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The Unforgettable Pandemic Travel Experience

My frantic attempt to find a safe haven as countries closed borders due to COVID-19.

Edna Kallon

4 min

On the morning of March 20, 2020, I experienced a travel first. By the end of the day, I was alternating between frustration, sitting on the floor of the Panama airport in tears, and trying to find flights home. The airport was closing in less than 24 hours for at least a month.

I. Had. To. Leave! But a Copa Airlines representative was holding my passport and refusing to give it back.

Does all of this sound stressful? That’s putting it mildly. Let me start from the beginning.

On March 16th, 2020, I was swinging on a hammock in Minca, Colombia, when I read that Ecuador, my next destination in four days, closed its airport due to the pandemic.

My Colombian tourist visa was also due to expire in four days. Uh oh!

For the next three days, the new plans I set in motion to leave or stay legally in Colombia failed so quickly, I felt whiplashed.

It started with Colombian Immigration refusing to extend my tourist visa because COPA Airlines had not yet officially canceled the flight. However, it was well known that Ecuador's borders were closed. My attempt to get a required transit visa through the USA to go home, the only flights available, also failed. The American embassy, focused on sending its citizens back home, was not issuing any visas. So, I decided to go to Belize, one of the few open countries in the region, not requiring me to have a visa.

I bought a ticket to Belize, transiting through Panama, and an exit ticket to Nigeria in two months naively hoping flights will resume by then. I also booked an Airbnb. Guess what mistake I made? Keep reading to find out.

When I arrived in Belize and showed my documents to the immigration officer, she stamped it and paused. The next thing I knew, she walked off to speak to her supervisor. She returned, and the following conversation ensued.

Immigration officer: “You cannot enter the country, you have to get back on the next plane to where you came from.”

Me: “Why? What’s wrong? I can enter Belize without a visa, right?”

Immigration officer: “Yes, but you only have housing for two weeks. We have no way of tracking you, and businesses are closing down.”

Me, in my head: “Two weeks is exactly how long I need to quarantine. Why would they need to track me after that?”

Me, aloud: “Okay. What am I supposed to do? I cannot find flights home.”

Immigration officer: “I don't know. All I know is that the airline has to take you back to where you came from, and then you can figure it out.”

According to the Warsaw Convention, when a passenger is denied entry into a country, it is the carrier's responsibility to transport the passenger back to the starting point of their ticket. The passenger does not have to cover the expenses because it is the carrier's responsibility to ensure that passengers have the required documents to enter a country before letting them on a flight. The airline must hold the passenger's passport until they arrive back at the starting point of their journey.

As Colombia's borders recently closed and I could not find flights home, the plan was to arrive in Panama and get back my passport. I would then purchase a flight to Barbados, the only country open to me at that point. Hence, I did not foresee any issues. I was wrong!

In Panama, the Copa Airlines representative I had to interact with clearly did not know about the Warsaw Convention. He also believed that my only option was to find a flight to Sierra Leone, my home country. To make matters worse, he nonchalantly told me that the Panama Airport was closing in less than 24 hours.

I felt owned and powerless without my passport in the midst of chaos. It was a very foreign and anger-inducing feeling.

Sleep-deprived and angry, I called my sister, and the tears started. Sensing my fragility and frustration, she and her and husband took over coordinating with my father and his contacts to see if there was any way I could get an emergency transit visa through the USA. My job was to get back my passport so I could fly to Barbados. After hours of unsuccessfully trying, out of nowhere, the airline representative decided to call his supervisor, something I had asked him repeatedly to do.

The call lasted less than a minute. The customer service agent was instructed to give me my passport. I immediately purchased my ticket to Barbados on a flight leaving in less than two hours. I learned my lesson in Belize and booked accommodations for two months.

The Birthplace of rum opened its warm arms and embraced me in my time of need. A time when a country expelled me and another rejected me during a time of global chaos.

The memories of the safe harbor and hospitality I found in Barbados are priceless. My memories of Belize immigration, the Panama International Airport, and the Copa Airlines representative? Not so much!


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