Dodging Death: A Global COVID-19 Crash Course
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Fun is much better had if you're alive to enjoy it.
By Brian Friedman
Qatar Airways Flight 955 from Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Indonesia to Doha International Airport in Qatar started taxiing for takeoff. I looked around. Older passengers to my left wore white medical masks. Younger passengers to my right watched Joker or Honey Boy like they were on a flight home from spring break.
The flight was not even close to being empty. It did not feel like a zombie apocalypse, and humankind was very present and alive. The plane was filled with foreign travelers just like myself attempting to make it back to their loved ones before it was too late.
As we got farther from Lombok, I started to feel like I was increasing my risk by coming in closer proximity to the active pandemic. Did it really make sense to go back to Boston where the population is dense and there was already an increasing rate of confirmed cases of COVID-19?
I had to walk across the street and pay a woman close to $250 in cash. I got a piece of paper with a flight number and my name handwritten on it.
Twenty hours earlier, I had been sitting on my surfboard at the left-hand break of Areguling, looking at the rising sun. The water between each break was glassy and the waves consistently came in thick sets for fun, long rides.
My plan was to spend two months in Indonesia learning how to surf. I had already had to dodge two quarantines on my way there. I snuck onto an island by sailboat in the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. I secretly booked a seat on a private charter flight.
In early January I traveled from Maui to Sapporo to start my winter snowboarding in northern Japan, on the island of Hokkaido. On Jan. 28, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Hokkaido — a tourist visiting from Wuhan, China — while I was riding on Asahidake, an active volcano and the tallest mountain on Hokkaido.
While everything seemed pristine in my remote location, it turned out I was actually in the fastest-growing region for COVID-19 outside of China. The town of Nakafurano on Feb. 21 reported the first cases of COVID-19 in Japan for children under 10 years old and in the town of Hakodate the first death of COVID-19 occurred on Feb. 25.
So I ended my holiday in Hokkaido early and left for the Philippines and a kiteboarding and sailing trip around Palawan and its neighboring islands. I was afraid that Japan would be added to the list of banned countries to travel from, so I wanted to leave before the situation escalated. Though now I realized that nothing else was going to be the same.
From March 12 to March 15, I was off the grid completely, sailing with a kitesurfing crew around the Sulu Sea on a 44-foot, eight-person adventure catamaran with no Wi-Fi or cell service. I spent one day sailing over 40 miles from Busuanga Island to Magranting Island. Three days kiteboarding around Magranting Island and one day sailing another 40 miles to Manamoc Island, then to the Amanpulo resort on Pamalican Island.
As we approached Manamoc Island, text messages and emails started appearing on my phone. The first message I read was that the Philippines was locking down domestic travel by air, land, and sea to and from Manila and Cebu City starting on March 17. Our crew made a quick and responsible decision to end our kiteboarding adventure to sail back 70 miles northwest back to Busuanga Bay where we’d have to sneak onto the island. The town of Coron had already prohibited land and sea transportation.
Ten hours later, we arrived at Busuanga Bay in the dark. Our captain prepared the dinghy for a quick reconnaissance mission and we motored over to a hotel in Palawan.
When we got to the lobby, the staff told us that their guests had already evacuated their property. Except for two Swiss nationals who had decided to stay through the end of the quarantine, which was expected to end on April 14.
We then took a shuttle to the airport at 4 a.m. going on backroads, so that we would avoid the roadblocks set up closer to Coron.
After sleeping for three hours, I made it to the shuttle with two other crew members. When we arrived at the Coron Reyes Airport, there was already a line of tourists sleeping on the ground.
At 8 a.m., Cebu Pacific Air and Philippine Airlines opened. Cebu Pacific had canceled all of their outgoing flights on March 15 and were reserving all of their remaining flights for existing customers. Philippine Airlines only had flights to Cebu City so I added my name to the standby list.
I messaged the Tourism Congress of the Philippines on Facebook to see if I’d be able to fly from Cebu City. I got a message: “If you are coming to Cebu, better cancel, you’ll be quarantined.”
My friend tapped me on the shoulder. He said a man in a black shirt had approached him quietly and added our names to a list for a private charter. The plane would be flying to Clark International Airport, north of Manila.
I had to walk over, across the street, and pay a woman close to $250 in cash. I got a piece of paper with a flight number and my name handwritten on it. Now that I had a flight out, I booked a flight to Lombok International Airport. At noon a small yellow Cessna arrived, and immediately I thought I’d been scammed. Thirty passengers had purchased a ticket on the flight. No way more than 10 people would fit.
At 1 p.m., three hours late, a jet arrived with “Miss Universe Confidently Beautiful” on the side. The plane was owned by SkyJet and designed for the 2017 Miss Universe Philippines finalists. I arrived two hours later and waited another two in a bus line before taking the bus to Manila Ninoy. After 24 hours of being awake traveling, I got a flight and arrived in at Lombok eight hours later.
The State Department changed their global health advisory to “Level 4: Do Not Travel,” though. U.S. citizens were advised to return immediately. My parents emailed me with a flight back and explained that I could be stuck in Indonesia and unable to fly back. And COVID-19 was already in Jakarta and Bali and was infecting people even in remote areas.
After 13 hours and 41 minutes with 335 people on a flight back I’m now home in Newton, Massachusetts. I’m self-quarantining for the next week, since I could have come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. My luggage has been disinfected and placed in my garage for awhile. I talk to my parents in-person once a day when we go on our walk outside.
The past four months have been a wild journey for me, but I’m alive. And glad to be so.
- Brian Friedman, OZY Author Contact Brian Friedman