Traveling in Covid Times: A Comedy of Sorts

Ed and I are travelers. As in, world travel is our passion. As in, our front porch steps are sagging and there’s a hole in the plaster in the living room, BUT every free dollar we can muster is earmarked for travel. We’ve even been known to book an AirBnB for the “next trip” while still enjoying the jaunt we’re on. (Well, Ed’s been known to do that. He’s a tad crazier than me.)

Anyway, you can see how the entire COVID mess put quite the kibosh on our wanderlust. In 2020, we had to cancel two vacations we’d booked just months before the pandemic hit—our annual excursion to my beloved London and a trip to Rome and Sicily. In 2020, the furthest I ventured from home was the supermarket three blocks over.

With 2021 came vaccines. We celebrated with two short getaways, one to favorite seaport town, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the other to New York City. And then, fully-vaccinated and boostered, we laid the groundwork for our next adventures. 2022! Time to break out of the States and reconnect with the world. Three weeks in Barbados, a month in London, and five weeks on the Normandy Coast with a side of Paris. Sure beats the produce aisle at the supermarket.

And Then …

We booked our usual direct flight from Boston to Barbados. Reserved a flat within easy walking distance of all the local places we love and bus links to every beach up and down the island. We were PSYCHED!

Then Delta cases surged in the fall. By October 1, the State Department’s list of not-so-great-places-to-travel included … Barbados. Ed wavered a little, unsettled by all the stories that immuno-compromised folks weren’t getting much protection from COVID vaccines, but I was less daunted. The variants always peak after two months, I pointed out. By January, we’ll be fine. Barbados, I reminded him, is an outdoorsy place. Beaches, restaurants, cafes—all open to the air. [Note: This is one of the many perks of a really good marriage. I worry about stuff that doesn’t trouble Ed and vice versa. We catch each other in free fall.] During a drinks-and-nosh gathering of neighbors, we put it to a vote. Everyone said: GO. Ed got a second booster in November and an antibodies test. The doctor congratulated him: “My man, you are superimmunized!”

We were on.

And then Omicron struck. By December, tracking the requirements to enter Barbados was like watching the ticker tape of a volatile stock market. Things changed daily if not hourly, but finally stabilized—if I can use that term loosely—around three musts:

1) you had to register your travel plans and residence on the island with the government;

2) you had to present proof of a negative PCR test (not the quickie kind) administered within 72 hours of your landing on the island;

3) you had to schedule a test at a Barbados lab for the day before your return flight (a U.S. requirement for re-entering the States). 

We did #1 and #3—easy enough—and received a load of QR codes via email confirming these things. We uploaded the codes onto our phones to show folks at the airport so they’d let us onto the plane. (Ed did most of this, so for me—haha—it was relatively painless.) We also prepared a folder of the QR codes in hard copy in case our phones failed at some critical moment, as U.S. phones abroad are apt to do.

Get Me To The Test On Time

At this point, it was all down to getting that must-have PCR test. As I think most of us know, until very recently the U.S. has not exactly been on top of the COVID testing situation. I mean, Biden has done A LOT and thank god he won or we’d still be suffering the Orange Troll’s exhortations to “Drink bleach!”, but testing availability of the kind we needed was still in the roll-out stages late last fall.

Finally, in early December, our local Walgreens began offering drive-up PCR lab tests. The caveat was that appointment times were only released a few days in advance, AND as we were flying on a Sunday, landing at 1 pm, that meant getting the test in the afternoon of the Thursday prior between 1 pm and 3 pm AND getting our results back before the lab closed for the weekend.      

Meanwhile the airlines began canceling flights. Like a lot of flights. Like thousands over the course of December. Omicron-related staffing shortages, a couple of severe storms, and bargaining between airline owners and workers over wage hikes made everything a toss-up.    Our airline did contact us to say they were no longer offering a direct flight from Boston to Barbados. We’d have to take a 3:45 a.m. (!!!) flight from Boston to New York, sit around for four hours, then get another flight to Barbados. Our 4 ½ hour direct was now a 10 ½ hour “slow boat.” We adjusted our yet-to-be-booked PCR test window from 1pm – 3pm to 3 pm – 5pm, leaving us even more scrunched to get our results from the lab before the weekend.   

Unsplash: Scott Graham

As the holidays wound down, the leftovers dwindled, and family returned to their homes, we started watching the Walgreen’s online appointments sked in earnest, checking the instant we awoke each morning. On January 2, we finally got the green light. There were three appointment slots for the must-have time frame on Thursday. To book two of these, we needed to fill out an agonizingly long form, where every second I was aware that others were doing the same and might finish before me and snare those precious slots. But, in a stunning surprise, for practically the first time since COVID started, something actually went right. We got our requested slots and celebrated by uncapping the Remy Martin Ed gave me for Christmas, raising a snifter to good times in Barbados.

Fifteen minutes before our Thursday time slot, we pulled up in the Walgreen’s lot and it was chaos central. Cars circling around for a parking space. Cars lined up for the drive-through window. And one car parked at a peculiar angle, blocking us from either joining the line or pulling around it to see what was happening. The couple inside looked dazed. Ed went over to talk to them. They’d arrived not expecting to find all this traffic and had become immobilized as to how to back up and get out of there. Ed helped them reorient (without banging into us). Then he went into the store to find out what was going on. By the time he came back, five of the seven cars had left the line. Ten minutes later, we were at the window. The guy overseeing the testing handed us each a kit with two very long nasal swabs, capped tubes, and pre-printed ID labels. We dutifully jammed those swabs, as instructed, into our nostrils until they touched our prefrontal cortex and gave them a twirl. Then—pop!—into the tubes, capped, labeled, and away we drove. Now, if we could just get our results in time…  

On Friday, we paused in our packing hourly to check in with the lab. Finally, near midnight, they arrived. Both tests were negative. We transferred the docs to our phones. We printed them out. We were ready to roll!

Two Hours of Sleep and a Mini Packet of Chips

Because the flight to Barbados was leaving at 3:45 a.m., we drove to Boston the day before and stayed at a hotel near the airport. This meant that, in early January, we had to hope for two consecutive days of good weather in the northeast, LOL. But, perhaps sensing that we were just a short hop-skip from meltdown mode, the weather cooperated. We arrived at our hotel, had dinner, slept a couple of hours, got up, showered, and hauled the luggage down to the lobby to get the hotel van at 2:30 a.m. We had settled this with the concierge the night before, but now we had a different concierge—the graveyard shift concierge—and he was nowhere near as obliging as the check-in staff had been. He informed us that “Van service doesn’t start until 3:30 a.m.”, fifteen minutes before our plane was skedded to fly, fly away. So…we hopped a cab.

Less than half awake, when the cabbie asked us where we were flying to, we said Barbados, so he dropped us off, not unreasonably, at the lower level of the international terminal. We should have said New York, which was our first destination and which, of course, was not international. A word of advice: Never try doing anything that matters on two hours of sleep. 

Unsplash: reisetopia

I cannot describe to you just how deserted the basement of the international terminal was at 2:45 a.m. We rode up an amazingly steep escalator into a huge empty hall. By this time, we realized our mistake and started searching for signs to domestic flights. I had seen a man downstairs riding a floor-cleaner thingie and went in search of him. He turned out to be extremely helpful, directing us to the place we needed to be, down many long miles of automated walkway to the check-in counters.

Finally, like Dorothy catching her first glimpse of the Emerald City, we spotted the promised land: American, Delta, Jet Blue. We got boarding passes from machines (god, I miss the days of real people), handed over our luggage, and a man scanned our Barbados gov QR codes—the ones required to board the plane. Thinking our troubles were over, we headed for security.

Unsplash: Madeleine Maguire

I … have … never… seen … such …lines. Several hundred people stretched in an unwieldy queue ahead of us in a hallway outside the room where another hundred or so people waited to reach the security conveyor line with its little baskets. Our flight was leaving in 45 minutes.

At last, we boarded the plane. Hallelujah! Since it was a short hop to JFK in New York, and just 4:00 a.m., there was no food, but I managed to score an OJ. In New York, we were shuttled to another gate bordered by a lone kiosk that offered pre-packaged stuff—mainly, dried-up sandwiches and candy. We thought, OK, we’ll buy a sandwich on the plane.

When they called our flight, we found ourselves in a line where a man was checking passengers to verify they had submitted their Barbados government QR codes. Since we had done this in Boston, we breezily told him our names, BUT they were not on his list. We had to dig around in the carry-on and hand over the hard copy QR codes before he was satisfied.

But what the hell, we were on our way. After stowing our carry-on in the overhead bin, we eagerly scanned the info folders in our seats to find the list of food items we could buy on the plane. There weren’t any. Nada. They did hand out tiny, tiny packages of crackers which we gulped down. Don’t laugh, it would turn out to be the only food we ate between dinner Saturday night in Boston and dinner Sunday night in Barbados.

As the plane rose over New York and headed out to the Atlantic, I searched the movie offerings and settled in to watch The Devil Wears Prada through foggy glasses, courtesy of the required N-95 masks. Well, I’ve been doing my grocery shopping in the same foggy condition for two years, and the only real tragedy was once mistaking fresh parsley (which I loathe) for cilantro (which I love). Swallow your losses and move on.

Not So Fast

At last, amid sunshine and a balmy 82 degrees, we touched down in Barbados. YES! All prior annoyances, worries, gummed-up messes would soon fade to the sounds of reggae playing over warm sands as we read beneath beach umbrellas, rum punch in hand, between dips in the clear blue ocean.

We sailed through passport control and queued to show our PCR test results. A very serious-faced woman was working her way down the line, checking these. When she got to us, I proudly whipped out the appropriate docs from our encyclopedic folder and presented them. She looked them over, her frown increasing. I pointed to the NEGATIVE on both our tests. She continued frowning. “You must go in that line,” she informed us, pointing to a queue some 80-90 folks long—fully a third of the plane. “But why?” I stammered. “We both had the right test and we both have negative results.” “Your papers. They don’t say ‘nasal-pharyngeal.’,” she replied. “They must have the words ‘nasal-pharyngeal’ to prove the test was the right one.”

Exhausted, starving, and fed up with bureaucratic BS, I was tempted to ask where the hell did she think we’d inserted those footlong cotton swabs if not in our “nasals”, but I wanted to get out of the airport, into a taxi, and onto the beach, so I kept my witty remarks to myself, joined the others, and waited. It transpired that while we were enjoying our brief nap in Boston the night before, Barbados officialdom had once again changed the entry requirements to say all PCR tests must now be clearly marked “nasal-pharyngeal.” 

An hour later, Ed and I were ushered into a small cubicle where several nurses were—surprise—inserting cotton swabs into nostrils. We did the test—a quick result variation of the lab-certified one we’d had back home—and then went into a new room to wait. Clutching my winter coat—which I’d shucked the moment we’d touched down—I stared through the plate glass walls at the warm blue sky beyond, a world where people, free happy people, wheeled their luggage to waiting taxis, and dreamed of a future where I might join them.

At last, a woman came out and said, “You can go.” That was it. Prisoners no more, we donned our green “OK” cloth bracelets proclaiming us COVID free to the world. As the taxi took us along familiar highways and roundabouts, a welcome breeze blowing through my hair, I thought “We made it. WE MADE IT!” All the waiting and hoping and worrying and documenting of the past three months vanished like a line in the sand erased by the sea.

Always Another Surprise!

I’d like to say that for three delicious weeks, we never had to give another thought to COVID, but there were a couple more hiccups. For the first eight days, we beached and swam and walked and read and dined and drank and stared at the millions of stars that dot the night sky on a Caribbean island. Then, on Day Nine, Ed woke up with the sniffles. Just a cold. He often gets them when we travel. But Barbados had temperature checks everywhere—all shops, all restaurants, all beaches, and our apartment complex. If Ed’s cold should spike his temp just a degree or two, we would be quarantined until a lab test came back negative. We had tix for an 11:00 a.m. tour of the Mount Gay Rum Distillery that day. I spent the intervening two hours talking myself down from all the what-ifs, and took a deep breath as we approached the distillery’s check-in gate. We both clocked in with normal temps. Whew! To give Ed time to recoup and avoid ratcheting up the nerves again, we ate take-out that evening on our lovely, airy balcony. No temp checks!     

This last has nothing to do with COVID, but when we arrived at the airport to fly home, plastered across the front of the ticket counters were signs saying All flights today cancelled. In the nanosecond before cardiac arrest hit, a fellow traveler informed me the signs were from the day before—no one had bothered to take them down. So, in fact, Ed and I were truly lucky. Had we skedded our return for the 29th—when snowstorms closed all airports in the Northeast—instead of the 30th,  we’d have been screwed. On top of that, we learned we could exchange our tickets for a direct flight to Boston—six hours late because of the prior day’s bad weather, but hey, no long layover in New York. As the Bard would say, All’s well that ends well. And you know what? I’ve already booked the theatre tickets for a dozen great plays in London.