining. Once COVID-19 became widespread, governments shut down their borders and put in aggressive travel restrictions. It’s now a fact of our pandemic planet that is leaving travelers everywhere in a dystopian nightmare. Without help from their governments or any other type of recourse, individuals and families all over the world who talked to The Daily Beast for this piece find themselves stranded, struggling to find new flights—often with no discernible way to get safely home. It’s straining their financial resources, limiting access to medical aid, and even leaving them without a roof over their heads.
“It was my transition into retirement,” says Lesley Hayward. “It was, you know, stop work, do the bike ride, and then think about what’s next.” Lesley was a GP in York and David still is, though he’s on sabbatical for their trip. They began their adventure in the British territory of Gibraltar, but both of them are now waiting to fly home from Malaga. Two years before her retirement, Lesley planned the cycling trip as a transition—an opportunity to imagine her next steps.
But now, does anyone in this world know their next steps?
The Haywards’ trip, David tells me, was inspired by Andrew P. Sykes’s book Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, but, says David, “when we got to Lucena [Spain], we realized that because of the coronavirus we were going to have to come back, that we couldn’t continue to cycle.”
“And now, you know, we’re still gonna get home,” adds Leslie, “but once we’re home, I’m thrown into what’s next, and I haven’t had that time stop.”
Forced to leave bikes and gear behind, the couple is staying at a hotel for the moment with (as of writing this) a flight out on March 19, but the hotel’s ability to stay open and the flights out are both as tenuous as everything else. For now, they’ve tried to stay optimistic—even joining people who are cheering on ambulances passing by their homes in the evening.
The Haywards are not alone in having their plans turned upside down.
Eileen and Art Martines decided to go forward with their vacation to Hawaii. The trip was planned last fall and Hawaii was still much safer when they left last week from Cranford, New Jersey. Still, as soon as they arrived everything changed.
“My husband had surprise quadruple bypass surgery last April,” Eileen tells me, “and we are very much aware that our time is not infinite and that we should travel (one of our greatest pleasures) when we can.” They decided to make this their “big travel year” with trips to the Loire Valley and Paris in June, the Amalfi Coast in October, and a family trip in August. “It’s sad to think that the fun and adventure we had planned for this year may not be possible.”
When I first connected with Eileen, the news of the virus and flights being canceled left them wondering if they should stay or head back to their home where things are worse. She told me that they are over 60 and thought Hawaii might be safer.
Now, she’s watching as Hawaii begins to take action like other states. Restaurants are going to takeout-only. Schools are closing. The writing is on the wall.
“As much as we wanted to stay,” she now tells me, “we’re going to try to change our flights to come home early. It’s becoming clear that we need to cut this short.”
A global pandemic status is itself not just a virus infecting people globally; it is a virus that infects international systems with global dysfunction. That dysfunction, as some travelers have noticed, can not only interfere with getting home, it also can expose serious holes in viral safety at airports.
Emily Blair was taking a break from her work running a public relations agency to visit her sister who was studying abroad in Spain. It was also a chance to visit the Czech Republic, Austria, and some friends in England. Once in London, however, President Trump’s ban on the U.K. kicked in, leaving her rushing to get an earlier flight. As is the case for most airlines right now, Delta’s phone lines and personnel were overwhelmed.
“I had three different friends and relatives trying to reach them for me too, and they were unresponsive on social media,” Blair tells me. “They told me to DM them. I did, but then I was basically ghosted.”
After finally getting a flight at Heathrow, she says, screening agents were surprisingly careless. “I was in line with a few other people,” says Blair, “and they were just completely unsanitary, asking us to dump all of our personal items on this giant metal table, which is a way that the virus can spread on metal and on plastic.” Travelers were raising concerns, leading to a supervisor to tell agents to change gloves.
When she finally made it home, Blair found that in Atlanta and LAX, there was less bedlam, but still also less concern. Lines were not the chaos she expected from social media, but the CDC only required her to fill out a simple form.
“The whole [screening] process where I spoke to somebody took about 30 seconds,” Blair says, “which was quite surprising. I have been traveling a lot and it seems to be of zero concern.”
She tells me she will be self-isolating.
For others, the problem is less about getting home and more about being kept apart from their long-distance relationships. Marie and her partner—she asks to only go by her first name out of respect for her partner’s privacy—are both musicians. They met six years ago and have kept their relationship going, even though she’s an American and he’s British, and they are an entire ocean apart.
As a touring musician, he often finds himself in the States, where she tries to join him on tour. He was supposed to start a tour this month, but it was canceled due to the virus.
“No problem,” Marie tells me she thought. “He can come to the U.S. or I can go to London.” But then the travel ban to America from the U.K. was put in place.
Plan B? She could meet up with him during the Canada portion of his tour, but then Canada’s ban went into place. Maybe she could go to London, she thought, but then she learned that the insurance she uses for when she’s in London won’t cover the virus. Given that they are both boomers, she realized she should probably wait.
“Love in the time of pandemic,” Marie says, resigned. “It’s sort of amazing that we’ve managed to keep this thing going... but we, fortunately, have enough means to be able to see each other frequently.” She then chuckles, “Until now.” She has tickets for late April, so she’s hoping for one more try to go to London.
Love is regularly caught within the chaos of a pandemic.
Having left Ohio, Marla and Gabe Taviano and their three daughters have lived in Cambodia since 2015. They moved there after visiting an orphanage sponsored by their church and seeing a need to counter human trafficking in the country. Gabe set out to teach website design and photography skills to those in Siem Reap as a way to head off the social factors that lead to human trafficking. Marla is a writer and author of over a dozen books.
Recently, everything changed for them, including job loss, and they decided to return to the United States—this time to South Carolina—though big details like where to live are still up in the air. Marla is documenting the chaos on Instagram.
“Our family has suffered big time because of it,” she tells me. She adds that her younger daughters were never really happy in Cambodia and now, their oldest daughter, who is 19, is engaged to a young man from there. The family loves him and is working to help him become a U.S. citizen.
When I first connected with her, Marla and Gabe were still figuring out what to do about flights that were canceled due to COVID-19 and trying to find layovers less than 24 hours in length.
“My biggest heartache and anxiety right now is leaving my daughter and her fiance here on this side of the world during this time of unrest and uncertainty,” Marla told me Wednesday morning their time. At that time, the young couple had initial approvals for a fiancé visa and interviews scheduled for April 2.
“Hoping and praying their interview doesn’t get canceled, that everything goes smoothly, and that we can get them flights to the U.S. as soon as possible,” she wrote to me then.
A few hours later, everything changed. “Since I wrote to you,” she tells me by email, “we got some devastating news. All immigrant and non-immigrant visa interviews at the U.S. Embassy here in Cambodia have been canceled indefinitely, so we have no idea how long my daughter and her fiance will be stuck here.”
The frustration bleeds through her email. “We didn’t expect to leave Cambodia like this,” she tells me, “we can’t even say good-bye to everyone because of social distancing and wanting to stay safe and keep others safe.”
For many, there is still no immediate and apparent way to make it home.
Lauren Davenport is a U.S. citizen currently stuck in Morocco. She and her husband, Daniel Fernandez, arrived in Spain two weeks ago, just when the virus was getting a foothold. When the U.S. travel ban went into place, they were on their way to spend a few days in the Sahara Desert.
“We decided we would not make a decision based on fear,” Lauren explains. “Little did we know, we were on one of the last flights out of Spain before the borders were closed between the two countries.”
While they were on their Sahara adventure, Lauren says, they were mostly offline, but now they’ve caught up on the news. “It was a shock to discover that in such a short time period, and with little to no warning, the country had shut down all borders to any kind of land, air, or sea travel,” she adds.
Emily Dickinson once said “there is no frigate like a book,” but when you’re stranded and need to get home, there is really no frigate like a plane—or even an actual frigate.
Lauren readily says that they are healthy and their jobs are flexible enough “to wait it out,” but she is emphatic about the status of Americans there. “We’re now connected with hundreds of Americans stuck here whose stories are heartbreaking. People running out of medicines, families being separated, hotels closing and leaving people stranded without a roof over their head in Africa.” They’ve also found that the U.S. Embassy isn’t communicating with anyone.
For now, Lauren and Daniel are in a two-week self-quarantine to do their part and are trying to let the world know what’s going on in Morocco.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that stories like Davenport’s are popping up in the news everywhere. Daniel and Katie Stripp are also in Morocco and are trying to get back to New Jersey—Katie is pregnant. Speaking to NJ.com, they say they finally arranged a rescue flight to the U.K. and hope to find a way back from there, but as happened to Lauren Davenport, the U.S. Embassy and Consulate “left them high and dry—no one at the Consulate would even speak to them.”
Even high profile individuals, like Wednesday’s winner of the Iditarod in Alaska, Norwegian Thomas Waerner, is celebrating his win, while also realizing he may now be stuck, telling the Anchorage Daily News, “there will be some problems getting home.” His wife, Guro, left Alaska early to avoid being stranded and is now at home in self-quarantine hoping Thomas will find a way back. It turns out to be a lot easier for him to mush his team 1000 miles, than it is to find transportation home.
There are no shortages of stories of those stranded as a result of the dysfunction and chaos caused by COVID-19. Undoubtedly, in a post-pandemic world—whatever that will look like—there will be many more. In the meantime, and as it all plays out, everyone is forced to re-imagine their own roles and responsibilities to others.
“The whole situation at the minute with coronavirus is so big, that it pretty much overrides any emotions that I may feel in some ways,” Lesley Hayward tells me, as she comes to terms with her cancelled trip. “Because it is such a big thing, and because it’s affecting so many people in so many ways, you don’t focus on yourself, you just focus on the fact that you have to do the right thing.”