2020 - Does it change everything?
This blogpost is going to be very different compared to the other ones.
Let me quickly recap: Since 2016 I am traveling to Guatemala each year - since last year even twice a year. I fell in love with the country, I made friends, I bought a property near the island of Flores and I had planned to build a house here. The process of getting the building permits went along just fine and I was almost done in February. At the end of February I flew back to the city and went to Monterrico to spend a couple of days at the beach in Monterrico. My flight back home to Germany was on the 13th of March. And then Covid-19 happened.
Another important thing to know is - I am not just a photographer and web designer, I also am a flight attendant for a big german airline. Can you see where this is going?
The following is a chronological journey of what happened since the 13th of March and I will be adding to it. Black text stands for the description of events as they happen.
Dark grey and slightly heavier text is my personal - and emotional - perspective of things.
March 11th 2020
I took the bus back to the city from Monterrico - just a 2.5h drive passing by Antigua. I had an appointment with the department of cultural heritage the next day and it was about my building permits. That appointment was canceled one day before because the director hadn't been in his office.
A friend of mine had invited me to spend the night in Guatemala and so I was happy to spend a full day there with him getting to know the city a bit more. The night after I had a booking for a hotel close to the airport since I had planned to take an early flight to Atlanta and then on to Munich.
News about Covid-19 were already spreading in China and Europe. The United States and Guatemala announced that they wouldn't let any Europeans in starting from the 13th of March. It only applied to people who had spent time in Europe in the 14 days prior to this date.
March 12th 2020
Friends from Germany were already sending me messages about the situation in Bavaria - back then they had the first cases appear in Munich, very close to where I live. And all of them told me to stay in Guatemala if I could.
I started to think about my options. I probably would have been able to get through the U.S. just fine but what worried me was Germany.
So I spent all morning of the 12th of March talking to people at work, my boss, my family and I decided to wait this out, postpone the flight back home by 2 weeks to the end of March and fly back to Flores instead.
March 13th 2020
Departure day came and I took the flight back to Flores. On the way to the airport I sent my friends a message saying that I was going to come back to be safer. They were excited and told me I could stay with them until everything gets back to normal.
I talked to my boss again and she told me I could take two weeks of unpaid leave until the end of March. At that time things started to go south at home. At work they were already grounding airplanes and sending people home from the office to work from there.
Guatemala had closed its borders to Europeans. The U.S. too.
March 14th 2020
I got settled in and everything was normal. The weather was great, tourists were coming in and out of the island and we enjoyed the lake and the sun.
The news back in Europe were slowly getting worse and worse. More infections, more people were dying, the virus was spreading.
But so far we didn't have any cases in Guatemala.
March 15th 2020
Guatemala had its first Corona case.
I became a little more worried than in the beginning and I started to talk to the german embassy in Guatemala City. Some friends told me that Germany was preparing to fly people out of foreign countries to bring them back home.
I signed up to the german list for people traveling and waited for an answer.
March 20th 2020
The german embassy tells me that they are working on a solution to fly people out but they don't have a date yet.
The send me alternative options - it was still possible to leave through Mexico or Belize but they didn't advice it because the borders were becoming pretty crowded and dangerous.
March 22th 2020
Guatemala declares the emergency state. All public transport is being ceased. There is no buses, taxis, flights in and out of the country.
Quarantine is ordered for 8 days - we are not allowed to leave the house between 4pm and 4 am.
March 24th 2020
The german embassy tells me to come to the city and go to a hotel until they had further news. The price for the ride to the city was around 900$ and a night in a hotel in the city 20$ - for an undefined amount of time. They also said that there might be road blocks but that they would have permits ready so the police would let us pass.
They also told me that they would prioritise Germans. Since I have an Italian passport, I would only get on the plane if there was space left.
Since I didn't have the money for the trip and I wasn't going to spend more time than necessary in the city running the risk that they wouldn't let me board the plane, I told them that I'll wait until they had more information.
After talking to the Italian embassy in Guatemala City, they added me to their list of travellers who wanted to go back home.
I don't want to go to Guatemala City because I'm a little scared that I won't be able to go back to Flores if the flight is full. I don't wanna be stuck in a huge, dangerous, crowded city.
Leaving to Germany becomes less and less of an option. Infections go up a lot and Germans aren't allowed into many countries right now. As a flight attendant, going to other countries is my job. Which I probably won't be able to do. So why even bother and be in Germany when life is so much cheaper here?
March 25th 2020
The number of infections worldwide rises rapidly. Guatemala has now 20 cases and one person that died. I can feel that people look at me when I'm on the street - maybe it's because I'm a foreigner and they are scared.
The 2 weeks of unpaid leave are almost over and basically all the countries have closed their borders. There is no way to get to Guatemala City anymore.
The German embassy tells me that they have 2 flights planned for the 29th and the 30th. But they couldn't tell me if there was enough space for me.
I talked to my boss again and told her I wouldn't be able to get back to Germany before the beginning of April. In the meantime, my company had grounded 700 of the 760 airplanes. No flights other than charter flights to bring tourists back from all over the world were leaving. The whole base was shut down.
Due to that, my boss said, that my next work duty was at the end of April - I would be on call on the 22nd of April. Until then there was no need for me to be in Germany.
Holy week was close and usually in Guatemala this is the time where many families travel in the country and spend the time at the beach or with family and friends.
On the island of Flores all tourists are gone. We still have to stay at home between 4pm and 4am. The hotels and restaurants shut down. Only food deliveries or medical personell are allowed after 4pm and the police and military are making their rounds.
The Guatemalan president Dr. Alejandro Gianmattei - in office since January - does a terrific job keeping the country up to date on a regular basis and asking people to collaborate with the authorities.
The number of Corona cases is slowly rising.
I am making progress. The fact of having a "place" - even if it is just an more or less empty shipping container - let's me feel safer. If everything goes south, I would still have a place to stay. very simple and basic, but survivable.
I install a corrugated roof and a tank to catch rain water. I order necessary things and get tools.
We are at 80 cases of Corona, 3 died and 15 are back out of the hospital and doing fine. The epicentre of the infections is mostly around the capital.
The state of Petén still doesn't have any cases.
The emergency state has been extended until May 5th. The holy week started and alcohol can't be bought and is banned in public. The lakes and beaches are also closed to avoid groups of people gathering.
My company extends the period of short-time work until August 5th.
The numbers of Corona infections are rising - currently we are at 137. I suppose the incubation period is over and many more are showing symptoms.
Today they cleaned the roads on the island with chlorine as a prevention. There are supposedly still no cases in the state of Petén.
Only a few shops are open - markets and other businesses were shut down. Tomorrow the president will probably give new orders.
Voices about something bigger going on are rising in Germany. The measures that are taken are way too exaggerated and people are starting to see a development from democracy to totalitarian state where rights are buried under the cover of a pandemic - that is frightening. It seems like all sources of different opinions - doctors, lawyers, people in higher positions - are being shut down. Youtube channels are being banned, videos taken down, people discredited...and all only because they go against the one public opinion that seems to be the only truth. That seems wrong and I hope this will change because a lot of voices get louder and they need to be heard.
Hope rises again - everyday life with its limitations is weighing down on me and becomes harder and harder. Not being able to meet friends, go swimming in the lake right in front of me, the scarcity of means to buy food, always fighting to stay sane and optimistic mentally following news from all over the world...
But now maybe I can return home!
The flight details are coming in followed by a reservation form. I fill it out immediately. The info says that the flight will have space for 150 passengers - everyone on top of that will be put on a waiting list (first come first serve). Another factor - not knowing if I will have a space after all.
I talk to the travel agency and they are very helpful. They say that they will let me know if I'm on the flight a day before departure.
The next problem is how to get to the city. I talk to friends simultaneously - to see if anyone knows anyone who could be able to take me to the capital. Then one friend comes up with the solution: She will help me to get on an ambulance which delivers medical samples and other goods to the capital several times a week. It is not quite legal but hey - whatever helps!
I am told that I will be taken to the city by medical staff but we still don't know when. I'm slightly nervous about not making it to the city in time if no transport leaves but my friend calms me down by saying that she has one or two alternatives in case it doesn't work out.
She says that I need to be prepared and ready to go because they could call any day. So I pack everything - my life in a travel backpack ready to leave the next day.
At 3.30 pm I get the call that we are leaving in one hour. Wow - I wasn't expecting that to happen so fast. But YESS - I was finally on my way home!
Guatemalan time is always a bit different - in the end we left Flores at 8.30 pm. In an ambulance with red lights, a doctor and patient in the back and the driver, his brother and I in the front. A long drive through the night before us - not knowing if there would be any road blocks, we would be stopped by the police or anything else unforeseen would happen.
I got prepared by my friend. Not only did I get face masks, gloves, instructions on what to say to each and every person involved...I also got an official letter stating that I was allowed to travel during curfew and had no signs of Covid-19 whatsoever.
Off we go!
We drive out into the night. Our routing is a little longer as we have to deliver stuff to a place off the main route to Guatemala City. But it doesn't matter - I'm finally moving again. The driver and his brother are great. The ride is great although being in a very tight cabin. The roads are empty because of the curfew. We can go fast and it's much more bearable to drive at night when it's much cooler.
We drive past road blocks by the police, drive over state borders, drive past official patrol vehicles - no-one bothers us. They wave and let us drive. It's amazing what a government vehicle with some red lights can do. We even stop a couple of times to get drinks or coffee or to use the bathroom. It's like a very special road trip - only with a slight adrenaline rush.
We get to Guatemala City around 7.30 - I am exhausted, tired and ready to go sleep. And so I do. My driver drops me off in front of my hotel and drives off to deliver more stuff. I am so grateful to these guys and everyone involved - you really made it work!
After breakfast and a good rest, I get the confirmation that I got a seat on the flight leaving on Friday. I am so relieved and excited! Until I check on all the connections and realise that I made a mistake with the connection times...the flight to Mexico get's in too late to be able to catch the flight to Toronto. DAMN!
Ok - back to the computer. I am looking at all my options and realise there aren't many. I might have to spend the night in Mexico City...more stress, more driving around, more asking people for help - an even bigger risk of getting infected along the way. I don't want that so I keep on looking - and I get lucky. There is a flight leaving to Amsterdam in the evening. From there I book a flight to Munich via Frankfurt. 10.10pm is the new arrival time in Munich - fingers crossed that everything works out!