Amy’s 50th birthday was meant to be a trip of a lifetime. For two people in the restaurant business, taking a month off to travel is generally out of the question. Amy is a partner and hands on operator of three busy restaurants in California and I am a director responsible for 10 restaurants at SFO. However, with blessings from our bosses and partners, we begin planning our sabbatical.
We wanted to do something off the beaten path. I had ideas of being wrapped up in beautiful sunsets in white flowy clothes, but Amy had other plans; it was her big birthday after all. So, it was decided: a 12-day trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal, then on to Bali to relax at the Four Seasons for a week, and then Thailand for eight days. It was late February and we had spent 8 months meticulously planning this trip that was now just a few days away. We had trained for the hike; I figured, “how hard could it be?” After all, we would only be walking six-to-eight hours a day and stopping for lunch along the way while gazing at the Himalayas. I knew I had Bali and Thailand to look forward to at the end anyway.
It’s now February 15, 2020, and there are some reports on the news of a strange virus from Wuhan. But we aren’t nervous. I’m sure it will get figured out before we leave on February 29. We begin packing and preparing our teams for our extended departure.
As the day grows closer, we are getting more concerned about the coronavirus we keep hearing about that’s gaining traction globally. But we have planned this trip for months (saving up for over a year) and paid for much of it already, so we’re committed. On February 28, we pack up the car and begin the six hour drive to my parent’s house in Los Angeles. There, we’d drop off our dog and catch a flight from LAX to Doha, Qatar, and then to Kathmandu, Nepal. After being on the road for an hour we realize we left one of the hiking backpacks — with much of the essentials — at home. We turn around and drive back home, convincing ourselves that this isn’t a bad omen.
Departure take two: we successfully arrive and my parents drop us at the airport. We say our goodbyes, splurge on a business class upgrade for the 16-hour plane ride to Doha, and are off without a second thought.
In Kathmandu our tour operator sets up our hotel and a meet and greet with our guide for the trek. We are so far from home and surrounded by such a different culture: it truly takes our breath away. We spend a day seeing the sights and preparing ourselves to embark on our trek early the next day. We wake up at 5 a.m., greet our driver, get a cup of coffee and board a tiny plane to take us to Lukla “airport.” I put that in quotations because it is a 1,700-foot landing strip built into a mountain – widely considered as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Every day of this trip is a test of my boundaries of fear, my relationship with Amy, and our ability to problem solve as a team.
We begin the trek from Lukla airport at 9,000 feet on March 2 and it is so much harder and so much more rewarding than anyone could ever explain. It is simply magical and such an extremely different way of life — I consider it one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We are so cold every night. No heat, no hot water, no showers and often no plumbing at all. But even with the challenges, and at times, pain, we laugh harder than we ever have with each other. Dirty, tired, cold, worried about the state of the world, we are, at least physically, completely removed from it all and more connected to each other than ever.
Every day there are more and more mountains to climb and altitude sickness starts to rear its ugly head. We make it to Base Camp at 17,500 feet. I just about collapse when we arrive, so when Amy decides to do a side hike over 18,500 feet “for fun,” I stay back and attempt to recover. The next day a helicopter retrieves us and takes us back to Lukla so we can take our little plane back to Kathmandu. A shower has never sounded better.
Travel Restrictions Begin
We arrive back in the land of cell service on March 14 and confront a world that has taken a turn for the worse. Trekking season typically opens on March 1, but was shut down on March 5 due to the virus. Thankfully we’re able to get a flight out of Lukla — did I mention it’s a tiny town in the middle of the Himalayas that’s only accessible by airplane or a three-day walkout? Later, we learn that folks who started their treks within a few days of ours were not as fortunate and ended up stuck for as long as a few weeks because planes were grounded and the borders were beginning to close.
It is now March 15 and we are back in Kathmandu. We have two days until our flight to Bali. Things are getting worse and we see that Nepal is closing their border, effective immediately. It’s around 6 p.m. and we call to see if we can get an earlier flight. Our upcoming flight has already been delayed but our agent tells us she has two seats on a flight to Bali leaving in two hours. (Let’s be honest, if you have to get stuck somewhere, Bali isn’t the worst place.) We take it and do a mad dash to pack everything, get to the airport and hop on a red eye with a two hour layover in Malaysia.
Miraculously, we make the flight. Upon landing in Malaysia, Amy, who is exhausted, falls asleep in a lounge we have access to. My phone battery is at 5 percent and, in desperate need of coffee, I leave her and go roam the airport. I hop in an elevator with a woman and her baby and as it’s going down, it suddenly stops and shuts down. We are stuck, my battery is dying, Amy is asleep and our flight is leaving in 40 minutes. The call button is nonoperational and 10 minutes pass before we can get out — the adventure never ends.
We make it to Bali in one piece and check into the Four Seasons in Ubud. It is incredible. At this juncture we decide to finish our Bali tour, cancel Thailand and return home in a week or so. We spend time in Ubud then move to the Four Seasons in Jimbaran Bay, where we call to change our flight reservation. The date is March 19. I purchased our original flight home from Bangkok using Alaska Airlines miles, business class. The airline was an absolute hero during this time. Since they work with Emirates and many other international carriers, you can use your miles all over the world. They rebooked us with no fee from Bali to LAX, but the flight was a few days away and our time at Four Seasons was up.
We decide to move to Canguu Bay and enjoy Bali while we wait for the flight, which is cancelled the next day. The virus is spreading quickly and almost all borders are closed. We start getting nervous. At this time, it is impossible to get through to any airlines and wait times are traitorous — except for Alaska. Through this whole ordeal, we have gotten through to them within 20 minutes every time we called. They tell us they will help find a way home, but there are not many flights leaving from Bali. The agent says she can book us one for tomorrow, March 22, in the evening. We take it and begin counting the hours and praying it will not be cancelled.
The travel advisory rises to Level 4, which is usually for travel to extremely dangerous countries, and recommends all travelers return to the U.S. immediately. I begin to feel that we need to get out of Bali. Maybe we could get a one-way ticket to somewhere like Bangkok, a bigger hub, where there would be more flights? But I tell myself we have a ticket home, we are good to go.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, Amy quietly wakes me up whispering, “Babe, our flights were cancelled.” I spring up out of bed in a rush. That’s it, I decide to buy us one-way tickets to Bangkok and call Alaska to see if they can get us a flight. I go out at 4:30 a.m. and try to use the hotel phone as my cell does not work, but the desk clerk is resistant as it is a long-distance call. In the end, I get my way. The date is March 22. I find a one-way to Bangkok at 4 p.m. that lands at 8 p.m. Then, after 45 minutes on the phone with Alaska, they book us on a flight with Emirates from Bangkok to Dubai to LAX that leaves Bangkok at 3 a.m. We figure it’s perfect — spend seven hours in the Bangkok airport and then continue our journey home. The only looming concern is that if our flight from Bangkok gets cancelled, no other airport would allow us to leave due to closed borders. We would be stuck in the airport until we could get on a flight. And the airports were nothing but mass hysteria.
We had a plan. We rolled the dice and prepared to head to Bali Denpasar airport for our 4 p.m. flight to Bangkok. We arrive about two and a half hours early feeling good. So far, no flights are cancelled. There’s a 40-hour journey ahead of us to get home, but somehow, we are optimistic. We have to be.
We walk into the airport after paying 200,000 rupees, about $15, for a one-hour drive. The airport is packed. We get in the big long line for our flight on Thai Airways. After waiting for 15 minutes or so, I decide to go see what it looks like up at the check-in counter. Everyone is holding these sheets of paper that the Thai Airways officials are handing out. I grab one to see what it is. On the paper it clearly states that you will not be able to check in for this flight or get on it without a letter from a local doctor declaring you “fit to fly” as well as proof of health insurance up to $100,000. It feels like a punch to the gut.
This whole trip has pushed my limits and I have been so grateful for it, but this is a breaking point. I ask the officials if this policy is accurate, telling them that I was unaware of this — there had been no communication about these requirements previously. He makes it clear: they are not letting anyone through without these documents. No exceptions. I feel the world fade away in the midst of all the chaos and people. There are families crying, people yelling in different languages, people giving up and leaving. I begin to feel the heat of tears welling up in my eyes. I walk in a circle holding my head for a minute trying to snap out of my fear and anxiety in all this uncertainty. I don’t want to walk back to Amy without some sense of composure. I feel sorry for myself for a moment and then take a deep breath. Walking up to Amy, I tell her we need to get all our bags and go to a hospital now. I had already Googled one that is 15 minutes away. At this point, our flight leaves in an hour and a half. Amy, in all her glory, believes in me right away and says, “Let’s go.” We run to the taxi area with all our baggage.
The taxi driver tells us it will be 300,000 rupees to get to the closest hospital and Amy loses it, “How dare you try to rip us off!” I can’t think of anything less important than the price of this taxi so I say, “How about 400,000, but you have to wait there for us and bring us back and you have to drive fast.” He agrees and off we go. Fast.
We arrive at the hospital, trusting the driver with all our bags in his car and run in. The hospital is located inside a mall, which is already weird. Out of breath, we run up to the counter and tell them what we need. They understand, but say we must wait our turn, gesturing to the other 30 people waiting. I tell the guy that our flight is in an hour and 15 minutes and if we miss it we have no other way home. I then offer him money. He leaves and then comes back with the ER doctor who takes us to the back and gives us what feels like the longest, slowest-moving physical ever. We spend 25-30 minutes there and run out to find our taxi driver waiting diligently, ready to drive. Fast.
We arrive back at the airport and show our information. They allow us through, but not before proving that we have a flight leaving Bangkok as well — to ensure that we weren’t trying to sneak into the city while the borders are closed to tourists due to the virus. We finally get our tickets and are rushing to clear immigration when a woman holding a sign for our flight asks if we are on this flight. We say yes and she simply and politely tells us to do one thing. Run. We run about a half a mile through Duty Free and are the last people on the plane before they shut the doors. Relief is not the only emotion we are feeling.
We arrive in Bangkok and anxiously wait seven hours for our flight to Dubai, praying it will not be cancelled. We are able to board. Six hours later, we arrive in Dubai. We see that our next flight is still operating. Great news. We grab a glass of wine, making good use of our one-hour layover, and board the double decker Emirates plane to LAX. A flight attendant welcomes us with champagne as we sit in our pods up front, offering his congratulations. We ask, “For what?” He says he just received an email from corporate and that this is the last Emirates flight to the United States. They are grounding every flight after this one. Amy and I look at each other, say cheers, and drink. Now for our 16-hour flight home. We back out of the gate and know in this moment that it is official. We are going home. But then, our moment of relief is interrupted. The plane stops and pulls back into the gate. The captain gets on the intercom to inform us that we do not have enough flight attendants on this large plane and if they cannot find two more attendants to work the flight, we wouldn’t be able to depart. We wait for an hour in silence. No word from the crew or the pilots. Suddenly, they open the front door and let these two wonderful flight attendants in. And just like that we are airborne and on our way home.
This experience taught me many things. Among the highlights: I love my partner for everything she is and cooler heads do prevail. We often reminisce about the trip together in disbelief of everything we went through trying to get home. How even in the most stressful scenarios we were able to laugh. This week, nearly five months later, the travel ban has finally lifted. Traveling and trying to get home during the beginning stages of Covid-19, while borders were shutting down all over the world, is one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. I am grateful to have had it and to have learned so much about myself and my relationship. When we landed, I had a greater appreciation for the United States than ever before. I had never been happier to be home and see my dad waiting for us at the curb. The date was March 24, 2020.
How to Help
Cassie Corless and Amy Svendberg are both in the restaurant business, and they have each been behind the helm at many Marin restaurants, such as Poggio Trattoria, Copita Tequileria y Comida, and others across the Bay Area. Support local restaurants like theirs by eating out or ordering delivery.
Adventure Himalayan Travels and Treks
The couple has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help support the Nepalese guides and porters whose income has been decimated by the effect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the travel industry. Click here to help support them.