I was repatriated from Mexico because of COVID-19

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Last time I wrote on here, I was in Mexico, planning to self-isolate for a while, then once it all blew over, head out and see some more of this beautiful country. Just over a week ago, this was still my thinking. 

Now, I’m sitting on a sofa in my grandmother’s house (don’t worry, she’s not living here at the moment – I’ll go into this later!) in West England, drinking tea with, for the first time since 2016, absolutely no idea how long I’ll be in the country. 

Life happens fast in 2020. Things are changing minute by minute. It feels like we have had a few year’s worth of events since January and things are changing constantly. 

Before I get into this post, I do want to make it clear that I am so grateful I was able to get home without paying tens of thousands of pounds, and it was definitely the right thing to do. I had building anxiety during the last week in Mexico, that while hasn’t disappeared entirely, is feeling so much better. Coming home was definitely the right decision, and I’m not complaining about my situation at all – I know that I am very lucky.

But I also know that people are interested to read about how people were evacuated from various countries around the globe during this pandemic, which is why I have wrote this post, in great detail, to go over everything that happened.

Coronavirus in Mexico?

I arrived in Mexico in early February. At that time, there had been a few isolated cases of Coronavirus in the UK and across Europe, but it all seemed to be under control. I’d flown from Madrid, which is now one of the worst-hit places in the world, but then was completely business as usual. Then, about two weeks into my time in Mexico, everything in Europe started to go a little crazy. 

Nonetheless, Mexico remained unaffected. I travelled to the Central Highlands region, exploring cities like Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Queretaro. I learned about the freedom fighters and Aztec food, while getting occasional updates about the rise of Coronavirus cases in Europe. Of course, these caused me a lot of anxiety, but I knew that there was nothing I could do about the surge of cases in the UK, especially from so far away. 

A few times, I wondered ‘should I be here in Mexico?’ but quickly reasoned with the fact that there were far more cases in the UK, so it wouldn’t make sense to go back there. At that time, Mexico was still reporting isolated cases in single digits, that all seemed to be contained quickly. I had already been in the country for two weeks, so the advice at the time and the general consensus in Mexico was that it was fine to travel around.

I knew this might change if cases increased. But I have spent a long time in Mexico throughout my life, I speak Spanish, and I have friends and a support network in Oaxaca, where I was planning on returning to shortly.

All else fails, I can quarantine in Oaxaca, I thought. I knew how to get an apartment there, I knew the place well, I knew people there, and I could stay in Mexico until August. Everything would be ok. 

Then we flew up to Chihuahua and everything went crazy. Donald Trump banned Europeans and quickly governments all started closing their borders. We were supposed to be going to El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but El Salvador quickly closed their borders up, with others threatening to follow all over Latin America. Suddenly, the world was no longer an easy place to travel in. And so it should be – it was becoming more apparent that the only way to deal with the virus is for people to stop travelling and isolate. 

The issue is, we realised this while we were in the Chihuahuan desert, somewhere where we were not keen on quarantining. The race was on to get down to Oaxaca where I at least had some sense of familiarity, and where we could isolate. 

This was a very slow race, involving two trains and four buses that don’t sync with each other – so it took over five days. 

Five days of seeing scenes like this out of the window…

I started feeling worse and worse about travelling in this time, as it was becoming more apparent that we shouldn’t be, that anyone could have COVID-19 and not know about it, and learning how much travel is spreading the virus.

But, at this point, there wasn’t really another option. We had to get to Oaxaca, and all we could do was stay apart from people as much as possible. We had a few days just sitting in hotel rooms, waiting for the next travel connection, and luckily the buses were quiet so it was easy to stay apart from anyone else.

We eventually made it, found the Airbnb that we had booked for 6 weeks, unpacked, did a big shop, and got ready to self-isolate for as long as needed. 

Less than two days later, and everything changed again.

Britons – return home now

All British people were advised to return home, and a few questions started cropping up about exactly how long this could go on for (could our visa be invalidated?), British airports were threatening to close, we started noting a bit of hostility towards being foreigners in Mexico (nothing severe, and it may have been all in our heads, but more people than normal were asking us if we were on holiday or staying there long-term, potentially working out whether we could have brought the virus with us), and of course there was the ever-present worry of catching something and it becoming serious was there.

This would have been covered by travel insurance at that precise moment, but since we’ve left things have changed and Coronavirus in Mexico is no longer covered.

COVID-19 is on the increase in Mexico – there are now just under 900 cases and Mexican residents have been asked to stay at home for a month – although it is debatable whether it will get as bad as it has in Europe. On one hand, not many precautionary measures are being made (although this is also increasing, there were many more restaurant closures and people wearing masks during my last week in Mexico – and as I mentioned now people are being advised to stay at home, but not forced), and there’s no evidence to say that it won’t follow the same pattern as other countries, especially with the US – which has just surpassed China as the country with the highest number of cases – just to the north. Mexico have also not been the best at testing either, so the actual number of cases could be far more. 

On the other hand, Mexico has dealt with other epidemics, including the global pandemic Swine Flu, of which it was at the centre of, successfully. Hand sanitizer is used a lot more in Mexico generally, which helps slow the spread a lot, and the population is much more spread out than the countries that COVID-19 has hit the hardest. There is also an argument that Coronavirus isn’t as effective in hot weather, which could affect the stats in Mexico. 

But, I don’t know. I’m very far from a biologist, and while I know quite a lot about the relaxed, happy go lucky attitude that is prevalent in Mexican culture, I knew that the risk was there.

Everything was up in the air, and I had no idea what to do. 

My main issue was that I didn’t want to fly and potentially bring something back with me. I don’t have my own place in the UK, so whenever I am in the country I stay at my mum’s or sometimes at my dad’s. My parents aren’t technically in a vulnerable category and they are both in good health, but they’re still over 60, plus my 88-year-old grandma with a range of pre-existing medical conditions lives with my dad. 

However, she hasn’t officially moved out of her house yet, despite spending very little time there. This means that there’s an empty house in West England belonging to my family. Very quickly, my main issue was addressed – I wouldn’t have to worry about carrying a virus and bringing it back to people, because I had access to a house with no people.

So, suddenly, the ‘pros of staying in Mexico’ and the ‘cons of staying in Mexico’ list looked a lot more skewed. 

Departing Mexico

But we still had to work out how to leave. While Mexico had not closed any borders or restricted any nationalities, flights were still being cancelled all over the shop. We tried to book an AeroMexico flight from Oaxaca to London via Mexico City for about £500, which was immediately unavailable to book – and when I went back onto Skyscanner, the flight had gone up to over £2000. 

I had an idea to look at flights from Cancun, Mexico’s most popular hub for tourists, to London, and found a TUI flight for an amazing price, given the circumstances – £475. Almost thinking it too good to be true, we booked tickets on Kiwi.com, and got an email a few minutes later. 

The email told us that the tickets were processing, and we would get our e-tickets shortly. Waiting with bated breath, I refreshed the page a few times until the green confirmed showed up. A few hours later, our tickets were on the TUI website, and it was official. We had booked a flight home. 

However, Oaxaca is the other side of the country to Cancun, so there was the small issue of getting there first. I try to avoid internal flights whenever possible, but in this instance there was really no other way. We ended up booking a Oaxaca – Mexico City – Cancun flight (no directs were showing up) for the very next day. 

After just three nights in an Airbnb that we were meant to be staying in for six weeks, we packed up, put as much of the food that we’d bought as possible in our limited luggage space, and took a taxi to Oaxaca airport. Apart from filling out a ‘symptoms’ form, there wasn’t much in the way of checking here, and we took a quick one hour flight to Mexico City. 

After a tortilla soup (an Aztec specialty, by the way), we boarded the next flight – where we had to fill in another symptoms form and got our temperatures taken. Then we took another flight to Cancun. My body wasn’t very impressed with the fact that I’d taken it from 1,500 metres to 2,000 metres to sea level in one day, and graced me with a lovely stuffy ear that made me even more excited for the flight the next day.

Cancun’s a weird place. It’s cheap to fly into (and apparently, out of during a global pandemic), but it’s not great for much else apart from overpriced taxis and Spring Break clubs (which should have been closed much earlier this year anyway). Anyway, we were social distancing, which of course meant as little time out of the hotel room as possible, and in my opinion Cancun is a great place to spend all your time in the hotel room. 

The flight was at 5pm the next day, so we got there for just after one. We were met by a TUI representative, who told us that we were actually going from the other terminal. “Do you already have tickets?”  he asked. 

“Yeah, we bought them two days ago” we replied.

“Ok good, because we can’t change any more flights. 40 people are on the waiting list” he responded. 

 The check-in desk at the other terminal was, understandably, manic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it be so busy so early before; it was rammed of British holidaymakers trying to get home. 

“Are you checking these bags in? Because there aren’t any bags on your booking” said the check-in assistant when we reached the desk. 

We’d bought baggage on Kiwi, for £60, and then swiftly realised we could have bought it with TUI direct online for just £35. Now we were being asked to pay more for our baggage. It wasn’t just us – everyone who had booked the flight with Kiwi was having the same issue. TUI were telling us there was nothing they could do, and that it was our responsibility to talk to Kiwi, and obviously we had to comply to get on the plane – which could be our only chance at getting back to England. 

So we agreed to pay, and then we were quoted $100 per bag. Bags that we had already paid for. This is, of course, their normal check-in price, but honestly, I was really hoping as an exception we could pay the online price. Maybe there’s a logistical reason that we couldn’t, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to be a long time before we get any refund from Kiwi, if ever.

Normally this would be an annoyance and something to sort out in the future, but right now I’ve lost most of my income. I should have been savvier with saving over the last few years, but I haven’t been, which meant that the cumulative cost of the flights and losing money on an apartment has hit me hard. This was the icing on the not so tasty cake. 

Flying Back to the UK

Everything else went smoothly though, apart from a ‘minor technical hitch’ delaying our take off for about 20 minutes (which of course, sent a flightophobe like myself into a spiral of panic about all of the things that could go wrong, but of course, everything was fine). I used antibacterial wipes to disinfect everything when I sat down, constantly put on hand sanitizer, and tried to stay relatively calm. 

There was definitely no social distancing enforced on this flight, and I don’t know whether my cough sensors were just picking more up than normal, but I could hear a lot of them. I dozed on and off, trying not to breathe in too much and sleeping with my jumper over my face in a minor attempt at protection.

We arrived back into London Gatwick at about 7:30am, one of only two flights for that morning, and everyone made a beeline for the hand sanitizer stations that have been set up at various points in the airport. There weren’t any checks for fever or anything – at this point, I guess all the UK border force would do is tell people to go home and isolate, which is what everyone would be doing anyway. 

A wash of hands, a change of clothes, and a pick up of a hire car later, and we were on the way to Devon. 

The Present

Social distancing is definitely being practiced a lot more in the UK – we had to do a shop at Tesco and they are taking great care to keep people apart and everything sanitized. These measures, while strict, are great to see, as the country is finally taking action to stop this virus. In Mexico, where it is only just starting to take off, measures like these are far from coming into action – and I’m really not sure if they ever would.

Now the hire car is returned, the fridge and cupboards are full of food, and we’re staying in for two weeks. Legally, we are allowed to leave the house for one form of exercise per day, but I know how much my immune system takes a hit after flying and while I’m sure that the sniffles and sneezes I have aren’t Coronavirus, at this time we really can’t be 100% sure. And I want to do all I can to #flattenthecurve. 

I’m ok about being back in the UK. I had been feeling looming anxiety for the last two weeks, which while is still here, has calmed down a lot. I’m obviously worried about the situation, we all are, but I feel better equipped to deal with it at home. Obviously I’m not alone in saying that I wish this pandemic had never happened and we were all living our daily lives, but it’s here and we’ve got to deal with it. 

The Future

I’m nervous about the future too. I know it’s a very privileged position to say ‘I don’t know when I’m leaving the country again’, but living remotely is the lifestyle I’ve been building for the last few years, and now myself and many people who have been living the same way are suddenly having to change and adapt to a new normal. I’m extremely fortunate to have a family I can stay with, including the empty house at my gran’s, but at the age of 27 I should be sorting myself out for anything long-term. 

I’m not sure when the travel industry will recover, and what work there will be then. I’m working on plenty of projects to keep me busy, but I have no idea when they will start to make me money (I’m being positive and saying WHEN instead of IF). I don’t know if the when I’ll be able to go back to living the remote lifestyle that I have been doing every since I graduated, for most of my adult life, and that’s pretty terrifying. 

As I mentioned, my income has taken a huge hit, and I’ve been lax with saving until now (and am definitely learning my lesson the hard way). I’ll be fine for essentials, and I know I am very fortunate to be in that position – but obviously I do have to seriously think about what I’m going to do in my financial future. 

People shouldn’t be travelling now. That’s a fact. But I hope that they do again when this is all over, although I think that this could be a way to change how we travel for the better. I hope that the travel industry recovers, and all the amazing people I’ve met in the business in the last few years are able to resume their jobs. I hope that things become a lot more clearer for us who have had to have a severe lifestyle change. 

Of course, there are people who are suffering so much from this, and it goes without saying that the absolute top priority is to save lives. That’s why it’s so important to stay home, to not travel, and to do our bit to flatten the curve.

I’m sure we all imagined this year differently, but this is what we’ve got and what we’re going to have to deal with. Everyone’s in this together, and the world will pull through this. There are encouraging signs saying what is being put into place in Europe is working, and it will all get better. 

Until then, I’ll be writing, learning Spanish, eating lots of homemade food, drinking tea and hopefully doing the odd YouTube exercise video while I stay home, not in Mexico but in England.

Take care.

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