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Coronavirus strands Minnesota tourists in paradise

Sarah Lempa

Sarah Lempa

Minneapolitan Brent Timm is a vlogger on a mission to eat food from all 195 nations of the world.

Two months ago he arrived in the tropical island of San Pedro, Belize, slipped on a wet dock, and pulled his back. By the time he was healed and ready to move on, the coronavirus had reached Central America.

Borders and businesses started closing. A Belizean citizen who’d flown to Los Angeles and back was confirmed to have COVID-19. San Pedro went into lockdown. The international airport is out of commission until May 4.

Timm’s now living out of a near-empty hostel with three other people, all Americans and Canadians. He swims, does yoga, shops for groceries. 

Photo courtesy of Brent Timm

Every day, he talks to his younger brother, a teacher in South Korea, and his father, a widower in Minnesota. They compare notes. What his brother's country was going through a month ago is what his father’s is facing now. Meanwhile, a semblance of society has reemerged in South Korea.

The U.S. estimates there are 50,000 Americans stranded abroad as nations suspend commercial flights. The State Department can’t repatriate all, and is consulting the Department of Defense to arrange military flights for those in harm’s way.

“I’m just trying to hunker down,” Timm says. “As someone who’s in relatively good health, I feel like it would be unfair and a little immoral to use up U.S. resources when there are people who actually have preexisting medical conditions, or people in ill health who need to get home a lot quicker than me.”

Besides, as a nomad, he has no home of his own. If he had to pass through multiple airports to get stateside, he couldn’t stay with his 68-year-old father.

As he waits out the virus, Timm’s making Instagram stories and YouTube videos, watching Netflix, and checking up on friends. “Just trying to hold on to whatever communal thread we have.”

Photo courtesy of Brent Timm

Sarah Lempa, a freelance travel writer who recently graduated from the University of Minnesota, has been working out of Bali, Indonesia since February. A month later, more than 100 people have died of coronavirus in the southeast Asian country. Capital city Jakarta, where 30 million people live, may go into quarantine this week.

As commercial flights dwindle around the world, the risk that Lempa could get stuck at some leg of the long journey back to Minnesota is high. There’s nothing to do but stay put and wait. Lempa contacted the U.S. Embassy for help forming a backup plan in case the situation in Indonesia worsens, but hasn’t heard back.

Her days now consist of frequent calls home, cooking obscene amounts of chili, sunbathing, and trying to be productive. The first things she’ll do when she returns to America: hug her family, get her motorcycle out of storage, and eat Mexican food.

Photo courtesy of Louis Lander Deacon

“It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least. Sometimes I feel calm and optimistic. Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna explode.”

Tourism comprises up to 80 percent of Bali’s economy. Now that vacationers are gone, an eerie silence canvasses every street.

“Times are undeniably tough here and you can feel a certain strangeness in the air, but Bali is still smiling even amid the chaos,” Lempa says. “Between the longstanding expat community and the kindness of the locals in Bali, I feel hopeful that we can press on together. It won’t be easy, but right now, I’m grateful to be here.”

Photo courtesy of Nicole Gomtomski

Nicole Gomtomski was on a solo journey around the world when the virus caught up to her in Queenstown, New Zealand. Her hostel shut down for two months. She’s now renting a house with 11 other marooned travelers from the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Australia.

Gomtomski is asthmatic and has had colds that turned into pneumonia before. Given she’d likely be hospitalized if she came down with COVID-19, she booked a ticket home when cases started to spread. But viral transmission was so aggressive, and demand for flights so high, that the earliest time she could depart was a week away.

Soon after, the prime minister announced a strict four-week lockdown. Domestic flights were canceled. So was the ferry connecting New Zealand’s southern island, where Gomtomski is, to its northern landmass and the international airport. She’s officially trapped in a ghost town.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Gomtomski

Grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations are pretty much the only things open. Food producers and processors—including New Zealand’s critical wine grape vineyards—are also deemed essential services. Some of Gomtomski’s housemates have gotten jobs picking fruit. Everyone washes their hands and cleans incessantly, she says. Some have family and friends who’ve been hit hard back home.

As she adapts to a bizarre new normal, Gomtomski passes a lot of time in nature. Queenstown sits alongside a lake in a valley surrounded by dramatic mountain views. She reminds herself that as the world goes into isolation, the distance between her and her family is as great as anyone’s.

“Even if I were back home, I’d be self-isolating in Minneapolis like everyone else is. I wouldn’t be able to get in contact with them anyway,” she says. “The only communication I’d be able to have with them is the same thing we’re doing now, no matter if we’re halfway across the world, or in the same city.”