When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, I was in the middle of Medellín, Colombia. I had to make a decision. One that I really didn’t want to make. Do I go home to California? Or do I stay in Colombia and wait out this pandemic? At the time, no one knew how long the virus would last and how far it would spread.
I had been in Medellín for almost 3 weeks, living out of a hostel for about $7 a night. I fell in love with the city on a previous trip and was inspired to come back to experience more of it. Before the shut down started, I was signed up for Spanish classes and was training at a local Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym. I also frequented the botanical gardens to see the iguanas roaming free and to sit among the serene atmosphere of the native plants. I had (and still have) a metro card in my wallet and was starting to find my way around the city.
When Colombia started reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, most of the world was already in a state of emergency. All of us at the hostel were hearing stories from our home countries about shortages of toilet paper, empty shelves in stores, closed public areas, mask requirements, and curfews. Pretty soon, the pandemic was all anybody could talk about.
“Fuji just got its first case yesterday!”
“I heard that the police are going into hostels and telling travelers to go back to their home countries!”
“There’s a curfew in Bogotá. Is there a curfew here yet?”
“Are the buses still running? Do you think the national park is still open?”
And then one day, the government announced a city-wide shut down. We weren’t allowed to leave the hostel except to go to the grocery store and no one was allowed outside after 9pm. Quarantining six feet away from each other was impossible. Not gathering in groups was also impossible. We were all stuck in this little hostel, all sleeping in bunk beds in the same rooms and sharing the small common spaces.
Luckily, I had some new friends that made quarantine really enjoyable. We would smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, drink way too much beer and play card games all day. Everyone seemed to have their own game to teach from their corner of the world.
In between card games, there were jam sessions with the guitar, naps in the hammock, and too many chefs in the kitchen. When there was nothing else to do, we would watch movies in the TV room. Even though I had only known these people for less than a month, it felt like a small family.
None of us wanted to cancel our remaining travel plans and head home. And at first, everyone was at a stand still, waiting to see what would happen next. People started booking flights home when Colombia’s borders started closing. Some of them struggled to find a path back to their home countries. Borders and airports, especially in Europe, were already closed and there were limited flights coming out of Colombia. The land and sea borders closed first in Colombia. There was no way out except by airplane and soon there were plans to close the air borders too. Even when that was announced, I was stubborn and still didn’t want to return home.
However, 2 things happened shortly after that made me change my mind…
An infestation of bed bugs was discovered in one of the hostel rooms, which happened to be the same room I was sleeping in. I woke up with hundreds of bites all over my back, stomach, arms, and legs. I was covered in small itchy red bumps. I changed rooms, washed everything I owned, put all my belongings in a trash bag, outside in the sun, and prayed that the bugs didn’t make a new home in my backpack. Despite all of my efforts, I had no where to go to escape it. I only had access to cold water which would not kill bed bugs and it was only a matter of time before they spread to the rest of the rooms.
Later that night, I started feeling really sick. Sharp pains in my stomach, nausea and dizziness took over. I never figured out what made me sick but it felt like food poisoning. For the next few days, it seemed like I was in and out of the bathroom every 10 minutes. I had no desire to eat which left me feeling weak and it was hard to get out of bed. All I wanted was to be alone in my own room with my own bathroom, only I was living in an 8-bed dorm with shared bathrooms, so that was not possible.
With all of that combined – a pandemic, borders closing indefinitely, bed bugs, and food poisoning – I couldn’t find any more excuses to stay. All I had were reasons to go. It was time to admit defeat and go home.
The trip home was a whole other adventure and was not easy considering I was still feeling nauseous, weak, and itchy. About 24 hours and 5 airports later, I stepped off the plane in Sacramento, relieved and exhausted.