PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC—You can almost forget about the ongoing collective nightmare of the pandemic when you’re sipping a mojito in the pink twilight on the edge of the undulating Atlantic, and a long arc of surf foams over the distant reef, and a soft breeze rustles the palm fronds and laps against your sun-tender skin.
But you can’t.
For despite having to navigate a whole bureaucracy of attestations and electronic paperwork to embark abroad these days, there’s no guarantee the people around you are COVID-free. You hope everyone is vaccinated. But you can’t be sure. And even then, it’s still possible to get infected.
Yet after almost two years living with the coronavirus, we are experiencing a cautious re-emergence. And the door is open to vacation again.
I’ve just flown through it.
I jetted down to Punta Cana, a resort town on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, where I spent two days at an all-inclusive to try to answer the question: despite all the hoops you have to jump through, and the pervading anxiety you might feel, is it fun to venture abroad again?
What I found is that to travel today is to feel a constant tension between the desire for fun and fresh experience, and the lingering possibility of danger. Snorkel trips and waterslides, poolside piña coladas and lounge-chairs in the flour-fine sand — all that good stuff is allayed by temperature scans and mask requirements, gooey squirts of hand sanitizer, testing appointments and brain-poking nasal swabs.
Fun? Of course it is. But the everlasting fact of the pandemic lurks, even in paradise.
We were cruising at around 39,000 feet when the coughing started.
It erupted in bursts somewhere in the seats in front of me. I couldn’t tell who was heaving up there, but I saw other passengers crane their necks to look too. One woman’s eyes glared above her face mask with concern, or maybe suspicion.
Whoever it was kept whooping for a while. A few times there were little gurgles, but mostly it was just a steady thwack-and-rattle, like a wet bag of marbles striking a pane of glass.
Obviously I didn’t like it. It was two days after the government’s vaccine requirements for flights departing Canadian airports kicked in, but nobody asked to see the PDF on my phone that proved I got the shots.
It was too late to back out anyway. I was on an Airbus soaring high above the Atlantic, and would touch down in Punta Cana in just a couple hours.
I’d concluded the Dominican was about as safe as anywhere these days. The government promised all tourism sector workers had been vaccinated. And the country was reporting infections that were lower than the 14-day average per 100,000 people in the Caribbean region.
To get there I just had to fill out an online form with information about myself and where I was staying, and to attest that I didn’t have symptoms like a fever or a cough.
It’s strange how mundane it felt. We’ve been living with this crisis so long that we can forget that all the analysis of vaccine rates and R numbers and the precautions we have to deal with are really about one thing: preventing death.
That fact was so heavy and startling when the pandemic was declared in March 2020. I remember Justin Trudeau telling Canadians not to travel, and that if you were abroad, it was “time to come home.” That’s an astonishing plea for the government to make. It was frightening.
But all that seems so long ago now. The pandemic’s shock of novelty has worn off, and it seems we’re learning to live with it as we tiptoe back towards what once was normal.
The plane wobbled through puffs of cloud on its descent into Punta Cana. Through the window I saw the thick, green foliage of the tropical forest stretch off towards the shimmering sheet of the deep blue ocean. The old, pre-crisis excitement of going somewhere new rose within me.
Moments later, I was outside the terminal in the blazing sun, where I met a man named Edwin who said he could drive me to my resort. He was stocky, with kind brown eyes and furrows in his face when he smiled behind his mask. As we drove down a winding road lined with thick shrubs and overhanging trees, he told me to call him if I needed anything while I’m down here.
“Anything,” he stressed, looking at me in the rear-view mirror. For example, marijuana. Or cocaine.
I said it was a very kind offer.
When we got to the resort, which opened last December and is called the Serenade Punta Cana, employees in crisp white uniforms and face masks scanned my temperature and showed me to my room. The place was an enormous complex of four-storey buildings that stand on either side of a broad central area with pools like lagoons, waterslides for kids and several bars and restaurants.
The far end descended onto the white sand beach, where dozens of lounge chairs were placed in the sand at the shoreline.
Down there I met Nicole Parpan, a 27-year-old mental health nurse from Switzerland. She and her partner Sandro Schuoler were drinking from straws stuck into coconuts and sunbathing on the beach.
Parpan told me that through the pandemic she has craved coming to a place like this, with the sun and the sea. Like pretty much everyone down here, she wanted to shake off the torpor of isolation and get back out in the world to relax and feel alive.
“For me, it was very awful,” she said of being stuck at home. And yet, though she and Schuoler are vaccinated, she still feels a bit nervous. “It’s not the same like before,” she said.
This was mostly because we were surrounded by COVID protocols. The resort employees — many of whom bused in from the capital of Santo Domingo for 11-day shifts, like remote miners do in Canada — never took their masks off. At the entrance of every restaurant, a host or hostess placed a temperature scanner on your wrist and pumped hand sanitizer into your upturned palm.
It wasn’t an inconvenience, of course. From what I saw most of the resort visitors behaved as they normally would on vacation: wading out into the ocean; sidling up to the poolside bar; smoking in a lounge chair in the bright burning sun. It was just that these precautions pressed thoughts of the virus into the front of your mind.
Up by the pool, Stefan Kori-Lindner sat with a paperback on his chair. He was 54 and had a square jaw and clean-shaven face, with fine sandy hair and rectangular glasses. He explained he was here with his wife and three children, and that they were from Stuttgart, a city in southwest Germany known for the manufacturing of Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
In his view, people have become too isolated from fear of the coronavirus. As a physiotherapist, he’d seen the consequences of inactivity — both physical and mental — in his patients. He believed it was possible to travel and in a safe way, and was glad to bring his family to a place like this.
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“Maybe this is also changing,” he added, “being grateful for ourselves being healthy, and being in a position where we can travel.”
You certainly do feel lucky down here, where the pandemic seems more like a manageable consideration than a pressing crisis. But you still have to deal with it.
The first thing I did when I got to the resort was arrange the molecular COVID test I needed to board my flight back to Canada. A nurse arrived at the resort in full hospital scrubs, a mask and a hairnet, and told me to sit in a small chair. She assured me she was very gentle. Then she tilted my head back and shoved a long, stick-like swab deeper into my nose than I thought possible.
Our era seems to be an exception in human history, which can be seen as a long saga of death and disaster. The story of the modern Dominican, for example, began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. He established two settlements on this island in an act that kick-started centuries of colonialism in the Americas. Over that time untold numbers of people were killed and enslaved, and died of smallpox and other ailments from across the sea. But now most of us — I mean born Canadians, well-off and cocooned in peace and first-world comfort — have no experience of horrors like war, famine or incurable disease.
That’s why the pandemic felt like an historic rupture: it popped our mistaken sense of invulnerability from the dangers of human existence.
The next morning, I got my test results by email: negative. No COVID.
A bit of the low-boiling anxiety of the trip lifted, and I was ready to have some fun.
I climbed a ladder under the bow of the catamaran and emerged on deck, where four masked crew members in identical light blue shirts were blasting Bob Marley at an impossible volume. One of them introduced himself as “Frankie” and offered me a selection of drinks from a bar in the centre of the boat: rum, tequila, cerveza, and a pre-mixed sort of hard punch in a large plastic jug that they called “Happy Fish Drink,” after the tour company they worked for.
The entire crew came from a place called Puerto Plata, a city hundreds of kilometres away on the north side of the country. When the pandemic struck, there was no longer any work in Punta Cana, and Frankie said he returned to his hometown for an entire year. He enjoyed himself despite the lack of work, since his wife and kids live there and he doesn’t get to see them when he’s busy plying the waters off Punta Cana with European and North American tourists.
A few minutes later six other people climbed aboard the boat — a Russian couple who kept to themselves; a young German named Dominik Schwaegerl, who worked in Berlin on the breakfast TV program Frühstücksfernsehen, along with his girlfriend; and an American couple from Boston.
We puttered out into the ocean, past a square-shaped floating dock built around a central area of water, from which dolphins leapt into the air. Apparently this was one of the “marineariums,” where dolphins and other sea animals are kept to entertain paying visitors.
I sat in the back corner of the boat with the Americans. They were Mark Hagan, an affable 38-year-old with a shaved head who was a deep-sea fisherman and could identify the large birds that circled above the beaches as frigates; and Lauren Aloisio, a 33-year-old nurse who was deployed to intensive care units during the worst phase of the pandemic in Boston.
They started dating in the early weeks of the pandemic, they told me. Their first date, in April 2020, was at a beach bonfire. And for the first while they didn’t hug and mostly spoke by FaceTime. Once they cooked the same recipe while video chatting, chipotle chicken over baby spinach.
Lauren described what it was like on the ICU at the time, where the “sickest of the sick” were hooked up to breathing tubes and all sorts of fluid bags and monitors. “It was quiet,” she said, “because no one was awake.”
Her advice to people reading this story is to definitely get vaccinated and take all precautions you can while travelling. And if you’re comfortable, go for it.
“You can’t live your life in a bubble,” she said. “There’s a line between safe and smart, and not being f–ing stupid.”
The boat was tied up to a buoy a few hundred metres off shore. The water was still shallow, and you could see the sandy bottom maybe five metres down. Frankie and the crew handed around snorkels, masks and flippers and we jumped into the water. It was warm and incredibly salty. I felt unusually buoyant as I paddled along the surface and gazed down under the clear blue waves.
The water was teeming with fish. Some were yellow and grey, with vertical black stripes along their sides. Others were long and thin, with little points sticking out from their noses. Near the bottom, where mounds of reef covered in seaweed and what might have been coral — I have never seen coral before — rose like little mountain ranges along the ocean floor, some larger yellow and grey fish plodded through the water.
I was blown away by this abundance of sea life; that is, until I noticed one of the crew members who swam with us and called himself “Pineapple” was releasing beige flakes from a plastic bag underwater. The fish flocked to him, like pigeons in a city park.
After about 45 minutes we embarked again, slowly cruising off the coast, where a thin strip of white sand separated the lush jungle-like forest of palm trees and other greenery from the lapping ocean waves. Before long, we entered a little cove where about a dozen other boats from various tour companies had congregated in the shallows of a sheltered sand bar.
Each boat blasted its own variety of party music. Soca clashed into hip hop, Latin pop into sounds I couldn’t even make out over the clatter of noise. Between the boats, scores of people bobbed in the chest-deep water. Others danced and twerked and shimmied on board their boats, while little skiffs sped through the water dragging people on inflatable chairs that were tied to long ropes in their wakes.
Several of us jumped into the water to join the frenzy. Frankie did too, carrying a tall bottle of Presidente beer. He also later brought a platter of sliced mango and pineapple which he passed around to us in the water.
After a few minutes I locked eyes with Dominik, the young German whom I’d told earlier about the article I was writing. His reddish hair stood up straight on his head, and his hazel-coloured eyes gleamed as he waded towards me, a wry smile on his face.
“The pandemic is over!” he declared with a laugh.
The pandemic is not over. That was Dominik’s joke. Our journeys abroad had taken us to a place where everybody wanted to break free from the restrictions and the precautions, and enjoy a spontaneous moment of — hopefully — harmless frivolity. But those restrictions and precautions still exist, and we’d all soon be returning to the world where they took precedence.
Later that night, back at the resort, I spotted a Russian named Yuri Bondar who I’d spoken to the day before. He invited me to join him and his wife Tatiana, and their friends, Paul and Victoria. They were from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and were open and friendly and curious to hear my thoughts on everything from Vladimir Putin to the latest Guy Ritchie film.
The night ended with us singing karaoke at the resort theatre. Between each performer, a woman in a black shirt placed a new sock over the top of the microphone and sprayed its handle with sanitizer. Pablo had a fantastic voice, but we were all upstaged by a spectacular crooner who brought the house down with his heartfelt Spanish love ballads dedicated to his pregnant wife.
The following day, I returned to Canada without any apparent obstacles, having completed the required test and confirming I was doubly-vaccinated.
Writing this, I knew some people would want me to answer the inescapable question: is it safe to travel abroad again? The truth is I don’t know. It’s certainly safer not to travel, but that’s the case with everything.
What I do know is that death’s shadow has felt closer during the pandemic. But we can’t cower forever. At some point we have to get on doing the things we love, in the safest way.
Isn’t life about experiencing as much as possible, before the lights go out?
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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