International travel during a pandemic certainly presents some additional challenges. Stuffing everything you own into a few suitcases (trying to keep it under 50 pounds each), carrying backpacks that feel like they weigh the same as the luggage, guitar & mandolin in tow, and hanging out in a few different airports on multiple layovers is challenging enough. Doing the same when with additional mandated health conscious measures and increased security procedures offered more obstacles. Upon arriving at 11pm in Phnom Penh International Airport, along with the familiar suffocating humidity and overwhelming fatigue from hours of travel through who knows how many different time zones, we were greeted with long lines where customs agents waiting to see that all our required paperwork was in order. The agents wearing plastic jumpsuits, face masks, clear face shields, and latex gloves slowly thumbed through our stack of papers containing our proof of negative COVID test results, receipts for payment for the mandated quarantine hotel, and proper visas.
After that queue, we waited again in another line. This time for an uncomfortable but familiar intrusive COVID tests. One at a time fellow passengers sat in a chair where what I hoped was trained nurses shoving cotton swabs into their nostrils. Their faces contorted and they squirmed in the chair. This was a line I didn’t mind creeping along slowly.
Afterwards, eyes watering and face mask back in their place, we found ourselves in yet another line: the exit for the airport. Perhaps calling it a line is misleading. It was more like a funnel, people finding their way around others to show their paperwork to the two people at a desk checking that hotel reservations had been made. The country was mandating that all passengers quarantine in a hotel until test results came back negative. Not speaking a single syllable of English, they finally took our paperwork, confirmed our hotel reservations on the tiny, overworked laptop and sent us outside to wait for the bus.
After a long wait for more passengers to be processed on the flight just behind us, we were on our way to the hotel. Fighting fatigue, we barely noticed the emptiness of the streets at the very late hour. One more line for check-in and finally sweet, blissful sleep.
We woke the next day to a view of the river from the seventh floor of the hotel. Across the massive river were the apartments and business buildings of Phnom Penh. In a small way, we felt like we were home. The glass of the window felt cool, teasing us with a glimpse of life in the city yet forbidding us from being part of it.
The shores of the river were lined with men tossing fishing nets into the brown, muddy water. Some waded into the river to fasten the nets on long tree branches that were sticking into the mud below, creating a trap for unsuspecting fish. The rain came and went throughout the day, as did our consciousness. Still exhausted from our travels, we welcomed the idea of mandatory quarantine for a few days. We managed to stay awake long enough to eat a small meal and watch the glorious show of lights flashing along the tops of the skyscrapers across the shore.
Some buildings had flashing LED light strips giving the illusion that the buildings were moving. Their distorted mirror images danced on the ripples of the river water below. One building had an LED panel that proudly displayed the illusion of a water fall flowing from the rooftop twenty stories high.
Two days later, we were cleared with a clean bill of health from the airport COVID tests and we relocated to our second location to finish our fourteen days quarantine. The generosity of a friend provided us with a home and many comforts within. The homeowners had been traveling to visit family months prior and were unable to return home to due exit restrictions from that country.
Consequently the situation gave us a fully furnished, three story, four bedroom empty home. The street was quiet with a nice view from the top floor patio. Not to mention refuge from the daily downpours of rain that flooded the streets at least four inches deep.
By the time quarantine was over, we had a good handle on the time zone we had settled and were more or less sleeping a normal schedule. We had lost a few pounds each by simply sweating in the humidity. We had the chance to read, do Bible studies, watch online sermons, and finally finish the very disappointing conclusion of ABC’s television series, Lost.
By week three, we had work to do. And we were ready to get started. That is a story for next time….
Mike and Jeanine