We thought we had Covid-19 isolation nailed. Staying in, staying away from friends, not working, living 24/7 with the same faces, struggling with less supplies, homeschooling… we’ve been doing that for months. Turns out Corona Virus had a very different game plan when it came to our trip though. You may have drawn the ‘enforced solitude’ card from the pack, but the evil virus didn’t want to give us that same card. Instead, it wanted it back.
The good life
For the last 10 months we have been learning to live the quiet life. We chose to leave the UK to ‘live differently’ for a year, down-sizing and simplifying our lives so that we could live in a Skoolie and travel. The four of us found our groove, home-schooling from workbooks in the morning and exploring in the afternoon. Every few days we’d move a little further down the road to a new camp spot and spend our time taking hikes, riding bikes, playing on beaches and lying in hammocks.
Then Covid-19 happened. The UK and (parts of) the US went into lock-down. Our days of travel seemed over. So too did our days of solitude.
A virtual return
The global pandemic turned our adventure into the same one everybody else was having – that of staying still, living within the confines of your reduced world and spending all your time with your family. But where we had learnt to use travel as the stimulus to keep things fresh, our family and friends started to wholly rely on the web.
When you exist in a virtual world, it makes no difference if you are in a house in suburbia or a field in Georgia. Houseparty notifications started popping up for the kids and invites for virtual nights out on Zoom filled our inboxes. Afternoons became less about the space we were in and more about drinking wine with friends in the UK who had just put their kids to bed. We were in a social whirl.
The novelty started to wear off after the umpteenth technical issue: delayed voices, frozen screens, failure to connect. Our livers were struggling with early afternoon drinking; 8pm in the UK is only 3pm in the US and when you can’t really follow the conversation clearly or respond, the wine goes down fast. Our re-connection with friends had always been planned over a cold beer in a pub garden, the way we had said goodbye to most of them last July. The online drunken confusion was premature and unfulfilling.
Nostalgia quickly set in. Why had we stopped playing cards in the evening and started watching Netflix again? Why weren’t we sitting around bonfires learning Avril Lavigne lyrics (Kit is a fan!) and why did I keep looking at news headlines on my phone? Why did I care about Ozark? Where were all the lovely views and quiet spaces? I could feel the tension of home creeping into my shoulders.
Our new ‘lockdown life’ was also causing ripples in homeschooling. We were used to muddling through, working from curriculum guidelines and trying to put together our own lessons. We would spend hours in preparation, copying out questions for the kids to fill in, using super slow data connection to find out how current methods of maths and literacy are taught in schools.
Lockdown flipped a switch. Celebrities and education sites started offering teaching for free, covering everything the kids needed. We were pretty excited because for once we had WiFi and could actually access it. How could we fail with teaching now? Life was going to get easier.
We were wrong.
In the first week we lost our way, sifting through endless, uncoordinated material as we panic-viewed everything. We found ourselves back in our WhatsApp parent’s groups, sharing homeschooling memes and actually achieving nothing as far as our children’s education was concerned.
Just as we had become frustrated with socialising online, we all started to get cross with our school sessions. How could it be that instead of spotting tarantulas and alligators on long hikes, we were like the rest of the UK population: playing ‘spot the difference’ on Joe Wicks‘ shelf?
We had the travel blues. We were ‘virtually’ home and we didn’t want to be there. We needed to claim our trip back.
A location reality check
Of course reminding ourselves we were in America wasn’t hard. We just had to look around us instead of looking at our computer screens. But while the bugs and the sunshine, the people and the tasteless cheese were familiar reminders of our location, there were some pretty scary reminders too.
Covid 19 hits America
Like the rest of the world in February, we had an eye on Corona Virus but were hoping it could be contained. The U.S press downplayed the spread, focusing on Trump’s decision to stop all flights from China and Europe, saving Americans from the fate of the ‘Chinese virus’ that was starting to attack Europe.
New York and Washington were hot-spots but the media portrayed these as an anomaly. Trump passed over the responsibility for Covid-19 management within each State, straight to the State Governors. We are just an hour or so from the Florida border and it was with some concern that we watched as Florida’s Governor decided not to go for a lock-down and instead welcomed 72 flights worth of New Yorkers in one day. 72 flights of people from a place where thousands were infected.
Stories of social unrest began to filter through. While the UK were signing up to volunteer with the NHS, Americans were buying more ammo. Gun sales went up by 70%. There’s a comforting thought.
The US is a medical mess
I watch the UK clapping for the NHS, read the reports of companies working to provide ventilators for pop-up hospitals and feel vulnerable. It’s a different story in the US. Trump’s administration diverted funding put aside for pandemics – cutting efforts to prevent global diseases by 80%. National health spending was cut by $15-billion, making it impossible for Obama Care to function. Hospitals are under-equipped and there is no widely available cheap healthcare option available. People without insurance can’t afford to get a Covid-19 test and they certainly can’t afford treatment. As one friend put it, they would be ‘bottom of the heap’ if they did need to go to hospital and doctors had to choose who would get the limited ventilators.
If your Corona Virus infection means a hospital trip and it goes smoothly, and you have employer insurance, you are looking at about a $9,763 hospital bill. Someone whose treatment has complications may see bills about double that: $20,292. This is based on the Kaiser Family Foundation study on people with pneumonia though and they say, If you required full on Covid ER care with ventilators etc, it could be much, much more. Maybe above $75k.
But it’s covered by insurance?!
Well some of it. Most insurance requires you to make some payment out of your own pocket. In the study I read, that was approximately $1300. Friends have told me that is short. Most people are on high deductible plans, and pay $7500 – $15,000 before insurance STARTS to pay. And they only pay 80% of the costs incurred after that amount.
And then there are those that have no employer cover. You can buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act but cheaper plans only cover 60% of your bills. Many millions of Americans can’t afford it anyway and so have gone without. If you can’t pay you accrue a healthcare debt and can’t get credit to buy a home etc. Very different to the NHS.
Thank goodness we were covered by travel insurance. Or were we?
The wriggly worm of insurance
We took out a policy with World Nomads, an expensive option but one that was recommended by Lonely Planet and thousands of other travelling families. I did lots of research on their coverage and their customers and, in general, gave good feedback. Certainly, with Soren’s knee they were easy to deal with (although we haven’t submitted the claim yet).
World Nomads were clear on their site in January and February – if you had booked to travel before the virus was known, you were covered. But then, in March, they updated their FAQs. The status of the virus had changed to a pandemic and this invoked one of their general exclusions: “we will not cover: epidemics that have been placed under the direction of public authorities”.
We were no longer covered by insurance for any flight cancellations and we were no longer covered if we got sick in the U.S. It’s ok, the FAQs said, you are covered for everything else. Unless of course you are travelling to a country with an ‘all but essential travel’ ban.
So that’s everywhere then? And so we are not covered? What is the point of insurance if it’s not there to support you when you are trapped overseas? It took a further three weeks for them to come back and tell us that we are allowed to travel – as long as we don’t need help with anything Corona- related, all is good.
But could we stay virus free? We had to ask the question: was it safe to stay? Should we return home? The FCO certainly seemed to think we should get out of here.
Catch (Covid) 22: returning home
The big problem was that we couldn’t just up and leave. We owned a Skoolie in America – where would it go? It would also be an insanely expensive and risky option. We already stood to lose a lot of money on our Norwegian flights and now we would have to purchase new, expensive ones, in order to follow their advice.
Assuming we made the decision to do it, we would also have to travel via cities and airports to get there, potentially infecting ourselves. If we made it, we would have nowhere to isolate as our house is being rented out. If we picked Covid-19 up and weren’t allowed to board, we would lose those flights too and then couldn’t claim for any healthcare treatment we might need.
In lieu of advice from our insurers, we contacted the FCO. They told us that the guidelines are for people on holidays, not necessarily for people in situations like ours. We were best off following advice from US authorities if we felt that was a safer option. So the decision baton was passed back to us.
Finding a silver lining
Mercifully, we had somewhere wonderful to stay.
Way back in the planning stages, Guy had flagged a post on Facebook’s Skoolie Nation group by Skoolie Homestead. They offered a place where people could come to work on their builds in Jesup, Georgia for $250 a month / $60 a week.
We arrived to a warm welcome at the Homestead on a Friday. It was hot, humid and full of gnats and mozzies, but we could see we’d found something good. There were 3 other completed Skoolies, including the owner’s, and one that was being built. Unlike every place we have been before, there was not a Snowbird in sight. These were people like us who had chosen to live in a bus. There were other kids to play with and space to run around, people played music and chatted, offering Skoolie advice and stories. We had found the community we had been looking for for months.
Life at the Homestead
We have all the things we recognised were beneficial on that first arrival day – bathroom, shower, power, space, grey-water dump, other kids, laundry, people to chat to – but we also have a strong community to help us get through this. A generous and helpful community as it turns out.
Just after we arrived, the property on the land became empty and the owners of the Homestead decided to use it as a communal space. They installed WiFi and put up hammocks on the deck outside. A huge television was put in for movie nights and we started doing online yoga sessions (as well as Joe Wicks!) every morning. Pot luck suppers were arranged and a ‘horseshoes’ game and Corn Hole was set up in front of the porch. A volleyball net was purchased and afternoon matches were put in place. A swimming pool frame was installed and, before we knew it, we had somewhere to cool down on those hot, humid days.
So what next?
Like the rest of the world we are waiting. We don’t have Covid-19 yet and we haven’t had it (I don’t think), so the safest thing to do is avoid getting it. Wayne County, Georgia, has had a ‘shelter in place’ warning in place, but now it has been removed we are free to go.
Stopping has also given us the impetus to start thinking of what we will do with our bus and what we might want to do when we return to the UK. We have made good contacts at the Homestead and if we do decide to pursue a world which includes Skoolies, we could not have found a better resource than the friends we have made here.
We have also come up with a plan for the Skoolie Homestead Community to look after our bus when we return to the UK. They will offer it as a place to stay for people who are building their own Skoolies – a ‘try before you buy’.
The end of the UK2USASkoolie travel adventure?
Before we stopped in Georgia, our plan had been to travel to Savannah so that we could wander through the streets made so tempting by the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (what a fab book!) and Charleston, where the architecture and history would show us yet another facet of American life.
We had plans to visit Atlanta to stay with friends we made in Belize and then visited in Rio, finding time to visit the Aquarium – something that has been on the boy’s “must do” lists since meeting David in Glacier National Park “It has 4 whale sharks!!”. We had a date in Chatanooga with Guy’s best mate Steve, where we had planned to hike and chat and pretend we were on the run from crazed hillbillies a la Deliverance. All those things are off the table. Steve’s return home date has been and gone.
Although the travel dream is compromised, we still have two months left and that is more than most people get for their whole holiday. We have decided to leave soon to visit the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachians. State Parks are opening again in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, and as long as we have a place to stay we can socially distance in our moving home. Perks of bus life.
For now though, we will accept that stopping still for two months has just been part of our travel adventure – and I’m sure it will even become a highlight. Not only are we having some of our favourite travel times, we are witnessing a world brought together by a pandemic and evolving to offer a new set of rules. We are at the birth of a people discovering that everything can function remotely and that the chains that tie us to a life we don’t want, might be loosened after all. We are watching with joy as friends and family find out something we discovered ten months ago – that living a less socially-demanding life and hanging out with your family can be beautifully uncomplicated and quite special.
Now we are just waiting to see who will be the next to take the leap and spend a year living the Skoolie life.