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