Our Trans-Pacific Journey in the Time of COVID

Crossing an ocean bound for the epicenter of the pandemic of the century with two toddlers, our belongings, and no clue what comes next.

12 August 2020

When the coronavirus came knocking on Cambodia’s door back in January, it had been just over a year since we left the U.S.

With two toddlers in tow and longing grandparents back in the States, solidifying a return journey back to the States was increasingly becoming a priority with each passing day.

In the previous three years, we were beholden to Lori’s employer for determining the exact timing of such visits and procuring the plane tickets ⏤ an unnecessarily confused and inefficient process that always left us miserable and frustrated.

On the one hand you have shifting project timelines and donor requirements, multiple field supervisors, HQ bureaucracy, employee regulations, the glacial airline ticket procurement process, and the holiday schedules of a multitude of European staff, all dictating the timeline;

On the other hand, you have half a dozen close family members intent on solidifying their personal summer schedules months in advance.

But not in 2020! Lori’s new role in Cambodia left us responsible for figuring out our own holiday flights, which I welcomed.

Finally, control of the process was back in our hands, and we saw no reason to leave family and friends hanging this year.

This was the year we were going to book early, get the seats we wanted, and maybe even be able to reserve choice summer vacation rentals or campsites months in advance (which we simply couldn’t do in previous years).

Or so we thought.

By mid-January, I had found a good deal on a great itinerary and was moments away from clicking the ‘buy’ button, when for some inexplicable reason, I got a feeling in my gut to wait.

We were still six months out from our departure date and Lori was still waiting for confirmation for time off for her vacation dates. Another few days wouldn’t hurt.

Then, the first coronavirus cases suddenly cropped up in the U.S., centered in the Pacific Northwest (where we were headed) of all places.

With the worsening news, I began to feel uneasy about buying the tickets, even in the face of mounting questions from family about our travel dates.

Thinking out loud, I told Lori I had a feeling that this coronavirus business may affect our summer plans. She thought I was crazy (she has since apologized…).

Yet, to our astonishment, it wasn’t the pandemic that put the brakes on moving forward with our plans at that point, but Lori’s line managers, who couldn’t certify Lori’s leave so many months in advance.

Every other supervisor either of us have dealt with would have happily invited the opportunity to solidify leave schedules so early. Not this time.

We were pretty frustrated with the situation, and it began to feel like we were headed down the same road we’ve been down in previous years.

Then, mid-March rolled around and, well, you know the rest.

Covid or no covid, we were still intent on figuring out some sort of return back to the U.S. when things improved.

We had an almost-four-year-old, and…Riley, who none of our family had seen since he was just two months old. In July, he would be just shy of his second birthday.

So, despite Lori’s line managers inability to certify her leave, I continued to look for a good deal on fully refundable tickets…and a Covid window.

On 15 March, just four days after the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, I snatched up the best deal of my life on airline tickets, with Cathay Pacific.

It was a dream itinerary, round trip from Phnom Penh to the U.S., with one short connection, and dirt cheap.

And, fully flexible and fully refundable.

The general feeling at the time was the that the pandemic will have run its course in the next three months, and we’d be on our way.

I’ve already covered most of what happens next on the blog. But, in a nutshell, Lori’s leave never gets certified (instead, her role was flat-out eliminated); two weeks before our intended summer holiday start date, we were forced to cancel our flight and get a refund (spoiler alert: Cathay ends up canceling all service to Cambodia for the foreseeable future); and we scrambled to snatch up whatever one-way tickets out of Cambodia that we can find for a mid-August departure.

And that’s where we find ourselves on August 12th.

The Longest Day Ever

Our 38-hour-long August 12th began with a mad dash to pack up and move out of our Phnom Penh home, get ourselves to the airport with all our stuff, and catch the one and only EVA Air flight this week out of Cambodia.

One of the upsides in all of this was that we were able to exercise quite a bit of control over our itinerary, and I was able to override the travel agent’s choice of Korean Air for EVA.

We flew Korean roundtrip from Laos to the U.S. in 2017 and I wasn’t terribly impressed, not to mention that the connections and schedule from Southeast Asia to the Western U.S. always SUCKS.

On the flip side, I had only heard and read excellent things about EVA, the itinerary was exceptional, and I was actually really excited to give them a try.

In normal times, flying a carrier like EVA would generally be out of the range of what we were willing to spend. But not in the time of Covid.

We spent the morning packing out, and at 10:15am, were in a pickup bound for the airport to catch our 12:35pm flight.

A little later getting out of there than we’d hoped, but fortunately in Phnom Penh, the airport isn’t far and the airport is relatively compact.

Plus, it’s less time we have to entertain two energetic toddlers in the airport departure lounge.

Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH), Cambodia

All of what’s left of our possessions after four years in Southeast Asia, 80% of which is the kids’ stuff, particularly clothes intended for the kids to grow into, and books and toys that the kids had not yet outgrown.

Our baggage allowance was two 50-lbs. checked-in bags each (eight total), plus one carry-on and one personal item (each), in addition to the stroller and car seat.

We saw no reason not to max out the checked baggage, but didn’t come close maxing out the carry-ons, simply because there is a practical limit to what two parents can carry on an airplane with two young children in tow.

The last time we transited through Phnom Penh’s international airport was ten months ago on our way into the country.

Then, it was crowded and busy.

Here, in the midst of Covid, with an indefinite freeze on most types of entry permits and visas into the country and a mandatory 14-day quarantine, Cambodia’s main airport looks pretty sleepy.

 

 

A little reminder that we are still in Southeast Asia.

Given the country’s entry restrictions and how few flights there were coming and going, we really didn’t know a lot of people who had recently done what we were doing here today.

So, we really didn’t know what we’d find on this journey, in Taiwan, or on the other side of the pond for that matter.

Over the years, Lori and I have transited through our fair share of empty airports at all hours (as was the case with half of our flights in and out of Vientiane). So making our way through nearly-desolate PNH wasn’t unprecedented. Making our way through security even seemed strangely normal and efficient.

We exited the security hall and neared our gate, and were suddenly bombarded with stark reminders of the times we’re living in and the gravity of what we were about to do.

It was as if we suddenly found ourselves at a black-tie soiree in board shorts and bikinis, with a lung-eating disease on the menu.

If passengers weren’t in full hazmat gear, they were geared up in face shields, disposable rain ponchos, and rubber gloves.

It was now very apparent we were preparing to leave the comfort and safety of Cambodia’s protected atmosphere for the inhospitable outer reaches of our known world of the moment.

Were we prepared?

But check-in took much longer than anticipated, it was lunch time, and toddlers got to eat, lest they become man-eating monsters.

So we did what we could in the absence of a field hospital tent, and commandeered a row of seats, nuked the area with antibacterial wipes, unmasked, and initiated emergency rapid eating protocol.

T minus 40 minutes ’til liftoff. Time to board the spacecraft.

I was pretty impressed with EVA’s boarding procedures. It was orderly and efficient, with health precautions being a top priority.

Everyone transiting through Taipei was seated in the rear of the aircraft and boarded first, from back to front.

Those passengers with Taipei as their final destination (only Taiwan nationals and residents these days) boarded last, towards the front.

The three dozen passengers waiting with us in the boarding area seemed like a lot, until we boarded the aircraft, which was a wide body A330.

Noe and I got a row of four middle-row seats to ourselves, while Lori and Riley got the four seats behind us. There were three passengers in our entire row of eight seats.

Flight 1: Phnom Penh to Taipei (3.5 hours)

Our flight out of Phnom Penh left on time and was due into Taipei around 5:10pm, local time.

Our next flight bound for Seattle was scheduled to depart at 7:50pm and arrive at 4:15pm the same day.

Nothing like flying ten hours and going back in time 3.5. Oh, that crazy International Date Line.

Like I said before, this was a phenomenal trans-Pacific itinerary, particularly for parents traveling with kids. Hard to believe, but a part of me was actually looking forward to this flight back because of that.

Until you’ve done this a few times with little ones, you can’t fully appreciate the beauty of leaving Southeast Asia at midday on a flight that⏤

⏤perfectly coincides with nap time (and is just long enough for a nap!)⏤

⏤has a 2.5 hour layover (long enough to accommodate most delays, but short enough to not burn precious travel time having to entertain toddlers in an airport)⏤

⏤followed by an 11.5 hour trans-oceanic journey TO THE FINAL DESTINATION (yep, just ONE connection), that⏤

⏤wait for it⏤

⏤perfectly coincides with evening bed time in Cambodia!

But wait, there’s more!

Since we were due to arrive into Seattle at just after 4:00pm, we would be able to immediately transition into the DESTINATION TIME ZONE, leveraging the late summer sunset as a sleep cue AND the fact that 9pm in Seattle is 11am the next day in Phnom Penh, meaning⏤

⏤BOOM⏤

NAP TIME!

Plus, no temporary stay permits to mess with in Taipei, and our baggage would be checked through to our final destination.

More flight time during sleep hours also means fewer toys and activities we have to plan and bring with us. That’s the plan, at least.

The big variable of course is whether the boys will be too amped about the trip to sleep, particularly given that we won’t have a big ol’ layover for them to run around and burn off some steam.

Noe’s done this a half dozen times. Riley, on the other hand, hasn’t been on a flight longer than 2.5 hours since he was two months old. He’s was definitely going to be our wild card.

Shortly after reaching our cruising altitude, I got up to use the loo and thought I’d peek into the forward cabin to get an idea of how many Taiwanese are flying from Phnom Penh back home these days…

…yep. That seems about right.

Back in the rear cabin, nap time’s in full swing.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the row behind me. Instead of zoning out and contemplating the air exchange in my face mask, I get to spend nap time taking turns keeping Riley from causing a security scare or international incident.

Stickers seemed to appease him for much of nap time, but will no doubt leave our supplies dangerously depleted for the onward journey.

In addition to everything else, this first flight’s route squeezed in between a typhoon off to the north, and isolated thunderstorms to the south.

It wasn’t our bumpiest ride, but enough to make me long to breath the “fresh” cabin air on the other side of my cloth mask for three hours.

Victory!

One flight down. Now, the hard part.

Welcome to Taipei Airport! You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…seriously. Only Taiwanese are allowed to leave the airport.

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE), Taipei

Welcome to the 13th busiest airport in East Asia!

 

We had a personal escort from our arrival gate to a holding room in an undisclosed area of the terminal.

Well, at least those of us continuing on to Seattle and the Dark Continent.

Passengers arriving in Taipei deplane by section (front to back), depending on their destination. Passengers simply transiting through Taipei (most of us), were greeted by airline staff lined up holding signs corresponding to a dozen different destinations around the world.

We joined three others from our flight bound for Seattle as well, and were escorted through the dark and empty terminal to a holding room for passengers to the U.S.

This holding room is where we spent the majority of our 2.5-hour layover.

45 minutes before our departure, the same lady as before returned to escort us to the departure gate.

It’s go time.

 

Yep.

But apparently our flight is still on. We’ll see!

Somebody’s excited. Now, put on your mask!

Flight 2: Taipei to Seattle (10.5 hours)

And now, for the main event.

We expect to spend the next 11.5 hours on this big ol’ hunk of B777, sleeping, eating, and passing the time in close quarters with a few dozen strangers.

Unlike flying into Cambodia and, well, a hundred other countries these days, flying into the U.S. requires no COVID certificate, quarantine, or anything else for that matter…

Guess they figure that, wherever passengers are flying from, the Covid situation can’t possibly be as bad as it is in the U.S. of A. So, have at it!

If you can get beyond the very real chance of contracting a highly contagious and serious illness with a death rate ranging from 1% – 25%, then flying a long haul like this isn’t half bad.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend anyone flying for fun these days, but if you find yourself in such a position, there are a few upsides.

On this particular flight, the four of us found ourselves occupying nine seats: three window seats, three aisle seats, and three middle seats. Due to Riley’s attachment to mommy, he and Lori shared one row, and Noe and I each had a row all to ourselves.

Noe, of course, was in heaven (and very protective of his three seats, might I add).

Meal time was the one time we were able to have a break from our face masks. The rest of the time, they were required for kids two and older.

Riley wore his for most of his waking hours, but we eventually gave up for sleep. He struggled for over an hour at bed time before passing out on mommy in the carrier. Eventually, he transitioned out of the carrier and Riley and Lori managed to get some decent sleep.

I passed out right after Noe, but only slept a couple hours, initially.

When I awoke, we were somewhere over the ocean just east of Sapporo, Japan. We had just settled into the Jet Stream and were speeding along on a significant, yet perfectly smooth current.

I poked my head over the seat and looked around. The cabin was pitch black and dead silent.

I can’t remember ever being on a transoceanic long-haul flight with not one passenger in the cabin watching a movie, working on a laptop, or reading.

I made my way to the lavatory, passing aisle after aisle of sleeping passengers ⏤ black, white, Asian, Latino, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, old, young, man, woman, affluent, working class ⏤ a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities, all with one, singular objective.

It occurred to me then that, like the four of us, few of these people were on this flight because they wanted to be. These were no tourists or business people, looking forward to touring America’s National Parks, or attending an important conference.

Reaching the end of the aisle, it also occurred to me that Noe and Riley were the only two children in the entire cabin.

And not one screen or reading light was lit.

A black, silent void of exhaustion, uncertainty, and futility⏤

⏤bound for the hapless epicenter of the deadliest pandemic in a century: America.

With just over a couple hours to go until touchdown, the cabin slowly came to life. Food was served, and everyone seemed grateful to be able to remove their masks for a moment and a meal.

 

 

Happy boys with full bellies.

And nothing but blue skies into Seattle.

Total flight time from Taipei to Seattle, 10.5 hours due to a strong tailwind from the Jet Stream, a whole hour ahead of schedule.

Riley’s first view of the “homeland” since he was 11 weeks old.

Looking out the window on final approach into Sea-Tac, it was an all too familiar view ⏤ one I’ve taken in countless times over the years. First, Puget Sound, then Lake Washington, in all its hues of blues in the summer sun.

Deceptively familiar. Yet unrecognizable in a lot of ways.

What lay on the other side of customs and immigration? Will most people be wearing masks? Will there be people out and about enjoying the all too fleeting summer sun? How long will we be here in the U.S.? Will we come down with Covid? Will we kill each other in two weeks of quarantine?

Will there be toilet paper…?

 

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), USA

I can’t remember the last time we had such a pleasant, low key long haul journey. Every single thing went off without a hitch, the boys slept, and we arrived at our destination safely with all of our luggage, and even a bit early.

In all of it, the single thing that stood out the most was the kindness and generosity of every single person we encountered along the way.

Lori and I have become used to incompetent airline staff, rude airport officials, the evil eye from self-entitled American passengers when they see we did indeed decide to procreate and let our kids out of the house.

In the midst of these dark, unprecedented, and uncertain times, we encountered more smiles, more kindness, more patience, and more humanity than any trip we can remember.

It’s impossible to say whether it’s the challenging circumstances that have changed people’s perspective on humanity, or simply that all the jerks wads aren’t traveling right now.

I like to think it’s a bit of both.

One night in a hotel room in Sea-Tac, a seven hour drive to Southern Oregon in the morning, and 14 days of quarantine.

But first, TACO BELL DELIVERED TO YOUR HOTEL ROOM DOOR.

After 20 months away, strangely appropriate, and exactly what the doctor ordered.

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