A year ago today March 12, 2020, my husband and I were on the road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos. At that point we were 18 months into full-time travel, exploring a bucket list of adventures one collects in a lifetime of craving more of the world. Except now we found our travel included the roar of the developing pandemic.
Roar isn’t quite the right word. What is the name for the sound used in thrillers to express looming danger? I started to hear that sound faintly in my head when we arrived in Viet Nam in January 2020. It grew in volume every morning as I scoured the South China Morning Post for news of the new virus and poked fellow travelers around Asia for local awareness. Then the sound grew longer in duration as websites started to pop up with data on case counts and news of virus hotspots hit the press. Two to three hours every morning were dedicated to an online review of virus news and travel tools in an attempt to understand our future.
Eventually, I heard that roar in my head all the time.
Lying in bed one night in our Hanoi Airbnb, both awake at 3am studying our phones as the West was shutting down with every refresh, we laid out the options. Get stuck in Laos. Stay in Viet Nam. Get to Japan and get stuck there. Could we afford to be stuck in Japan? Cancel Bali. Cancel everything. But go where exactly? Back to America? We don’t have a home in the USA, just passports from the USA. So where is the best refuge in a pandemic?
Refuge does not mean avoiding the virus. ‘Virus gonna virus’ quickly became our shorthand for any discussion that veered into the ‘impossible to predict, control or prevent,’ of living with SARS-CoV-2. Our choices moving forward were a combination of our own wellness, not being a strain on the wellness of others, and living as we were, as nomads. We decided to get ourselves to Japan. But first, we wanted to keep our planned two-week itinerary in Laos.
We had spent two months in Viet Nam, a country that controlled virus spread with incredible efficiency. The masks we started to wear irregularly in late January, eventually found their way to the bottom of our day bags, unused. We had purchased N95s months prior for air pollution after all, not virus control.
Continuing on to Laos prior to Japan was a risk, however in early March, South East Asia seemed to be in great shape. China, Japan, and South Korea had hotspots, but Laos, even with its porous border to China to the north, seemed to be untouched by the coronavirus. Our arrival was uneventful. At a clinic in Vientiane, a doctor told me there was very little SARS-CoV-2 in Laos. He also admitted there were very few tests.
I continued to spend hours daily collecting what I thought would be relevant information for our forward plans: hospital beds per capita, average age of populations, testing capacity, numbers of ventilators, climate, air quality, and case counts. Then we’d spend the rest of the day on bird watching tours, elephant walks and living a relatively normal traveler life amidst the chaos happening as the West exploded with cases.
However, those Western hotspots were making their way back to South East Asia. It turns out we left Hanoi the same day infamous Case #17 returned from London, sparking a series of lockdowns throughout the country. We saw doors starting to close behind us and in front of us, but we were still in motion. In Luang Prabang, we were among the last tourists and were made to feel most welcome in our empty hotel. We’d lunch over three restaurants to spread our tourist dollars: appetizer at one, main at another, dessert and coffee at a third.
Waking before sunrise one morning, we set out to watch the Buddhist monks take their daily ritual walk to receive alms from the community. Foreigners are welcome to participate, buying containers of rice to share in offering. We declined, instead choosing to stand socially distanced across the street and make cash offerings at the temples. I do not judge the tourists who choose to participate, as I don’t want to judge my own choices. I can only speak to the momentary horror of watching bare-handed tourists scoop piles of warm rice into the offering bowls of the passing monks.
The lesson of that moment is layered and complex. We were part of the problem and an economic necessity. However you interpret that moment, the time to stop moving was close upon us. Roar.
We continued to look online for any combination of data points and signals to tell us when to leave Laos. We also acknowledged that moment may have already passed and we had missed some essential clue. Hours were spent in increasingly empty cafes reading message boards as nomads around world made their choices. We watched reports of lockdowns, travel bans, case spikes and unemployment. A friend in Ho Chi Minh City was escorted by police to quarantine. Stay, go, move.
An hour before our flight was due to leave for Tokyo, Viet Nam blocked transit for all non-nationals, and we were on a flight connecting through Hanoi. Let me just sidebar for a moment and mention how amazing my husband is as a travel partner, as a life partner. Here was the moment we may have finally found ourselves ̶s̶t̶u̶c̶k̶, unable to travel. I went into negotiation mode; he just booked us new flights through Bangkok for the next day. All the while he let me handle that stress the only way I knew how. That’s love.
And that’s how we got to Japan five days before they shut the borders.
I am grateful for what became a nine month stay in Japan. I am grateful for the unplanned experience. And I am grateful we became accidental expats when the time was right. I look forward to our nomad future when that time is right.