03.19.2020 - 03.29.2020
Alas, it was not to be. We did our overnight trip over to Koh Samui to visit the immigration office and try to work things out but it was a non-starter so I am writing this from half-way around the world in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.
But more on that in a minute. First, before we left Samui, Scott indulged me in a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary.
So much of our Asia bucket list remains empty but this was one item we could check off and we did. Along with an amazing "last meal" at Boudoir, an sanctuary of French Food on Samui.
SAMUI ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
Thailand has a long history of using elephants as beasts of burden. I am always torn in these situations, whether it's the horses in Nicaragua or the donkeys in Morocco or Thailand's elephants, between the urge to apply Western standards and the need to understand local norms, traditions, and needs. In any case, it was nice to see that some of the ideas about animal abuse we regard as second-nature are taking root. This sanctuary rescues elephants from work and exploitation and gives them health care and a home. To pay for it, they let tourists come and interact with them. Koh Samui's sanctuary is very new and small compared to those in Chiang Mai and elsewhere so they only have four elephants right now but it was a special treat to get up close and personal with them.
We first said "hi".
Then we made them food balls of potatoes, bananas, and a bunch of other stuff.
We got to feed them - you have to put them right up in their mouth! They have HUGE tongues!
Then we fed them some small bananas and cucumbers. It was hysterical. You put them in their trunks one at a time and they fire them into their mouth and are back for more in seconds. Check out this video of Scott doing the feeding.
After feeding, the real fun begins! Playing in the mud with them, washing them off, and then going swimming with them. Here's a video of me playing in the mud!
And some pics of the pool.
It was an awesome experience and so glad we took a few hours to do it!
LEAVING KOH TAO
But back to the decision to leave. As we sat on our deck looking out at the water each morning, reading about the virus and its progression and watching the borders closing around us, we began to feel a sense of unease about staying on Koh Tao and in Asia generally. We were unable to extend our visas at the immigration office on Koh Samui because the US Embassy would not write us a letter to stay. When I called, they said "we don't have a policy on that". Ah bureaucracy at its finest. Our only choice was a border run and as all of the borders were closing that became less and less realistic. It's not expensive to overstay and there was an idea that they may forgive overstays but... In addition, Koh Tao, although they had no cases yet, has very limited health care facilities and the idea of being able to evacuate to Bangkok, if necessary, became less certain. Then the first case appeared on our neighboring island. We made the very difficult decision to leave. But to where?
We thought about the US but things were really getting crazy there and with our international health insurance we can only be in the US six of twelve months a year so we thought we better save that time for an emergency. We wanted to be closer to the US though, to my parents and our children, we wanted to have sun and sand and sea, and we wanted to be somewhere with not a lot of people. We have always thought we'd go back to Baja someday and, well, it seemed like that day had come.
Once we decided to leave, we debated staying through the end of our lease in early April but we felt like if we were going to "run" from this thing, we ought to run as fast as we could. Conditions were changing very quickly both in Asia and on the US-Mexican border. It's a good thing we did! We got a flight from Koh Samui to Singapore and on to LA on Singapore Airlines for the next day. Singapore was one of the last airports open to transit by US passport holders. We packed everything back up, leaving behind a pile of acquired items like yoga mats and coolers and dry bags and food that we had acquired thinking we were staying put for awhile and we hustled back to Samui to spend the night before our flight. Samui's airport, usually a bustling little area was deserted.
We got to Singapore and had a layover there. For some reason this sign cracked us up and made us a little sad.
Singapore closed to US transit the next day. Flights were cancelling in real time and there were long lines of people trying to figure out what to do. We felt incredibly lucky and incredibly thankful that we made the decision to get out when we did.
When we got to LA, we were amazed at the lack of infrastructure in place for the virus. In Singapore we got thermal scanned at least five times in the airport. At both Samui and Singapore, there were endless questions about where we had traveled and been - not one in LA. We did fill out a questionnaire on the plane but they never collected it. I have to be honest and say I can see why the US has overtaken everyone else in cases. The response is night and day in the US versus Asian countries. It makes us ruminate on the relative merits of more centralized governments and more compliant citizenry in times of crisis. Our independence is proving our undoing it seems.
In any case, even though the US-Mexico land border had closed the day before, our flight left on time. There were five people on our plane down but they said they were bringing 40 people home. Bad decision in our minds - we definitely felt like we were going the right way!
ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN LA PAZ
We arrived in La Paz and checked into our favorite hotel for the night. It's nice to come to a place you know and have that option. The next day was a whirlwind of looking at apartments, choosing one, renting a car, buying food, and unpacking. If I'm being honest, the next day it really hit us that we were really in Baja and not Thailand. And that we were starting all over. We had invested a lot of time in choosing SE Asia for our home for 2020. We had found Koh Tao and fallen in love. We had found the place we wanted to rent long-term and were making friends. We were getting yoga and diving and volunteering routines established. We had sat on the porch having cocktails imaging our future there. And life was good. We had found "home". And four days later we were halfway across the globe - trading tropics for desert, hot weather for pleasant (read cold at night, sunny and warm most days), daily swims in the sea for daily walks by it. We still have the sea and the sun and blue skies but the difference is - well - a world away.
And so we begin again. We feel extremely fortunate to have gotten here, to have a good friend to help us get settled, and to have the financial security to do it all. It's easy to settle back in and our favorite tacos stand, tamale lady, grocery store, restaurant...are all still here. We know our way around and we know how to live here. We love Baja and will be very happy here but it's just a really big adjustment and recalibration of the vision of our future.
COVID-19 IN BAJA
Baja is way behind the rest of the world on the "Covid-curve". It's just ramping up here with the first cases starting to be acknowledged. Social distancing is just going into place and masks are starting to appear as well as hand sanitizer. The streets are eerily empty now. But Scott did get one fishing trip in before it all shut down - something he never got to do last time we were here!
On his first time out, he caught a Rooster Fish. Considered a trophy fish and the holy grail of a lot of anglers down here (apparently some people fish their whole lives down here and never get one), it was one for the books and maybe a good omen of lots more awesome firsts to come!
They also caught some Yellowtails - can you say Ceviche!
And a Dorado.
We have fish in the freezer so I guess we are real Bajaians now! And truly there is no where, other than maybe Spain, that I am happier shopping and cooking. The fresh produce is amazing and the hand-made tortillas delicious. I've made Pineapple-Mango salsa, Pork Chili Verde, Sashimi and Ceviche, Egg-Chorizo breakfast tortillas, Chicken tacos...We can't get enough! And don't get me started on our love of Tequila!
Of course the stores have social-distancing guides and we hand-sanitize in and out and wear our masks but there's no panic and no hoarding, which is a real relief.
La Paz has invested a lot of money since we were here last in their streets, parks, and the malecon - the walkway along the waterfront. It's just even more beautiful now and it's great to be able to get out of the house and go for a walk along the water. Since it's basically deserted, social-distancing is easy, though we still wear our masks. Heaven forbid we are the gringos that bring Covid to La Paz!
For more on the public art in La Paz, check out this post.
We also got to celebrate Scott's birthday at one of our favorite restaurants, NIM. They closed today for lack of business and no wonder since we were the only table there for our two-hour dinner. Such a shame. Their food is awesome and they were going over and above on sanitization. They made us hand-sanitize on the way in. Sprayed and wiped our table in front of us - I assume with some sort of disinfectant, were wearing masks, etc.
We even had a serene by a local musician. One of my favorite aspects of dining in La Paz. "Traveling" players come through and you pay them if you want a song.
We're sure the virus will come to La Paz in bigger numbers but they seem to be taking the "flattening the curve" advice seriously - if not the test everyone advice. Testing here is next to impossible. Restaurants and stores are almost all shut down except for take away and for grocery stores and markets. People are staying home and with Semana Santa (their big Easter-based weeklong party) coming up, the military is being enlisted to keep people off the beaches and streets in big groups. For those that don't know, La Paz has a military post and also a marine military post so we have no shortage of military vehicles with men and automatic weapons cruising the streets even in normal times. Mostly it's reassuring, just kinda weird for us.
So not to worry about us, we have a roof deck for getting sun and watching sunsets without other people around.
And the truth is, we're old hands at social distancing. We have spent two years mostly just us. We are used to long days doing nothing, to finding small outings to fill a space of time, to just being with each other. Of course we were hoping to expand our network in Koh Tao but life rarely goes according to plan. When we read about the angst and boredom and anxiety people are experiencing, we feel really lucky that we learned how to just chill out and be together a long time ago.
in short, when we look out over our new life in La Paz, the view is beautiful.