Marinel de Jesus Counts Her Days to Freedom
The intrepid traveler was trapped overseas, with no end to her misadventure in sight. Taking it one day at a time changed everything.
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Marinel de Jesus shared her story with producer Stepfanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
When I got to Mongolia in late February of 2020, everyone was in panic. I got the news that the borders shut down completely. That was the first time in my life as an avid traveler I’ve heard someone say the country shut down. My brain couldn’t even process that. How am I gonna get out? What’s gonna happen to me?
I was born in the Philippines. I migrated to the U.S. when I was 13, and I lived my life there. And now I’m a global mountain nomad. There are two things I’m very passionate about: one is advocacy, and the second is living in the mountains and hiking and walking and just being in the outdoors.
So I flew to Mongolia late February of 2020, and I got the news that the borders were shutting down [due to the pandemic]. And the embassy was shut down, too.
Solo Trekking in Mongolia During COVID-19
I was the only tourist that I know in this little town called Bayan-Ölgii. There’s about 30,000 local people who spoke Kazakh, the majority didn’t speak English. It was winter, and it was cold, and it was dry. So I was really nervous, and there was a part of me that wanted to be wishfully thinking, Oh, this is nothing. In a week I’m gonna go back. And I even told myself, Oh, how long is my visa in Mongolia? They give you 90 days. I have 90 days to get home. I’ll be fine. But then I also had an apartment back in Peru. I had obligations. I had two cats that I needed to take care of.
I’ve never been stranded in a country where I was by myself. I might get sick. I might die alone in Mongolia. I might go to the hospital and not see my family again, I thought. I gotta go home. I gotta go home.
I spent a lot of time sitting in my hotel room, because it was so cold outside. And I think the scariest part of this journey, really, is the idea of solitude. I’ve done a lot of solo treks before I became a nomad. I started going back to what I know best—to talk to myself. I would just sort of try to relax myself, calm myself down. Maybe, you know, close my eyes, take a nap. I started asking, How do I feel? What am I afraid of? And what can I do to go with the flow?
And so I decided I’m going to start counting the days when I go home, when I go back to where I came from, when I’m gonna get out of Mongolia. So I started counting and I said, OK, what’s the day? Oh, this is already day ten. And how long will it take for me to get out here? And I’m thinking, Maybe on day 20, it’ll be done. On day 30, it’ll be done. But the days kept going. It’s like day 40, day 50. And then one day, it was day 100.
Every time I counted, I always saw something so good in the day that I forgot that I was in panic mode. I was worried that I was stuck in Mongolia when I woke up in the morning. And by counting the day, the first thing subconsciously I’m acknowledging is that I’m alive and I’m well. I’m healthy. I can breathe. And I have this nice bed and, hey, I’m COVID-free. And Mongolia doesn’t have a case yet. Counting the day was the start to a routine of appreciation.
At some point, the government opened things up a little bit more. And so I ended up taking buses, local transports, and moving around a little bit. I walked around the village and the little place that I was in. Even though I was a complete outsider, I was the only foreigner they had. So I just walked around and explored my area. I went to Ulaanbaatar. I went to the north. I went to see different parts of the country.
As a hiker, you already go with the flow, right? You hike and you go with the flow with the weather. You go with the flow with the trail. But going with the flow being a stranded traveler, that’s a different kind of flow. Because it’s for an indefinite period of time, and I had no idea when it’s gonna end.
What if I’m stuck in another situation? Let’s say it’s a tough place to be in, or a life situation, I’ll just count the days. This is day one of dealing with this.
And then I just trusted that, you know, my cats are gonna be fine. That I’m gonna be home one day, but it’s just a matter of time. Two hundred and ninety-four days later, I realized, you know what home is? It’s just where you feel safe and comfortable and accepted and welcomed. And Mongolia gave me that.
By the time I left, I cried so hard. I cried because I realized Mongolia was home, and it was silly of me to always have this in my head where I’m telling myself, I gotta go home, I gotta go home. And in the end, I said to myself, But Marinel, you’re already home.
Marinel de Jesus runs Brown Gal Trekker; Equity Global Treks, a mission-focused mountain-trekking enterprise; and the Porter Voice Collective, where she advocates for human rights of porters and mountain-expedition workers in Peru, Nepal, and Tanzania.