“So you’re like a human smallpox blanket then, huh?”
I received all sorts of reactions when telling people about my plans to travel abroad to Colombia for fly fishing during the middle of a pandemic. Some responded with supreme jealousy. It was like a lightbulb went off in their heads as they realized that travel is actually possible despite the unusual circumstances. Others simply thought I was insane. “You’re really going to travel to the land of Pablo Escobar with a killer virus on the loose? Cool, good luck with that.” But the reactions that really made me question myself were those that responded with disdain or disappointment, such as the previously mentioned comment comparing me to a murderer of the indigenous. Was my decision to travel during the Covid-19 pandemic selfish? Was it reckless? Ultimately, would it be deadly?
I thought hard about the ethics of international fly fishing travel during this strange time. Having already experienced a Covid infection myself, and having the great fortune of full vaccination due to my status as a healthcare worker, my decision was somewhat easier. Nevertheless, as new Covid variants with uncertain characteristics pop up every week, my immunity is not a given. Still, I felt like my actions posed little danger to myself or anyone with whom I would have contact. When a cancellation provided an opportunity to fish for river monsters in the jungles of Colombia, I seized the chance.
I experienced multiple absurdities likely unique to travel during the Covid era. At several airports, sanitation workers would approach and spray me and my baggage with some mystery chemical that would purportedly reduce my chance of spreading Covid. Nearly every public building in Colombia requires a contactless examination of one’s hand temperature prior to entry (despite this not being an accurate representation of core temperature). The Colombian police took great interest in the presence of a gringo traveling through eastern Colombia during the middle of a pandemic. These encounters resulted in some of the proudest moments of my mediocre Spanish-speaking career, as I successfully explained that I was only there to catch and release their stunning fish. One day before we returned to the United States, our home country instituted a rule (rightfully so) requiring a negative Covid test before travel back home. After our domestic flight was delayed by eight hours, we returned to Bogota at 8 PM, frantically searching for a rapid Covid test before our early morning flight the next day. Miraculously, through the help of a kind acquaintance in Bogota, we were able to make this happen.
Prior to our arrival in the jungles of eastern Colombia, I worried about the reception we might receive for our decision to travel during the pandemic. Most of the people we met were indigenous members of various tribes living around the Orinoco River. The comment about being a “human smallpox blanket” weighed heavily on my mind as we arrived at the frontier town of Puerto Carreño en route to the jungle.
But the local people seemed universally thrilled to see tourists like us. I’m the first to acknowledge the worldwide disaster that is Covid, but it turns out that people in this region have much bigger worries than the virus. Likely due to the heat and outdoor lifestyle, the VIchada state of Colombia has experienced very little influence from the virus. This is not a wealthy part of the world at baseline. Tourism and farming provide most of the opportunities for economic advancement outside of subsistence fishing in the Orinoco River. With the tourism economy near collapse due to the pandemic, my wallet and I received a very friendly welcome upon our arrival.
Additionally, scores of people are suffering just across the border in Venezuela due to the oppressive and corrupt government of that country. We witnessed the tragic sight of whole families trudging along the side of the road, as they walked toward the larger cities of Colombia in an effort to escape their homeland. I met a Venezuelan dermatologist working at our fishing camp, presumably because there was more money to be had with this endeavor than in the career for which he trained. He told me, “there is plenty of work available in Venezuela, but no money to pay for it.” One of our excellent guides was an indigenous Venezuelan man named Silvio. With his wife in the hospital, he decided to continue on for a few days as our guide. I presume the desperate economic situation in Venezuela had something to do with Silvio’s decision. Given the socioeconomic situation in this part of the world, we received a very warm reception despite the ongoing pandemic.
We had an incredible trip, and in retrospect I am very pleased that we decided to travel. I’m still not sure if this was the ethical thing to do, but I am at peace with our decision. If you decide to travel, follow the rules of your home country and the country to which you are traveling as it pertains to Covid. Wear a mask, and continue social distancing whenever possible. Respect local efforts to curtail the spread of the virus. If possible, get the Covid vaccine before travel. If done responsibly, it is my belief that fly fishing travel can still be safe and rewarding for both the angler and those receiving travelers. The venturing angler should be prepared for unexpected challenges due to the pandemic. But with ample preparation, a flexible attitude, and a little luck, there are great adventures to be had during these unusual times.