Getting Home from Southeast Asia … During a Global Pandemic

Certain things just can’t be predicted.

When I first started planning my remote year in the summer of 2019, there was no way I could have anticipated this journey being halted by a global pandemic. There was no way ANYONE could have prepared for something like this.

Here’s how things went down for me:

March 2020 was the 6th month on the Remote Year itinerary, with Bangkok, Thailand as our new host city. However — a small group of digital nomad buddies and I decided that we wanted to spend the month on the beach, relaxing in the sun, instead of in the middle of a big, bustling metropolis (we did just come from Hanoi, after all). So, the four of us booked an Airbnb on the island of Ko Samui, Thailand’s second largest island, located to the east in the Gulf of Thailand. What better place, right!?

We didn’t want to leave Bangkok completely untouched. So, we spent a couple days, temple hopping and whatnot, before jumping on a quick 45 minute flight over to Ko Samui. We arrived at our Airbnb in complete and utter disbelief at our surroundings: our 4-bedroom villa, with an enormous, all white living room/kitchen combo, opened up to a back patio and infinity pool that overlooked the Gulf of Thailand as far as the eye could see. Let me also add that Ko Samui is known for its lush palm-tree beaches, crystal clear waters and mountainous rainforests — all of which could be seen from our back patio. It was heaven, to say the least.

But before I go any further, I must mention our thoughts on COVID-19 at this point. We had spent the previous month in Hanoi, Vietnam, where wearing masks is the norm. We had taken this precaution because it’s just what you do there (the air pollution from diesel fuel, on top of a dense city population, is a long withstanding issue). So, we did as the locals did, without a real concern about the virus (in large part because the locals didn’t seem to be too concerned, either). The city seemed to be functioning normally, as far as we could tell. Every so often, though, my mom would call to express some concern: “Make sure to wash your hands frequently” or “Try to avoid large crowds,” she’d say … all the while thinking “She’s being a little neurotic here.” Nonetheless, we proceeded as normal, off to Thailand, without the slightest concern in the world…

Our first few days at the villa couldn’t have been better, either. We spent our mornings making delicious breakfasts. We’d run to the local outdoor markets for fresh veggies for lunch. We’d spend the afternoons doing yoga, cooking, making cocktails, swimming in the pool, reading at the beach. We all worked the night shift, but never complained about it. I mean, what’s there to complain about in paradise?

When I tell you things changed over night, I mean it. THINGS LITERALLY CHANGED OVER NIGHT. I can’t remember exactly when — it was definitely before the end of our first week — but I do recall waking up one morning and overhearing a conversation between two of my roomies: Apparently, there was talk amongst the Remote Year group at large about whether or not to continue on to Japan for month 7. Nothing official had been released to the Remote Year community, this was simply just talk amongst the remotes within my group. And while the coronavirus had been present in a variety of Asian countries up to this point, it had just reached the States and was spreading at an ungodly speed. As a group of mostly Americans, who receive news from American sources, it made sense that some of us started to panic.

As I’m writing this blog, almost 3 months later, it’s hard to recall the rollercoaster of emotions that ensued from this point forward. Time has a funny way of making you forget certain things, as anxiety provoking as they may have been. And that’s exactly how I would describe this period in time: ANXIETY THROUGH THE ROOF. The rest of the month unfolded like this: Everyday we’d wake up and come to a different conclusion as to what our game plan would be. Some days we’d decide to continue on to Japan. Other days, we’d decide to make our way to a different country, potentially one more isolated where the COVID-19 numbers were lower. And of course, during all this flip-flopping, we’d receive news from home or from the Remote Year community that would again alter the plan we had just settled on.

For example — just when we decided to continue on to Japan, Remote Year made an announcement that all itineraries were suspended and that Remote Year (as a company) would be shutting down until further notice. Great. Then, just as we decided to continue on to another country, COVID-19 is declared a pandemic, in which all non-essential travel is strongly advised against. Great.

Then, there was a period of about a week or so where we had decided to just stay put on Ko Samui. We had all planned to be out of the country for at least a year, so what difference did it make if we were stuck on a tropical island for a month or two longer than expected? While this may have seemed like a great plan at this point, what I thought was already terrible anxiety quickly escalated to some of the most debilitating and un-liveable anxiety I had ever experienced. I couldn’t get any work done. I could barely eat. I could barely sleep. I was becoming paranoid beyond belief: paranoid of catching the virus in a foregin country; paranoid of being stuck on a remote island without food and resources; paranoid that someone in my family would get sick and need me. Paranoid about LITERALLY EVERYTHING.

At this point, one of my roomies, Jen, had also reached an unlivable anxiety level. It was the morning of Tuesday, March 24th when we both woke up, looked at each other and decided the best possible thing was to head home. It was a heartbreaking decision on so many levels. Our plan was to be gone for a year. Leaving “early” would be letting ourselves down exponentially. But we also knew that we couldn’t live in a state of constant flip-flopping and back and forth emotion. And while leaving our buddy Andy behind seemed almost unthinkable, we immediately booked the next flight back home, which would leave tomorrow (Wednesday, March 26th) at 3pm.

By the next morning around 10am, we were nearly all packed and ready to go when we got an alert that our flight off the island back to Bangkok was cancelled. This was something we were fearful of. Flights were getting cancelled left and right, all around the world. We decided to head to the airport anyway, hoping we could find another flight that day. Luckily, after only two hours of waiting on standby, we did! Getting off the island and back to Bangkok was key; there would be less cancellations out of a big international airport like Bangkok’s, than the tiny airport on Ko Samui.

We arrived in Bangkok about an hour later and the only flight to Dulles Airport at that point was for the next morning, with layovers in both Tokyo and JFK. We booked it, fearful all the while that something would be cancelled again. We also decided that it would be best to sleep in one of airport hotels, instead of heading out into the city. Luckily, the Bangkok airport has tons of capsule hotels, so we each booked one for the night and attempted to get some rest. As intense as this mad rush home was, I had a lot of fun sleeping in that tiny wooden box that night, I must say!

The next morning we hopped on our flight to Tokyo, relieved BEYOND BELIEF that it wasn’t cancelled. In walking through the airport, cancellations in bright red lights lit up nearly every screen. We were thankful we weren’t one of them. So, on the plane we went: 6 hours to Toyko and then 13 hours to JFK. By the time we arrived in New York City, we were exhausted, hungry, jet lagged, heartbroken and still pretty anxious. But, we still had to make it down to Maryland. The plan was to quarantine for two weeks near Jen’s hometown, before returning home to Jersey. But, to not much surprise, our flight to Dulles Airport was cancelled. We didn’t feel like booking another room somewhere (we had already spent nearly $3,000 getting back to the States), so we decided to rent a car and drive our butts down.

Finally, after a 3-hour drive and nearly 30 hours of total travel, we made it to our Airbnb in Baltimore. The feeling of being back “home” at this point was the strangest combination of relief and disappointment — I was relieved to be safe and healthy, but disappointed that my yearlong journey around the globe had been cut short.

And now — almost 3 months later — there is nothing I want more than to hit the road again and to finish the journey I set out on accomplishing. It’s crazy that that’s not even an option right now. But being safe is the most important thing, especially as the world is healing itself. That is what I believe, in my heart, is happening.

As soon as I can, I will get back out there. Back to doing what I love, with the people I love.

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