Notes from the Road: The 5,000-Mile Journey Home During a Crisis

B&R Guide, João Carvalho, reflects on the ever-changing route he and his partner, Alison, took from Nepal back home to Portugal during a global crisis. 

It was February 23, 2020, when my partner, Alison, and I departed for Nepal. We were prepared for three weeks of intense hiking on the Three Passes Trek and a break from the modern world. We made a conscious decision to turn off our cell phones and keep our focus on the journey ahead.

Before we left Lisbon, news about COVID-19 was slowly making its way to Europe. Italy was starting to see a rise in cases, but at the time, the number of cases in Portugal was low. We hesitated whether we should carry on with our plans. Our logic was that the remote corners of the Himalayas were some of the safest places we could be; we couldn’t have predicted the impact the situation would have on international travel.

Our trip went according to plan for the first weeks as we ventured along remote, snow-covered trails and craggy cliffsides deep in the mountains. As avid hikers, we didn’t hire a guide, so we didn’t have constant updates on the events that were unfolding. We would cross paths with fellow mountaineers and strike up conversations in our lodges with travellers who would mention what they had heard in the news. However, there were no cases in Nepal and no lockdown measures under effect.

Then on March 18, right around the time that our travels were due to wrap up, the global situation accelerated at warp speed. The Portuguese government announced that all citizens abroad needed to return home, so we scrambled to put together a plan to depart as quickly as possible. Little did we know at the time that our ‘quick plan’ to go straight back to Lisbon would turn into a month-long journey.

Taking off from Lukla

Since we were in the mountains, with no possibility for vehicle access, we hiked to the closest airport, Lukla, tucked away in the mountain range (it also just so happens to be the most dangerous airport in the world!). From there, we caught a flight to the capital, Kathmandu, and booked a ticket home for that day.

All was going well up until this point. We checked our bags, went to our gate, and got in line for boarding. Then, someone working at the desk called out “Who’s going to Lisbon?”

I reluctantly raised my hand, feeling that we were probably going to be told some unfortunate news. They motioned us to follow them, removed our bags from the plane, and advised us that due to uncertainty surrounding the Portuguese border, they couldn’t allow us on the flight.

We managed to book a new flight for a few days later, and figured we could use the time to explore a bit more of Nepal. So we headed to Pokhara, the country’s second-largest city seated beside a fresh-water lake.

Two days into our visit to Pokhara, Nepal swiftly announced a lockdown. At this point, there still weren’t any known cases in the country, but they were quick to restrict all movement, keeping us stuck in the city. We couldn’t return to Kathmandu for our flight (though it had been cancelled anyway—Nepal had grounded all its planes), so we hunkered down in our hotel. With the exception of a few permitted walks around the neighbourhood, we were mostly waiting around for an update. We were happy to be safe and healthy, but the murmurs from our fellow travellers and the mounting tensions heightened our anxiety. We had no clue when we would be able to leave.

Fast forward a week later, Alison, who is from the United States, received a call to the hotel from the American embassy, informing her that they were organizing busses to Kathmandu for flights out of the country. We seized the opportunity and got on the next bus to the capital with the hope that we could book a new flight to get us back home to Europe.

We knew that flights to Europe were happening; there had already been emergency government flights to bring citizens back to France as well as Germany. But Portugal is small and, at the time, there were only 13 Portuguese citizens in the country, so not enough for the government to intervene. We settled back into life in a hotel room, this time in Kathmandu, and waited again for news regarding a flight back to Europe. Over a week later, we secured spots on a flight heading to Germany, departing on April 8.

Meeting people on the trail

Upon arrival in Munich, we faced yet another roadblock; all flights between Munich and Lisbon had all been cancelled. It was Easter weekend, which is a hugely important holiday in Portugal. Many people move about to visit friends and family in other parts of the country, so the government decided to completely close the border and lockdown cities for five days. Since our flight into Germany was a rescue flight, we weren’t allowed to stay in Munich, either. We had to go back to the drawing board to draft a new plan.

I contacted a friend living in Utrecht, and he offered to host us if we could make it there. Miraculously, we were able to board a train in Munich to take us to the Netherlands. I had heard stories from fellow Portuguese travellers that they couldn’t make it out of the airport until their flight home, so I considered it a stroke of luck.

We spent a few days in Utrecht with my friend, catching up and regaling stories from our travels. Finally, on April 14, we headed to Amsterdam and boarded our flight home. (For some final drama, at the border, we ran into another hiccup with Alison’s now-expired EU residency card which was, thankfully, quickly resolved). 

Taking in the view

Back home in Lisbon, I find myself reflecting on our journey. I’m an avid traveller, and as a guide, I know how to tend to issues on the fly. But when derailed plans surface during a global pandemic, it adds another layer of challenges to overcome.

While there were stressful situations, I can’t help but think about our initial reason for taking this trek: to be present. And in the end, this concept of presence—taking each day moment by moment in a quickly shifting environment—is what allowed us to get through the difficult times and embrace them as a part of the experience.

And in the end, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Though we took many winding paths, they all lead me to something I likely wouldn’t have done otherwise, like catching up with a friend in the Netherlands, spending more time enjoying Nepal, and making deep connections with people during a time of immense vulnerability.

We can do our best to make sure everything goes according to schedule. But sometimes, life has its own plan, taking you in a new direction entirely and on a trip you couldn’t have imagined. To me, that’s the beauty of travel. This experience hasn’t deterred how I feel about exploring the world, rather it’s made me look even more forward to the day we can all get back on the road for more adventures.

The Slow Road

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