When we returned to Cartagena after spending a few days on the coast in Palomino, we could immediately see that it wasn’t the place that we had left. For starters, many people were wearing face masks. And we were beginning to get the occasional glances from the locals as if to say they were perplexed as to what we were still doing there. It felt like we were walking into some kind of apocalypse utopia. Nothing made sense anymore – since when did Cartagena start worrying about Coronavirus?? – a few days ago the most pressing issue of my day had been in trying to ignore the sleazy yellow taxi drivers who overcharged and who didn’t know where they were going.
At what point did things change to such a degree where the Cartagena taxi drivers didn’t feel it necessary to beep or holla at you as you walked down the street anymore? And since when was it the norm for shops to be closed in busy and bustling Getsemani? – something wasn’t right…
The city felt strange. Like as if it was a completely different place. It was hard to believe that we’d only been away for a few days. Though Cartagena was very different in comparison to Palomino and it’s laid back beach lifestyle, this was something different. There was an energy in the air that I couldn’t place. It just FELT different to me.
And not in a good way.
We had been starting to feel at home in Cartagena. We loved the historic city with it’s maze of crumbling, colourful streets, colonial architecture and incredible salsa music floating out of restaurants, bars and cafes and we had found a way to deal with the annoying taxi drivers too: Ignore them and never use their service.
Moreover, we were still discovering new places in the city, including some great rooftops bars and restaurants, so we weren’t completely done here yet. But a different type of energy and erratic behaviour had started to emerge here in Cartagena and we were right in the thick of it.
The day after we arrived back from Palomino we went to a local cafe as usual to get some coffee, chill out, do some work etc when a table of loud Americans arrived and promptly started bellowing at their usual far too loud volume. They seemed completely unaware of the inconsiderate conversation level in which I was forced to listen to them bleat on about their entire life story and about the emerging dilemma that they (and we too) were now faced with with regards to the increasingly escalating Coronavirus situation.
Frankly, they were so annoying that I was eager to leave the cafe and go somewhere else but many of the shops, including the other cafe that we liked to frequent in the beautiful mall La Serrezuela was suddenly and mysteriously closed. There had been no note on the door to say why it was closed or for how long for but we figured that it definitely had something to do with the nightmare that was Covid 19. Alas, despite the Americans annoying antics, they began having a conversation in Span-glish with a waiter that peaked our interest: it was concerning the increasingly serious Covid 19 pandemic that had now arrived in Cartagena. According to him (and we were blatantly ear wigging at this point), ALL shops, restaurants, bars and infact everyone in Cartagena, most especially in the centre of town (where we were staying) was to quarantine themselves at home from 18:00 onwards until 4:00 am the following morning, effective immediately.
Cartagena was going to be on lockdown.
Not even the UK was on lockdown and they had waaaay more cases then Colombia. This meant that we had precisely 3 hours to get any supplies we needed including food and drinks, before we were required to be off of the streets and at home. We were strictly forbidden to come out after that time and the Colombian government was actually deploying the army and the police to enforce the lockdown, the consequences of which as a foreigner I didn’t wish to even contemplate!
After the loud Americans left the cafe, I asked the waiter in my Span-glish whether what we had overheard was true: did we really have to quarantine ourselves from 18:00 today? “Si” he replied with a very grave look on his face. Then he proceeded to elaborate on the new radical restrictions in place in Cartagena. Not only did we have to stay at home from 18:00 until 04:00 am the next day but at the weekend the city would be in 48 hour lockdown with nobody allowed to leave at all during that period.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing but I had already seen that things had changed in the city. People were taking it very seriously – probably because their health system really COULDN’T cope with an overload of cases, and especially not foreigners who had potentially brought it over there in the firstplace. The waiter was going around thoroughly disinfecting every table that was vacated and the intensity of the chemicals was beginning to tickle the back of my throat.
As I looked out of the window I saw that most people had masks on their faces (the effectiveness of which had been called into question by people in the medical profession many times but people were obviously too panicked to listen), and people had already started to look at someone suspiciously if they coughed. And for us, as Brits here travelling in Colombia, well just put it this way, we weren’t their favourite people right now as it was a European who brought it over and infected a local with it in the firstplace. But they still had only 2 cases. I was very surprised to see Colombia acting so swiftly and decisively.
The last days of freedom
Whilst they had deployed the army after having 2 cases of Coronavirus in their bustling tourist city, the UK were still allowing people to largely go about their business as normal, schools hadn’t closed and though people had been arguing over toilet roll in the shopping isles, most of the workforce was still going to work, using the public transport and generally being quite normal. But not here in Cartagena. Cartagena wasn’t joking. They had closed their borders to tourists entering and now they were implementing contagion limitation by imposing a mandatory quarantine.
I was already worried about being away from home due to the fact that my Mum was in the “vulnerable” group of people and my Grandad had recently been admitted to hospital after complaining of a persistent cough (one of the symptoms of the virus). And the worst thing was that the hospital was clearly so overwhelmed with the number of people that they were treating for Coronavirus and other existing medical problems that they had discharged my elderly, Dementia having Grandad without even testing him for the virus when they told us they did!
I was sick with worry thinking that as they had announced a few days ago, this virus was coming and we had to just ride the peak and build up “herd immunity” but I thought to myself who are these people you are sacrificing in your non-action to build up this immunity of which you speak? – because I most certainly DO NOT agree to sacrifice my Grandad to satisfy your death numbers. I’m sorry.
Aside from my Mum who had been told by myself, my brothers and sister that she wasn’t to leave the house, my Aunts and Uncles who were also in bad health were now having to step in in place of my Nan who was clearly being put at risk for having my Grandad back at the house with her where he could then potentially infect her. None of them couldn’t risk catching the virus either! I was feeling very anxious reading all of the many messages going back and fourth from my family back in the UK and abroad about my Grandad’s deteriorating health, especially after the hospital discharged him (which they SHOULD NOT have done as he was apparently being treated in isolation), and now his health seems to have taken a bit of a downturn, with my Grandad complaining of having a high temperature and his stomach hurting.
What on earth did they do to him in there? And why didn’t they do the Coronavirus test that they said they did??
I understand that the NHS are under stress but my Grandad is in the “vulnerable group” that they keep banging on about. Shouldn’t they be taking extra special care of him whilst we are approaching this “peak” that Boris has mentioned so many times? If they can’t even look after my poorly Grandad now then they are most certainly not ready for the waves and waves of patients heading their way in the coming weeks, possibly months.
It was time to go home now. The end of our travels had been definitively ruined (though not shortened thank goodness), however now we were looking at more then an unsavoury end to our epic travels, we were looking at real and very worrying concerns, namely the health and safety of our families who we were too far away from to help. It was one thing choosing to be away quite another to be trapped in a foreign country with no way of getting home, and things were changing so swiftly that that was coming more and more likely with every passing day. It was time to go home.
Once we had collected our supplies we made our way back to our apartment. I didn’t mind being quarantined really. My concern had always been the state of the “panic buying” upon our return to the UK and the general low level atmosphere that was certain to follow. I had no problem with staying at home reading, writing, talking to friends and family, cooking, watching Netflix and cuddling my cats Frankie and Sansa, no problem at all. And being here was perhaps even better as I could at least enjoy the weather, which really was pretty glorious, go to the beach, sit outside with a cocktail and listen to great music in the restaurants and cafes that were still open during the day. But the issue wasn’t that I was keen to get home because I preferred to be there, I didn’t, my concern was about what would happen if they closed the airports and I COULDN’T get back even if I wanted to, making it excruciating to not be able to be there for my family if/when I needed to be.
Thankfully we had a balcony in our apartment so we were able to sit out there and at least watch the world NOT going by. After a few hours it became abundantly clear that the Colombian people had listened to the demands of their government and kept themselves at home – the streets were completely empty apart from the occasional police car and army truck going by to enforce the ban.
Crazy times. A couple of hours later whilst we were getting the latest update from Boris’ daily address on BBC about the pandemic, our power suddenly cut off. This wasn’t too unusual as Colombia had the occasional powercut but it generally only lasted for a couple of minutes, alas after 10 minutes of no lights, phones, TV or even the coffee machine and with the strict instructions from the authorities to stay inside, we NEEDED to have this situation resolved.
We went outside on our balcony and we could clearly see that this outage was only in our building as other buildings had their lights on. But as we sat there waiting for the power to go back on again a disconcerting feeling came over me as I could see that there was literally nobody on the streets. Not even on their balcony’s. It was deadly quiet, with no sounds at all apart from the occasional police car and ambulance going by. We decided after 15-20 minutes of waiting that we would go downstairs to the concierge and ask him when the power was likely to be back up and running again. He told us around an hour but as we went back upstairs to our apartment to await the power returning Josh announced with a panicked expression on his face that he couldn’t find the keys to our apartment.
Never, not in 6 months of travel had he ever misplaced or left his keys at home. He’d never even done it in the UK. But true enough, after a frantic search of his trouser pockets he announced that he did not have them. They were in our apartment!
Now we are in a situation that was already pretty unique in it’s utter awfulness, but we have an additional mounting disaster. I tried not to panic as in my mind I reasoned that the concierge downstairs MUST surely have a spare key to our apartment or a master keys to get entry into any apartment in the building but when we explained our situation to him he told us that he didn’t have a spare key, and furthermore he then reiterated the fact that we were unable to leave the building because of the lockdown situation that was now in effect. We told him we knew about the lockdown but currently we couldn’t get into our apartment!
After a period of expressing our utter horror once we fully realised the impact of the situation, Josh spurred into life trying to get hold of the manager for the apartment who he hoped would have a spare key. The batteries on both of our phones were low, we were getting hungry, we didn’t have our passports on us should we need them and our language skills were limited, but thankfully after spending some time trying to get hold of him, finally we managed to and communicated our dilemma to him. His English was limited but he understood after some explaining that we were unable to get into the apartment, we didn’t have wifi because the power was down in the building and the city was currently on lockdown and we were told that we couldn’t leave the apartment. He reiterated what we just told him about the city being on lockdown by the military and police and asked us if the concierge had a car and could drop us to him to collect the keys? – what a ridiculous thing to suggest! The concierge had barely been useful when we asked him when the power would be back up and running let alone asking him to leave his work post to drive some British tourists through a lockdown zone where we were very likely to be stopped by the authorities asking us where we thought we were going to collect a set of keys! I don’t think so somehow.
Even though we couldn’t physically get to him it was a relief at least to find out that he actually HAD a key, otherwise another option that Josh had been seriously considering was busting the door in! If we didn’t get the key from this guy tonight during the lockdown it would mean that we would have to wait until 04:00 am the following morning before venturing outside the apartment. This would mean that we would be unable to eat, drink or go to the toilet until we returned home and we would have no choice but to sleep in the wholly uninspiring reception until we were allowed to leave but the batteries on our phones would definitely be dead by then. No thanks.
After some pondering we finally made the decision to take our chances and leave the comfort of our apartment building and go and get the keys from this guy. The concierge was of no help whatsoever so we were essentially on our own. We looked outside to see if maybe we could get one of these low level scam artist Cartagena taxi drivers but for the first time since we’d stepped foot in this city they were nowhere to be seen and nowhere to be heard! The streets were completely deserted. With nobody allowed out of their houses the taxi drivers were more then probably taking the night off.
We were in a bit of a pickle. With no taxi’s we were looking at walking, and when we looked at the map to see where the guys house was we could see that it was right in the middle of the centre of Cartagena: the place we were expressly forbidden. Undoubtedly if there was going to be any area that was locked down by armed police denying entrance it was the entrance to the walled city: exactly where we needed to go!
We downloaded a local taxi app and tried to call a taxi (which required you to bid on a driver) but it wouldn’t work. The app said that it was trying to find a driver but no drivers picked up the job (funnily enough).
We really didn’t know what to do, we were out of options and my anxiety was steadily rising faced with this completely crazy and out of the ordinary situation that we were experiencing in this foreign country. We couldn’t walk there as weren’t allowed on the street and I didn’t know whether they would just fine us on the spot if they saw us or lock us up! We couldn’t get a taxi as there was nobody on the streets and this guy couldn’t bring the keys to us as he wasn’t allowed out either.
What on earth were we to do?!
Finally after some time waiting with no idea which decision to make for the best we saw a Colombian traveller laden with luggage rushing off to jump into a taxi outside to go to the airport so Josh stopped her and asked her if she wouldn’t mind if her taxi took a short diversion and dropped us off at the entrance to the walled city so that we could go and collect the keys to our apartment?
Thankfully she was very nice, could speak English well and allowed us to jump in the taxi with her. Then when we arrived at the entrance where as expected there were police and army officers carrying guns barring entry to all people, she jumped out, explained our situation to them and asked them if they could let us in and they did. We thanked her profusely, gave her some money towards her taxi and ran down the dark and eerily empty streets towards this mans house as the authorities had given us only 5 minutes to be in and out! Goodness only knows what would happen to us after that time.
My heart was beating loudly in my mouth. I was terrified that if we came across anymore officers we wouldn’t be able to explain to them our reasons for breaching the curfew. Anything could happen to us. I was also furiously angry, not at Josh as I knew that he didn’t do it on purpose, but I was angry at the situation we had found ourselves in. One that was already unique in it’s severity and it’s swiftness of implementation and I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen now, tonight, tomorrow or the day after with this rapidly escalating global pandemic. And the consequences for me, Josh and our friends and family. For the world!
Though we had come to the end of our travels anyway, I could have never imagined in a million years that something this devastating would happen to change our world so completely. As of that moment not only didn’t I know whether or not I was going to be promptly locked up by Colombian police, but I didn’t even know whether we would be able to get on the flight/s that were due to take us home as everything was changing so dramatically from day to day, with flights being cancelled left, right and centre and countries imposing border closures preventing people from coming in or leaving. I felt as if I was in some kind of computer simulation and none of it was really real. Back in the UK, people were continuing to panic buy, and boxing each other other the head with the last toilet roll. Did I really want to go back into that? – I wasn’t so sure.
And here, things were changing too. There was nobody on the street! Nobody. Just Josh and I running down the dark empty streets, our holiday flip flops echoing against the stone walls. It was insane, utterly insane. I was imagining at any moment the sirens that I heard wailing in the city were making their way to us to find out why 2 Brits were on the run in their city like thiefs in the night!
The horror of the situation was beginning to take it’s toll on me. I was exhausted from thinking of how to get around this particular dilemma and prepared for the Colombian police to take shots at me from above. I saw faces of shocked locals through their windows peeking out, wondering what on earth we were doing running through their streets in a lockdown. I understood their horror. I too was horrified and felt sick to my stomach when considering the consequences of what would happen to us should we get caught. I daren’t even consider the return journey!
Eventually, we made it to the mans house in one piece. Thankfully he was in and we were able to pick up the keys without being picked up by the police. We returned the way we came, showed the police the keys that we had collected and slunk off down the darkened streets of this deserted silent city to return home.
On our way home it was even more scary as we had nowhere to hide. We saw police patrolling the streets, their sirens bleating out a warning to people even THINKING about venturing outside: us. Thankfully we made it home to home sweet quarantine.