How harrowing was it? I was reminded of a thriller I read when I was nineteen. This young woman is walking home from choir practice, alone, in the dark, knowing there is a vicious killer around preying on people her age. Obviously anyone with any sense would have clung to a pillar of the church — literally or in the person of the priest — and demanded sanctuary, or at least a ride home. But this intrepid idiot walks the whole way, past the graveyard and the old quarry, wondering if each snapping twig is just an animal and whether those are footsteps behind her or simply wind rustling the leaves.
My point is, I was a bit jittery. In fact, I leapt out of my skin if anyone coughed, even if it was me.
Our journey began Sunday with a walk to the railway station, our luggage stuffed with hand sanitizer, face masks, latex gloves, moist towelettes, three kinds of spray disinfectant, blankets, inflatable pillows, and enough Oatmeal Raisin Spelt Cookies to sustain life for days. I’d made a donation at the shrine of San Pancracio, the patron saint of health. My bases were covered. It was all systems go.
Seville's railway station set the tone for the trip; it was as dimly lit as the set from an apocalyptic movie, with a few silent, masked figures skulking in the distance. On the nearly empty train, I sprayed our seats, arm rests, and tray tables with antiseptic before settling in.
“Did you see that?” Rich later whispered to me. Actually, he was practically shouting, but his voice was so muffled by the mask and shield I had to lean in and listen hard.
“That skinny, nervous guy who got on in Cordoba? He just left his seat and went to join another guy. They don’t seem to know each other. And now they’re sharing a bottle of water." Wow, talk about living on the edge.
In Madrid our chatty cab driver gestured so much with his hands that I figured he must be steering with his knees, giving me something fresh to worry about for the short ride to the hotel.
Rich had requested a room stripped of all pillows, blankets, and duvets, which we’d read are potential germ vectors; our boxy little room was very bare. As the team member in charge of hygiene protocols, I insisted our masks and shields stay on until we’d sanitized the room.
“Saturate everything,” I said, handing Rich the extra-powerful disinfectant spray I’d ordered online.
I headed into the bathroom with some household disinfectant, grabbed a hand towel, and got to work. I was swabbing the sink when a great cloud of noxious fumes rolled through the door, a hideous, a mix of cockroach spray, tear gas, and brimstone.
“What the hell?” Coughing and choking, I dashed into the bedroom. Rich was wrestling with the spray can, which was spewing great geysers of chemical fog in all directions.
“I can’t shut this thing off!” he yelled, arms flailing wildly, like the famous “Danger: Vacuum” scene in Airplane II.
Gasping, eyes watering, lungs on fire, I croaked,“I have to leave. Now.” I tore open the door and sprinted out into the corridor. The fumes followed. I rounded a corner. Still couldn’t get my breath. Turning again, I finally found breathable air. As I collapsed against a wall, wheezing and coughing, I noticed maids poking their heads out of doorways, eyeing me with alarm.
Meanwhile, Rich struggled manfully to subdue the spray can. Personally, I’d have been tempted to chuck it out the window, like a live hand grenade, but he was right not to risk the loss of life below.
“I managed to get the cap on,” he told me afterwards, “but then it was spouting out the sides in all directions. Finally I turned it upside down, and eventually, it stopped.” Setting the can down very carefully on its cap, Rich flung wide the window and flapped the door until the air quality was such that I could return.
“You said ‘saturate everything,’” he said.
“I didn’t mean the lining of my lungs.”
We laid out our blankets and inflatable pillows and eventually slept. The next morning we had a couple of the cookies for breakfast and donned the shields we’d be wearing continuously for the next 24 hours, masks we’d swap out occasionally, and gloves we’d re-sanitize incessantly.
The Madrid-Barajas Airport, which ordinarily serves sixty million passengers a year, was deserted. Nothing was open, not even a coffee stand. Our Boeing 788, designed for 180+ passengers, had perhaps thirty, spaced widely apart. And yet, inexplicably, they’d placed someone directly behind us. Rich and I hurridly switched to a more remote seat. The staff fed us as quickly as possible, then darkened the windows and turned off all the lights. I slept for much of the ten hours to Dallas.
Before landing, we were handed a form: Did we have any COVID-19 symptoms? Had we been with anyone who had the virus? CDC personnel met our plane and repeated the questions, but it seemed surprisingly perfunctory. We were through health screening, immigration, and customs in less than 15 minutes.
DFW’s main concourse was jumping; the fast food joints were open and there were plenty of passengers, many brushing past us with unmasked faces. When I learned our flight was 80% full, my horrified expression must have been visible even through the mask and shield because the woman at the desk kindly arranged to keep the third seat in our row empty. Arriving in San Francisco, Rich and I zipped through a nearly deserted terminal to meet the Uber driver who transported us to San Anselmo, making record time over empty freeways.
We’re in quarantine for fourteen days to make sure we didn’t pick up the virus en route. It’s an honor system, and we intend to honor it fully. My sister Kate and her husband stocked the house with enough groceries for the duration, plus homemade bread, soup, and hummus. They left us two bottles from Sonoma Brothers Distilling: their signature gin and a gallon of hand sanitizer. This public-spirited company has risen to the occasion by retooling their factories to provide both essential products to a grateful nation.
Now I know what you’ve been wondering. Whatever happened to that young woman in the thriller? Did she make it home safely? Well, she finally got frightened enough to run the last block; fumbling open her front door, she dashed inside and bolted the door. Had the danger, she wondered, only existed in her imagination? The last line read: “And then someone behind her cleared his throat.”
Here’s hoping that COVID-19 isn’t going to provide us with that kind of shocker ending. So far we feel fine, our temperatures (checked twice a day as instructed) are normal, and we're grateful the long, unnerving journey is behind us. Yesterday, clearing out a cupboard to create more storage to accommodate all that food, I ran across this towel inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s good advice, and I plan to keep on taking it.
Special thanks to all those who wished us luck on the journey. And bless you, San Pancracio, for doing your bit to watch over us along the way.
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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.