Accidental Tourist

In the midst of the global pandemic, stories of stranded travelers, aborted trips, and international uncertainty abound. Based in Manila, our French editor Manon Tomzig describes getting out from under a harsh lockdown in the Philippines only to wind up a trapped tourist in France.

Lockdown: you know it well. So do Filipinos. Even longer than Wuhan’s, theirs was one of the strictest and most authoritarian in the world. Only authorized outings, like a trip to the store — for one person per household — allowed. And for objectors, the threat of prison. 30,000 arrests in the first month. The president was clear, giving public orders to the army: shoot any troublemakers.

After twelve weeks, I had seen my apartment, my recipes, and my Netflix library from every angle. My sock drawer was neat and tidy and my gym mat was threadbare. The warm season was in full swing and all I had left to do was count the blades on my fan. In short, like everyone else, I was ready to get back to the outside world.

Meanwhile, as June approached, France was lifting its restrictions on movement and, behind the masks, starting to look like itself again. So as soon we could, we grabbed the first tickets that wouldn’t require a bank loan and, after a ten-hour stopover on a carpet at Bahrain International, my husband and I landed back on Gallic soil.

We had planned to stay three weeks.

Left: Leaving the airport in Manila. Right: Greeted by street art upon our return to Paris.

A few days before our return date, an email from our airline informed us the first segment of our flight was being cancelled: there was no longer a flight from Paris to Bahrain. We told ourselves it had to be replaced. We waited patiently. Time passed. We didn’t hear anything. The day of departure came and went. Still no flight.

I expected to be back in the Philippines in July, but the virus was on the rise again and tests were lacking. The country had drastically limited entries: no more than 400 people per day through the Manila airport. In other words, one plane for the entire world. Airlines backtracked, canceled flights, and kept others on the schedule that never took off. Finding a flight became a lottery. If you were lucky and could afford the sky-high prices, you might find a handful of vacant seats left in business class, to the tune of 10,000 Euros for two tickets. At that price, we realized, we might as well save up for our own jet. For us, there was no return in sight.

That’s when the next stage of our trip began: our lives as Parisian nomads.

We left our hotel room, landed on our friends’ doorsteps and began couch surfing, one home after another, again and again, all of them generously taking turns welcoming us and our luggage. It was a waltz, a shuffle of apartments and sofas. Each week was a blur of new neighborhoods, new entry codes, new keys, a different color for the dishes, a different thickness for the pillows. We became like chameleons, experts in the houseguest’s art of discretion.

Meanwhile, we kept looking for a way back to Manila. I’ll spare you the long version and just say this: we didn’t make it. Long ago we had planned a trip to Germany for late August, so by the time we could find a flight home, the idea of returning to Manila for a two-week quarantine — only to fly back to Europe for another two-week quarantine — was a non-starter. Instead we stayed, scrambled to set up telephone plans, to find places to work, to continue a constant hunt for wi-fi. Amidst all these changes, one thing has stayed the same: the contents of our suitcases. They’ve suffered the same fate as us. Expecting three weeks, they’ve had to make it three months.

Being stuck in a place that isn’t your home is alienating — even if the place is Paris.

I can’t deny the strange feeling of not being able to go home. Of course, as you might be thinking now, there are worse things than being stuck in Paris. My own halted journey, although it’s taken a lot of patience and organization, is so minor compared to what some have experienced. Now that I’m stuck in France, I can consider the irony that just a few months back I was covering the exact opposite in my role as correspondent for France 2: the situation of French tourists stranded in the Philippines in the first days of the pandemic. Those travelers found themselves camping at night in front of airports, supervised by local police. Some were trapped on remote islands for several weeks, their savings dwindling with each passing day.

As the pandemic drags on in the Philippines, stories of immobility like these only multiply. I have two friends who, since their wedding last February, and as I write this in August, have seen each other for all of two days. They’re both stranded; she’s in India, he’s in the Philippines. I think too of a Filipino neighbor of mine who works in Manila — she has not seen her infant, who stayed behind with her family in the provinces, since December. Not to mention all those who, unable to return to their workplaces, have lost their jobs entirely.

The ease of travel once seemed so obvious. Just a few months ago, we took it for granted, considered it a given. It’s proven now so much more fragile than we ever imagined. When all this is over, perhaps we’ll appreciate it for what it is: something more like a miracle.

Manon Tomzig is the French writer and editor for Tablet Hotels. She is based in Manila.