6,180 miles from home. Alone. Leaving Oxfordshire in January, Alex Britchford embarked on his travels around South America for nine months, staying in city hostels and Amazonian villages all before starting uni in September. As an already experienced traveller from his international journeys in his gap year, he was prepared to travel the nine months independently and meet fellow solo-travellers on his way, with the next stop of Peru. Three months in, returning from the Amazon and arriving in La Paz in Bolivia, his journey was cut short by the national pandemic resulting in the world going in to quarantine. Borders closed. Lockdown.
Arriving in the city, Alex discovered only the day before it happened that everyone would enter isolation. After recently travelling through the Amazon with someone from Switzerland, with minimal contact or service to the outside world for three days, getting to the city was a wake up call to the 20 year-old traveller. “Say it had been a day earlier,” he reminisced, “we could have been stranded in an Amazonian village which you can imagine would’ve been horrendous to travel back.”
In the hostel, Alex is the one of two Britons, the other of which is a 64 year-old man who is concerned of the level of health care in Bolivia compared to the UK, being more at risk if he were to catch the virus. “If things get bad for him, things could get really bad. I’m going out and buying things for him from the shop.” When first arriving at the hostel, their curfew was between 5PM and 5AM but three days later this became stricter and heavily monitored allowing them out between 9AM and 12PM. He sarcastically muttered: “Here they don’t take any sh*t if you’re outside out of curfew.”
Among the two Brits are other stranded EU citizens, all of which also speak perfect English. “It’s crazy how much you realise. In the kitchen there’ll be someone from Taiwan, someone from Spain, someone from Germany, and they’re all speaking English.”
Although they’ve come together in this unsettling time, “it’s a bit annoying and a bit dangerous” as riots are breaking out over food shortages in the poorer parts of the country.
“Riots are one of the most insane things I’ve ever experienced, if not the most.”
With food imports and exports banned, this is becoming the biggest worry for him as people are stealing food from shops and rioting on the streets in Northern Bolivia. “It’s not a case of if, it’s a case of when the outbreaks happen here. Coronavirus isn’t the problem itself for me, it’s the result of that.”
With things changing everyday, Alex referred to his time in the hostel like being in a TV series with each day being a “new episode.” From curfew to quarantine, to government health ministers issuing food to those who are being repatriated and making sure no-one leaves isolation, it remains uncertain how long they’ll be stranded overseas. However he still stays optimistic, sounding relaxed as he chuckled: “I’m not really one to worry about things.”
After his first visit of the British Embassy, Alex was advised to stay in Bolivia, given his background of travelling for nine months with no immediate need to get back to the UK for work or university. Even though there was no urgency for him at first, “it’s annoying now given the situation.” With no “consistent communication” with the Embassy, there as of yet has been no progress in organising a return trip to the UK for Alex. Although appreciating that there’s likely to be lots of work being done behind the scenes, “in my opinion there’s not enough being done to reassure the people being stranded here.”
There are two options that have been suggested to him, either that the ban gets lifted or a charter plane comes to collect them. As it’s still uncertain for the Britons which option it will be, he’s finding it interesting to see how other countries are handling the situation, with a group of German’s getting a trip back home organised for them in the near future.
“It’s crazy, when I first started, the virus was only in China and people still joked about it,” he mocked. Now as the reality has kicked in, despite the worrying situation, he remains in high spirits and is ready to sit tight for 2 months if he has to. If not, he knows for certain he will do two weeks in quarantine and might continue on his travels where and when he can, “maybe even Brazil, I might go there.”
In the meantime, the group staying in the hostel are doing things together to keep them all occupied. “We’re all in the same boat.” As well as learning Spanish, cooking together and all watching films and shows as a group, Alex laughed: “We’re just getting drunk, day drinking from 9AM until God knows… It’s something to do!”