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For those who don’t want to or can’t stay in one place during the pandemic – including Singaporean Isabel Leong – travelling is proving something of a challenge. Photo: Isabel Leong

Pandemic travel: 4 wanderers discuss visas, quarantine and staying on the move during Covid-19

  • Being stuck in one place just isn’t for everyone, even with the pandemic making international travel extremely difficult
  • A translator, a digital nomad, a backpacking teacher and a bird-watching retiree tell their stories of crossing borders during the coronavirus

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned many lives into minor versions of the movie Groundhog Day, but for a few who are unwilling, or unable, to live in suspended animation, continued travelling has proved challenging, bizarre, scary even.

When the crisis began, wayfaring translator Bruce Humes found himself close to the epicentre. “I was in Taiwan, working on a translation of a book about the Mogao Caves, in Dunhuang, on the Silk Road,” he explains.

Humes grew nervous as his 90-day visa-free status neared expiry, with the virus spreading around the world, but Taipei moved fast. 

“Measures were quickly introduced and well publicised. All tourists were given automatic 30-day extensions and the government welcomed tourists to quickly apply for a change of status to student visas or work permits. Two friends applied for the latter and obtained them easily.” 

Bruce Humes visiting Buyukada, an island in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul. Photo: Bruce Humes

Humes was granted several 30-day extensions to his visa. But when the government announced these renewals would end after an applicant had been in Taiwan for 180 days – a policy that ultimately wasn’t enforced – Humes, a polyglot keen to master Turkish, headed for Istanbul.

“I caught a direct flight. Indirect flights were not ideal because they involved short stays at airports that required a document stating you had recently been tested for Covid-19.”

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Despite a pandemic response by Taipei now considered exemplary, arriving from Taiwan would prove troublesome.

“Many countries treated anyone coming from Taiwan – one of the very first places worldwide to close its borders to flights originating on the [Chinese] mainland – as coming from the PRC [the People’s Republic of China],” Humes explains of the difficulty travelling from the self-governing island claimed by Beijing but recognised as an independent state by few.

“My most vivid memory of the flight was a woman seated immediately in front of me [who] literally stripped down to her underwear. I was frankly rather shocked! She then put on a very professional looking hazmat suit, complete with surgeon’s gloves, mask and clear plastic visor.”

A beach in Burhaniye, a coastal town in Turkey where Humes has now made his base. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

But contrary to what he had been told, there was little virus scrutiny on Humes’ arrival, early last August, at the huge new Istanbul International Airport. 

From his new base in Ogretmenler, a suburb of Burhaniye on the shores of the Aegean Sea, Humes enjoyed several months of relatively limited restrictions. But Turkey’s open-door policy has led to daily new-case numbers rocketing from around 30,000 in March to 60,000 in late April.

“President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has suddenly announced a lockdown [until at least] May 15. During this period – Ramadan in Muslim-majority Turkey, when many will be fasting from sunrise to sunset – most residents may leave their residences only to buy food or medicine, with exceptions for emergencies and workers in certain industries. Restaurants and cafes can still do takeaway and delivery, but no dining on the premises. The daily curfew has now been extended from 7pm to 5am. And travel between cities now requires government permission.”

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Short-term tourists, a few of which are still entering Turkey, are exempted from all of the above, but Humes, on a multiple entry/exit “tourist resident permit”, is subject to the restrictions.

“This effectively extends the earlier nationwide weekend semi-lockdown to every day. Personally, I don’t find it too onerous. Once new cases drop down below 10,000 daily or so, Erdogan is likely to reinstate the ranking system, whereby provinces with a fairly low incidence of [Covid-19] will once again allow on-premises dining. Previously, each province was ranked one to four, with four the most serious.”

Humes believes, too, that sun lovers will not have to forgo their vitamin D this summer. “An indication of what is to come is the way that this tiny resort town is busy sprucing up the beach, parks and so forth.”
Leong is currently in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Isabel Leong

Like Turkey, Mexico has been proving a popular destination with those willing to brave the perils of pandemic travel. 

“Lots of digital nomads are arriving here, they’re coming from everywhere,” says Singaporean Isabel Leong, from her current base in Oaxaca.

Leong bid farewell to the Lion City in 2018 to pursue a life less ordinary. Financing her wanderlust as a content and social media strategist, she returned home for Chinese New Year in 2020 “and then the lockdown happened”.

Leong in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Photo: Isabel Leong

Months stuck in the family home weren’t easy, says Leong. So when travel restrictions started to loosen, she saw a window of opportunity and jumped. 

“I went to Seattle [in the United States] in October. Even though quite a lot of restrictions were in place, it felt like there was more space than in Singapore. I could be close to nature and smell the dew on the grass,” she says of her experience living in a friend’s recreational vehicle. 

After travelling through Colorado and California, Leong surveyed the scene. Although travel was proving challenging because of pandemic restrictions, memories of Singapore’s suffocating urban density kept her focused on the road ahead.

“People back home are going crazy, booking staycations – just staying in a hotel in their hometown. If you want to go to the beach you have to pre-book a plot. They’re also taking trips on cruise ships making round trips with no port calls, essentially going nowhere.”

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Leong flew to Costa Rica and stayed for six weeks before heading north, to Mexico.

“It was incredibly easy, it felt like I hadn’t left the country,” she says of arriving by plane in Cancun, where neither a PCR test nor quarantine was required. 

This loose attitude to entry might be one of the reasons Mexico’s Covid-19 death toll is now the fourth highest in the world at more than 219,000, behind the United States, Brazil and India. Leong says she remains conscious of this fact. “I’m travelling differently from usual. I find a place and stay there for a month and work. I get takeaway instead of eating out. And I avoid crowded places like Mexico City.”
Claudia Loughran was in Mexico when Covid-19 began to spread. Photo: Claudia Loughran

British wanderer Claudia Loughran, speaking just before leaving for Spain, says she too has felt relatively safe travelling in Mexico, although it has not been without its eccentricities: “There’s a Covid-19 foot wash you need to step through when entering restaurants and shops. I’m not sure what that does.”

Having worked as an English teacher in Southeast Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, Loughran was in Mexico when Covid-19 began to spread. “But the virus reached globalised areas first: Asia, Europe and North America. Like Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America is less connected, so it took longer to get here.”

But arrive it did and, by March 2020, Loughran found herself at Mexico City International Airport with an expensive one-way British Airways ticket in hand. 

“I saw people wearing face masks for the first time as I’d been travelling remote areas. Some people in the airport were crying, their holidays cut short. The plane was completely full.”

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Rootless, Loughran had no choice but to return to her family home in Wiltshire, but when British restrictions eased last June, she tested her travel legs in Europe. “I travelled overland to Poland as I’d done as a child. I saw old friends in Germany and visited Warsaw, which is a fantastic city.”

But cases were spiking again and individual countries were introducing new regulations, sometimes overnight. “It was extremely hard for me to keep abreast of things. And I’ve travelled in some of the most difficult parts of the world.”

Still, she pressed on. “I went to Brazil in November. Obviously [President Jair] Bolsonaro hasn’t handled the pandemic well, there’s been no national policy, although states have acted with regionalised lockdowns.”

Loughran says there is a Covid-19 foot wash you need to step through when entering a restaurant or shop in Mexico. Photo: Claudia Loughran

Like Brazil, Mexico was open for business and welcoming, found Loughran, when she returned, although she feels “the backpacker vibe is really missing”.

But life goes on, she says. “I think lockdowns are a privilege of the rich. Of course, I’ve chosen to keep moving but governments haven’t really considered what to do with people who live like me.

“A stay-at-home order is not easy when you don’t have a home.”

Steven Happ was in Malaysia when the lockdowns in the country began. Photo: Thomas Bird
The Australian government has been criticised for not bringing people home, its “travel cap” having pushed up the cost of flights and expensive mandatory quarantine leaving tens of thousands of Australians stranded abroad. Even before the recent ban on returnees from India specifically, the situation had become so desperate that a trio representing those trapped overseas had filed a petition with the UN’s Human Rights Committee.

“I would have gone back to get vaccinated if the process was transparent and easy, but it’s just a nightmare,” says Australian Steven Happ, from Galle, Sri Lanka.

Since retiring in 2017, Happ has been chasing the horizon. “From 2017 to 2019 I travelled around the world then drove around Australia before visiting my daughter in China and then heading down to Indonesia.” 

Happ birdwatching in Malaysia. Photo: Thomas Bird

He has no fixed address and prefers to spend his time pursuing passions such as bird watching in exotic locations. 

“In March last year, I flew from Indonesia to Malaysia. I was there for two weeks before the lockdown began. I was stuck on Pangkor Island [halfway down the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia] for three months.

“I was living in a Chinese kampong; I had a guest house on the jetty. I had a kitchen and cooked my own meals. There was Wi-fi and the landlords were good people. I was birdwatching for a couple days until I learned that that wasn’t allowed. You were only able to go shopping or to essential places like doctors. Restaurants were only takeaway.

“After three months, even though I liked the place, I just wanted to keep travelling.” 

The jetty on Pangkor Island, where Happ spent three months. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Malaysia had closed its borders on March 18, 2020 but offered amnesty to foreigners trapped in the country even if their social visit passes had expired. This January, it was announced that foreign nationals would have to either apply for a special extension or leave 14 working days after the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) ended, on March 31.

“After the initial lockdown I was able to travel to Penang and then Langkawi,” Happ says. But after five months on the holiday island, he felt he’d “photographed every bird” and began making plans. After considering Thailand and Nepal – tourism-dependent economies open to travellers willing to quarantine and purchase recognised travel insurance – Happ set his sights on Sri Lanka, which has a similar policy in place.

“I booked my trip, including a quarantine hotel, via a Sri Lankan agent,” Happ explains. “I had to get official permission from the police to travel across states in Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, I then had to get a PCR test for 300 Ringgit [US$70] as a negative result was required just to get on a plane. I got another police pass before going to the airport.”

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Happ flew into Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport on March 18. He was met by an assigned driver and taken directly to a resort, where he was to remain quarantined for a fortnight. “It wasn’t too bad. All the staff had to remain in the resort grounds so nobody could bring the virus in or out. They all wore masks. Everyone was tested the night we arrived and two more times. You could walk around and even go to the beach. I went surfing!”

Now free to roam in a country that has recorded more than 123,000 cases (in a population of 22 million) to date, Happ says, “I’m staying away from Colombo and going to head to small towns, beaches and rural places.

“I’ve already photographed a crimson-fronted barbet,” he says proudly.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Continental drifters