It was a trip of a lifetime, and nothing could stop them from going. At the end of February as coronavirus started to creep into Americans' awareness, Texas sign painter Sean Starr and his partner Jenny Baker were still packing their bags. They were set to fly to Nepal (with a stop in Dubai) on Feb. 29 with the Dallas-based Exploredinary duo Sarah Reyes and Daniel Driensky to embark on a film-making project about Nepalese artisans.
Starr had traveled to Nepal the year before and used the contacts he made to set up an adventure that would introduce the group to Nepalese sign painters, potters, carpenters, printmakers, paper makers, bookbinders, metalworkers and other artisans. They would also travel into the mountains to film segments about the company Clean Drink Adventures, which uses motorcycle tours to bring water-filtration systems to remote Himalayan villages.
The group agreed that filming these working artists and working with Clean Drink Adventures to bring attention to the beauty of Nepal and its people were worth the risk. “The documentary will show how art is an expression of love and how love is a universal theme that crosses all language and cultural barriers,” Reyes said.
Starr runs a sign painting shop, Starr Studios, that moved from Denton to Calvert last fall. His business partner, Norma Jeanne Maloney, was hoping to join the trip but had a health issue keep her in Texas. She would manage shop and continue setting up their gallery space set to open in Tyler while Starr traveled.
The plan was to stay in Nepal filming for a couple of weeks. Reyes and Driensky would then head to London in mid-March for another project. Starr and Baker were planning to travel to Varanasi, India, in late March. The foursome headed up treacherous roads into the mountains for more filming opportunities, including to a school where Starr would paint a large mural.
While they were camping in the mountains with spotty phone service, international borders started to tighten. On March 11, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would close its borders to Europe on March 13; India suspended its travel visas starting March 13. Starr and Baker’s travel visa to India was on hold.
On March 12, Starr posted to his Facebook account, “Words can’t describe what we just experienced here in Nepal. Now the tricky part, getting home with all the border stuff. ...”
Reyes and Driensky were still able to take their flight on March 17 from Nepal to Dubai to London, where they had to quickly purchase a flight to DFW. Starr and Baker had no luck finding flights out of Nepal as carriers started dropping connections.
“We had no warning at all, never even got emails from the airlines that the flights were canceled. What made matters worse was no airlines would answer emails or phone calls for days, so we made our way to the Kathmandu Airport only to find a note on our airline's office door saying all flights canceled. You could hear their phones ringing nonstop inside,” Starr said.
“Many flights, we found, are not being canceled until the last minute due to legislation stating the airline will owe you a refund if they cancel,” Reyes said.
They kept trying to find a way out. “At that point we decided to head to the U.S. Embassy, which refused to meet us in person. We had to speak with someone through a phone in front of the embassy whose reply to our request for assistance was, ‘What do you want us to do? We aren’t a travel agency, you need to sort things out for yourself.’” Starr and Baker were shocked.
Trump’s follow-up recommendations for stranded citizens were met with confused responses from officials. “When we asked about Trump’s announcement of a task force for stranded Americans, we were told they knew nothing about it and highly doubted anything like that was ever going to be available for us,” he said.
The U.S.-Nepalese Embassy had the following statement on their website detailing COVID-19 information: “Per the order all residents and visitors in Kathmandu are required to remain in their place of residence. All movement on the roads, by vehicle and on foot, is currently prohibited with very limited life safety exceptions … U.S. citizens are advised to shelter in place during this period.” The government lockdown of Kathmandu Valley is set to remain until Tuesday, March 31.
On their return route, Reyes and Driensky encountered thousands of unmasked, stressed travelers in the airports and crammed onto their flights. When they arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, they were concerned when the customs health screening required only a signature stating passengers were well.
For now, Starr and Baker are being held hostage to coronavirus and the methods of international containment. They are healthy and comfortable while holed up in a small family-owned hotel in Bhaktapur. They find themselves in the company of a similarly stranded French couple, Lise Caprili and Michel Schulze. They enjoy their traditional meals of dal bhat, a Nepalese lentil curry, as groceries become scarce. Jenny, a yoga instructor, leads the group in practice on the roof patio. They still have internet access and Netflix for binge watching Tiger King.
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On March 30, Starr and Baker received word from the U.S. Embassy that a chartered plane would be flying Americans out on March 31. Repatriation comes with a high price tag, though. Starr was quoted between $2,000 and $3,000 a ticket from Kathmandu back to Washington Dulles Airport, at which point they would be responsible for their own flight back to Texas. Even with the cost, they will take the flight. Remaining in a developing country inundated with coronavirus is not reassuring. “I love it here. The culture and people here are beautiful, and it’s a peaceful place, but home is home,” Starr says.
Reyes and Driensky are worried about the economic future for the people they filmed and met abroad. “We are devastated that Nepal, a third-world country which relies so heavily on tourism, will suffer during this global pandemic,” Reyes said. “Most of the people we interviewed and became friends with are currently out of work, and will likely struggle to survive in the coming months.”
Besides the mayhem of their returns, both couples agree that the experience was worth it. Reyes and Driensky were happy that they were able to film everything they needed before departing. “Nepal was indeed a life-changing experience, and we don’t regret going on the trip amidst this crazy pandemic,” Reyes said. “If anything, we are more happy to have gone on the trip, because we don’t know when we’ll all be allowed to travel internationally again.”
Starr echoed Reyes. “No one could have anticipated how things would have taken shape at the end of February when we were packing to leave,” Starr said. “But life is dynamic and you can’t hold back or you miss life’s great experiences.”