Travelling during COVID – 19 pandemic

January 16th 2020. This was the day we left Birmingham airport, UK and began the start of our backpacking trip. The backpacking trip that we only had a 1 way ticket for as we hadn’t planned how long we were going travelling. Maybe we would have returned after 3 or 6 months, maybe even a year or maybe never, who knows! A backpack each, we were ready to explore new countries we had never been to before – so exciting!!

We boarded our flight to Bangkok, Thailand and what a start to the trip. Thailand hadnever been at the top of my bucket list (or even on it actually!) so I wasn’t sure if we would stay for our full visa length but we stayed right up until the date as it was such an amazing country with so much to do!

The Philippines was next, this had been on my bucket list for the last 7 years. I even had butterflies the morning that we were flying I was that excited. White sand, crystal clear waters, beautiful palm trees, I’d seen this all before in other countries but nothing like what was in store – there are no words to describe or no pictures to take that can truly explain the country’s beauty. 

Although we couldn’t use our data, we hooked up to WiFi whenever possible so in our last few days in Thailand, we knew briefly about the Coronavirus and how it was affecting China. It hadn’t affected our time in Thailand at all, a lot of tourists were wearing masks particularly in the main, busy streets but we assumed it was because of the very thick city air as in certain areas we also struggled to go outside without covering our mouths because of it. 

When we arrived at Manila airport, we had our temperatures taken and a verification put into our passports stating that we had no Coronavirus symptoms. By this point we had learnt it was spreading into other countries and as we were in Asia, borders were taking stricter measurements to ensure it kept the virus down to the minimum. The main hotels we stayed in were scanning us for temperatures and encouraging us to use hand sanitiser as much as possible. Speaking to people at home and reading various news articles at this point confirmed that we were at a risk of catching the virus because we were relatively close to china but because of our age and health, it wasn’t a concern if we did catch as we read that it was only affecting people with underlying health issues.

Not everywhere we travelled to in the Philippines were taking these strict steps, it was only in the airport and at larger hotels. As we were mainly staying in hostels, the virus wasn’t really mentioned at all. Our understanding was to be careful in crowded areas such as airports and the main streets. After almost 1 month in the Philippines, we decided to leave 3 days earlier than planned to go to Bali, Indonesia. Even though I was so excited to go to the Philippines, we had travelled so much around that it wasn’t worth travelling almost a day to another island to get back to Manila in time before our visa ran out. At this point, in our last few days in the Philippines, we knew that the virus had spread to other countries and that there were cases in the UK. It was spoken of slightly more than before but as we weren’t always connected to WiFi and our phones were on airplane mode to avoid any charges, we didn’t receive any updates or read many articles. 

On our arrival in Bali, we stayed in Seminyak for a night and stayed in a quiet area close to the beach. Everything was open as normal, so we had no concerns not to avoid going out to the beach, restaurants and shopping areas. After a night in Seminyak, we travelled up Ubud and stayed in a beautiful villa in the middle of the rice terraces. It was a quiet area, very secluded, down a narrow path from the road so we had to travel around 20 minutes by car to get to the main area.

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We did everything that we were planning to do and still nobody seemed to be wearing masks in Bali, it was only hand sanitiser that was put out in hotels to be used so it still did not seem like a huge deal where we were. On our 2nd or 3rd day, we learned that some friends of ours in the Philippines and Vietnam had gone to the airports to fly to Bali but were denied access and sent back to the UK. We were really shocked by this and thought us lucky to have decided to leave the Philippines a few days earlier than planned so the same didn’t happen to us. Our families told us to be careful in Indonesia as they had a few cases there, but it seemed that the UK was getting even more cases so it appeared to be safer where we were than at home!

After 3 nights at the rice terraces, we moved to our own private villa an hour away. On arrival, we had to use their hand sanitiser, be scanned for our temperature and fill out 3 forms each confirming we had no Coronavirus symptoms and information about which countries we had been travelling to and from. On our second night, we were asked to take part of a live interview on how the Coronavirus has not impacted our travels as their bookings had gone from 100% to 30%. It was not until this point towards the end or March that we realised how serious the Coronavirus situation had gotten. Our WiFi wasn’t the strongest at this place and we were in the middle of nowhere.

After using a different connection, we spoke to our family on our 3rd night in the villa, we were told that other travellers were getting sent back to the UK and there was worry that borders were going to start closing. The country we were in had already stopped people from coming in. We got off the phone and had a discussion of what on earth we were going to do. We were due to check out of the villa the following morning anyway. Should we move to a different island? Should we fly to Australia? Should we fly back home? We didn’t know if we could even get back home at that point, I contacted our insurance, I checked the government websites, I messaged our other friends travelling. We had been staying in jungles, in rainforests, in the middle of nowhere, we were very disconnected with the outside world. We didn’t realise how quickly and how seriously this was turning into a global pandemic. We decided within minutes that we needed to get a flight home – it was a no brainer. We booked the next flight out which wasn’t until 11:20pm the following evening. It was an indirect flight from Bali to Birmingham (UK) with a 7.5 hour layover in Singapore and 2 hour layover in Dubai. It almost didn’t seem real that one minute we were planning where to go next to the next minute booking a flight home – it really had gone from 1 extreme to another in a matter of minutes.

The next day, the reception allowed us to stay free of charge until we were ready to go to the airport. They had informed us that morning that their schools had closed and that people were advised to stay at home. We got to the airport in Bali and you could instantly tell there was something going on in the world. The majority of us were wearing masks, it was hard to stay at a distance from each other because it was so crowded. The queues were really long, people were crying, shouting, sleeping, there were even people laughing and joking about the situation but no matter where you turned it was the topic of everyone’s conversations. 

When we got to check in, we were told we would be quarantined in Singapore for 14 days. We tried to stay calm as he said things were changing every minute but just to prepare for it. We arrived at Singapore at 2am. On the plane, we were told where to go and where to wait for our next flight. If we left this area, we would be quarantined for 14 days. So the good news was, there was still a way to continue our journey back to the UK. The bad news was we had to wait 7.5 hours until 9:30am in a small area at Singapore airport. We queued up at Emirates desk along with many other passengers with heads full of questions. After 30 minutes of waiting, we were told they don’t open until 7am. Makes sense, but their opening hours was the last thing on my mind!

Everyone split off to find a chair, a corner, anywhere to sleep until the desk opened. It was freezing, we were sleeping on the carpet behind a row of chairs people had already put their bags on, mask on, bag as a pillow. But it was what it was. We were the lucky ones, we were going home, we hadn’t been scanned with a temperature so we couldn’t complain about our situation.

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I went to the desk extra early, of course as did everyone else – it took 2 hours to be seen! Anyway, everything was running smoothly and we we were confident we would be able to get through Dubai with no problem – thank God!  We couldn’t fully relax until we knew we were on our last flight back to the UK though. We were able to connect up to the airport’s WiFi and were reading so much more about  the situation, how many cases there were, the potential lockdowns, the panic buying!!

We were scanned for high temperatures numerous times on our journey home. There was a lot of people coughing on the planes, it could have been something, it could have been nothing but you really felt a connection with each person you locked eyes with on the planes and at the airports. Everyone’s eyes red with no sleep or from crying.You could feel the panic amongst everyone. Some people hadn’t just had their travels cut short like ours. We spoke to many other passengers who all had their own stories and some were truly heartbreaking.

When we arrived at Birmingham Airport; immigration was manic and really busy. There were angry people, sad people, tired people, understanding people, generous people, distressed people. So many emotions in such an enclosed space. When we eventually got out, the car park was empty, the shop shelves were empty, there was only a handful of people waiting to welcome loved ones. Nothing compared to what was going on just metres away at the border control.

And just like that after, 3 flights, 4 countries and 31 hours of travelling, everyone went their separate ways. It was only 5 days later, that the UK went on lockdown. I watched on the news as it broadcasted airports where there were so many people stranded with not enough money to get home. I wondered why they hadn’t just come home the week before like we had done! But you really don’t know the situation of each individual. I’m sure there were people trying to get as much holiday as they could until they absolutely had to come back but there are also people out there that were really not in a position to come back for whatever reason. Even though we were in Asia, we did not realise what was going on around us. Hardly any internet in the middle of nowhere, we are just so grateful to have made the very last minute decision to come home when we did. I’m sending love and strength to all my friends and family around the world for however it may be affecting you. 

 

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