At first, COVID-19 seemed like the other recent health scares, swine-flu, zika virus, SARS – a bunch of hype that didn’t really affect me. Especially living down in the little surfer village of Bahia, Costa Rica.
My little bubble burst rudely the morning of Wednesday, March 12th, when I made my weekly trek down to the local farmer’s market only to find it closed, the normally bustling community center standing empty in the morning sun.
My first reaction was annoyance. Fucking coronavirus getting between me and my organic mangos. God I love ripe mangos. The sad, underripe mango-shaped rocks we get in the US are just depressing after you’ve had a real mango.
Anyway, I picked up some wilted produce at the dusty mini-mercado, walked back home, and didn’t think much of it the rest of the day.
Until 10pm later that night, talking to my Belgian neighbor, Jerry. I’ve been in a sort of self-imposed media blackout since returning to Costa Rica, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the news. Jerry told me about the NBA game cancelled after the players had already warmed up and everyone was in the stadium.
That really shook me, cuz that makes no sense, to cancel after the fans are already there. This is a sign that panic is rising. People – leaders – are making illogical decisions.
I retired to my gypsy caravan and got on the intertubes to further investigate this coronavirus. Then my FB friend Colleen, in a comment on another post, tells me the US is banning all flights from Europe, starting Friday.
Holy fuck, shit just got real.
I google it, the top two hits are from some weird sites with names like FlightGrubber – maybe this is fake news. But nope, the number 3 hit is an article from the BBC – looks legit. Shit.
My mind races. Maybe I should fly back now, like Friday. It takes most of a day by bus to get to San Jose, the capital city, so any exit strategy is at usually two days out.
I check the American Airlines website, they’re waiving change fees!
I try to change my trip to Friday, March 14th. I select the flight, choose my seat – ooh, I can upgrade to extra legroom on my flight from Charlotte to Milwaukee for 26 bucks. I click pay – System Error – fuck. Right now, people in Europe are probably scrambling to find flights, overloading the airline websites.
Jerry says the Delta website is also crashing, he’s looking at his tickets back to Belgium…
Panic, the world is starting to panic. I’m not that scared of the virus itself, I’m scared of the panic. I reeeeaaally don’t want to get stuck in Costa Rica. It’s a magical place, but I’m near the limit of my tolerance for the heat and the motherfucking no-see-ums (tiny, satan-spawn little gnats). The thought of being stuck here any longer than my intended stay of two months makes me squirm. 60-degree, spring Wisconsin weather is sounding mighty fine about now.
I try to call American, they have a separate number for Costa Rica, maybe I can get through without fighting all the panicked Europeans. Then I remember the balance on my Costa Rican prepaid SIM card is empty… I was supposed to recharge it at the mercado today, but after the farmers market, I was so flustered I forgot.
I try to recharge it online – there’s some problem with my SIM card, it can’t be charged online.
This is like the beginning of one of those disaster movies…
I start WhatsApping with my family – mom, sister, and brother-in-law – telling them I’m thinking about coming home early. They tell me to go for it, but they always want me to come home early…
What to do?!?!
Then the power goes out – I shit you not – and a still darkness descends. And then, my caravan starts rocking – earthquake. Are you kidding me right now??
(Ok, the earthquake didn’t happen till the following night, but I want to throw it in here for added drama 😉.)
But it’s only for a second, momentary power outages are pretty common here, although it seems like recently there’s been a couple per day, instead of a couple per week…
With the power goes the internet. It takes a few minutes for the router to spin back up, so I’m cut off, forced to just sit.
Don’t give in to the panic.
It’s now midnight. After the router is back up, I WhatsApp my housemate Alys, “Are you up?” – “Yeah” she responds, “what’s up?”
We meet outside for a cigie. She helps talk me through the mounting panic, and discovers the Europe travel ban does not apply to US citizens – a key detail I missed in my frantic googling. That allows me to breathe a little easier, the fear of being locked out eases. Maybe I’ll just sleep on it, decide what to do the next morning.
Miraculously, sleep comes easily.
The following morning, Thursday March 12th, I wake up and resist the urge to look at my phone immediately. Instead I follow my morning ritual: get up, pee, boil water for green tea. I can’t break my fast with a piece of fruit, as I usually do, cuz I’m out of fruit…. An oatmeal cookie then, it’s not the best way to start the morning, but I want a little something in my tummy before I sit down to meditate. Less gurgles makes it easier to quiet my mind.
Quiet eludes me, I sit there for a half-hour, watching my mind race… what should I do, what should I do?
I write a little, I look at more flights, there’s another good possibility for Sunday, March 16th… it seems I have some time, maybe that’s a good option. The American website still won’t process a flight change… I’ll need to add balance to my SIM card so I can call them.
9am, I wander outside, a few housemates and neighbors are gathered around our wooden blue outdoor table, we talk about the mounting panic for an hour or so. Most of the other expats are more worried about being able to return to Costa Rica if they leave. Jerry and I are the only ones scared about getting to our home countries.
What to do, what to do?
Panic – I was on the verge of panic. You can read about the resolution here.
Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves back from the edge…
Note: This was originally written as part of the a post on Elephant Journal, in the article linked just above, but this section was taken out, because it was too long, so I reposted here… in case anyone wanted the gory details…