When I was in high school, three guys I knew took off on a cross-country hitchhiking trip in bad weather, and as they walked out the door, Sam’s dad said, “Well, if you ask me, I think you’re crazy.” That instantly became a catchphrase, and whenever anyone we knew was about to do something dubious — which, being teenagers, was fairly often — somebody would shake their head in mock solemnity and say, “Well, if you ask me…”
Why am I thinking of Sam’s dad’s words right now?
Because on Sunday afternoon, Rich and I are walking to Seville's railway station, boarding a train to Madrid, spending the night in a hotel, and flying out the next morning to Dallas then on to San Francisco. After two months in quarantine, rarely leaving my apartment, having minimal contact with fellow humans or any objects I haven’t disinfected myself, and eating nothing that I didn’t wash and cook with my own hands, I’m heading out into a very uncertain world.
Like many expats, I have important friendships, business interests, doctors, and family ties in the old country. Matters required our attention in California last summer, but when our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour extended into fall, we decided to postpone everything until January. Then we discovered our closest Seville friends would be leaving for a year starting in April, so we delayed our departure until March. At which point, as you know, pestilence rose up and stalked the planet, so we hunkered down in our Seville apartment waiting for better times.
Are those times here? Spain is cautiously emerging from quarantine. This week Seville entered Phase One, with outdoor bars re-opening and people flocking to them, hypothetically social distancing, in reality thrilling to the familiar-yet-strange sensation of rubbing elbows with a congenial crowd. The numbers could easily spike again. After many hours of discussion and countless glasses of wine (in the safety of our apartment), Rich and I concluded this was the best window of travel opportunity we might have all year.
Am I worried about our safety on the journey? Are you kidding? Of course! My packing list includes masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, spray disinfectant, extra plastic inserts for our face shields, and sufficient homemade raisin nut oatmeal cookies to sustain life for forty-eight hours. A few clothes? Possibly. Garlic and a crucifix? Still under debate.
I remind myself that five people we know flew home safely from Seville to the US the day before the pandemic lockdown, on crowded planes, without masks or gloves, armed with nothing but hand sanitizer.
I also recall the harrowing story of a couple we know who were vacationing with their two young adult kids in Asia when the pandemic hit. The police raided the house one night, accusing them of playing loud music. Our friends and their kids were thrown in jail for three days until they pled guilty to resisting arrest and violating curfew. After posting an enormous bond, they were taken to a bigger town, tried, and sentenced to nine months in jail.
Now I know what you’re thinking; do they have hand sanitizer and social distancing in Asian prisons? I'm guessing not.
Anyway, our friends' story goes on to include fines and bribes of epic proportions until they got word to a relative who knew guy who knew a guy who found them a “fixer” who sent a “shadow” who got them released. Last we heard the family was on a nine-hour ferry ride to the mainland, to be followed by six hours in a taxi to the airport and a seventeen-hour flight home.
I am betting our journey won’t be quite that exciting.
To hedge that bet, I’ve been reading everything I can find about travel safety in the time of coronavirus.
Ideally, experts advise, avoid or sanitize high-touch surfaces such as handrails; when that’s not practical, stay as far from others as possible. “If you see someone cough or sneeze near you on the bus or train, and you’re more than six feet away from them, your risk is probably low,” says David Freedman, M.D., a professor of infectious diseases. Good to know!
“The risk of the disease being spread through an aircraft’s airflow system is relatively low,” says Consumer Reports. “That’s because the air is continually filtered through a HEPA filter, which can trap viruses.” The real concern is the people nearby. A study showed that if a fellow passenger has a respiratory illness, there’s an 80% chance people in the eleven adjacent seats will catch it; if you’re not in that zone, your chance of contracting it drops to 3%. Of course, that study was done in the old, pre-pandemic days when you flew without hazmat gear. Still, if anybody near us coughs even once, I’ll be asking for them to be removed to the cargo area. (Just kidding. I’ll volunteer to go down to the cargo area myself.)
Everyone advises wiping down all hotel room surfaces with disinfectant wipes — which unfortunately haven’t been available in Seville for months. However, I did find a disinfectant spray and plan to saturate every surface in the room, possibly including my husband.
“Hand washing remains your best defense for infection prevention,” says environmental microbiologist Kelly Reynolds. “Remember to pack your own disinfecting wipes.” (If only!) “I often bring my own pillow too, since hotel pillows could be full of allergens and residual saliva… I recommend travelers remove the comforter to avoid potential contact with lingering bodily fluids that can harbor germs.” Yuck! We’re asking the hotel to remove all pillows, comforters, and blankets before we arrive; I'm packing inflatable pillows and small, lightweight travel blankets.
The virus curve has flattened to almost nothing in our area north of San Francisco, but of course, it may come roaring back in the fall, bringing with it a renewed need for quarantine and more protests, fueled by the anti-vaccine folks and the gun lobby, demanding the right to spread the coronavirus more widely. In other news, wildfires are predicted to be higher than normal (if the word “normal” means anything anymore). Murder hornets have arrived on the West Coast and will no doubt want to take in San Francisco while they are there. Seismologists say the Golden State is seriously overdue for a major earthquake. And don’t get me started on the ballyhoo and shenanigans surrounding the US election.
Come to think of it, Sam’s dad may be right; we’re probably crazy to be heading back there. But as I often say, America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don’t want to lose my touch. We plan to return to Seville in the fall, world events permitting. For now, on the verge of plunging into America's chaos and uncertainty, at least I can count on one thing: it will never be boring.
Wish us luck as we set out on our journey this weekend!
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I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.