Commentary

We’re a gay couple that travels the world. Here’s what that’s taught us about coronavirus.

Brent Hartinger and Michael Jensen
Brent Hartinger and Michael JensenPhoto: Provided

We’re a gay “digital nomad” couple who sold everything three years ago and now travel indefinitely, working remotely and moving to a new country every two to three months.

But it feels weird to be away from home right now.

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Just this week the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. All of Italy has been quarantined and huge events like SXSW have been canceled. And no one knows how bad things may get.

We had planned to go to Thailand for the summer, but its proximity to China and the chaos engulfing Southeast Asia made us nervous. So we booked a flight back to Europe instead, to Portugal. But now it looks like we’re coming back to the U.S for a few months until we see how things play out.

In the meantime, we’re in Mexico City, which we’ve absolutely loved. But our Spanish isn’t great, and we’re only starting to learn the culture. What would happen if one of us gets sick here? If a quarantine goes into effect? If there’s panic in the streets?

And what would we do if something bad happened to our friends or family back home? Would we be able to get there okay?

That said, we’ve learned a few things in the last three years of travel that are giving us comfort. For instance, things almost never turn out to be as bad as you worry they might.

So far, we’ve stressed out about traveling to homophobic countries. About dubious mountain gondolas and daredevil cab drivers. About pickpockets in crowded squares.

And exactly zero of our worst-case-scenarios have ever come to pass. We’ve learned that when you take reasonable precautions, most things usually turn out okay.

Yes, bad things have happened. In Bulgaria, our apartment caught on fire. And once on a plane across the Atlantic, we had a pretty serious malfunction and had to divert for an emergency landing.

But neither turned out to be true disasters. On the plane, the crew handled the emergency just fine. And in Bulgaria, we eventually managed to call the fire department before things got too bad. Most importantly, our laptops survived!

And all our worrying made things worse, not better. It really is true that in the vast majority of cases, all you have to fear is fear itself.

But the coronavirus feels different. There are only so many precautions you can take.

Yeah, sure, wash your hands thoroughly and often. Avoid guardrails and subway poles. Carry disinfectant and antibacterial wipes. Don’t ever touch your face with your unwashed hands, especially your eyes.

The two of us started doing all these things three years ago, after spending so much time in airports and public spaces, and now they’re old-hat.

But viruses are invisible to the naked eye. How badly this one spreads depends on the actions of governments and biological factors far too complicated for any human to fully understand. Whether any of us get it, and how our bodies react, that’s beyond our control too.

One of the great things about travel is that it teaches you patience. If the bus breaks down, you’ll just have to wait for the next one to arrive. If the service in a restaurant is slow, you’ll just have to wait then too.

Whatever will be will be, when it comes to both tamales and pandemics.

Here’s something else we’ve learned. When things do go south, you really need a strong circle of support.

Part of the reason why we left Seattle three years ago was the election of Donald Trump. It felt like the country was descending into xenophobia, rank bigotry, and a surreal level of stupidity. It didn’t help that the cost of living and pace of life seemed to be making everyone anxious and stressed out.  And social media was making things much worse, not better.

A lot of Americans seemed to have forgotten that we’re all in this together.

But outside of America, we were delighted to find that the exact opposite was often true. The locals weren’t suspicious and hostile toward foreign people and new ideas. On the contrary, many welcomed us with open hearts and open minds, at least outside the tourist areas.

Then there are the other travelers with whom we’ve bonded over, well, cold tamales and broken buses. Travelers share a special bond, because we share a secret knowledge: that borders aren’t real. They only exist in people’s minds.

Once again, we had the feeling that we were all in this together.

That time in Bulgaria when our apartment caught on fire? Neither of our phones was working, but some fellow nomads living nearby heard us shouting, and they called the fire department for us.

When it comes to the coronavirus, the whole planet is in this together. How bad this disaster gets depends, in part, on how well we work together as countries and as a species.

Yes, we know: It’s easy to look at the state of the world today and think, “Well, if that’s the case, we’re totally screwed.”

But we’ve both surprised ourselves with how adaptive we’ve been, how quick we’ve become on our feet. And we do have that support system. Everything that’s happened, we got through it together.

We think the world may surprise us too. We hope so, because borders really aren’t real. They definitely can’t stop a virus.

If nothing else, maybe this pandemic will remind humans that we really are all in this together. And if something good can come from something bad, maybe that simple wonderful idea will finally — finally! — spread even farther and wider than the virus itself.

Brent Hartinger is the author whose latest book is The Otto Digmore Decision, and Michael Jensen is the former editor of AfterElton.com. Visit them at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com, or on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

 

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