It was a Friday afternoon earlier this spring and rather than boarding my flight back to New York I was marooned in my room at a hotel in the mountains two hours from Ushuaia in Argentina. Under normal circumstances, it would have been nice. The lodge was located on a lake with pebble beaches, surrounded by towering ice-capped mountains, not far from Alberto de Agostini National Park. It’s the kind of place outdoorsy adventurers might dream of exploring.
But I wasn’t there to hike the tree-lined trails or swim in the cold lake like most travelers do. I had been banished there, instructed to quarantine after I contracted COVID aboard a ship, which had docked in Ushuaia two days before. I had been in Antarctica, where I’d spent two weeks on a bucket-list cruise experience admiring whales, penguins, and icebergs. The trip was, in brief, otherworldly, like I’d teleported to a different planet. But on the way back, reality had quickly snowballed after my antigen test (a requirement to get back into Argentina) came back positive.
There are worse places to quarantine—this I knew. I was also acutely aware of how much sicker I could have been, considering I only had a fever, chills, and symptoms that are in line with a bad head cold (though the first time I had COVID I was asymptomatic). But despite that, the feeling I couldn’t shake was that of being desperately alone, of not knowing what would happen next.
When I first tested positive, after a mandatory antigen test to get back into Argentina, I was quickly exiled to the cabin on my ship for two days. I sobbed. Then, I ordered room service while awaiting information about further protocol from the cruise line’s ground staff in Ushuaia. Once it was confirmed that I’d have to quarantine for seven days (under Argentinian law) before flying back to the United States, I was swiftly removed from the ship (along with six other passengers and one crew member who also tested positive) after the other passengers had disembarked and was moved to as remote a hotel as possible, which was organized and covered by the cruise company.
For the first few days I was instructed to stay in my room, where I ordered meals via WhatsApp and stared longingly onto the distant lake. By the third day, we were allowed out for walks so I took long, slow strolls along with two or three of the other people in my “quaranteam.” The fresh air and company were tonic. By day six I was still testing positive, which meant I couldn’t get back into the U.S., despite having almost no symptoms. I was given details by the ship company to retain a doctor’s certificate (which I did over the phone via WhatsApp), which would confirm my isolation period as well as now having no symptoms and allow me to fly home.
Everything turned out to be OK in the end and other than a bit of emotional trauma, I was fine. But honestly, contracting COVID in a foreign country can be terrifying. With so many destinations following different rules, which are ever changing, it’s hard to know what the outcome will be if your test comes back positive. Add the stresses of being in an unfamiliar place where people may speak a language you don’t understand, and the fact that you’re carrying a potentially deadly virus, and it all makes for a harrowing ordeal.
One of many
As restrictions ease and more people travel, contracting COVID while out in the world is a reality that’s not going away anytime soon. I am one of many unfortunate travelers who have found themselves mournfully staring at an antigen test with two angry red lines, stuck far from home and forced to stay put.
Writer Shana Clarke, who contracted COVID while on a work trip to Spain earlier this year, says, “The scariest was the health part of it and the physical things, because you don’t know how COVID is going to progress.” After experiencing allergy-like symptoms, Clarke took a test which came back positive soon after arriving in Spain. “For the most part, it’s still an unknown disease, so I was nervous, what if I get really sick? My Spanish is basic. It’s really that fear of the next steps,” she adds.
Luckily Clarke was able to change her United flight with ease (and no change fees) and the host who had organized her trip was able to set her up in a hotel room with a kitchenette, as well as bring her groceries. It was as comfortable a setup as quarantining alone in a foreign country can be. But when she arrived at the hotel, the quarantine requirements in Spain changed and people who didn’t have symptoms, even if positive, were allowed out and about. “I started going out for walks on day six and getting fresh air, while still being mindful of being around others. [But] I had to be careful because my heart rate was spiking,” she says.
Despite Spain’s requirements, Clarke still couldn’t get back into the U.S. At the time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would not allow travelers back into the county until they had quarantined for 10 days or had a negative test (which she lacked). “It’s frustrating the way countries are treating it,” says Clarke. “There is no one unifying idea of what quarantine or travel should look like. That makes it really hard.” After quarantining for 10 days and receiving a doctor’s letter as proof, as well as a negative antigen, she was finally able to fly back to New York.
Nicolette Dantas, an independent marketing consultant based in Los Angeles, didn’t even make it to her final destination before testing positive. While en route to India, where she and her fiancé were traveling to visit her family she hadn’t seen in two years, Dantas tested positive on her layover in Dubai (which required a test). “I tested negative ahead of my flight from LAX to Dubai, [so] I was shocked to receive positive results upon landing in Dubai,” she says.
Fortunately, Dantas was able to stay at her cousin’s empty apartment. They were then contacted by Dubai’s health department and asked to download the COVID-19-DXB Smart App, where they could record their 10-day quarantine. “For the next 10 days, my fiancé and I stayed put in my cousin’s hotel suite. No matter how luxurious the accommodations were, each day was filled with some anxiety and fear, and complete boredom,” she says, adding that she was lucky to have very few symptoms, which she credits to being vaccinated and boosted.
But despite having a comfortable setup, the what-ifs remained. “After the initial shock and disappointment of not being able to see my family, fear crept in around the rules and regulations of contracting COVID-19 in a foreign country. I was most afraid of not testing negative after the required quarantine and how that would impact my ability to leave Dubai in time to see my family in India and/or return back to the U.S.,” she says. Following the isolation period, they received a certification of completion and were free to go.
Not an insurmountable hurdle
Clarke, Dantas, and I were fortunate not to be gravely sick and able to quarantine in comfortable facilities. Traveling with the cruise company meant my hotel, food, and transfer expenses were covered. Scott Dunn, a travel specialist who had booked my flights, was also able to help rebook me (I had to be rerouted through Miami as there were no direct flights from Buenos Aires to New York that day) as well as sort transfers and a hotel for me in Buenos Aires, where I had to lay over.
Having someone else to figure out logistics when you’re in that situation is a luxury. But it was still far from ideal. The one silver lining is that once a traveler has received a certificate proving they’ve recovered from COVID (which they have to show airlines, along with their positive test results), they’re able to enter many countries without the required PCR or antigen for up to 90 days. (Research has also shown that you carry a greater immunity for several months after contracting COVID, which means traveling can feel a little more carefree.)
The horrible isolation experience, however, hasn’t stopped me from traveling. Despite spending extra days with weak Wi-Fi in a foreign country, which had a knock-on effect and scrambled my upcoming schedule, I have since traveled to Africa and Mexico, among other international destinations. For me, traveling is not always a choice, but a job. The same goes for Clarke and Dantas. Dantas also has no plans of stopping traveling anytime soon. But her experience is a cautionary tale. “Next time around, I’ll research my destination’s, and layover destination’s, quarantine rules and have a back-up plan,” she says. “Most importantly, I’ll remember that I made it through. I’ll [also] invest in a Kindle.”
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Mary Holland Mary Holland is South African writer based in New York. She has written for WSJ Magazine, the Financial Times, HTSI, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and W Magazine. She is the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.