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If you saw it in a movie, you’d probably never believe it would happen in real life. Lots of people think monkeys are cute – and they are, from afar, especially the babies with their little faces that have human features producing grimaces, smiles and laughs. But those grins can be deceiving – smiling monkeys aren’t trying to be friendly, they’re about to turn into evil monsters. Maybe not exactly, but when a huge macaque in Bali started rattling the doorknob of my room, look inside the glass and bared its teeth at me, it looked like something from a horror film.
Thankfully, that door that led to my outdoor bathroom was locked, but it was rather unnerving. My anxiety was already running high as I’d traveled to Indonesia just before the coronavirus really began to spread. A decision not made lightly, and in retrospect, I probably should have stayed home.
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It was a trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Bali, spend a few days there to recover from the jetlag (after over 30 hours of flying and airport layovers), before taking off again for the one-hour flight to Sumba Island and a stay at Nihi Sumba, a resort that’s been named the best in the world.
A luxurious adventure in the wilderness, with days spent snorkeling, hiking, horseback riding, enjoying decadent treatments on the spa safari, and happy hour sunsets at the Boathouse Bar. Here in paradise, it was easy to forget about the “real world,” but day by day, things started changing dramatically back home. When it was checkout time, I was given a mask. It was Friday the 13th.
Goodbyes were said to some of the most truly joyful, kind people I’ve ever met. I hopped into the Jeep for the drive back to the airport, staring out at the spectacular view from Nihi Sumba one last time. I really didn’t want to leave this remote place that was probably one of the safest in the world at that moment, telling myself that I’d be back soon.
The plan was to spend the final few days back in Bali, this time in the far northwest corner of the island. It was a long trip from Denpasar Airport, but with fewer travelers arriving in Bali because of the virus now, my driver said it would take just five hours to get there, instead of the six to eight in traffic. The beauty of the island, first in the magnificent temples, then in the lush mountainous landscape with lakes and cascading falls, made it worth the trip.
It was late when I checked into the “resort” I’d reserved. After staying at Nihi Sumba, I knew nothing would compare, but this place that had been billed as four-star was more like a Motel 6. The room was dark and gloomy, the bed hard as a rock, and the heat was stifling. A storm started to roll through and the wind blew the door open that led to the tiny balcony – the lock was broken. It was late, so I pushed my suitcase against the door to keep it from blowing open again and tried to sleep. But between barely working a/c and my rising anxiety over the news back home, it never came. I remembered that the general manager of Nihi Sumba mentioned he had a friend that ran a resort nearby, and he highly recommended it. The next morning, with his help, I moved to my new accommodation.
The difference was like night and day, surrounded by jungle at the edge of the sea, where the local red deer roamed right on the beach and monkeys were jumping through the trees.
I slept well that night, waking up to a gorgeous sunrise. When I looked at my phone I had quite a few texts. Travel had recently been banned from most of Europe, and now that ban included the UK and Ireland too. A somewhat confusing message led countless Americans visiting Europe to move up their return trips, causing them to flood into U.S. airports, including Los Angeles International Airport where wait times through customs were 8+ hours long. I was supposed to arrive there in just a few days.
I didn’t exactly relish being stuck in crowds we were supposed to avoid, but I was also anxious to get home. I decided the risk of catching the virus was too much. After several hours on hold with the airline, I moved my flight up to April 1st and told myself I would try to relax and enjoy this beautiful place while I could. By the time I returned, hopefully the chaos would be diminished.
I was getting more panicked text messages and the news reflected that. Americans everywhere were being told they must come home immediately or be prepared to “remain abroad for an indefinite period.” What exactly did that mean? No one really seemed to know, but many U.S. citizens around the world were trying to get back before it was too late, while airlines were canceling flights.
I wondered if I’d be stuck in Bali. At the same time, Indonesia was closing down its borders to tourists that Friday, March 20th, and now there was talk of the border between the U.S. and Mexico closing – I might not be able to get back. My home, where my dogs and partner awaited, was in Baja. Internet rumors were flying and I wasn’t sure what to believe.
I took some deep breaths to calm my nerves as monkeys ran around on the sand outside my door. Somehow I managed to reach the State Department to learn that I would not be locked out of the U.S. at least, as long as there was a flight to get back that is. After many more hours on hold with the airline, a rep said she could move flight up to the 24th.
But it still wasn’t soon enough. Things were changing by the minute. Bali was going on lockdown now too and the announcement was made that the border to Mexico would be closing, while more and more flights were being canceled, stranding travelers.
I like adventure, but this was getting to be a bit too much of an adventure. I got back on the phone, and on chat, to reach the airline once again. It was at that moment I realized that I’d forgotten to lock the bathroom door. In a flash, a heard it open and turned to see the same, huge monkey looking back at me that tried to break in before. This time, he was inside the room. With an evil grin, he jumped up onto the desk right next to where my wallet was, with my passport inside. My heart was pounding, thinking he was about to take off with it when he grabbed the cookie jar. Of course, the cookies! A jar of cookies is one of the many special extras the hotel provides, and he knew it. I yelled at him to get out, and with the jar in hand, he left, running back up the bathroom wall.
At that point, all I really wanted to do was go home. I was drenched in sweat and started to think I might be getting a fever, did I have the virus? No, Weather.com said it “felt like” 100 degrees. When the airline rep finally answered, this time I said I’d pay whatever the change fee was. It was March 20th, and I would now leave the afternoon of the 21st. But all flights at that point were iffy, and to make it back, I had three. One to Hong Kong, one to Los Angeles and one to Cabo.
Just before midnight on the 21st, I boarded the plane in Hong Kong for the flight to LAX. As soon as I sat down, a new message popped up on my phone. My flight to Cabo was canceled. Just before the doors closed, I managed to book a new one with another airline, Delta, and crossed my fingers. There was no Wi-Fi or any kind of connection with the outside world for 13 hours. The minute we were on the ground, I turned my phone on, Delta was still flying. I made it through customs in no time, with few questions asked. A little bizarre, but I was almost there, and relieved. Nervously waiting at the gate in LAX, there wasn’t any line. In fact, there was almost no one there. When it was time to board, the pilot told me, “Welcome to your private jet.” Well, it was almost private, there were only three other passengers. We were moved to First Class.
I spent over two weeks self-quarantining, and at this point, I’ve only left the house twice in 26 days. When all of this is over, I hope to return to my beach villa in West Bali National Park, monkeys and all. But next time, I won’t forget to lock the door.