Beating a Hasty Retreat from the USA in a Private 737 Airliner
Story and photos by Norm Bour

What happens when everyone is told to "shelter at home," but you are nomad without a home? Maybe you pick a spot and get a jet plane all to yourself.

Escaping covid travel story

Leaving the United States as a refugee from the Coronavirus was not part of the plan. But as the damage and deaths grew along with the number of cases and deaths, it was unavoidable. You see, as a full-time traveling nomad, I had no home. No residence at all. When the doctors and politicians said, "Stay at home," that was not an option.

I left the United States in February 2019 and for 13 months traveled through 22 countries. I would have continued but for a wedding in the USA in March of this year. Our arrival on New Year's Day in Singapore and our tenure in Southeast Asia, where the virus started as a mere curiosity, was intentionally limited to 60 days so we could get "home" for the event. With every country we visited in Asia, starting from Thailand, then Vietnam, then Cambodia, and finally departing from Singapore, the noose of travel restrictions kept tightening.

We left Vietnam just a week before they severely cut back air travel, and getting our flight from Singapore to the US—with a layover in Taiwan—made the trip even more tenuous. We had visions of arriving in Los Angeles and being greeted by medical workers in HazMat suits and squired away into quarantine.

Empty airport

Fortunately, that was a worry that never materialized and instead we breezed through LAX with nary a question asked, no thermal temperature readings, and minimal inconvenience. One more step down with a few more to go.

We spent about 10 days in Southern California, where I previously lived, then flew to Columbus, Ohio where we planned to stay for a few days. Then we would drive to Pine Island, North Carolina for the wedding. Just days before that happened the island sequestered itself to residents only, so that trip was canceled. Instead the wedding was held a few days earlier in Columbus and our plan to take a short two-week jaunt to Cancun, Mexico and stay with some friends was in jeopardy.

The virus raged on and new restrictions popped up each day. Borders in Italy and Spain were the first to close after China, and in rapid succession, one after another country fell, like dominos. Our April 7 flight to Cancun was beginning to look like an unfillable mission and amongst cries of #StayHome we wondered, "Where is home?"

Choosing Where to Get Stuck

Staying in Ohio with relatives was not a viable option due to too many people in a small house, plus 30-degree Fahrenheit temperatures in March were already getting old fast. With Mission Impossible music playing in my head, I decided that we would cancel our April 7 flight instead and advance the Cancun trip to ASAP.

Then during the week of March 16 President Trump did the unthinkable: he shut down the border with Mexico. The same treatment of the Canadian border caused me no concerns, but it looked like getting to Mexico might not be an option.

With full commitment in my head, I found a direct flight from Columbus, Ohio to Cancun rather than risk any stops. After reading everything I could find about what "closing the borders" meant, I concluded that the physical Mexican border closure between California and Texas was a given, and since that border was significant I understood the focus.

But what about airport borders? Could flights go into Mexico City—or Cancun—from the US?

I decided to test the system and see if I got stopped. At the Delta Airlines site I was able to book a flight, but not check in since it was international. The so-called borders were scheduled to close "at midnight," so the night before my flight I was a jumble of anxiety. Not getting out was not an option. This caused a sleepless night, which didn't matter since I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning for a 7:30 flight.

Doubly Nervous at the Airport

I arrived at Columbus Airport and was greeted cheerfully at the Delta desk and given our boarding passes. Alright! At the noticeably quiet security screening I was whisked through there as well with a "thank you" and a smile from some very bored TSA agents who seemed thankful to have a job.

That 800-pound gorilla was now released from my burdened shoulders so off I went to the gate and wondered if I would have a problem getting into Mexico! There are movies about travelers being stranded between the point of departure and the point of entry and my concern was not entirely gone.

At the very quiet gate, one of the Delta airlines agents, Celia, came over to tell us that we were the only passengers on the plane and we could sit wherever we damn well pleased.

Empty airport gate

From multiple days of anxiety, to catching a three-hour flight sitting in First Class on a 737 to Cancun, Mexico, this was a nice turn of events and I was giddy with joy.

We had our own flight attendant, Benjamin, who catered to us like royalty and offered us breakfast, champagne and anything we needed since we were the (only) guests of honor. With many hundreds of flights behind me I have never wanted a flight to last longer.

Eventually we did land, had no one blocking the aisles pulling luggage from bins, and were whisked into the terminal like celebrities. There were no paparazzi there, nor were there many people in general. The airport was a ghost town.

A Very Long Vacation in Mexico

At immigration we got no third degree, ditto at customs. They asked how long we would remain (we can stay for six months) and I said 90 days since I truly had no idea how long our excommunication status would remain.

Everyone still pondered so many questions bouncing around in their heads. Will the virus get worse? Will all airline traffic truly be halted? Can we return to the USA within the next few months?

All unknowns, but the story does have a (somewhat) happy continuation since we are in warmer temps just a few miles from the ocean. Our lodging and food are affordable compared to the United States, so for now I am in limbo, a man without a home in a different country.

We settled in the town of Puerto Morelos, a small village 30 minutes south of Cancun. It usually survives on its fishing and tourism industry. But the tourists are gone and, like dominos falling, restaurants have closed down, along with other businesses. The hordes of taxis sit at the stands with bored drivers awaiting their next fare, which may not be coming.

Empty restaurants in Mexico

The attitude of the locals and Mexico in general has been laissez-faire and they—now we—may pay the price. As the virus spread in Mexico, the President shook hands in public and large events continued. The large expat community in this area has been urged to return to Canada, the most prevalent home for them. Some are critical of our arrival and feel threatened, while others embrace our courage.

As a traveler and travel writer, even in my wildest dreams I could not have predicted such a future (now current) scenario. There is no question the world will change when this crisis passes, but I think the threat of viral illness may be with us permanently. Will it impact travel, schooling, leisure shopping, and eating? Where does it stop?

Since this is as safe a place as any, and we have the good fortune to have a spectacular ocean with warm air and water temperatures, this will remain our home for now. We have secured a place to stay for less money than any place we have stayed among those 22 countries we visited, and now is the time to avoid crowds, eat well, exercise, and stay healthy.

Maybe our online world will become the only world in the not-too-distant future. Maybe the Millennials who live virtually have the right idea. The gauntlet is in their hands anyway so their vision may be everyone's vision.

Empty beach in Mexico

A Current Epilogue

escape route

Most good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but the COVID-19 crisis may truly be our real-life version of the Never-Ending Story. My tale above was written the beginning of April, just as the world was going into forced and voluntary confinement. Since then we have become accustomed to closed restaurants and businesses, food via pick-up or delivery only, face masks, hand sanitizer, airlines and airplanes sitting stagnant, and the world of travel grinding to a halt.

The past few months have been eye-opening and will profoundly change whatever version of normal we were used to. And the problem is, no one can confidently say if and when it will ever end.

The Summer of 2020 is now blossoming and with it comes international borders reopening and the easing of restrictions. Bored and restless shut-ins are flooding to the beaches and outdoors, and even concerts are starting anew in some places. Many people are throwing caution to the wind and going without facemasks, potentially endangering everyone around them.

Will the natural inclination for freedom of movement and the enjoyment of life bring about a new surge of trouble? That story is yet to unfold, but everyone will be watching.

Norm Bour left the USA permanently in February 2019 at the age of 64. His goal was to travel the world six weeks at a time, which he did, and wrote a book about his experiences. Over 14 months he visited 23 countries along with taking 36 plane trips. Norm was motivated by the Millennial generation who make travel look so easy, so he teaches fellow Boomers how to "travel like a Millennial." You can follow his journey at along with his Facebook blog by the same name.

Related Features:
Locked Out of Canada - Gillian Kendall
Sasabe and El Paso Border Towns: History, Street Art, and Tolerance - Sherry Shahan
Trapped beneath the Volcanic Ash Cloud - Rachel Dickinson
Notes from a Revolution in Egypt - Jessica Lee

See other USA travel stories from the archives

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© Perceptive Travel 2020. All rights reserved.

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Traveling the World Six Weeks at a Time, Volume I: How the Baby Boomer Generation can Travel Like the Millennials!

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