Stranded like never before. Fearing getting stuck in Los Angeles due to a COVID lockdown, a Vancouverite heading to New Zealand ends up in Panama by way of Costa Rica.
Story and Photos by Carla Bragagnini
COVID-19 hit while I was in transit. It was complicated to get back to where I came from, and not possible to go where I was going.
Four years ago, I left Vancouver on a year-long trip, aiming to head east and finish in New Zealand. It was an ambitious one-year plan, so I never quite made it, and I still found myself on the road, four years later. During those years, I mostly lived out of a backpack, volunteering on projects around the world, while working online as a digital nomad.
A New Zealand working holiday visa was on my bucket-list for a decade. Due to age restrictions, this was my last year to apply. I was granted the visa, I just had to enter by July 2020. I hoped to buy a van and seasonally work my way through the country for the next year.
I decided to stop in Central America on the way to New Zealand in December. My father used to work in Panama and our family, which is scattered all over, meets there every Christmas. I planned to stay a month or two, before finally continuing to New Zealand.
Our family reunion in Panama was memorable. We travelled to the coast to help release baby turtles. We hiked through waterfalls, visited a sloth sanctuary, and took part in carnival celebrations. Little did I know it would be the last taste of freedom for a while.
I postponed New Zealand until after February because we decided to visit Costa Rica for my dad’s birthday. In Costa Rica, I attended a chocolate-making workshop and we hiked through volcanic lava fields and swam in rainforest beaches, while monkeys and sloths hung overhead.
The timing worked perfectly because I was accepted on an Australian bushfire volunteer project in mid-March as a stopover, and I secured a seasonal job for April working at a winery on New Zealand’s South Island. Afterwards, I considered I’d do ski season work in Queenstown, before heading north in August. Everything was falling into place seamlessly — or so I thought.
The bushfire project was on Kangaroo Island, so I booked a flight to Adelaide for March 17. As coronavirus gained momentum, I received email updates from the volunteer organization. First, they restricted volunteer participation from countries on a select list.
With only a handful of COVID cases in Panama, I was still green-lit. But three days pre-departure, I got an email announcing they suspended operations around the world, including in Australia. That’s when I realized my plans were about to be turned upside down.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Travelling to Adelaide didn’t make sense without the volunteer position. With a job starting in April, I cancelled my original flight to Australia and tried to book directly to New Zealand in a few weeks. Then, New Zealand imposed mandatory quarantine for new arrivals.
Restrictions were expanding, and the travel window was narrowing. I spent hours on the phone with airlines and was conversing with my employer, who was adapting to changing regulations. In the middle of searching for direct flights to New Zealand leaving shortly (March 22), I got an email from my employer withdrawing my job offer. They preferred to hire locally and give work to those affected by tourism job cuts.
I was disheartened. Then, Panama closed its borders to incoming flights, so I worried about getting stuck in Los Angeles en route to New Zealand without being able to return. My family was in Panama, and I had no job or apartment to go back to in Vancouver. It was stressful, because I wasn’t even sure if I could return to Canada in the future. Ultimately it made sense to stay put, so I stopped searching for new flights.
A few hours later, something happened that felt imminent: New Zealand closed its border officially to all travellers. But with a valid visa until July 2020, I thought I had time.
I decided to wait in Panama for the situation to unfold. Luckily, I had a safe place to stay, and I was hopeful New Zealand might reopen borders in the next few weeks (I look back fondly on this optimism). By May, when New Zealand itself started reopening, I was finally able to speak with immigration but was advised to let my visa expire and call back when borders reopened — whenever that would be.
I finally had an answer. I couldn’t wait anymore — I had to come up with a Plan B.
Meanwhile, in Panama, from mid-March on, there was a countrywide lockdown. Panama’s public health system could not risk being overwhelmed, so they went hard and early. The highway between Panama City and the surrounding communities (where we were located) was barricaded to contain community spread. The international airport closed, as did all stores, bars and restaurants. Only hospitals and pharmacies remained open.
In a controversial move, Panama banned alcohol sales, at a time when one could argue wine felt like an essential service. But in Panamanian culture, alcohol consumption is strongly linked to social events, so it ensured people didn’t have fuel for gatherings.
Lockdown in Panama was strict. Confined to our residence, we were only allowed out within a few blocks for short daily walks or exercise. Panama’s coastline closed for beach visits and surfing. Rumours of upcoming restrictions spread through word of mouth. Foreigners started panic-buying groceries. But since most people live month-to-month, locals didn’t have the financial means to stock up, so weekly trips made more sense.
Only one person per household was allowed out at a time. With vulnerable and immuno-compromised people at home, shopping became my task. The government separated trips by gender — women had designated shopping on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; men had Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. We were only allowed out at a certain time, depending on the last number of our IDs. A passport ending in “6” gave me the 6-7 p.m. slot on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And there were evening, overnight and Sunday curfews.
Panamanian lockdown came with its share of drama — though to be fair, no country knew what they were doing. Some men “misbehaved” at one point, breaking their curfew rules, and had their Saturday shopping day taken away. Restrictions were often placed and then removed, only to be placed again.
Without access to a car or running public transportation, a taxi to the grocery store was the only option. Taxi drivers could only drive on specific days, depending on the number their license plates ended in. It was hard finding a driver coinciding with my allocated days and times. Supermarket regulations included hand sanitation, wearing masks and temperature taking. It was painful to see bottles of wine in cabinets under lock and key!
After a few months, we connected with local communities online and through our neighbours. We discovered local farm and grocery deliveries, a shuttle service doing Costco runs (on the other side of the barricade!), and even local fishermen delivering fresh fish. These were little victories worth celebrating (over a bottle of sparkling water).
During those months, just like everybody else, my quarantine consisted of cooking, Zoom workouts and Netflix marathons. I got to spend a lot of quality (and intimate) family time. I poured myself into freelance work, and started a creative project with my sister that aimed to lift spirits during quarantine. We were featured on the news in Toronto.
Our neighbourhood’s security guards started living onsite for weeks at a time to minimize their commutes. People in our community took turns cooking for them. Neighbours with cars shopped for the elderly. We’d heard that beyond our walking limits, there were fresh mangoes everywhere. A good Samaritan started leaving mangoes for everyone in our building’s lobby. People banded together like never before.
After I spoke with New Zealand immigration in May, I had a lot to reconsider. Ultimately, I decided to return to Canada in June. Vancouver didn’t make sense because I was set on spending the next year abroad. I opted to rethink what that could look like, domestically.
Through my travels I’ve learned to roll with the punches, so I cast a wide net. I applied for work in Victoria (British Columbia), and searched for Airbnbs in St. John’s (Newfoundland), Halifax (Nova Scotia), Quebec City and Montreal. I’d always wanted to live in Montreal and found a summer sublet. It was available on June 10, which was the same day a rare humanitarian flight was scheduled to leave Panama en route to Washington, D.C., and just days shy of my tourist visa expiring.
My two months in Panama somehow turned into six. As my leaving date approached, I started getting sentimental. One week before my flight, lockdown was lifted to ease the economy. I went on long walks again, leaving me sore and wishing I’d done more Zoom yoga during quarantine. I saw the mango trees in all their glory. Unfortunately, new cases tripled in a week, so the country’s newfound freedom was short-lived, though I got to say a proper goodbye.
Registering through Global Affairs Canada kept me updated, but the Canadian embassy had stopped repatriating Canadians, so I went through the U.S. embassy. After booking the humanitarian flight, I was issued a letter to cross the barricade into the city’s airport.
On the departure screens, there were only two flights listed — finding my gate was easier than ever. The onboard staff were covered head to toe, looking more like scientists than flight attendants.
I wore a mask made by a local Guna Yala artisan I received as a leaving present. The Guna Yala live in an autonomous region, aiming to protect their indigenous Panamanian culture. Their signature “mola” craftmanship includes stitching local flora and fauna and geometric shapes on garments. They started stitching on masks as a way of reinventing their art during the pandemic.
As I set off on my new adventure, that was the spirit of reinvention I hoped to carry forward.
I was questioned intensively upon arriving in Canada, but I finally made it to the apartment for quarantine. Observing my new surroundings of Montreal from indoors for weeks before experiencing them felt like being in an aquarium.
Luckily, after 10 weeks of lockdown in Panama, I had the quarantine thing down. Restaurants and bars in Montreal reopened, just as I finished quarantining. Summer flew by, and after three months, I could reactivate my health care and had the chance to extend my sublet into a lease.
Before I found a job in my field in Montreal, I decided to rethink my New Zealand bucket-list. So, I got a seasonal job working at a winery just outside of Montreal. In the same adventurous spirit, I am hoping to road trip across Quebec in a van next spring. Coronavirus reminded me that adventure is not a destination, it’s a state of mind.
I spent four years travelling and there’s no doubt I would’ve kept going if not for COVID. Like so many, my entire year’s plan went out the window. I ended up trading New Zealand van life for Montreal apartment life. Sometimes, I wonder in what ways my life might’ve been different if I’d left for New Zealand just a few weeks earlier. Life in New Zealand might’ve been more care-free (and COVID-free), especially since Montreal’s back in partial lockdown. The road here was anything but simple, but as I take in my surroundings, I have an overwhelming sense that I’m exactly where I need to be.
- While travelling on an epic, worldwide trip, Carla wrote a series for Outpost online called “The Embedded Traveller.” To read her stories go here.