March 23, 2020, 8 p.m., and opposite me in the hotel shuttle bus to LAX is an airline pilot in full uniform. The bus lurches and I almost fall on him as, like everyone else on the shuttle, I am trying to avoid clinging to the nearby pole with my bare hands. I take my seat in the half-empty bus next to my husband and smile across the aisle apologetically murmuring “Sorry” under my N95 surgical mask to the seated pilot, who I can see smiles back as he is not encumbered by a lower face full of damp cloth.
“Heading home?” he asks, and we start to talk about that: “We’re answering the instruction from our Prime Minister to get back to Australia before he locks us out on the thirty-first of March. We’re lucky to get a flight as most are cancelled,” I reply to this pleasant pilot, a man I’d judge as in his late forties. He asks conversationally where we’d been, and I tell him: “We flew in yesterday from New Orleans to ensure we’d be here to catch our flight tonight. We didn’t want to be suddenly stuck down there because the airlines are cancelling so many inter-city flights.” He agrees with the wisdom of our thinking, saying that flights are being cancelled without warning all over the world. “Everyone’s heading home,” he concludes, adding with apparent relief that he is finally doing so too, on his way now back to Calgary in Canada to be at home with his anxious family.
This memoir appears in the latest Quadrant
We were late to be travelling and our family had been texting frantically for us to return. COVID-19 had been prominent in the zeitgeist since early March. I had been early in watching the story as it unfolded in late January and throughout February in the media, and especially on Twitter reports directly from locals in Wuhan. What to make of this virus now named SARS-CoV-2 and the disease COVID-19 that it caused? We had decided together to continue with our travel plans regardless—a Panama Canal cruise and a driving trip from Florida across the southern United States—and had left home on March 9 on what became the last (because mostly empty) A380 out of Sydney to America. We’d checked that our medical travel insurance for the US was valid for coronavirus (it was) and that ex-Australia travel had not at our departure date been banned (it hadn’t).
We were unaware that a stern official advisory against international travel had been announced in Australia just as we were in flight, for we were driving immediately down through a major cloudburst to San Diego to pick up our cruise. We’d hoped to get our trip in and come home before any real and likely unnecessary storm about COVID-19 developed in Australia. We’d travelled previously without problems in “declared” epidemics, such as H5N1 influenza and H1N1 “Swine” flu. We’d even survived flying down to cross southern Saudi Arabia in 1991 on the concluding night of Bush Senior’s ultimatum to Iraq over Kuwait, when American cruise missiles were lined up in the Red Sea ready to fire at any radar blob. So, what was the crisis here?
The epidemiological figures for CoV-2 were dicey to say the least. Medical reports saw co-morbidities and age as the main threats, and on those we were prepared to take our personal chances. There was no believable numerator of deaths given the obvious discrepancies coming through in the informal reports, and, more significantly, a very uncertain denominator about the “tested” cases versus any others, so the real spread and nature of this disease were unclear. Nevertheless, it had elicited a clear response from China: shut up shop, good and hard, close down a city of eleven million people immediately. So we, and anyone else travelling, played a balancing act with time and distance; the US was still open for business and not yet a declared COVID-19 arena. We would go. Models are only as good as their data and time would yet tell.
As retirees, we both had strong reasons to want to continue our trip. My husband had heard the bell toll once for himself already and very much wanted to see that engineered Panama Canal; and I, a wandering soul who hears the faint chimes of midnight constantly, wanted to visit a very elderly aunt in her nineties living in Louisiana. We boarded the cruise ship the next day and had four days of excellent cruising down to Mexico on a vessel only half-full with a health-screened group of mostly older people intent, as we were, on “doing the Canal” while passing the time with a little hilarious line-dancing and some silver service. We got down the coast to our first port of call in Mexico with happy passengers and no COVID-19 on board, docking in a scenic blue bay perfectly surrounded by mountains rising steeply from the narrow waterfront, peaks of those same ranges that produce the spine of the two Americas. Happy to be absent from what seemed like a growing panic elsewhere but not in evidence at all in Mexico, we took a walking tour of Puerto Vallarta (“many steps, for active guests only”), one of Mexico’s few gems, a remnant port town even now architecturally stilled in the 1950s and 1960s.
This was the down-Mexico-way seedy Riviera where one of Tennessee Williams’s dramas of mental decline, The Night of the Iguana, was filmed in 1964, with Richard Burton in the role of a failed Episcopal minister enticed too far into statutory sin amongst an assortment of odd-bods for whom he organised tours. While Burton was filming this stark tale with Ava Gardner in the lead female role, a visit from Elizabeth Taylor started the famous romance that culminated in a huge diamond, much drunken fighting and two goes at wedding each other. Burton’s house there hasn’t changed much; nor has the one where he lived with Elizabeth in those early halcyon days of Hollywood adventures south of the border.
Inspired by times past and back on board at 3 p.m., ready for the sail-out festivities, there came a sudden announcement from our captain over the public address system, peremptory and brooking no argument: “Your attention please, all passengers. I regret to inform you that this cruise ends here. All passengers are asked to disembark before twelve midday tomorrow. We regret that we are unable to help with your luggage.” Consternation ensued as all 700 passengers were tumbled ashore to fend for ourselves; dumped due to instructions from higher up the line while the going was good.
And there we found ourselves, homeless in Mexico, told to head home because of the Chinese virus.
But not really homeless, because a viable credit card can save any homeless day. Many passengers flew out immediately, filling all flights. We booked into a resort hotel on the day we disembarked our cruise and purchased for the next day some of the last tickets on a flight back to the US. Instead of the empty resort we had half-expected, this five-star place was buzzing with locals. We admired the spirit of the Mexican people, who had been enticed in at one quarter the price paid by foreigners in order to keep the place going in troubled times. Enjoying this discount, they were intent on partying hard around the various pools, strumming guitars in large groups on the beach beneath our balcony room, and carousing long into the night on the wooden wharf going out into the bay. Mexico had not yet called for social isolation, nothing was closed in Puerto Vallarta, and there was little concern about any virus. Corona here was still just a word for beer. We found this normality heartening, even though I kept up my antiseptic wiping and sanitising. So common had such wipe-downs become in air travel, we were soon to find, that cabin attendants walked around with plastic bags to collect the used wipes on all flights.
Whether we would be readmitted to the United States became the worry du jour. Other passengers we had become friendly with in our four days on board, Europeans from Holland and Germany, found that they were persona non grata in the US now, as all Europeans were on the list of the citizens just this week banned entry into America by President Trump, joining the Italians and Chinese (both nationalities already barred from this cruise). Never was nationality so starkly defined as in this passenger microcosm of what all were used to thinking of as an international citizenry of paying travellers; sovereignty was locking previously porous borders. Our new English friends at dinner on our last night on board told us in dismay that they too, who had seemed excluded from this ban at first, had just been added to the list of non-entrants into America and like the Europeans would have to fly home via Canada.
Australia still seemed on the list of “COVID-friendlies” but the changes were coming so fast we couldn’t be sure. Would we get to the US only to be stopped at the airport and returned to Mexico? In another piece of news, we found that only the major airport hubs of Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas were now allowed to accept incoming international passenger flights. As we had decided to retrieve what we could of our planned and booked driving trip, we were headed for Miami in Florida near where the cruise would have ended, but were to be filtered via Dallas, Texas. In the event, flying in a terrible old crate of a plane, we bump-landed at Dallas and were waved through immigration with no health checks, no questions and no problems. Incoming flights were being staged through so that there was no crowding, in contrast to the crush of close-breathing humanity herded into these same feeder waiting areas the day before. We’d seen the disturbing footage of Dallas airport on major television networks the previous night and had wondered if that would be what we were in for too. Luckily for us, in the era of policy on the run, someone had learned a public health lesson overnight: stagger the arrivals.
From Dallas we took a regular American Airlines flight to Miami and after a night’s rest and a check on the news of increasing lockdowns, we cancelled driving through to Louisiana and did a quick overnight car hire trip down to Key West instead, a stone’s throw from Cuba. There were six people in a car-hire hall with seating for 400. We brought forward our original accommodation booking in one of the quaint early twentieth-century cigar barons’ mansions turned boutique hotel that are emblematic of this town’s heyday. Key West is a fine old town of historic white wooden buildings, plentiful restaurants and bars, and is a mecca for well-off holiday-makers from the colder states up north. Tennessee Williams lived there in his later life and his wooden bungalow is now a museum. Our ten-room hotel was full, booked for the next week ahead, as we found when we chatted to guests around the pool, and we had been lucky to get the last available room. At 8.30 p.m. we walked two blocks to the restaurant area in search of a meal. Nothing had been open for sit-down meals and the last steakhouse take-away option closed as we arrived.
We shared a foot-long Subway (and lucky to get even that) by the pool that night, washing it down with some wine we had stored in the car, and discussed with other guests the news just in that Louisiana and some other states had put out a call for their residents to return immediately. The next day we joined a general exodus, a single-lane line of cars back along the tremendously scenic set of islands and grand long connecting bridges that constitute the Florida Keys and their Everglades. We were the last in our hotel to check out that morning, our key on its fancy wooden holder coming to rest in the line of the nine keys of the other guests who had cancelled and checked out before us. “We have decided to close the hotel today,” said the owner to us sadly. No bookings at all.
Lunch on the road was hotdogs at a service station, all we could find. Miami itself was now moving into lockdown, but we did sneak in a quick drive to see the famous Art Deco area in South Beach before finding an airport hotel. Suddenly, it was as if we were back in Mexico: party central. Young people everywhere, most drinking in the open, spilling out in raucous hugging groups from the sidewalks, for the bars were mandated to close at 5 p.m. and many had done so already. Hoons ruled in the back streets, obvious drug dealers lording it in black Mustang convertibles, four or five often lounging on the car seats and doors, loud music blaring, traffic at a standstill and no thought or sense of an imminent pandemic anywhere. It was spring break time, the equivalent of Australia’s Gold Coast “schoolies” week, and whatever it was, it was on. The next day the authorities closed Miami’s famed South Beach and locked down the whole area, later closing all of Florida’s beaches. We heard news that Bondi had been closed not long after that.
At this stage, we were feeling a foreboding, an undertow dragging us towards home, but my cousin in Louisiana rang: Were we still coming? We would be so welcome, their guest house was waiting, and my ninety-nine-year-old aunt, still living alone in the two-bedroom wooden shack by the bayou in a town fifty miles from New Orleans, was eagerly awaiting our arrival. We had visited her thirty years ago in this same house where in poverty she and her oil-rig-worker husband had raised seven children who had all “done well” in the small-town Catholic life of the Old South; a traditional culture so well depicted for the 1930s in the recent movie The Highwaymen and even now very similar. We’re still coming, we replied, booking a flight to New Orleans for the next day, where we were whisked away from the airport to a world of shiny new pick-up trucks and true southern hospitality.
As on our previous visit, cousinhood reigned. We fell into the arms of the very large local clan of French Cajun relatives that my aunt—my mother’s sister, a war bride to a GI in 1944—had genetically locked me into. My common ancestors were on all the walls in all of the homes in many of the framed family photographs, including pictures of me as a child. There were also some from our visit thirty years earlier. I burst into tears at the one of my mother wearing her favourite blue dress, the one I had carefully ironed to bury her in. We spent four days there, and all tensions in us diminished, because in a sense we were already home, locked into the security of family where we could sit out the worst if necessary, inscribed into their genealogies as kin. We “belonged” there.
My husband, a man not unfamiliar with university chancelleries and some senior legal and business circles in Australia, gained there the nickname of Rambo as he expressed his wilder side. Everyone in the family has a nickname, for that is how things are done in bayou country. Many years ago Uncle Pineapple had a pineapple Hawaiian shirt and he has been Pineapple ever since. My Louisiana family are hunters by heritage and now by inclination, for food and for sport. They are all very good cooks. My cousin proudly laid out his armoury of defensive and hunting guns for inspection, in a display that included a demonstration calibre of bullet for each of the seven weapons. He then dressed my husband in a red headband, strapped onto him a holster containing a Colt 45 and a large hunting knife, thrust an AK47 into his hands and took a picture for placement in perpetuity on the photographic family tree.
COVID-19 was beginning to hit Louisiana hard; another cousin—a doctor, doing social distancing, as we did also with my aunt—told us of the shortages he had of protective equipment, having to re-use it, saying also that as he had no testing equipment he was also unable to check the viral status of many of his patients who he thought had COVID-19. We were driven around two local towns, all in total lockdown, the expansive suburban streets deserted, hunkered down as if for a hurricane. We were proudly shown the various houses of my mostly well-off cousins. We also took note of the dilapidated housing of the many poorer residents beside the bayous. The spatial segregation of the black and white populations was still in evidence. Making these rounds though, we saw plenty of evidence of how selflessly and hard my very Christian cousins were working for those in their community in need during this crisis. We said our goodbyes at the airport in New Orleans, which was almost deserted, promising to return next year for my aunt’s hundredth birthday. We are still committed also to our cruise, perhaps on one of the more than thirty cruise ships, beached behemoths of a disaster unimaginable a few weeks before, that we had seen off Miami, awaiting better times.
On our last day in America in the midst of this event that still held the possibility of an apocalypse of a type and on a scale not seen since the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, I stood at the window of the Hyatt airport hotel, overlooking the dominant concrete LAX sign, a fitting monument upon which to consider the fragility of the phenomenological world. What seemed certain was that the interconnected world-taken-for-granted was now forever changed, as the WHO was being declared the CHO, and economic chaos and depression loomed. The symbolism was immense. I doubt I will ever see LAX like that again: I could have been overlooking an empty country paddock for many of the hours of that strange day rather than one of the world’s major air passenger and transport hubs.
I reflect now that COVID-19 has raised concern regarding the proportionality of the public health and economic response in the light of more recent data, bringing into question what some see as undue reliance by political decision-makers on experts, in this case medical ones, who often held conflicting views. The epidemic and responses to it have created an emerging conflict between global integration and sovereignty in production and trade, as well as in some aspects trampling unnecessarily on the rights of private citizens. It has also highlighted some deficits in our public health readiness to cope. In all of our travels we had never once had the basic health check of having our temperatures taken, neither in the US nor in Australia. Allowable group sizes were highly variable. And self-quarantine in Australia, the best and cheapest solution to contagion, we can confirm was not properly managed on arrival, with deficient information, poor surveillance, and no immediate access to essential items until deliveries could be arranged.
Due to the dateline change we arrived in Sydney on March 25, one of the last incoming plane-loads to be allowed to return to our own homes for two weeks of quarantine by voluntary self-isolation. After a debacle concerning the health status of passengers disembarking the cruise ship Ruby Princess, public feeling was running high enough to railroad state health authorities, desperate to be seen as capable, into draconian action likely promoting cross-infection: all arrivals by air were now to be put into sealed hotel rooms with shared “aerosol” air-conditioning for a fourteen-day quarantine supervised by army personnel. We’d missed that nightmare by a whisker. “At least we got in under that wire,” I remarked to my husband when that news came through. We’d made it home and stayed well. Might have had COVID-19 already, we both surmised, for no one really knows.
Elizabeth Beare lives in Sydney. She has contributed several times to Quadrant in recent years.