Travel During a Pandemic
Updated: Feb 13
Why We Travel
When our two offspring moved out of the house in 2012, we decided it was time to focus on how to escape the Great Canadian Winter. While most people dream of the day they retire and embark on extended vacations, as small business owners running a publishing company, we expected to write books far into the future.
Why not spend four months a year in a tropical clime, and then return to our home in Canada for 8 months? Having travelled extensively in SE Asia, we felt this region had the attributes we desired: amazing people, beautiful beaches, top-notch dining options, and affordability—in actuality, it's not much more expensive than staying at home.
Don't think you can live like this?
For eight years we did just that: we lived two lives—one at our home in Walkerville, (Windsor) Ontario, writing and publishing our well-received local history books while helping other authors self-publish; and the other as independent travellers seeking adventure in exotic locales.
Since 2013, our preferred haunts included Bali and Thailand, but we also explored numerous other countries, including several circle-pacific trips and three round-the-world tours. We organized everything ourselves, becoming expert at finding off-the-beaten track and popular places.
We aren’t country collectors; instead we've visited Bangkok- one of our favourite cities (but only for four days!), almost twenty times. Bali – despite drawing millions of tourists a year – still beguiled us with her charms and deep-seeded religious culture. We managed to tour Europe twice as well—as they say, Paris is always a good idea.
Whispers of a Pandemic
After a very frenetic Christmas selling season, we were off once again in January 2020 to Hanoi. When we visited Vietnam in 2016, we didn’t immediately fall in love with it. After re-watching the late Anthony Bourdain’s Vietnam travelogues, especially when we saw how much he loved the country, we decided to give it another shot.
One of the most brutal parts of getting there is the Trans-Pacific flight. This time, we flew from Toronto to Hanoi through Taipei; we departed at 1am on Tuesday and arrived at noon the following day.
We immediately fell in love with Hanoi, particularly the old city where we stayed at a very quaint boutique hotel staffed by the most caring and devoted staff—a theme that would be repeated throughout our travels in Vietnam.
After a few days of taking in the sights in Hanoi, we flew down to Hue. That's when we started hearing some rumblings about a virus that had begun to spread in Wuhan, China. A cursory glance at a map indicated China bordered Vietnam.
Like many, we thought this "Corona Virus" was nothing more than a bad flu. When Chinese officials locked down the city of Wuhan, and the death count started to climb, we began to pay more attention to the headlines; we weren't yet worried, even as Chinese New Year, known as Tet in Vietnam, approached.
Considered the largest human migration on the planet, Chunyun, the 40-day period when Chinese people head home to celebrate the Lunar New Year Spring Festival with their families, began on January 10, and would end on February 18.
What could go wrong?
Onward to the charming and extremely popular city of Hoi An, favoured by Chinese tourist for its UNESCO-listed preserved heritage buildings, reminiscent of an ancient Chinese trading post from a 1000 years ago. On our first day in town, we were shocked by how packed the streets were with predominantly Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean tourists; hordes of tour buses arriving from nearby Danang were packed with holidayers.
Since the streets were chock a block with people during the day, we decided it would be better to visit old town after dusk. While nighttime did bring some crowd relief, the quaint bridges were absolutely jammed with photo-taking tourists and difficult to cross as a result.
And then, wham! The Chinese government ordered all its citizens to return home. Turns out there was a particularly large contingent from Wuhan vacationing in the Hoi An region. Suddenly the tourist population in Hoi An was reduced by more than half! We were able to comfortably enjoy a festive Tet Celebration at midnight replete with fireworks and dancing in the street.
And then, onto Nah Trang, the coastal tourist town favoured by Chinese, with numerous direct flights from Wuhan. The streets were eerily empty, but we thought this was due to Tet, as everything closed in Vietnam.
Next stop for us was the hill resort of Dalat; the government had begun to hand out masks to everyone and we saw people on the street giving them out to passerby. The headlines by this point were pretty bleak, but the virus still seemed contained to China.
We flew to Bangkok in early February, amidst more rumblings about the virus' impact on the Chinese economy. We found the country was almost completely shut down. Having been to Thailand many times before, we found this very bizarre. We were keeping track of the number of cases in both Thailand and Vietnam and were relieved to see that they were still very low, but we couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the actual numbers weren't being released.
The flight to Bangkok had been only half full, which was very unusual as passengers on the discount carriers are usually packed in like sardines. Once we landed in Bangkok, normally one of the busiest airports in the world, we rushed to get ahead of the line at Customs and Immigration, which was usually a madhouse with very long queues. After our race through the long corridors of the airport terminal, we were amazed to discover that no one was in line. A first for us!
After a couple of days in a somewhat less crowded Bangkok, another popular destination during the Lunar New Year, we carried on to the idyllic island of Koh Kut near the Cambodian border. We spent three weeks in paradise on postcard-perfect beaches.
Our winter life seemed to be doing just fine.
But doom and gloom headlines kept appearing on our news feeds. As a result, I was hesitant to book a flight to Bali. Things were starting to unravel as the virus had spread into Europe.
Eventually we decided to fly to Bali, as we love the place so much – it is one of our preferred destinations for a wide variety of reasons.
That Time The World Changed
The situation regarding the Corona virus began to change from bad to worse. At some point, it hit us that this wasn’t just like the flu: this was a real deal pandemic, the stuff of science-fiction.
We'd moved to Bali's east coast resort known as Amed and booked into a magnificent hotel set into steep cliffs overlooking an infinity pool and incredible vistas across the Lombok Strait. The weather was perfect, the seas calm, and we were hanging with travel friends from Cape Cod and Saskatchewan ... life was good.
But the same couldn’t be said for the news.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau pleaded for all Canadians travelling abroad to return home; the World health Organization had declared the now-renamed Corvid-19 virus a global pandemic. We had previously booked tickets to travel by fast boat to the idyllic Gili Islands for a week and then onto to Flores to see the Komodo dragons, which we had finally decided to visit as they were quiet this year without Chinese tourists. We adored the Gillis and had traveled to these charming tropical islands three times in the past ... they were an easy side trip from Bali.
We knew that if we travelled back to Canada at that point, the jets and airports would be packed, not a smart move during a pandemic. The American government announced the closure of its airports to European travellers. Other countries soon followed suit. Nevertheless, we made the decision to carry on to the Gillis, figuring it was a safe place to monitor developments.
On a perfect day to catch a fast boat across the Lombok Strait, Mount Rinjani, an often active volcano which forms part of the Ring of Fire, loomed large on the horizon (in 2019, when we visited the Gilis, we'd experienced a 5.9 earthquake, a jarring follow up to the devastating Lombok earthquake of 2018 when 563 people were killed, more than 1,000 were injured, and more than 417,000 people were displaced.
Instead of heading straight the Gili Islands, the boat was redirected to the small port of Bangsai on Lombok. Health officials came on board and took everyone's temperature; we were given the all-clear and proceeded to our destination: Gili Air.
As we pulled into the dock we noticed many boats jammed up at the main pier, so many that we had to queue for a slip. When we finally disembarked, we were surprised to see that the dock was packed with Western tourists leaving the island.
"Wow!" said Elaine. "Must be a big tour group. I see a lot of orange lanyards."
"Could be," I said. "I wonder if anyone's left on the island?"
We didn't get a sense of panic at this point, but there was an unmistakable feeling of something in the air.
We pulled our small wheelie suitcases along the familiar main road up to our beautiful small resort. As we checked in, the manager smiled and said, "Don't worry. We will take good care of you."
"Thanks!" I said, but I couldn't help but wonder why he'd said, 'don't worry'.
"The island is now closed to fast boats," he continued.
"What?' said Elaine. "Will we be able to get off?"
He smiled again and said, "Oh yes, there are slow boats, still."
Hm, I thought. The slow boats take forever and they cross one of the deepest trenches of water on the planet. Not fun. We always avoid them as a result.
So now we knew why the port was so full – everyone was leaving due to the renamed COVID-19 virus, even though there were no cases in the Gilis. The islands were going into lock down (one of many new 2020 buzzwords) to keep the virus from coming in.
We realized that we could take a local slow boat to Bangsai in Lombok then take a taxi to the Lombok airport in order to fly back to Bali. That is, if the officials on Lombok would allow us to travel.
Then, on March 16th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a rather pointed announcement. He urged all Canadians abroad to return, stating “let me be clear, if you’re abroad, it is time to come home.”
We were torn. Should we immediately head across to Lombok, fly to Bali and try to arrange passage back to Canada? Once again we thought about the crowds and how if we waited a while, we could avoid them.
I was really torn, but then Elaine said, "It's so beautiful, let's go snorkelling. We'll feel better afterwards and then we can figure out what to do."
The conditions were absolutely ideal. I felt a lot better afterwards and we decided to wait at least another day before leaving the island.
"After all," reasoned Elaine, "What better place to be in a pandemic than on what is basically a deserted island with lots of great food and a beautiful resort to stay in?"
Many people dream of getting stranded on a tropical island. We decided to walk around the tiny island; by our count there were less than 100 foreigners remaining on Gili Air when the numbers at this time of the year typically run into the thousands. In the seven years since we'd been coming to this island, numerous resorts had sprung up on all four shores.
But suddenly, the streets, resorts and cafes were empty.
We procrastinated. Staff waited on us hand and foot; they were so grateful for the business. The weather was perfect (the previous year it was rainy).
Another day went by.
Then a headline got my attention: Qantas Airlines, one of the biggest international carriers, was shutting down its entire operation.
On March 20th, we plotted our escape from the Gilis. We booked a private boat from our resort to Lombok with a connection to the airport. A Dutch couple who abruptly departed the day after we arrived on the Gilis provided us with a contact on Lombok. We gave him a call and he agreed to pick us up on a private launch to pick us up at our resort’s beach restaurant.
It was a perfect day in paradise as the boat pulled up to the beach on time at 8:30am. We convinced a young British couple who'd checked into our resort that we felt that is was time to get off the island.
They decided to tag along with us.
I was stressed the boat might not arrive and was relieved when it landed. We boarded the small boat but instead of turning to Bangsai Harbour, where we would be screened by officials, the boat set a northwest course to an isolated beach along Lombok’s northwest coast. As we pulled in, we spotted a lone taxi parked by the shore.
If felt like a movie escape scene.
We thought the taxi might be a tight fit for four people plus the driver, but all our luggage fit in the truck- we were travelling light! But imagine our surprise when the driver indicated his brother was with him, so there'd be six of us in the compact car.
What a scene as we rolled along Lombok’s magnificent coastline.
The driver indicated that most resorts we passed were closed due to virus.
Would they ever open again?
After about an hour and half we were deposited at Lombok Airport. The first time we saw what would become the new norm- seats were marked for "social distancing," areas were taped off to ensure proper queuing, masks were in use everywhere.
We boarded a big jet for the short 25 minute flight to Bali- one of the quickest rides we’d even had on a commercial jet, which was full, including Balinese getting off Lombok. The other option back to Bali was a five hour slow ferry packed with locals, which did not seem like a good prospect.
Once at Bali’s Ngurai Airport, our friend Agung was waiting for us. We needed to rebook our Eva Airlines flight back to Canada asap. Google map indicated the Eva Airlines office was located outside the terminal. We drove around in circles until we realized it was a wild goose chase. A security guard indicated the Eva Air office was at the main terminal.
Back to the international terminal; a huge line to enter the pre-security clearance just to get to the ticket counter; not good. I was getting that sinking feeling when I noticed an Information Counter. I asked for the Eva Air office and was told one floor below.
Walking past the Emirates’ Customer Service Office, I noted a long line of traveller’s trying to rearrange their tickets. Emirates cancelled all flights the next day, then abruptly change their minds and reopen. Things were devolving into chaos.
I was hoping the line wouldn’t be as long at Eva Air, as they were also cancelling flights left right and centre. There was only about six people ahead of me, but it took more than an hour and a half before I could speak to an agent. The folks in line- mostly Canadians- were extremely helpful with travel information as the crisis forced us to band together.
Eventually we rearranged our tickets: Bali connecting through Taipei to Vancouver, but in four days time. And only 17 hours travel time. Eva Air waved the change ticket fee but required $800 for the difference in the ticket price, a shameful act. As fate would have it, their credit card machine wasn’t functioning; they told me to come back in four days time without waiting in line.
I stood in the office until the new reservation was emailed to me- just in case.
Our plan had been to return from the Gillis in Bali on the 28th, then fly to Flores to visit the Komodo dragons, as stated. Naturally, we'd pre-paid for the flight and hotel in Labuan Bajo as it is so popular. We never did receive compensation for that side trip; the owner of the hotel in LBJ refused to give us a refund. What a prick.
Our friend Agung offered us a place to stay in a beautiful apartment in his family's compound on the outskirts of Ubud. As we drive back to Ubud from the airport, we noted that the streets were very quiet as compared to the insane traffic that normally marks southern Bali.
It was going to be a very long four days waiting for our flight, but at least we had a great place to stay.
On the 21st we received an email from friends we'd met in Hoi An. The Taiwan government announced it was closing its airport to all transit at midnight Tuesday the 24th. We were booked to depart through Taiwan at 22:00 on the 24th to Vancouver. It seemed we would flying on one of the last flights out of Taipei – we'd cut it very close.
Time seemed to move slowly as we waited for the appointed hour to head to the airport. The weather in Ubud was insufferably hot as the island was in the grip of a drought. Thankfully we had a pool to cool off.
Agung drove us to the airport from Ubud- normally good hour ride but often longer due to traffic jams.The roads were deserted; we hadn't seen Bali this quiet since our visit in 1986. It was evident most tourists had departed; Bali’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism - was headed for a major disaster.
We bid adieu to our gracious host Agung, and walked over to the Eva Office. There was a small line of people but I barged into the office as I'd been told I could walk in to pay.
The service rep told me our flight was indeed departing - but we would not be on it. Taipei had closed its airport to transit at 00:01 am Tuesday- not midnight as e'd been led to believe.
What a shock to the system- at first I couldn’t absorb the bad news- a worst case scenario.
Eventually reality took hold as we discussed options with fellow travellers- we were stranded in Bali!
Nyepi Day of Silence
I called Agung straight away; he said he would turn around and pick us up. Fortunately no one as staying in the apartment so at least we had a place to stay.
The bigger problem was that the following day was Nyepi- Bali’s day of Silence, occurring for 24 hours during March, each year, following the new moon. It is a day of compulsory silence that is reserved for self-contemplation. Anything that interferes with that purpose is restricted, including phone service and internet.
The days surrounding Nyepi are anything but silent - several rituals of offering and cleansing take place before and after Balinese New Year's Day, to rid worshipers of past evils and bestow good fortune in the year ahead.
Devotees burn huge demonic effigies, whip each other with fiery coconut husks, give prayers and offerings, and young couples are doused with water during a lively kissing festival. Gathered here are images from Nyepi rituals in Bali and other parts of Indonesia over the past few years.
In 2020, most ceremonies were cancelled including the processions of giant effigies.
Every restaurant and grocery store would be closed, so we knew we had purchase food. We'd been through Nyepi many times, and normally enjoyed the solitude.
When we arrived at the Delta Dewati grocery store, it was packed to overflowing with locals and westerners shopping for Nyepi (Ubud has a huge expat and "mind-body" community- think Eat, Pray, Love). Pretty scary stuff in the time of pandemic.
While we were able to purchase enough food to last, it was a nightmare being amongst so many westerners in close proximity. Fortunately we had masks but these provided small comfort.
It was surreal return to the compound having said our farewells. I immediately fired up the computer, went on Expedia and studied our options. There weren’t many flight available out of Bali back to Canada as we’d lost almost a week with the Eva Airways fiasco. Airports were shutting down- only Jakarta, Tokyo and Seoul remained opened in SE Asia, and it seemed they would also close at any time. Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei- all closed. Our friends we'd met on Koh Kut caught one of the last flights out of Bangkok before it closed.
I found a flight with ANA Air, as a fellow stranded traveller at Bali Airport had mentioned it as a good option. But it wasn’t until the 29th, over 60 hours travel time through Jakarta, as far as Vancouver. At least we'd be back in Canada. The 29th seemed like a long way off; the world locking down faster than anytime in living memory.
Would the virus spread like wildfire through Bali? The headlines coming out of Italy, the UK and elsewhere were alarming.
We went into the annual Nyepi lockdown on the 25th. Observed from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, Nyepi is a day reserved for self-reflection, and as such, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The main restrictions are no lighting fires (and lights must be kept low); no working; no entertainment or pleasure; no traveling; and, for some, no talking or eating at all. The effect of these prohibitions is that Bali's usually bustling streets and roads are empty, there is little or no noise from TVs and radios, limited access to Internet and few signs of activity are seen even inside homes. The only people to be seen outdoors are the Pecalang, traditional security men who patrol the streets to ensure the prohibitions are being followed.
Ubud was soothingly quiet. No locals burning garbage, no electricity, it was very peaceful even as the world was falling apart. That night we went up on the roof to gaze at the stars unimpeded by lights- it was very magical.
Agung announced the Nyepi lockdown was to be extended for at least one more day through the 26th, or even longer, although the internet would be turned back on. More stress; apparently people were being prevented from getting to the airport, according to reports online. The heat and humidity seemed even more stifling; we only had air in the bedroom, and I found it insufferably hot.
Time seemed to move slowly. After a fitful unplanned second night of Nyepi, I awoke before sawn and climbed to the fourth floor. I could see Mount Agung- the giant volcano that dominates the skyline- off in the distance. Lightning bolts danced around its perimeter- it was like a science fiction movie. Mother earth was angry!
Then I noticed locals were once again on the move, riding their motorbikes; the lockdown was over! Only three more days until we fly out.
We signed up for alerts from the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta. We received a list of all flights departing from Jakarta to Canada. Jakarta it seemed was a better home than Bali. There weren't any connections from Bali back to Canada. All roads led to Jakarta, only an hour and a half from Bali by air.
While I was looking at a flight to Vancouver one day earlier on the 28th, based on new information, we received the following note from the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta:
The COVID19 situation is Indonesia is very serious and getting worse quickly. As of today the number of confirmed cases is relatively low at 790, but a credible United Kingdom-based study estimates as few as 2% of Indonesia’s COVID cases are reported. Based on consultations with public health experts, the Embassy assesses that the situation in Indonesia will get considerably worse over the coming weeks and months. Access to professional health care for any issue, related to COVID or not, is already very limited. The health care system in Indonesia will soon be overwhelmed. The ultimate number of fatalities will be very high.
That last line got my attention.
I decided it was prudent not to wait another day in Bali and instead get the hell out of Dodge the very next day. I realized we would forgo our ticket on the 29th but nevertheless booked a flight Bali-Jakarta- Tokyo-Vancouver on the 28th.
Total travel time: 42 hours, two long layovers in Jakarta and Tokyo. The cancelled flight on Eva Airlines was only 17 hours travel time!
So be it….
And that’s how we did it.
While we love Bali, I was very anxious to leave. After a very long night tossing and turning, the next morning we were ready to roll, off to the airport, trying not to panic about everything that could go wrong.
The airport was eerily quiet; it seemed everyone had departed, no one was arriving. We were forced to fill out health cards that were never collected, suffer through temperature screenings, eventually boarding a Garuda flight to Jakarta- an Airbus 330 less that 10% full, yet complete with meal service and very gracious staff.
Our memories of Jakarta were not very pleasant; it is often referred as a "hell hole." We did not look forward to the possibility of being stranded there.
Jakarta airport was almost deserted. We met some fellow Canadians who were headed back to Canada, we were very well stocked with food, masks, hand sanitizer. We spent the layover in Jakarta (8 hours) and Tokyo (12 hours) hanging with them. We were in it together.
According to news reports coming from Canada, we would be forced to quarantine at a hotel or 14 days. The Canadian government would provide transport to the hotel, and pay for our lodging.
But when we finally landed in Vancouver, we were surprised how lax things were at Canada Border Services. As usual we input our passport information on a computer monitor then answered questions on the screen related to Corvid.
We were handed a flyer about our next steps, which suggested we quarantine for 14 days. But we were free to go. I asked the Border agent about transport- no it was not being provided.
Would we be able to go for walks during our 14 days?
Would anyone be checking up on us? No, quarantine was compulsory at this point but no one would be checking. If we were caught out it would result in a $750,000 fine!
Our fellow travellers told us they grabbed a cab to a hotel, stayed overnight then flew on to Saskatoon. We also heard this from other folks we'd met- they didn't quarantine until they got home, which usually required flying.
It was even worse in America. Small wonder the virus spread so fast.
We were fortunate; my niece had a North Vancouver condo she used as her business office, as it was cheaper than commercial space. Completely furnished including kitchen, washer and dryer. My sister Maggie stocked us up on food, and we spent fourteen days respecting the quarantine.
Our big excitement was a 5 o'clock banging of pots and pans in support of care workers as the masses of condo dwellers came out their balconies.
Normally the weather in North Vancouver can be counted on to rain in April. In 2020, each day was better than the previous one. When we finally excited from our quarantine, we took a long along the ocean.
LONG WAY HOME
Canada is one massive country; we were still a long way from our home. We hoped to fly back on a discount carrier but they all stopped flying during our quarantine. So we were left to fly home on WestJet. We received notice that our route had been changed: we now had to stop in Calgary and Toronto. The closest we could get to Windsor was London, some two hours away.
The jets were empty flying out mid-April- mostly crew repositioning. At Calgary Airport, the runways and side lanes where jets taxi were stacked with idle aircraft. We had to circumnavigate the airport to get to the runway aboard a brand new Airbus that was meant to fly passengers to Europe. There were perhaps 40 passengers aboard, perhaps one eighth capacity.
Fortunately we arrived in London without incident and finally made our way back home. What a long strange trip it had been.
The world had changed in ways we had yet to appreciate.