So it was set up. We would travel around my birthday from March 1st, and then go visit some friends for a few days in Atlanta, since it’s only over two hours of plane away. We bought tickets, requested the holiday time from our workplaces, got it and then proceeded to organize our trip, casas particulares and buses to go to our various destinations: La Havana, Trinidad, Playa Larga, Varadero then back to La Havana before heading to Atlanta. Coming back home to Bergen, Norway, where my husband is from, should have been on March 17.
But this is not meant to be a “travel to Cuba” article, nor a complain about how a virus ruined our holidays. First, because it really didn’t. We were lucky enough to travel away from the contamination and worries most of Europe were experiencing, without really knowing what was going on because we had very little access to Internet. In Cuba, you have to buy 1 hour Internet access cards that you could use only if the place you were had wifi. Except in the main cities, it wasn’t that easy, and we preferred our direct company anyway. We heard some rumors through the many French tourists we crossed paths with, which made me tell my husband pretty early on that a French contamination of Cuba would be the worst. Turns out, an Italian couple was at the source of the Cuban contamination, the day before we left.
Still unaware really, except for some messages we got from our work saying that we would have to be quarantined, first one week then two as the Norwegian governmental decisions were evolving, from simple recommendations to actual orders, then that the bars were closing, including the one where my husband works. We heard about the schools, universities, “unnecessary places” closing one by one, except for restaurants that ended up mostly closing, including the one employing me. But we were still in this discovery bliss, the one I’m missing so dearly in my Bergen routine after living in much more exciting places for six years before giving in and moving to a functional city. We were going around, trying out our (very poor) Spanish, tasting not particularly good food, having tons of cocktails, walking around, swimming, tanning (a bit) and sharing our love of chaos.
I don’t know if it’s naivety or carefreeness, but reality jumped back at us on March 11 at 9 PM local time as soon as we got to our casa particular in La Havana for our last Cuban night. A message from my friend in Atlanta saying that Trump was forbidding access to Europeans in two days woke me up, and ensued a lot of messages, news checking and talks, before deciding that “okay, we can get in anyway right? let’s try it”. In the same time, we had discovered that from the six cases of Coronavirus in Norway the day we left, it had jumped to 629 in only ten days. How is it even possible, since Norwegians are not really known for enjoying close contacts nor going out a lot?
My husband decided to chill while I was getting increasingly more nervous about the way out of the US, what if the European borders were closing too, before we were getting back? What if all the flights were canceled? I am prompt to panic but I can also reason (when I’m not overwhelmed) fast and clear when confronted with difficult choices, and was already mentioning the possibility to leave early, “worst case scenario”.
Looking back, I find ourselves extremely lucky that it was our worst case scenario. We didn’t get sick (so far), we weren’t coming back to stay with ill or old people. We just had to be able to go home in order to be quarantined, which fed my anguish as I was afraid we were a risk for everyone.
We made it in the US, with an officer pointing out the fact that “one day later, I might have told you no”. Alright, alright. What was important was to meet our friends, thankfully following very closely the news and able to update us on many points as we couldn’t reach the plane company by any mean (phone, Facebook, Twitter, email). That was March 12, and we were supposed to leave from Atlanta on the 17th. The next day, we received an email saying our flights were maintained, so we started to relax and had a party with our friends and their friends, forgetting about the state of the world as drunk people can do, despite having Corona virus as a prime topic of conversation. After twelve days cut from the news, we really didn’t fully realize what was coming or how bad it actually was.
I woke up the day after with a deep feeling that “something is going on” and indeed there was. Norway was discussing about whether closing the borders or not. I woke up my husband, made him call the company, no answer, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that told us it was fine for now. We could relax, apparently. Three hours later, still unable to sleep, I checked my phone and there it was, the closing borders declaration from the Norwegian Prime Minister to all non-residents starting March 16, 8 AM. Unable to know if our flights would be maintained or if the airports would still be open after that time, we decided to book a last minute flight leaving that night. Warning our friends, our Airbnb (adorable) hostess and packing up our things took less than an hour. We then put our luggage in our friends’ truck and had nice last hours with them before being dropped in the almost empty international airport of Atlanta.
Our flight to Amsterdam went smooth, but we still had to follow the news, to make sure the entrance rules wouldn’t change, as I’m not Norwegian but, at least, a permanent resident. Of course, I was reading at the same all those stories of people being stranded in various places, and I felt we took the right decision. Better be home, with our cats, even if it meant less time with our friends and two weeks in quarantine.
Alas, a surprise was expecting us, as Norway was now asking for people a proof of residency before being allowed a plane back home. Of course, I hadn’t traveled with my marriage license or bills, but I managed to find pay slips proving I had at least an address and a job, considered “valid reasons” to be accepted in. The answer of the stewardess was priceless: “Well, I’ll let you in, but it’s your choice, you might not get in and be sent back, the rules might change by then”. I precise that the flight is around 2h30. I suddenly realized that as a white French person, I had never experienced this before: showing proofs of where I belonged, being cast aside because of my passport, and being told a bit harshly that “those are the rules, I can’t do anything”. Never. I could never put myself in the shoes of refugees, or migrants like me but coming from the “wrong” side of the world, but I could actually perceive for a second how both humiliating and scary it can feel.
Of course, I made it home okay, and I’m now surrounded by my cats, food, nice Internet, electricity and water. In other terms, comfort in quarantine, in a country that really does its best to provide its citizens AND residents alike with money to replace the salaries we’re losing. People have been respecting the confinement measures right away and a great effort of solidarity has been developing. For example, three people asked in a single day if we needed help to get food, and I’m very thankful for that support. We’re lucky enough to have managed to get home, as some of our friends are actually stuck in countries that doesn’t want them, doesn’t have the necessary health infrastructure to sustain such a crisis, and no money to buy the insanely expensive tickets home, if there is a flight at all. We also have friends living in already harsh situations in hard countries, and I just can hope the crisis will be light on them.
I think we will remember forever of our honeymoon, in such a particular time, between carefreeness and worry, between acting like morons and having to take smart decisions. I was traveling, and I’m telling you: go home and stay there! Let’s be put, all of us, to make this chaos end quicker.