Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I’ve always said that New Zealand is the place you’d want to be in the event of the zombie apocalypse. I just never thought I’d actually test the proposition.
I was in Belgrade when COVID-19 went global, and I had thought I’d ride out the storm there. To go anywhere else, particularly going home to distant New Zealand, seemed to present significant risk of catching the virus. In contrast, if I simply stayed in my apartment except for grocery shopping, I would have almost no exposure to anyone.
But with each passing day, more and more COVID-19 cases turned up in Serbia. The writing on the wall was fairly legible that the kind of exponential growth seen in Italy might repeat itself in the Balkans. President Vučić of Serbia seemed to agree: he declared a state of emergency last Sunday and closed the country’s borders to all non-citizens. But my landlord, affable Aleksandar, remained optimistic. A man in his forties who watched NATO fighters shoot down Serbian ones in the 1999 Kosovo War, he felt that his country was too familiar with trauma not to handle the situation with aplomb.
I grew less sure, not least because he was in his own country, while I was an outsider. Could I avail myself of Serbian healthcare if the need arose? The day after Vučić’s declaration of emergency, the women working at the barbershop down the street refused to serve me on account of my race. What if some doctors or nurses felt the same way?
Then, as if on cue, the New Zealand government issued a statement recommending all citizens overseas to return home.
On Thursday I made my mind to leave Serbia. But on that day Vučić abruptly closed the Belgrade airport. His decision came so suddenly that there were planes on the runway ready to go when the announcement came. There was now no way for me to fly out from Serbia. A friend suggested waiting—and hoping—for a repatriation flight organized by the New Zealand government, which might never come.
I concocted a new plan of escape, but I had no idea whether it would work. Serbia’s neighboring countries had also sealed their borders, with the exception of Romania. I checked and found a flight out of Bucharest that could, a day and half later, put me in Auckland. But many details remained unclear: When the Serbians said that they had sealed their borders, did they mean only that no one could come in, or that no one could leave either? When the Romanians said that they had officially NOT sealed their borders, would a local official nonetheless deny me entry on a discretionary basis?
I had no way of knowing other than to try. I paid Aleksandar to drive me to the Romanian border, where I bade him farewell. Immediately afterward, though, the Serbian border guard tried very hard to dissuade me from going.
“You understand,” said the stocky, stereotypically Slavic soldier, “that Serbia is closed now, even to Serbians. There are six Serbians over there right now,” he gestured at the no man’s land, “who are stuck because I can’t let them in.”
“I understand,” I said. “I’m trying to get out, not to come in.”
“But if you go out now, and the Romanians don’t let you in, you can’t come back. You will have to stay in no man’s land.” He gestured at the narrow stretch of land dotted by a few rundown sheds and patches of jaundiced grass. “You will need a tent.”
“Can you ask the guys on the other side if they will let me in?” Under normal circumstances, this would’ve been an outlandish request. But now it didn’t seem to me so unreasonable.
Even so, he declined. “No,” he shook his head. “I am over here, they are over there.” It was up to me to chance it. “Why don’t you stay in Serbia?”
Should I explain to him that I was going to, but then I thought I might live to regret it? Should I say that I wasn’t sure how his compatriots would feel about me in a couple of weeks’ time? I decided against it.
“So, do you go or do you stay?” He asked finally.
After one last wary look at me, the man stamped my passport with finality. I took it back from him and proceeded across no man’s land.
The Romanian officer was quite unlike his Serbian counterpart, a bespectacled, bookish-looking man. My appearance painted a pained expression on his face, as though he suddenly suffered from a stomach ache, or as though I were the school bully coming to take his lunch money. “Why you want to come into Romania now?”
“I’m not going to Romania,” I said. “I’m only trying to go home. But as you probably know, the Serbians closed their airports yesterday. So all I want to do is to get to Timisoara,” the nearest city from the border, “fly from there to Bucharest, and then out of Bucharest to my country.”
“Do you have tickets for those flights?”
“No,” I said, “because I wasn’t sure you’d let me through.” My escape plan was terribly contingent, terribly dependent on luck, on my ability to persuade, and on the kindness of strangers.
The ulcer in the man’s stomach seemed to worsen. “Where have you been?” he asked.
“I’ve been in Serbia for the past month.” The Romanian government was categorizing all countries based on how many known cases of COVID-19 each had had. Travelers from countries with more than 500 cases were to be barred. Serbia’s numbers were not yet so high. Reluctantly the man stamped my passport. Only then did he remember with a start that he was supposed to check my temperature. “Oh!” he jumped out of his seat. “Wait here.” He ran into another office and returned with the thermometer. Luckily I was all right.
My plan had worked thus far. But now I really needed the kindness of strangers, because I knew of no way to get from the border to Timisoara 80 miles away other than hitchhiking. And the traffic coming from the direction of Serbia was no more than a trickle of trucks. I began walking toward that city and stuck my thumb out a couple of times as trucks passed by. No takers.
I ducked into a duty-free shop near the border to inquire as to how I could get to Timisoara. A middle-aged and clearly well-educated couple were inside shopping. They informed me in excellent English that from the nearest township a kilometer away, one bus at four o’clock ran to Timisoara. I thanked them and carried on walking. A few minutes later, though, they caught up with me in their car and offered to drive me to the bus stop. Hearing that I only had Euros on me and no Romanian lei, the husband stuffed thirty lei in my hands, about seven US dollars. “That ought to be enough for the bus,” he said. Like I said, the kindness of strangers.
And yet I didn’t spend the money on the bus. It would get me to Timisoara too late to catch the flight to Bucharest. I stuck my thumbs out a few more times to no avail until a pair of much less sophisticated men, chain-smoking working class guys, offered to drive me there for a fee. They didn’t speak a word of English, so I had to summon such Romanian as I knew, which basically meant fragments of Italian or Spanish or Latin with a Slavic patina. I paid them with a mixture of the Romanian lei and Euros.
Only when I reached the Timisoara airport and booked myself onto flights not yet canceled could I allow myself to believe that my plan of escape through Romania was probably going to work. The next day, while in transit, I learned that Romania sealed its borders as well. Had I left just a little later, I wouldn’t have been allowed into that country, and the plan wouldn’t have worked.
As I traversed the plains from Serbia into Romania, it was impossible not to feel terrible melancholy. This is the end of something: my travels, the life that I have led for nearly five years. It’s not how I imagined that my travels would end. But there are bigger things happening here, happening all around me. A great many people are dying. And the kind of world we have taken for granted for so long, the way of life we have all taken for granted for so long, may be at an end.
I have been so lucky, so privileged, to have been able to do what I have done for so long, to see so much of this beautiful world with such people in it. Will I ever be able to do it again? Will it ever be the same again? Your guess is as good as mine.
And thus a world ends. And so does a way of life. For me. For everyone.
And home. New Zealand. I never go home, for a reason. Between my Asian face and my American accent, I don’t feel particular at home, at home. Never have. And yet here I am. Fate has sent me fugitive to the shores of Half Moon Bay.
And now that I have made it here like a refugee out of the Balkans, I find that I may have found no refuge at all. My supposition that New Zealand would be the last country standing in the zombie apocalypse might have been mistaken. A dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases in the last few days has prompted the government to announce a four-week nationwide lockdown starting on Wednesday, right as I am beginning my own two-week quarantine.
What does all of it mean? What do I do with the mournfulness in my heart for a world and a life so abruptly taken from me? What do I do with this dread of what may be about to happen in my country? I don’t know, though I know that a great proportion of the human species is trying to process similar feelings alongside me. In our collective lamentation, I am by no means alone, because no one is.
So I can’t help but to reach for the deep wisdom of Ecclesiastes:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
“A time to refrain from embracing”; “a time to keep silence”—perhaps the author of the Wisdom of Solomon knew about pandemics and quarantines. And I suppose there is a time to travel, and a time to sit still. A time to venture to far away lands, and a time to return home as the prodigal son. What no one has control over is the changing of the seasons and the times. All we can do is to make of it what we can.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."