Travelling During An International Pandemic Is Certainly Not For The Faint-Hearted.
It has been a time of covering our faces, isolating ourselves from others and watching the world go by on television. When COVID hit Bali, we actively discouraged friends and associates from visiting us, to the point where I seriously considered taking up the banjo as a way of driving away unwanted guests. As the weeks stretched into months, our world began to shrink slowly, becoming ever smaller until we were a ‘bubble’ of just the two of us.
On the other hand, the Balinese have gone about their daily lives as if this threat was simply a passing phase. The fresh markets, small roadside restaurants (warungs), impromptu gatherings and ceremonies seemed to operate as before, albeit with everyone wearing a mask. Our infrequent outings to supermarkets and visits to the beach became tinged with an air of mild paranoia, trying to keep a safe distance between ourselves and the kindest, gentlest people I have ever known.
As a travel writer, I have crisscrossed the globe in search of connections, respite and intriguing stories, finding all three in every place I’ve had the privilege to experience. The wanderlust that most delicious of afflictions is one to which I am hopelessly addicted but, with the arrival of a microscopic intruder, effectively put my profession on hold. I resigned myself that perhaps for another twelve or eighteen months, I would remain fixed firmly in one particular spot.
That was until we received a life-changing phone call.
My firstborn, who resides far, far away in the altogether delightful Canadian city of Vancouver, called early one Sunday morning with splendid news. The tyranny of distance has meant contact was reduced to a once or twice a week Zoom call which often was never enough. This call was different as she, sitting on her couch, held up a black and white ultrasound image of a developing foetus thriving within her.
Oh, happy day!
With the birthdate of 1st April, management immediately swung into action, scouring the internet to check the availability of flights from Indonesia to Canada. The options were a little slim. Other would-be travellers have been navigating the confusing and frustrating waters of international movement for over a year now, with most international borders closed and others highly restricted. Triple-checking entry requirements are par for the course as restrictions, and testing conditions can change at a moment’s notice.
COVID-19 has upended global travel and brought the world to a virtual standstill. For the first time in history, close to 90% of the world’s population now live in countries with strict and almost draconian travel restrictions. Airlines, travel companies and the tourism sector, in general, have been decimated, with an estimated 25 million aviation and 100 million travel and tourism jobs lost to date. Financial analysts estimate that between five and seven years’ worth of industry growth has virtually been obliterated.
International travel during this time is almost akin to navigating one’s way through a deadly minefield.
Management, faced with these daunting obstacles, took to the task of getting us to Canada like a determined pride of hungry lions stalking their prey. The dwindling array of airlines operating during this time seemed to be shrinking by the day. We thought ourselves fortunate to acquire two seats on a Cathay Pacific flight via Hong Kong.
The first hurdle cleared.
Our euphoria was relatively short-lived as a week later; the airline called to say that that particular flight had been cancelled and they had pushed us out another two weeks. Oh well, we thought, at least we still have a flight. Yeah right! A few days later, the airline informed us that that flight too had been cancelled.
Back to square one!
Resilient as ever, management returned to flight tracker searching for an alternative and…success! A flight on ANA via Tokyo. Lock and load! Little did we know we had many, many hurdles to clear before we would be able to board that particular flight.
It was now time to address the other requirements we needed to undertake this journey. Firstly, register with the Indonesian government health department via their eHac app to track our travel movements. Register with the Canadian Government’s health department via their Arrive CAN. App detailing our travel arrival dates, airline information, passport details, the reason for visiting, booked quarantine location, application for an electronic visa, plus numerous other pieces of information. We also had to undergo a COVID PCR test 72 hours before boarding the aircraft.
We knew that a mandatory two - week quarantine stay in a Canadian government approved Air B&B was required when, out of the blue, the rules changed yet again. A week before our departure, the Canadian Government introduced an ordinance for arriving passengers, whereby a three- day stay in an approved hotel had become law with the cost; a whopping $2,500! The hotel had to be pre-booked and paid for before departure.
To book a hotel, I was forced to call an 1800 number in Toronto. Irritating, but we complied or tried to comply as we were on hold for up to 7 hours a day hearing that annoying message, ‘please hold, your call is important to us”. Eventually, a plaintive voice answered the call, and within minutes the pleasant Canadian had made the booking, debited the credit card and sent a confirmation.
The last hurdle cleared.
Departure was a domestic flight to Jakarta where we presented our mountainous pile of paperwork at check-in, which was checked, double-checked and rechecked before we were allowed to board the flight. A night in a rather dismal airport hotel in Jakarta Airport until 5 am when we faced the intense screening at the ANA check-in desk.
Phew! We passed the test.
Our flight to Japan had a total of seventeen, that’s right, just seventeen passengers on board! The Haneda terminal, a vast, cavernous structure, usually thronging with passengers, was eerily deserted. Closed shops, duty-free emporiums and restaurants lined the empty corridors. It felt like the apocalypse had arrived while we were in the air.
And so, onwards to Canada after a seven-hour layover.
Arrival was reasonably painless. The ever – pleasant Canadians whisked us through the arrival procedures, checking each compliance form, then pointing us to a testing station where an apologetic nurse inserted long swabs up each of my nostrils, giving each orifice 15 twirls for good measure.
From there, we were ushered into the salubrious Fairmont Hotel and shuttled upstairs via a COVID dedicated lift, escorted to our room where we stayed for the next three days. Now, to be fair, food was delivered promptly in brown paper bags at mealtimes. One could order booze from room service, and I was allocated a tiny roped-off area downstairs where I could indulge in my unhealthy habit of smoking smuggled Indonesian cigarettes.
After the 72 hours of confinement, punctuated by long bouts bingeing the entire Netflix catalogue, we were ‘released’ into an Uber and delivered to our second isolation location, a small Air B & B in East Vancouver.
After spending five days inside aeroplanes, terminals and terminal Hotels, we are now locked down for 11 additional days. However, having orchestrated a rather sneaky nighttime meeting with our daughter, all I can say is that tortuous minefield we had to navigate to get here has been worth it.
The only thing I will say is that food has been one of my main comfort factors during this time, but the downside of gorging on anything edible is that if I continue at this rate, the buttons on my shirt will start socially distancing from each other.
Vancouver, Canada March 2021
Paul v Waters is the best selling author of several international best selling novels. When not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali, he occasionally rises to scribble for several international travel and vox pop journals.