Monday, June 8, 2020

Escape from Galapagos: How to get home in a pandemic

So briefly, my colleague and collaborator, Dr. Sarah Knutie and I, along with Sarah's field technician, got stranded on San Cristobal in the Galapagos. The Ecuadorian government suddenly shut down air travel mid-March. Ecuadorans were given two days to get home or they wouldn't be allowed back except on repatriation or humanitarian flights. The government grounded all incoming international flights, and all domestic flights, which meant those on the Galapagos were stuck there. The government did coordinate some special flights to get tourists off the Galapagos, but with all the confusion we feared that we might get stuck on the mainland and decided if we were going to be stuck in Ecuador, relatively isolated San Cristobal would be a better place than on the mainland. We ended up staying on the Galapagos for six weeks. We got in one week of data collection but then the park shut down and all research had to stop. Within a week of the park closing, we were only allowed out of the apartment twice a week for essential supplies, and only at limited times because the whole island was on a curfew from 2pm to 5am. In mid April, the government announced a flight going from the Galapagos to the mainland (Quito and Guayaquil), and that they would allow two commercial flights from Quito to Houston. We knew commercial flights in the US were still operating, and for me, I needed to first get to the US because that was the only country from where I could get to Canada as Canada had long grounded almost all international flights. For some great summaries of our adventures on the Islands and getting home, check out Dr. Knutie's Instagram stories here:

The travelers before the lockdown on San Cristobal and when curfew started at 9pm (curfew ended up being 2pm-5am everyday. Photo: Sarah Knutie
By far the most frustrating part of this experience was not knowing when we would go home. Life on San Cristobal during lockdown was fine given we had access to supplies, decent internet in the mornings (for Galapagos), and a sort-of schedule that included Pop Sugar dance workouts in the late afternoon. However, not knowing if and when we could get back to North America wore on us. The second most frustrating part was that we couldn't do any research. We had a fantastic opportunity to track in real time what happens when tourism stops and how this might affect the organisms. What will happen with the finches when restaurants and tourists are no longer around? What happens to their microbiome? What rapid changes in behaviour might happen? And not just finches, but the sea lions, and other organisms. But we weren't allowed to collect any data. And so it goes - research during a pandemic.

My partner wrote a summary of it that's much more entertaining to read than if I just recap it, so here it is (NB comments and photo captions are mine):

"ESCAPE FROM THE GALAPAGOS" has just wrapped up production. It was filmed on location in Ecuador, the USA, and Canada. (NB: Alternative title: How to get from the Galapagos to Montreal in eight days). By Chris Rush

Plot line:
Starring Kiyoko and her two fellow researchers, Sarah and Gabby, who have been quarantined due to a "zombie virus" causing a disease known as COVID-19, locked up in a 3 room apartment in the Galapagos, only being allowed out of their restrictive dwelling twice a week for whatever food they could source (NB: the cargo ships were still coming so we had food, and importantly, beer and caña), enduring a 2pm-5am daily curfew, and having to dodge the insidious, potentially infected unnatural clones (humans!) that have infested the Islands since the 19th century.

Then, at last!

The American consulate sent word that one of their Capitalistic Airlines would send a special plane on April 29th into the maelstrom of infection on the mainland of Ecuador, aka the "epicenter" of the pandemic in South America, to rescue stranded American citizens for a special "PANDEMIC one way fare" of only $1,442USD, to Houston. Luckily the beleaguered few realized that they could then fly to any city in the United States after that on the same fare as Houston if they booked it at the same time (thanks to some super-sleuthing by an un-named guardian angel safely squirreled away up in Canada).

But, wait, first they would have to escape off the "Malefic Island of San Cristobal" where they were quarantined, requiring a flight to Quito.  Thank goodness a local airline opened a flight from the main airport on "Ground Zero Island Baltra" to Quito! But booking the local flight to the mainland was turning out to be a disaster as the local airline company, TAME, would not accept foreign credit cards!  What to do?! An emergency skype call to the guardian angel in Canada did not help as his credit card was also refused. Thank God the intrepid souls managed to book the flights through an American travel agency instead, thanks to Sarah (NB: this took three days)! With the tickets safely booked  they had only one day to make their way to the local hospital for a medical inspection to get medical clearance (no fever!) to actually travel. 
Waiting for our medical examination to be able to board the flight from Baltra to Quito Photo: Sarah Knutie

The next day the hapless crew had to scramble to get from Malefic Island to Baltra on a ferry, requiring special curfew breaking passes to allow taxi passage to the ferry dock, being able to board the ferry, and then undertake the treacherous trip to Baltra on a boat amongst possible infected zombies. 
6am waiting for the ferry from San Cristobal to Baltra Photo: Sarah Knutie

Waiting for the ferry Photo: Sarah Knutie
The ferry ride Photo: Sarah Knutie
By the time this is all sorted out Kiyoko manages to get one of the last three tickets on the Pandemic rescue plane from Quito to Houston via her contact in Canada, as her internet kept crapping out. A chance to make it onto the North American rescue plane by the skin of the teeth!

Next obstacle, and this is a quote from one of the victims:
"We land in Quito after curfew. Which means we have to hire a taxi driver to take us to the hotel, but you need all these special permission slips to be able to get the taxi driver. We went to the website we were told to go to, and nobody could get on - Paola (our Ecuadorian friend back in Canada, who thank God was able to negotiate all the Spanish), Sarah, and I were trying to get on. I ended up opening three different browsers. When I got on the website, they said it was full and put you in a virtual waiting room for ten minutes. But then at the end, it just reset the timer. I finally managed to get on, and we got to a part that said the authorization was only for medical emergencies, so clearly this wasn't right. After a while, we figured out that we had the wrong site, Paola managed to fill in the proper form and so now we're good (NB: this took all day to do). They wouldn't even let us on the ferry if we didn't have proof that someone was coming to pick us up. So, we have all the necessary paperwork. Getting the approval to drive during curfew was extremely stressful."

Next will be a harrowing stay in the local "Fleabag" motel near the airport where they hope to scavenge food even though all restaurants are closed.  (NB: The hotel is actually quite nice)

Update from the travelers: Getting to Quito everything went fine, but it was just super long.   We had to show our medical forms to get ferry tickets. The ferry was full,  there was social distancing to get onto the boat, but once on all the seats were filled. It did have individual seats, so we weren't squished but we were still very close. There was social distancing at the airport. 

Our luggage baking in the equatorial sun
Social distancing while waiting to board the plane in Baltra 

Social distancing in the line to get on the plane in Baltra
I had to pay seventy bucks for my second suitcase which was surprising and annoying, but whatever. I'll be paying for it on almost all my flights. The flight was full, but there was no food or drink service, so I slept the flight to Guayaquil. A good chunk of people got off there, hopefully they will be able to dodge the rotting bodies thrown onto the streets in cardboard boxes as apparently no-one is picking up the dead in the city.  Then on to Quito. We were lucky  to be in the first group of people who had to be examined again before being allowed entry. 
Social distance waiting room for our medical examination upon landing in Quito photo: Sarah Knutie
Medical test in Quito before we could leave the airport
When we left there, the queue to be allowed into the exam room was really long, so we were happy to be through. The cab drive to a hotel is normally 8 bucks, but because of everything, Paola (our contact in the Galapagos) said the cab would be 20, and we should tip. We were fine with that, but we ended up giving him 40 because he helped with getting the Salvoconducto  (yes that’s what it sounds like, our salvation passage!), and then he was waiting for us for a long time, and came to where we were  very quickly when we said we were done and ready for pickup. He was very nice, wore a mask, and pulled over to look at my phone when we were trying to figure out where to go. The hotel is actually OK.  We brought food with us, we have access to a kitchen, and we can go to a tienda several kilometers away tomorrow for a few groceries. We each got our own room, and since I have the most bags, Sarah gave me the largest room. So, now in Quito at a hotel close to the airport so well away from zombies roaming the city center. No other guests on the property except us. Lots of room and we're allowed to be outside, so we're looking forward to that!!
The grounds of the hotel we stayed at near the Quito Airport
Is that our plane?!?!
Then 5, yes FIVE days later, unless the local mayor decides to blockade the airport runway with police and fire vehicles as happened last month to stop Dutch rescue planes from landing, the American rescue flight will indeed land and whisk our heroes back to the safety of the United States.  Ooops, sorry, to the zombie infested mess (thanks to a brainless president that the zombies therefore cannot eat) that is currently the United States.
Social distancing to check in at the Quito airport

An empty Quito airport

Update:  The plane actually landed at Quito as scheduled.  However more drama ensued, an email from Kiyoko while at the Quito airport describes what happened:  “Turns out this is a humanitarian flight and not a commercial flight so you have to be a US citizen to get on. They let me on only because I was able to explain that I was a dual citizen, luckily I had a scan of my US passport printed out, and was able to convince them why I did not have my US Passport (I flew direct from Canada to Quito and not through the US), plus I had proof I was leaving the US for Canada. There are two couples trying to get on the flight who were moving and one or both were not US citizens and they were being denied boarding. I have no clue what will happen to them (NB: They got on somehow). So, I might run into problems in Houston. I'll put my SIM card in and text/call you if I need you to do something like FedEx my passport. It shouldn't come to that, especially since I have things like Global Entry, but I'll keep you posted. Plane should be landing now but all the windows are frosted so I can't see out them and the gate has loads of barriers and stuff so I can't get close to the one window near the gate.  Wish me luck!”
Kiyoko with the piece of paper that let her get on the Quito to Houston flight photo: Sarah Knutie
Full fight from Quito to Houston. Masks were mandatory and a few folks had full PPE
Then they will have to brave a potentially infected hotel in Houston overnight before parting ways in the morning (NB: It was fine, but after coming from a flight where masks were mandatory, it was a bit unnerving seeing the shuttle driver and receptionists in Houston not wearing masks).
An empty Houston arrivals area
Kiyoko will then (hopefully) fly to Philadelphia, supposedly the city of brotherly love, where unfortunately, despite that city's reputation, she will not be able to interact with anyone as she hopes to dodge zombies in yet another airport hotel, for yet another possibly fateful night, in yet another infested city (thanks to the Donald - "We have it under day soon it will be a will all just disappear").

Update:  Kiyoko did make it to Philly, but it was touch and go.  Big stress the morning of the flight. Kiyoko arrived at the airport to find it "a zoo" with snaking long lines of people packed together wearing masks. I can't believe the photo she emailed me.  
The ridiculous mess at the United terminal in Houston (nobody to provide information, free for all lines everywhere, and no social distancing)
She called me to try and get a seat upgrade to be able to get thru the line and check her baggage. But no upgrades were available.  Next email:  "They apparently closed a terminal so domestic and international are in same one. Some big international flight was checking in. Once that went through it was a little better, a little less stressful.  Finally made it thru check in.  Now in security".  
I wonder if you can put adults on the TSA tables?
Next email: "Made it thru security. I really thought I was not going to make it. Closing door. Will message when in Philly".
If all goes well, she will overnight in Philly and fly out of Philly and land in Montreal on Friday, May 1st.
The five (yes five) people it took to check me in at the Philly airport
Update:  A relatively stress free flight to Montreal.  On landing, to her surprise there was no medical check or other hassle, just some questions regarding whether she had any symptoms and if she could quarantine for 14 days. It was surreal wandering through the deserted Montreal airport during the normal rush hour. This virus has really changed things!
An empty immigration area at the Montreal airport

And then began a government mandated 14 day quarantine at home. This involved me sleeping in the spare bedroom, having room service from my partner, and wiping down with alcohol or bleach anything that I touched that was communal. But symptom free after 14 days!

1 comment:

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...