Traveling with face masks

Corona Chronicles from Peru to Ecuador, Belgium and The Netherlands

Last week Rosie started school in The Netherlands. I wrote an email to her teacher to explain about the things that we have been through the last few months. While I was writing the to-the-point email as to not waste the teacher’s time, I burst into tears and realized that I had not processed at all that had happened over the last 4 months and decided to write an article about it to never forget the impact of Corona.

Introduction to our Corona Chronicles

In 2018 we visited The Netherlands for a period of 5 weeks and during that time it became clear to me that I wanted Rosie to grow up in The Netherlands. From that moment onward, I started thinking, brainstorming and planning our return. The initial plan was to move at the end of the school year 2019/2020. That way Rosie would have had 5 years in the French School in Cape Town and her French would be pretty solid, I reckoned. And it would leave us enough time to get used to the idea to turn our lives upside down.

In December 2018 close friends of ours left Cape Town to move back to Chile and invited us to come and visit one day, as one does. It got me thinking… dreaming actually.

A long trip to South America was one of my dreams so I discussed it with Rosie: Wouldn’t you love to visit Yann and Emile in Chile and then also visit some other South American countries like Peru, Ecuador and Colombia? She was all game. So the plan slightly changed to leave Cape Town by the end of 2019, celebrate Christmas and New Year in The Netherlands and then fly to Chile, to start off our South American adventure before settling down in The Netherlands.

The year 2019 was all about getting ready for our big move and our big adventure. I made sure to safe money each month to buy our flights. We made sure to enjoy our time with friends in Cape Town to the fullest because we surely would miss them loads. The 2nd half of 2019 was all about getting the apartment ready to rent out. I cleaned out, cleared out, sold stuff, gave away other things and made sure to have found what seemed to be the perfect tenants by the end of November.

All according to plan, we flew to Amsterdam on the 23rd of December and arrived in The Netherlands with 10 suitcases. That was our entire life, in 10 suitcases. I loved it that we got rid of so much stuff and that my flat in Cape Town was still there for us to go on holiday in the future and perhaps in about 10 years, move back there.

The plan was to go and live in Rotterdam after our South American adventure. I had already found a school for Rosie, a lovely bilingual school to make sure that she could keep up with her languages. I had 2 job opportunities ligned up to dive into so all that was left, was to find an apartment before our arrival back in The Netherlands in May, surely that would not be too big of a problem.

Our big South American adventure was going to take us to Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. We flew to Santiago the Chile on the 15th of January 2020 and our return flight was booked for the 15th of May from Bogota, Colombia. 4 months of exploring before settling in Rotterdam.

I felt I needed to write this long introduction because I felt I had planned everything so perfectly.

Corona COVID-19, the global pandemic enters our world

Until the 12th of March we were traveling and exploring quite happily which you can read about in other articles, like THIS one about Chile. We stayed about 5 weeks in Chile and then traveled north to Peru. At the beginning of March we were visiting Ayacucho in Peru and had the most wonderful time with Frederique who does amazing work with street children through her organization Mama Alice. However, Corona was coming closer and closer and although I had pretty much ignored all the news around it because it wasn’t yet in South America, Frederique was more up to date and it became clear that Peru was going to close its border in a few days. We were still planning to travel by bus to the north of Peru from where we would cross the border into Ecuador. We had no more time.

On Friday the 13th of March we were chatting and chatting and Frederique mentioned that I should take a plane to get out of the country. I hadn’t even considered that because I was still in my slow travel mode. I had to change my pace and get onto the Corona program by thinking quickly and adapting our plans. I checked flights from Lima to Quito on the app and booked one before they sold out.

We would travel from Ayacucho to Lima by night bus, leaving Friday night and arriving the next morning. Our plans to spend a few days in Lima changed to going straight from the bus station by Uber to the airport and take a flight to Quito, Ecuador where I would meet another friend who has 2 kids. We had planned to spend time together but when I was  with her, it became clear that Ecuador was also going to close their borders very soon.

From Lima to Quito during COVID-19, Corona pandemic

At the airport in Lima it was already very hectic, people were already wearing face masks and the atmosphere was very stressful and it was super busy. We sat down in the airplane. A lady who was supposed to sit next to us, requested another seat from the crew because she didn’t want to sit next to us Europeans. It was clear that people started to be afraid of Europeans because of Corona. The pandemic was massive now in Europe so I understood. I still didn’t think that we would need to go back to Europe because there was the Corona pandemic in full force while in Ecuador there were no cases yet. It felt safer to stay.

We arrived in Quito where I wanted to change our Galapagos flights so that we could go straight there instead of 1 April 2020. This was no longer possible. Galapagos Islands were already closed for tourism for foreigners. What to do now? Our friend Colette, also a single mom, who lived in Quito still managed to get to the Galapagos Islands where she would sit out the lock down with friends and her boys. We were on our own again.

We were stranded in Quito. I started to feel very lonely and vulnerable being a single mom with Rosie and no one we knew. Rosie had also looked forward to spend time Colette and the boys but of course Corona cancelled all those plans. She was sad and I a little bit desperate which of course I couldn’t really share with her.

I felt I needed to be with other Dutch travelers and posted something in the Facebook group. It turned out that a big group of Dutch travelers was staying in Quito city center in Community Hostel so we headed there with an Uber. The hostel was lovely but there was no outside space, people were smoking and it wasn’t an ideal place to stay for a family. Everybody was stressed out about the entire situation and was frantically trying to get out of Quito, to a beach, to a mountain or back home to The Netherlands. Whereas I was trying to keep my head and Rosie calm which is hard when people around you are stressing.

Our lovely refuge, Hostal Colibri Quito Aeropuerto

Although it was nice to be able to speak Dutch for a day, the next day I decided to head back to Hostal Colibri Aeropuerto which is situated in a small village close to the airport with a large swimming pool, a lovely family that runs it, good Wifi and nice healthy meals. I decided that this would be our lock down place and we would stay here for the entire Corona pandemic. It was a lucky shot at one of the booking sites and it turned out to be perfect!

When I asked Rosie how she felt if we would stay at Hostal Colibri for 2 months she was totally excited to have her own swimming pool for 2 months AND to have Netflix and YouTube on TV. I felt really grateful to have found this amazing place, I felt safe, I felt looked after and we were able to be outside the entire day instead of being locked into a room which happened  to travelers who stayed in city centers.

For a week or so we blissfully settled into our ‘new normal’. We swam, we did homework on the tablet, we went to a farm next door to milk a cow and I went for long walks with the owner of the guesthouse. When she told me that her son and daughter in law were both doctors and lived next door, I even felt more secure and happy with my decision to stay here. Every day we enjoyed healthy, freshly cooked meals and fresh air. For me this is still the best way to fight off the Corona virus.

At Colibri Hostal there were a few other foreign travelers that had decided to stay there for the time of the Corona pandemic lock down. Together we were trying to get into some sort of daily routine. I had offered English classes, another very fit guy was doing some fitness training with us, some helped the owner with the vegetable garden and for the rest of the day we just enjoyed ourselves around the pool. Since we were so close to the airport, we could see and hear airplanes that were arriving in Quito and each day there were less and less until it was only cargo flights that arrived.

A diabolic dilemma during COVID-19 Corona pandemic in Quito

Being a single mom, I don’t have any other adults to discuss things with, to come to an agreement and to see another side of the story so I was often in contact with a few friends on WhatsApp to at least be able to chat and get other insights. Some ensured me that I was taking the right decision to stay in Quito. Netherlands was now a burning Corona country and others urged me to get back to The Netherlands where healthcare facilities are topnotch and we would be close to family. I thought it would be a good idea to contact the Dutch embassy in Quito to at least let them know where we were staying. The Dutch embassy had started actively contacting Dutch people in foreign countries to get an idea of how many needed or wanted to be repatriated.

I mentioned that Rosie has asthma and that I don’t think it is a good idea to go on a full airplane with a possibility of getting infected by the Corona virus. This was one of my main reasons why I thought it would be better to stay where we were. By that time The Netherlands had also gone into a ‘smart’ lock down and if we would arrive back, we would need to be quarantined for about 14 days. We would need to find our own place where to do the quarantine. Again, being by myself with a 7 year old, how was I going to do grocery shopping if we were staying somewhere by ourselves? I didn’t see how this was possible.

The Embassy put me in touch with a Dutch doctor to discuss the situation with him. All the time I had assumed that the health care facilities in Ecuador would be similar to those in South Africa. If you have health insurance, you can go to very good private hospitals so I didn’t worry about that. However, after I spoke to the doctor who told me that this was not the case at all, I began to doubt my decision. Ecuador only has 200 respirators and there’s only 1 half decent hospital in Quito which in no way you can compare to hospitals in South Africa. Then I also realized that if Rosie or myself would get ill, we would be separated because we would not be able to stay with each other in the hospital. Corona rules were: no visitors to hospitals.

The lock down situation in Ecuador

It became clear to me that we would need to get onto an airplane ASAP. An added concern was that the guests at Hostal Colibri now changed daily. People from all over Ecuador came to spend their last night at the hostal before their repatriation flight the next day. We all sat in the same dining room and I started to feel vulnerable and wanted to keep a distance. The Hostal had become a safe haven for those who came from often very difficult journeys to get there.

Ecuador had implemented a very strict lock down with a 2pm curfew, no travel between provinces unless necessary. Only certain registered taxis were allowed to take travelers from A to B but at the province border they had to change into a different taxi. We were only allowed to go to the supermarket every 3rd day. Face masks were mandatory. There was a cue outside the supermarket, one way in, another way out. The car was stopped and sprayed on the way into the city and most shops were closed. Only supermarkets and chemists were open.

Within a few days Guayaquil had become a terrible epicenter of Corona with many deaths. At some point a KLM wasn’t allowed to land there and 50 Dutch people were completely stranded at the airport with nowhere to go and not knowing when they could leave again. Again I was so grateful that we were staying in this lovely guesthouse only 8km from the airport. Hostal Colibri had all the necessary permits to operate and became one of the preferred hostals for all stranded travelers. They also had vehicles to take everyone to the airport and to go to the supermarket once in a while. We were so lucky that we had found such a perfect place during this confusing and difficult time. I’m already looking forward to go back there one day and make new, happy memories.

Traveling back to Europe and where to stay?

We had to fly home but I had no idea yet where to stay. I checked airbnbs and contacted a few. Most were very expensive or they had closed for Corona time because they didn’t comply with all the regulations. Like I mentioned before, I had no idea how to do this by myself with Rosie. How could I go into quarantine without any help? I didn’t want to go straight to my parents because they are elderly and we would put them at risk after having spend 12 hours on a full flight with people from all over the world.

Help came from my brother who invited us to come and stay with his family. Besides being my brother he’s also a pharmacist and a phytotherapist. It felt good and safe to stay with him. In case any of us would get sick, we would be in good hands.

Only challenge was that he lives in Belgium and by then the borders between Belgium and The Netherlands were closed. That was a concern for later.

First I needed to tell Rosie that we were not going to stay 2 months at this gorgeous place with a swimming pool anymore but instead that we would take a KLM flight to Amsterdam. From there we would take the train and stay with her cousins. Kids are so easy right? She jumped in the air for joy: Yeay!! KLM has the best cookies and YEAY I’m going to stay with my cousins. Phew! That was easy for me. I learned again that the way kids deal with stressful situations, depends a lot on how we, the parents, handle the situation.

So off we went, we managed to book the last 2 seats on the last KLM flight from Quito to Amsterdam. It was all only confirmed on the actual morning of departure, very stressful for me. An hour before we had to depart I received a WhatsApp message to please call this and that number urgently to confirm and pay for our flights. 1200 euros, within an hour otherwise our flight would be cancelled. I was shaking and trembling and had to phone a couple of times but eventually managed to take pics of my credit card and get the confirmation before hopping onto the pick-up truck that would take us to the airport.

The flight was packed, Schiphol Amsterdam was deserted. Since no one could pick us up, we had to find our way from Schiphol to Roosendaal from where my brother would pick us up. Usually there’s a direct train from Schiphol Airport to Roosendaal which takes about 1 hour. Not on this day.

Trains were on a very limited schedule and it was not very clear which ones were going so I just had to guess a bit in which direction to go and hope for the best. In the end it took us about 4.5 hours to get to Roosendaal. We had to take 4 different stop & go trains and most train stations were deserted. At some point I saw a train to The Hague which is a big city and oh we landed in paradise because the HEMA was open!! They were our savior!! We got hot chocolates, stroopwafels and for me an extra strong cappuccino and off we went again into the next train. At The Hague Station, the info desk was open as well so finally we could get a printed schedule for our next 2 trains. It was a good move to go to The Hague!

In Roosendaal my brother came to fetch us from the empty train station. He’s allowed to drive in and out from Belgium and The Netherlands because he works in The Netherlands so all went well.

And finally, finally after a 24 hour journey we could relax, take a shower and just rest. I thought Rosie would fall to pieces from exhaustion but she was too excited to spend time with her cousins who were waiting for us with snack platters. Ooh, SO happy to have arrived!

Staying in Belgium in the small border village of Essen was bliss. We were so fortunate that the weather was gorgeous, sunshine each day and we were allowed to go outside for walks and move around. It was great to stay with my brothers family.

After staying for almost 3 weeks with my brother, we took the Corona test and we didn’t have the virus. We felt it was safe to go to my parents in the south of The Netherlands so my brother took us there. Now our lives in The Netherlands could start. We could do all the necessary admin to become Dutch residents again. The End, for now..