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Viral vacation: traveling abroad amid a global pandemic

It is said the Greeks are known for their history, sprawling olive groves and, coincidentally, their tragedies. 

I recently traveled with other Tyler Junior College students and members of the community to Greece for spring break. This trip was the most life-changing experience of my life; the bulk of the travel study was incredible, but undertaking such a journey amid the Coronavirus outbreak provided a lot of unprecedented fear. 

News about the novel Coronavirus had spread long before I left for Greece, so myself and the other group members were as prepared as possible for traveling during a pandemic. We religiously sanitized and washed our hands and belongings throughout the entire trip. However, as the severity of the outbreak had not yet become apparent, we still shared food, drinks and personal space as normal.

The journey to Greece was surprisingly easygoing. I flew alone and arrived in Athens at 1 a.m. on March 7. No fear had struck me aside from the nervous excitement of exploring a new country (this was my first time out of the U.S.). Waking up the next day, I was refreshed and ready to tackle all of the rich culture and history Greece had to offer. 

Throughout the next week or so, the group traveled to a number of cities throughout Greece: Athens, Corinth, Epidaurus, Nafplio, Eleusis, Mycenae, Delphi and Arachova. The most notable sites included the Acropolis, the ruins of Mycenae and Delphi, the rocky shores of Nafplio and the National Archaeological Museum. Our tour guide Maria provided an incredible amount of historical insight throughout our journey and, as a history major, I was practically in heaven. 

Things took a turn for the worse when the group reached our hotel in Delphi. Rumors had spread regarding a member of our group feeling unwell. I received a call from Maria early the next morning instructing myself and the rest of the group to remain in our rooms until further notice. She explained the individual was taken to the hospital to be tested for COVID-19. 

After 12 anxiety-ridden hours of waiting, his tests came back negative. However, we soon realized the extent of the local reaction to such a scare. The hotel was virtually cleared out when we emerged; the nearby archaeological site and museum had been shut down less than 24 hours after we visited. This is when we knew things were getting bad.

The next day, Greek authorities announced the indefinite closures of all archaeological sites, museums, shopping malls, and full-service restaurants. A few days prior, President Donald Trump announced a travel ban against any non-U.S. residents or residents’ family members from Europe. The announcement also included screening provisions for anyone entering the U.S. from China, Iran or the European Schengen Area, in which Greece is included. Luckily, our group had visited nearly all the sites we planned to see before the closures began. Nevertheless, the empty streets and shuttered shops found upon my return to Athens truly showcased the severity of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

My journey home was much more difficult than my arrival. The airport was full of tourists and study abroad students scrambling to return to the U.S. as most tours and programs had been canceled. Upon arrival in the U.S., I was ushered alongside hundreds of other travelers through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention screening process. I was asked where I had traveled, if I had experienced any symptoms and instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days once I returned home. Finally, after 20 harrowing hours of flying and layovers, I made it back to Dallas. 

Strangely, I found myself both relieved and sad to be home. On one hand, I absolutely adored Greece and everything it offered me. I will cherish the memories and friendships I created during my journey for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I never imagined I would have been stuck more than 6,000 miles from my home in the middle of a historic global pandemic. It was scary. 

While I may be back in the comforts of my home, the fear persists. I notice people dismiss precautions and continue to put others in danger on American soil. I notice panic-buying, price gouging and prejudice worsen day by day. My experience abroad gave me a new appreciation for the solidarity that should appear during such times of global crisis. No matter one’s ethnicity, nationality, economic status or occupation, we all have a responsibility to look out for one another – to combat total devastation with unconditional support. So long as we all keep our temporary distance, wash our hands and check on affected friends and family, we’ll come out of this together.

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