Strangers In A Strange Land: Facing COVID-19 On The Road
How two professional travelers dealt with coronavirus a long way from home
Amelia once went for a walk on what she thought was a beach in Belize, only to sink waist-deep into congealed sewage. Monet climbed Mount Kenya to search for the crashed World War II bomber containing her great-uncle’s body.
Because of experiences like those, they were better equipped than most travelers when the COVID-19 pandemic reached their current places of residence.
“This isn’t an ordinary life, but as a freelancer who travels, I’m 100 percent prepared for this,” Monet said from Greenland, her home for more than seven weeks. “I’m still treating this as a work trip.”
Those skills have allowed them to deal with the sheer chaos unfolding around them.
At the beginning of March, Amelia was in El Salvador, where she had spent much of the last 18 months filming a documentary about the Salvadoran Civil War. Monet was preparing to film a week-long trip by dog sled for the Matador Channel.
While they were each a long way from COVID-19 hotspots, their lives were about to make drastic changes.
Monet followed the coronavirus news as she prepared for the trip, knowing it would keep her out of touch with the outside world.
“Before I left, I called my Dad in Massachusetts and asked him if he thought I should cancel everything and come home,” she said. “He said there was about a 0.2% chance of a major outbreak while I was gone, and I should just enjoy myself.”
When she got back on March 13, the world had changed. Italy had gone from 29 deaths at the start of the month to 1,266. The U.S. went from one fatality among 68 cases to 49 out of 2,204. More importantly, Denmark — Greenland’s governing country — was seeing patient totals leaping upward.
“Denmark announced they were closing their borders, and you can’t get out of Greenland without going through Denmark,” she said. “I was supposed to leave on the 15th and spend two days in Copenhagen, but they couldn’t tell me if I’d even be able to leave the airport. Even if I could get out of there, I had no idea what would happen at Heathrow, and I certainly didn’t know if I could get back into the United States.”
As a result, she decided to stay in Greenland, relocate to Nuuk — the nation’s capital — and wait for the situation to improve.
For Amelia, the choice was slightly different. She was planning to stay in El Salvador for at least two more months. She needed that much time to finish filming the story of American involvement in a civil war that shredded the country between 1979 and 1992.
“My latest exit date was mid-May before the pandemic, but I’ve had a lot of exit dates on this project,” she said. “I was going to be done in November and then in late January. I knew I had to move on at some point, but I had fallen in love with the country and its people in a way I’d never experienced before.”
By mid-March, everything had changed. Neither country experienced the worst of the pandemic, but they each took significant action to stop its spread.
Greenland shut down domestic travel, leaving Monet living in an Airbnb apartment for seven weeks, albeit one with a beautiful view of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord.
However, the strategy was a spectacular success. Greenland only recorded 13 cases of COVID-19, with each patient having fully recovered. If there are no more cases, it will be the only country to have eliminated the virus without a death.
Things were different in El Salvador. The country declared a state of emergency on March 14, four days before their first case, and began to enforce a curfew on the 21st. Hundreds of people were arrested and placed into detention centers for failing to comply with the quarantine order. President Nayib Bukele used the military to impose martial law despite rulings from the Supreme Court.
El Salvador escaped the worst of the early parts of the global pandemic, but case numbers began to rise in early May. As of the first week of June, the country was averaging about 80 new cases a day and had suffered 55 deaths.
As a journalist, Amelia was able to use her press pass to move around the region even as work on her documentary came to a halt. However, it didn’t take long to find a new project. During her travels around Mexico and Central America, she has gone to her social media followers with fundraising appeals for charities in her current area. When El Salvador shut down, she began to help the villagers of Santiago Nonulaco, a sugar cane farming village, about 35 miles southwest of San Salvador.
“So many of these people live a hand-to-mouth existence, and they’ve gone a month-and-a-half without working,” she said. “We were able to go to the town and hike out to rural areas with supplies. They are used to rationing food during bad harvests, but this is planting season, and the fields aren’t getting planted.
“I don’t know where that is going to be in a month.”
Both women are expert Instagram users and have kept their followers entertained with video highlights of their new daily lives. Amelia used her press credentials to take photographs of a city under military lockdown. At the same time, Monet provided a traveler’s guide to Nuuk. While it is the capital of Greenland and its biggest city, it isn’t the giant metropolis you’d find in most countries — with 18,326 residents; it is a little bigger than Muskegon, Michigan.
“I’m always looking for video people will want to watch,” she said.
On the road again
In early May, Monet’s horizons expanded significantly when internal travel was allowed again. She gave up watching her beloved tiny icebergs on the fjord — “ice cubes” to Greenlanders — and headed for the south.
“I have no idea when I’ll ever get back to Greenland again,” she said. “If I’m going to be here for this long, I want to see every bit of it.”
In the last month, she’s worked on a sheep farm during lambing season, hunted Norse ruins, and started the process of straightening out her travel documents in preparation for an eventual trip back to the United States.
Amelia has also changed locations, although it was a tougher decision for her. In mid-April, with President Bukele increasing to exercise stricter controls, including a severe crackdown on jailed gang members, she reluctantly boarded a charter flight from San Salvador to Houston. She’s now in Los Angeles, staying with friends.
“I was worried about getting trapped,” she said. “The number of flights out was dropping, and my visa had expired. They are now arresting people for not having their masks on straight, and there’s no judge or jury. The military is making all the decisions. That’s scary.”
She’s been traveling so long that she no longer has a permanent American home and isn’t sure where she’ll go after Los Angeles. She’s still helping marginalized people, though, providing food and supplies to people on L.A.’s Skid Row and taking parts in Black Lives Matters protests.
“I know there will be a time when I can leave the United States again, but I have no idea where I’m going to go,” she said. “I was planning for Venezuela or Nicaragua to follow El Salvador, but I’m not sure what the world will be like after coronavirus.”
Monet’s next project was supposed to be a sailing trip through the Aegean Islands, but that’s on hold. She’s optimistic about her nomadic lifestyle, though.
“When this is over, places are going to need to attract tourists again,” she said. “They will want to sponsor our trips and videos.”
Whether it is Greece or the Americas, they will both be on the road again as soon as possible, looking for a place to set up a camera.