What happens when a pandemic threatens to tear across the world and you're about to go traveling? With every news outlet churning out coronavirus updates all day long, we're plagued with warnings sounding the alarm bells. You can’t go far into any social media platform without an update. COVID-19 information is everywhere.
Of course I appreciate the concern fueled by fear of the unknown, I really do - we have neither concrete answers nor a cure in sight - but I also believe that this is not a reason to stop living our lives. Modifying those plans, yes, by avoiding destinations with the highest outbreak, but not grinding to a complete halt. In fact, with the imminent end dates of our working holiday visas approaching, we actually have to be on the move again. I am certainly going to get on planes, interact with people, and travel with a heightened degree of common sense, but I am not about to panic buy hand sanitizer!
Knowing that our time in New Zealand was coming to an end, we booked a 10-day holiday to Samoa, another one of the Pacific Islands I’ve been desperate to explore. We booked the trip in early January, before any of the COVID-19 news made the front page. The closer we got to the trip, the more tumultuous the news became. The first case of coronavirus here in New Zealand wasn't confirmed until the end of February, providing ample time for appropriate measures and responses to be put in place while we waited and watched the world grapple with this new calamity.
For over a month now, Samoa has had measures in place to restrict travelers from certain high-risk countries, including requiring people from certain nations to spend the 14 days prior to arrival in a virus-free country; requiring medical certificates to be carried by all travelers arriving from a country with >1 case; and requiring mandatory medical screening upon arrival and the completion of an official Health Declaration Card. On February 28th, Samoa added New Zealand to the watch list, immediately increasing security and restricting the number of flights from the latest nation to confirm a case of the virus. This would now directly affect our plans, including needing to see a doctor to obtain medical clearance no more than 3 days before we were due to fly out.
Next, our flight, originally booked for Sunday, March 8, was cancelled. We were able to rebook for the following day so it made sense to stick with our travel plans of taking an overnight bus from Wellington to Auckland on the Saturday night, finding a place to stay overnight, then fly out on Monday. At the same time we needed to change our accommodation in Apia, Samoa. And book an appointment at a local clinic in Wellington to get those medical certificates which would would cost us $99 apiece.
Then, on the afternoon of Friday, March 6, I received another notification from Air NZ that our Monday flight was also cancelled, and we had to call in to discuss ‘re-booking options’. Half-fearing our trip to Samoa would fall through (which would open a whole other can of worms with Nico’s visa expiry date hastily approaching), I spent over an hour waiting in line to make arrangements with an agent.
At 5:15pm, I finally got hold of someone who informed us that the Sunday flight had been reinstated but that there were no seats left on it… Well, now what do we do!? Pandemics seem to throw all rules to the wind - it didn’t matter that we had booked the Sunday flight months ago. We were on a first-come-first-served basis and a whole new playing field. And that meant hoofing it up to Auckland airport for the next available flight (now on Saturday morning!) or wait maybe a week for another one. Remember that niggly fact about Nico’s visa running out before mine? Well, there was nothing for it but to make that Saturday morning flight to Samoa from Auckland. Which meant we had to be at Wellington airport in just two hours' time!
- We still had to finish packing
- We had to fully move out of our apartment
- We had to find an emergency after-hours doctor to issue those medical certificates (as we clearly couldn’t wait for our planned appointment) or we wouldn't be able to board the plane
- Nico was scheduled to work until 7pm
- We had to figure out what to cancel – our Intercity bus, our Auckland hostel – and what to book – a place to stay for two extra nights in Samoa!
A total breeze, right!?
I immediately got Nico on the phone to tell him he had to leave work (not something he would ever do without a completely valid reason – that boy works so hard) which he promptly did. Thankfully, his wonderful supervisor let him off the hook.
While Nico was rushing home in a cab, I went onto autopilot and calculated that I had an hour to fully pack up our life in Wellington to move out as well as pack for our trip. Laundry was folded, the closet emptied, the bathroom cupboards triple-checked, bags packed, toiletries arranged, boxes stacked, logistics figured out, paperwork sorted, furniture stored, bedding folded and somehow the piles of belongings shrunk into condensed spaces, ready for the next chapter.
Nico arrived home and began loading all our belongings into our van while I finished cleaning up. Shortly after 6pm we drove to the emergency after-hours clinic, rushed in breathlessly, explained the chaotic situation we had been thrown into, received excellent customer care and were shown both a nurse and a doctor in under 25 minutes, dashed back to the car and headed back home. With everything packed up, we called a taxi, and believe it or not, we were on the way to the airport at 7:30pm on the dot. Our flight departed Wellington bound for Auckland at 8:45pm. I am still in disbelief that we made it with time to spare.
The fun wasn't over, we had some frantic calls to make to cancel bookings and make new ones to fit all the pieces of the plan back together again.
We then spent the night in Auckland International Airport, wrapped around each other to save space on a tiny, narrow bench, alongside the other travelers who had decided this was their resting place for the night. I reckon we got less than 3 hours sleep and I can confidently say it was one of the most uncomfortable sleeps of my life. At 4am, check-in opened for our flight to Apia, providing plenty of time for staff to review medical certificates as we were unable to check in through the automated kiosks. We presented our very expensive slips of paper as we rubbed sleep from our eyes and tried to wrap our heads around the happenings of the last 12 hours.
On the other side of security, we found much comfier benches at the gate and thankfully snoozed for another 3 hours or so. After breakfast of overly-priced airport bagels, we boarded our flight to Apia. Once on board, we were instructed to inform the crew should any symptoms of COVID-19 arise. Health Declaration Cards were distributed for each passenger to fill in and declare current health, recent countries visited and provide other personal information. We were well and truly on our way.
From the moment we stepped off the plane onto the sky walkway in Apia, we were held in a queue to ensure health processing. Each person was immediately questioned by medical personnel fully dressed in medical garb (masks, headgear, fully body aprons and shoe covers) regarding recent travel history – which was validated by every single page of our passports being analyzed (and yes, they indicated my stamp from China which I was quick to point out was from January 2019, over a year ago) – and current health status. We also had to present our medical certificates again.
As we were each admitted through this slow process, we were shown into a larger hall where three nurses tables were set up. Our temperatures were taken and then our certificates checked again. Once we were given the all clear, we could head down into arrivals and go through border security.
All staff at Faleolo Airport are currently wearing face masks, there are bottles of hand sanitizer every few feet, most people working on computers are wearing gloves and yet, thankfully, the airport is bustling and there seems to be no shortage of arrivals. Perhaps it’s because the flights have been reduced, so the airport seems exceptionally busy immediately before and after one of these few flights and it might be calm the rest of the time.
Regardless, we were happy to walk through the process and comply with procedures. Not long ago measles arrived in Samoa from New Zealand and it's no wonder the country is desperate to do whatever it can to prevent another epidemic take hold.
We’re now in Apia, exhausted, but safe. Somehow all our bookings are figured out and here we are on the other side of the wildest 24 hours of travel I have ever experienced – and that’s saying something!
Update: We've been in Samoa for 5 nights now, and it's been glaringly obvious how quiet the tourist scene is. In fact, while we did see a handful of other travelers in Upolu (the main island on which Apia, the capital, sits), we have yet to see another on Savai'i, the other neighbouring island of Samoa. We are the only guests at our hotel, the markets are full of sellers but no buyers and the car rental shops are eerily quiet. Please, if you are able to keep traveling, do. Tourism is crucial here.