Fifteen months ago, Lisa and I embarked on the adventure of our lifetimes. We quit our jobs, gave notice to our landlord, sold our car, put our possessions into storage, and headed off with the intention of spending two years in Mexico and Central America.
Our first year was absolutely brilliant.
We visited seven countries. Climbed volcanoes. Snorkeled and SCUBA dived in the Caribbean. Met lots of amazing people. Ate wonderful, fresh food. Explored Mayan ruins. Generally had an awesome and relaxing time taking in everything these diverse countries have to offer.
“Didn’t you get homesick?”
We returned home to Melbourne and New Zealand briefly over the Christmas period. One of the first things our friends asked was, “Didn’t you get homesick?”
The easy answer was, “not really”, because we always knew we could be back in Melbourne in 36 hours if there was an emergency, or if life on the road was becoming a grind.
Using modern technologies also means we can stay in touch with our family and friends while we’re travelling. So no, we didn’t get homesick.
A fast-changing world
Fast forward to March 2020 and it’s a whole different ball game across the world. The rapid spread of Coronavrius has brought international travel to a standstill, many countries including our own have closed their borders, and many have also implemeted lockdown arrangements on their entire populations.
We’ve been following the spread of the disease closely since mid-February. We had friends from Australia and Luxembourg due to visit us in Mexico and Cuba at the start of April, and were furiously messaging about whether or not it would be safe or wise for them to travel. In both cases the decision was taken out of their hands by restrictions imposed in their home countries.
“Are you coming home?”
People back home started making noises about us returning home in early March. Our position was that we felt we were safer to stay where we were. Returning home would have entailed long international flights home and time spent queuing in airports, potentially with carriers of the diseases. Also, Mexico only had 6 reported cases at the time, against a population of 130 million.
Life in Australia was also becoming chaotic, with panic buying of toilet paper and staple items, and mixed messages from the government about whether mass gatherings like the Melbourne Grand Prix and national football codes should be allowed to proceed.
On the other hand, we were happily living in Playa del Carmen, visiting the gym daily and otherwise voluntarily self-isolating even though there were no government edicts to do so. There were plenty of groceries in the supermarkets, businesses were open as usual and we had a great apartment with a pool almost to ourselves.
As the whole world knows, things escalated very quickly towards the back end of March. Infection numbers and deaths escalated exponentially and countries introduced more and more preventative restrictions.
We still had time to get a flight home to Melbourne to beat the border closures and cessation of flights, however in our minds the risk of infection en route was even higher now and we didn’t want to be responsible for bring more of the problem back home and particularly to our elderly parents. Plus, you know, we don’t actually have a house any more.
Subsequently both Australia and New Zealand have announced strict 14 day quarantine periods for returning citizens. Anecdotally the living conditions provided for returning Australians have been sub-par so maybe we have dodged a bullet there.
And then there’s this update today, talking about the current chaos at Cancun Airport with stranded Canadian travellers trying desperately to get out. 300 people crowding around a single check-in desk for over 4 hours. No thanks.
So now what?
A lot of our options have closed up over the last week or so. We had a one-month trip to Cuba planned for early April followed by two months in Panama from early May. Both countries have now closed up shop to foreign tourists. Infections have continued to grow in both of these countries and it’s unlikely the restrictions will be lifted in the short-term.
It’s a shame, because the places we’d booked in Panama were very remote and would have made excellent self-isolation retreats.
We’ve extended the booking on our Airbnb apartment in Playa for an extra month through to the end of April. It’s a nice apartment in a block of 5, and we have the whole place to ourselves now. There’s a a great pool and the weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of food and toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Our gym closed last week so now we do a daily bodyweight workout by the pool.
It is very frustrating being so close to bucket list destinations (beaches, cenotes, adventure parks etc) and not being able to visit safely. Ditto eating at home when there are so many great, cheap options around (and we know the owners could really use the pesos).
Mexico coronavirus numbers continue to rise and are on a similar escalation curve to most other countries in the early stage of outbreak. There are now almost 1,000 reported cases across the country. Community transmissions have commenced. There are less than 40 cases in the state we’re living in (Quintana Roo) and less than 10 in our town of Playa del Carmen.
Predictions for Mexico’s preparedness to cope with the likely scale of infections are dire.
The government is finally pushing the ‘stay home’ message after some very Trumpian messaging from the President earlier in the month. As in the USA and Australia, state governments here have been more proactive in introducing lockdown provisions than their federal counterparts. The next few days will probably determine if Quintana Roo remains relatively unaffected in the short term.
Friends and family back home have been great, checking up on us and offering us places to stay if we did decide to return home. We feel blessed to have great people we can rely on.
Some other worries
There are plenty of people around the world dealing with a lot worse situations than us, and we are grateful to be safe and comfortable and healthy. Still there are a few things chipping away at the back of our minds.
We’ve found out that our travel insurance policy is useless for anything related to coronavirus as there is a blanket exclusion for pandemics. So if we do get the virus and require treatment, any medical costs will be ours to bear. Plus no joy on any cancellation costs incurred as a result of the virus.
We’re also worried that if we do get sick, even with a non-COVID issue, we may not be able to access appropriate health care if hospitals here are overwhelmed. And there’s no guarantee we’d be able to get to another country (USA, Canada) to seek treatment even if we wanted to.
We’re worried that if there’s an emergency back home (parents, children etc) we won’t be able to get back at all, and if we do we’d have to spend 14 days in quarantine first, which kind of defeats the purpose of an emergency trip back.
We’re worried about how long the various lockdowns will be in force and what that will mean in terms of our ability to continue on with our adventure (or return home). Flight options are already limited and we know they’ll dry up soon.
We don’t know what will happen at the end of our six month visa period here in Mexico if we’re physically not able to leave the country by mid July. Hopefully they will automatically extend the visa period as has happened in other countries.
Potentially the lockdown in Mexico will be prolonged and get more prescriptive than it currently is. Other neighbouring countries may not let people in from Mexico if things really kick off here.
Harvard Business Review has a great article on Coronavirus grief by Scott Berinato. I think I’m at the sadness stage right now, looking for a few rays of hope to move on confidently to acceptance.
There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
See my Corona Diary posts for a daily summary of Coronavirus news and issues relating to Mexico and Quintana Roo.