2021 Degrees of Separation

How husband-and-wife writers Jonathan Evans and Tara Sering spent almost a year apart, unable to reconnect in Cambodia as the Delta variant swept Southeast Asia.

2021 Degrees of Separation

Countries apart, months away during the COVID pandemic.

Illustration by Haley Tippmann

“I’ll miss you very much! See you in two months. Love, Tara xx”.

So ended the farewell card my wife wrote me before she flew from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Manila in the Philippines on January 25, 2021. I drank alone in Bassac Lane that night and departed for my hometown, Siem Reap, the next day, expecting to be reunited in March. But it would be almost a year before I’d see Tara again.

While Cambodia’s COVID-19 caseload was minimal and borders remained open at this point, Siem Reap—the nation’s key tourism money-spinner—had transformed into a virtually visitor-free zone. Overseas tourists vanished, and for the first time since 20 years ago, “Temple Town” became the exclusive domain of its local population.

By the time the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, thousands of hospitality-sector workers had returned to their rural lives; crowds admiring Angkor Archaeological Park diminished by 98 percent. Businesses citywide were boarded up indefinitely and tourist hot spots like Pub Street, the sprawling city-center entertainment area, turned into desolate, dark backwaters.

Stunned by the sudden economic collapse, Tara and I simply sat back and tried to take it all in. We left our leafy pandemic home—an apartment in a boutique hotel converted from a 1960s building—once a week to hold a children’s outdoor art class, hoping to bring them some creative stimulation soon after schools shut down nationwide. We watched incredulously as seismic news events flashed daily across our TV screen, instantly changing the world around us—daily life, travel, workplaces, even entire industries.

We adopted a black cat with white feet—naming her Socks—and settled into a domestic lifestyle just as our profession, travel writing, went into freefall. I tried to eke out a living in copywriting as Tara branched out into public relations, establishing a startup as journalism opportunities declined. The country plunged into paranoia, with rumors of outbreaks rife, based on little or no fact. But actual case numbers, as in neighboring Vietnam and Laos, remained extremely low throughout the year.

In late 2020, Tara’s father Nicanor became increasingly frail with liver disease, and as we spent a reflective Christmas in Siem Reap, she knew that she’d soon have to make the trip home to Manila. She made it just in time. Nicanor’s condition deteriorated in early February 2021, and as I sat by my phone, awaiting updates, on Saturday, February 13—Tara’s birthday—Papi entered the hospital for the last time. He passed away just after midnight.

Family is essential to Filipino culture, and communal bereavement is taken seriously. In the weeks after Papi’s death, Tara set aside her private grieving to organize a series of Zoom wakes, covering several dozen households, each overseen by the family priest. Then, as the Delta variant swept Asia, the Philippine government instigated one of the world’s strictest stay-at-home lockdowns for residents of Manila—making a few exemptions such as frontline workers—that would also become one of the longest. Tara’s March return home, already ambitious, was now impossible.

The pandemic was worsening in Cambodia, too. Coronavirus case numbers had plateaued at double figures until one catastrophic event—the infamous “February 20 Incident”—changed everything. Four recent arrivals, including two COVID-19 patients, on a flight from Dubai checked into quarantine at Phnom Penh’s Sokha Hotel, supposedly under supervision, but escaped just one day later by bribing security guards. They visited condos and nightspots in the city, triggering the country’s first major outbreak. By the time their misdeeds were discovered, tests carried out after contact tracing around the capital on February 20 revealed that up to 20 locations were COVID hot spots.

Before long, all 25 provinces in Cambodia were infected. Alarm spread across this small population of 16 million. April’s Khmer New Year festival was postponed for the first time, and every shop in Siem Reap enforced sanitizer and mask-wearing rules, as well as QR (quick-response) codes that allowed entry to customers who had tested negative for the virus.

Via video calls and texting, Tara and I shared news from our respective homes. It was an imperfect situation for a married couple, but one not entirely new to us; over the years, work had taken us on many separate travel assignments. While she sheltered with her mother and sisters in Manila, my new life couldn’t have been more different. I was living a curious double existence: my days spent roaming my city-center neighborhood and my nights, out of necessity, home alone with Socks, Netflix, and YouTube to keep me company. My hotel by then was deserted save for daytime visits from the remaining maintenance staff.

Despite missing her companionship intensely—the musical lilt of her voice, her footsteps coming up the stairs, the way we laughed at absurdities—I vowed to stay healthy, and stay happy.

But despite the tourist no-show, Siem Reap was far from a ghostly place during the pandemic: The government instead capitalized on the city’s relative inactivity, embarking on a vast infrastructure initiative. The 38 Roads Project took advantage of visitors’ absence to reconfigure the city center’s major streets, introducing new surfaces, broad sidewalks, and riverside pathways to a city choking on its own unchecked overdevelopment.

The process of navigating the city during the reconstruction became, if anything, even more challenging than COVID. Hazardous crevasses appeared along major thoroughfares; precarious planks offered wobbly access to stores cut off by drainage work; manholes gaped wide open; smoke-belching trucks transported sand and gravel across this once-idyllic town, coating its buildings in billowing dust clouds.

Rainy season was even worse. Roads became rivers, and quicksand-like mud stuck to every square inch of street (and shoe) in Siem Reap. As authorities imposed curfews and travel bans, there was no escape from the city.

In the sweltering heat, the ever-resilient locals seemed to laugh it all off. While expats moaned on Facebook, to them this was a mild temporary inconvenience. Instead, they got to work again, albeit in face masks. As major outbreaks stayed away, outdoor markets kept trading and entrepreneurs unveiled a string of riverside cafés.

A familiar cast of characters filled the muddy streets: motorbikes, often carrying entire families; mobile snack carts with blaring loudspeakers; shoeless, saffron-robed monks; 4x4-toting road hogs; and colorful carts stacked with woven baskets, feather dusters, and crafted wooden artifacts.

Embattled tuk-tuk drivers facing two years of near-unemployment smiled when I politely declined their offers for a ride, as if manners mattered much more than making money. Instead of resenting the restrictions of COVID life, I formed wonderful new friendships—locals working at spas, cafés, my own hotel—and simply fell more deeply in love with the city, and the culture of its wonderful residents, than ever before.

I was solitary, but never lonely; reflective, but never sad. Tara, too, was stuck within the Philippines, and relocated to the surfers’ paradise of Siargao, her siblings’ adoptive hometown, while she enjoyed beach walks, caring for her dog, and paddle-boarding. Despite missing her companionship intensely—the musical lilt of her voice, her footsteps coming up the stairs, the way we laughed at absurdities—I vowed to stay healthy, and stay happy.

The Tokyo Olympics and Euro 20 arrived in quick succession, providing instant relief from the gloomy outlook. As frequent power/Wi-Fi blackouts plagued the city, I filled my days with long walks where roadworks allowed, stopping at street stalls ladling out incredible meals for a dollar—num bahn chok (noodles with a green, fishy gravy), bai sach chrouk (marinated pork served with rice)—and food markets staffed by the loveliest vendors I’d ever met.

While the relentless summer rain poured down, a September lockdown got serious with rising COVID cases: two weeks of takeaway deliveries, with an alcohol ban on top of home isolation. Even in faraway Siargao, Tara underwent lockdown; but as she started to prepare her departure, she too succumbed to the virus. Her solitary days were punctuated by thrice-daily meals cooked by her brother, who lived in the next-door house. In bleaker moments, I wondered whether we’d ever see each other again.

So I was overjoyed when, after a month of recovery and uncertainty over her return, Tara texted me with news: She was coming home on November 12, with touchdown in Phnom Penh, followed by a week in hotel quarantine. A nightmarish experience at Manila airport had her in tears with a last-minute rush to buy mandatory insurance before her night flight to Phnom Penh. Once she arrived, quarantine rules were discarded by the Cambodian government just four days into her stay; a few days later, and she needn’t have paid for a hotel after all. It somehow summed up 2021.

My wife arrived a day earlier than announced at my doorstep on November 17—297 days after our last teary farewell. Two months had become 10. Unprepared for the surprise on a warm night, I wasn’t even wearing a T-shirt.

Our first embrace was almost tentative, so unfamiliar had we become with close contact. Then we both laughed, hugging each other tightly. Within minutes we were chatting like we’d seen each other yesterday. Friends come and go, but soulmates remain in your heart forever.

Although 2021 was a time we’d prefer to delete from memory, ultimately it became unforgettable—mostly for the wrong reasons, but on that delirious evening in November, for all the right ones too.

Tara and Jonathan, reunited.

Tara and Jonathan, reunited.

Courtesy of Jonathan Evans

>>Next: A Man, a Dog, a Walk Around the World

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