Panic. When my family and I booked our trip to Spain in February, we never envisioned that would become the overwhelming emotion during our visit.
Days into the trip, my travel group and I took our disheveled, frowning selves and climbed aboard our bus for a seemingly ordinary day of tourism, having just learned of the European travel ban effective the next day.
It felt colder and darker than usual as we waited to hear from the travel agency about whether we could return home.
Questions about our workplace, school, and university conditions lingered in our minds and remained topics of conversation throughout the trip.
With Spain being a level 3 country, we worried about unknowingly carrying the virus before visible symptoms appeared. A Canadian hospitalist in the group said she was fearful of interacting with her many senior patients.
It helped knowing we were in this mess together, and we lightened the somber mood with jokes and anecdotes. Our guide would tell a coronavirus joke but said we just wouldn’t get it.
A 22-year-old Chicagoan thought someone died when he woke up to an emergency call from his mom, he jokingly recounted. She told him to return immediately. After texting his heartfelt goodbyes and hastily heading to the airport for the next flight out, he learned the ban didn’t apply to American citizens. His taxi driver thought he was “loco” when he asked to turn the car around.
With each passing day of our weeklong stay, the spread of coronavirus resulted in increasing restrictions. Witnessing the effects on Spaniards firsthand, threats to health, safety, and travel felt more real than ever.
There were abruptly fewer people in public. Our last day, the once-bustling streets of Madrid became eerily still and empty with no one in sight, resulting from a nationwide lockdown ordering residents to remain indoors.
Preceding this, the Spanish government shut down historical sites and museums, making us miss out on a major attraction in Granada, Alhambra. In Toledo, restaurants and shops were shuttered.
Long lines of travelers attempting to leave jammed the Madrid airport.
Screenings were informal and hurried. Not even our flight attendants knew what the process entailed.
An hour before landing, passengers responded to a form asking if we felt symptoms, including difficulty breathing, coughing, or fever. Then, three CDC officers met passengers at the gate to sign off on forms and check if we displayed symptoms.
Handouts recommended frequent health checks and self-quarantining should symptoms arise. Temperatures were not measured. DFW airport was sparser than usual, defying expectations.
Though it hasn’t been mandated, I plan on self-quarantining to mitigate risks.
While it was easy to imagine the worst possible scenarios throughout our trip, the reality of traveling in a high-risk country during the coronavirus outbreak was far less grim.
My advice: Fact-find first, panic later.