Travel In the Time of Corona: A 9-Country Overview

It was to be an epic honeymoon — One we’d been planning on for years. The Joshua Tree elopement my husband and I shared was quick to plan and stress free. Our honeymoon was a different story. For two years we’d been planning a leave of absence with our company, which they were generous to work with us on. In the end, it boiled down to 11 weeks and 11 countries: Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Namibia, South Africa, Morocco, France, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands.

Departing on February 2nd, 2020 we’d go from Southeast Asia then to Africa, capping it all out in Europe. The itinerary made sense both time zone-wise and event-wise — We’d lose all of the time up front, slowly gaining hours back while country-hopping. We’d catch the lantern festival in Taiwan during our first week, and in our last we’d wind up in Amsterdam for peak tulip blooming season. In between we’d venture upon a mild-weathered African safari,  catch springtime in Paris and cherry blossoms in Bonn.

Everything aligned on paper, but come January, 2020  the Coronavirus breakout in Wuhan became global news, and a week before our departure all eyes were on Southeast Asia. The morning we left China was already on lockdown, and cases had spread into Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and a few other Asian countries, while the rest of the world remained relatively unscathed.

Upon our departure we were concerned about the virus, but pushed on with the trip, being a once-in-a-lifetime voyage. China is the only country the CDC has flagged against travel, so we’re abiding by all travel advisories, and constantly adhere to advisories along the way. The caseloads in the countries we’d be travelling to were incredibly low as well — Taiwan had 13 cases, Thailand had 30-something, while Singapore’s count was in the 50’s.

As I write this now, the virus has escalated to a full global-pandemic that’s killed half a million worldwide, a quarter of those US citizens. COVID-19 has destroyed the global economy, put international travel on halt, and put billions into quarantine and lockdown. In the end we never made it into Europe, and our time in Morocco was largely spent in lockdown. Having seen firsthand how multiple countries dealt with COVID as it began its sweep across the globe I desire to record what it meant to be a tourist in the early days of the virus — To speak on both the precautions I’ve witnessed, and the mistakes I’ve seen made.

Taiwan

Taiwan:

One person in the Pittsburgh airport wore a mask upon our departure, but everyone in Taipei’s airport and metro does. Queues for masks form in front of pharmacies wrap around the block. Our temperature is taken in museums and Michelin-starred restaurants. Hand sanitizer is pumped into our hands at teahouses, and we even spot a woman sanitizing the metro handrails. All of these measures are in place when there are only 13 known cases in the country.

Today, when the global caseload has reached 10.5 million since the virus entered the scene in late December, Taiwan has seen only 449 cases and seven deaths. Seven. The country  dealt with SARS just 15 years ago and the memory of that time kicked in all over again.

Taiwan never went into lockdown. Its citizens continue to commute to work, and the economy is chugging along. Bars and restaurants may be less crowded than usual, but I can still have a beer in public without looking at each person around me as if they were a plague-ridden-turn-of-the-century-wharf-rat, and have them eye me back suspiciously. What good times these were! Even when sanitizing my face mask in a steaming pot because it’s impossible to purchase new ones. Little did I know that the sign posted in a pharmacy window in the first week of February stating “Sold out of masks and alcohol” was setting the tone for the year ahead.

Chiang Mai Sign

Thailand:

As soon as I step off the plane in Chiang Mai I have my temperature taken by someone in a hazmat suit. This is done on the tarmac, before I can even pass through the airport doors. Immediately after the temperature check, hand sanitizer is pumped into my hands by a woman next to the hazmatted individual, and beside her a suited man hands out small cards bearing the message “This card could save your life”, which lists symptoms of COVID-19 as well as a number to call should I begin exhibiting any of them.

I pass through customs, go to currency exchange, turn in my Taiwanese dollars, and watch as the woman counting bills coughs profusely onto my Thai Baht before handing them over to me.

Arriving in Thailand after a week in Taiwan, I could see the two countries handling the virus quite differently. Almost nobody on the street wears face masks, restaurant bathrooms are often without soap and hand sanitizer is nowhere in sight. Initially these changes seemed alarming, but I quickly eased into the lifestyle here and found that I relaxed in Thailand more than I did in Taiwan. I figured I’d be more stressed, but the opposite happened. Because I don’t see constant reminders of the virus, I think about it less.

The primary signs in Chiang Mai of an outbreak in the country are actual signs. Signs asking for prayers for Wuhan. Signs telling China to “keep fighting”. Kind of like how “thoughts and prayers” pop up across social media after a shooting in a U.S. shopping mall. What happens in Wuhan is outside of Thailand’s hands, but the country openly sympathizes with those affected. Given that nearly 50% of the country’s tourism comes from China, the local economy has taken quite a hit and it’s not yet March.

Before leaving Thailand we spend 48 hours in Bangkok, and in our time there you’d never know a pandemic was brewing — A face mask or two may be spotted on the subway, but nothing feels out of the ordinary. With Thailand’s population of 70 million and only a few dozen cases, it’s far more likely I’ll be hit by a motorbike while crossing the street than catch Coronavirus, and other than airport precautions, things appear to be life as usual.

Travel Restrictions Flight Board

Cambodia:

Cambodia is an outlier when it comes to COVID — It’s reported 0 deaths linked to the virus, and under 150 cases total. When we land in the country in Mid-February there’s been one confirmed case. Just one. We spend three days tuk-tuking to the temples of Angkor Wat, and like Thailand, see no signs of an outbreak. Life continues at full force and I relax in the country, rather than feeling on edge.

While we’re in the country, Cambodia allows for a cruise ship that’s been turned away from four other countries to dock. Passengers are able to “self certify” that they’re symptom-free prior to deboarding, but of course, a passenger tests positive for the virus shortly after entering Cambodia and promptly flying home to the United States. In an effort to prove the virus is nothing to fear, the country’s Prime Minister greets the disembarking cruise ship passengers, personally handing them flowers.

As a country whose healthcare system couldn’t handle a massive outbreak, I’m deeply gladdened that it’s so far been spared from COVID, and sincerely hope that the reported statistics are true, and not a figment from the Cambodian government.

Singapore Billboard

Singapore:

Deplaning into Singapore, temperatures are sporadically taken by a gloved airport employee who jumps in front of a nearby pensioner couple, stopping them in their tracks. Carl goes to use the restroom, and as I wait for him I witness a woman seize up in panic, pull her tee shirt up over her nose, sneeze, then look around with a terrified expression — As if uniformed figures would emerge from the walls, grab her beneath the arms, then drag her into a sterile, white room. On our way to customs we pass through two thermal temperature scanning stations. Things feel rigid.

Singapore Ads

Singapore Ads II

The number of reported cases in Singapore lies in the sixties when we arrive, and with a population of 5.6 million it’s one in 100,000 we’ll run into the virus on the street. Unlikely for sure, but I do feel the odds narrowing from Thailand.

On the street, only a quarter of passersby wear face masks, but we see dozens of billboards about Coronavirus. Some have uplifting statements like “We’ll get through this together” while others remind us not to “Shun anyone”. Watching tv for 30 minutes in our hotel room we see multiple ads on the subject — One pleads with citizens to stay at home if they’re feeling ill and asks them not to “doctor hop”. Another covers the amped up security precautions around the city, declaring that “Together, we stay safe” and features images of temperature checks happening in dormitories and public transit, food being delivered to those in quarantine, and schools pumping sanitizer into the hands of kindergartners.

Singapore Ads III

At the Marina Bay Sands we have our temperature taken at six different points. This feels redundant, but I’m grateful for the precaution, and one of the screeners makes my day when he reads temperatures back to individuals with uplifting phrases. Carl gets a “36.9 – Nice job!” while I get a “36.8 – Good for you!”. I trust the numbers coming out of Singapore, because Singapore was diligent in testing early-on. Thanks to these measures, today the country has recorded only 25 deaths, despite the virus being imported from China in early-January.

plane

Namibia:

Namibia was the first country on our honeymoon that had no reported COVID cases upon our arrival, but in the airport we went through the heaviest virus screening thus-far — Temperatures are taken, a form is filled out, and then a stern-faced woman in camo asks rapid-fire questions to confirm what you’ve written. Where are you coming from? Where have you travelled within the last 14 days? What countries took your temperature throughout your trip? I’ve provided nothing but accurate information on my form, but am terrified I’ll muss up the live round of questions. To add to the confusion no pens are provided to complete the form with, and fellow passengers are in pen-panic so that when they’re finally in line for questioning they’re already in a heightened state of agitation.

Once we leave the airport the mood changes. Everyone is relaxed. We’ve just come from Southeast Asia, the epicenter of the virus. There are few cases outside of that region, but the Americas, Africa and Europe are still relatively unscathed. We’re in a massive country of desert and bush with a population of 2.5 million, stretched out over 320 thousand miles. That’s like taking the population of Vancouver and redistributing everyone across Texas. That’s a lotta land for notta lotta people.

We’re road tripping throughout the country and traversing hundreds of miles a day, but encountering only a few dozen people as we go. The Internet exists only in the main space of lodges we’re staying in (reception doesn’t reach to the rooms) and we’re blissfully disconnecting as we take our meals outdoors, and watch gorgeous African sunsets.

A week into our Namibian road trip we awake to a text from family that Italy’s case-count has exploded and half the country is in quarantine. This moment is a turning point for us, and for the remainder of our trip we strategize and revamp our itinerary. We question going into Europe at all and worry about countries like Namibia, where healthcare and transportation aren’t accessible to many. As I write this, the country has seen 615 cases total (the first cases arrived in March from Spain) and while I truly hope the country will be spared from the Corona-fire, the curve is getting steeper each day.

south africa

South Africa:

Immigrating into South Africa is incredibly stressful. On our layover in Johannesburg from Singapore no one is able to leave the plane until army medics in fatigues go down each aisle on the aircraft taking everyone’s temperatures.  Not a word is spoken as they do this and the only discernible sounds are the beeps of the thermometer. They’re stone faced in the silence and don’t make eye contact with passengers or give a nod to ease anxieties. I swear I don’t breathe the entire time they make their way through the aisles and when we’re finally given the go ahead to exit I want to run out.

sign

Deplaning from Namibia into Cape Town, my husband Carl and I each fill out the same health-form, but as we pass through a security checkpoint we’re asked two different questions. He’s asked if he’s been experiencing any symptoms (that’s a no), while I’m asked if I’ve traveled to Asia recently (that’s a yes). I’m asked by a man in camo to follow him and Carl follows beside me, explaining that we’re travelling together. It feels alarming, until I’m only led to a plastic table with another form stacked on it. We fill out a more detailed travel history, have our temperature taken one more time, then we head for the exit.

As we near the airport doors a tourist wearing a facemask around their neck coughs freely into the air, and a brawny South African security guard donning army fatigues looks him directly in the eye, and tells him to wear his mask if he’s going to cough. The traveller quickly and silently obliges. One of the top ten folks I encounter on our trip, this guard.

South Africa just received its first cases from an Italian tour group a few days before our arrival. The virus is no longer entering countries from Asia, but from Europe.  Around the city there are few noticeable precautions — The ferry to Robben island is still filled to capacity, tourists pile up to view the penguins of Boulders beach and the bars on Kloof street are bustling on a Friday night.

The country only has seven cases at this point, so COVID is a distant-worry. We arrange a day trip outside of Cape Town to the nearby botanical garden and to the ocean, and our driver Buja introduces us to the corona-handshake, which is a kick of the sneakered feet together. We get a giggle out of this.

Weeks later the country goes into lockdown. South Africa’s curve still trends upwards and they’re very much on their first wave, but one thing working in the country’s favor is that in dealing with the AIDS epidemic, South Africa has a system in place for dispatching healthcare workers for mass-testing. And, when the country went into lockdown, it did so quickly and a week before a single COVID-death occurred.

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Morocco:

We arrive in Casablanca and leave the airport without being met with any Coronavirus precautions (there’s a thermal scanner setup, but no one there to monitor it) and hop into a cab. How quickly everything shifted within the next few days. Within 24 hours the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, borders were shutting from continent-to-continent, and finally, 72 hours after entering the country, Morocco closed its borders entirely.

A rundown of our experience in lockdown and our journey repatriating are available so I won’t go into great detail here, but I will say that as soon as things shut down, they shut hard. Police monitor the streets telling citizens and tourists out and about to go back home. When in need of toothpaste on our second day in lockdown, we venture on a three minute walk to a pharmacy and find a strict system in place — Squares are taped onto the tile floor assigning patrons designated queuing stations, and even though we’re the only ones in the establishment, we’re told to stay in place at the doorway and asked what we need while the pharmacist packs up the item for us and a second employee ferries our cash to the register, bringing us our toothpaste and change.

Queuing systems are now common throughout Pittsburgh, but this is our first time seeing COVID-distancing in action and it’s jarring.

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The first cases into the country came in February via Italy and since then the numbers have been creeping upwards. In total Morocco has seen a death-toll just surpassing 240. I believe Morocco did the right thing shutting down when it did, and I hope it continues to maintain low caseloads and ride this thing out without the country’s healthcare system being overrun.

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England:

Customs in London’s Stansted airport is done by machine. All that’s asked of passengers is to lay our passport on top of a scanner, look into a camera, then wait for the mechanic turnstile gate to open and allow entry into the country. It’s too easy given the current climate.

There are no temperature checks or screenings on our way out the door. We wash our hands, order an Uber, and arrive at our Heathrow hotel at 2:30am, to depart at 11am the next morning. Heathrow is eerily vacant and our international flight to Washington D.C. has only a few dozen people at the gate.  As we go to town on a full English breakfast and two pints of ale we learn from our server that London will be shutting down the next day. Businesses will close and quarantine will commence.

Being in a foreign country feels like a ticking time bomb for us. Everywhere we go, we need to leave immediately. No one wants tourists at this time, and we ourselves just want to be home, in our own bed, where we can feel as safe as possible in this dangerous time.

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United States:

Washington’s Dulles airport has an intimidating-looking health screening in place with individuals sitting side-by-side, twelve long, creating a Last-Supper-looking scrubbed-up-panel of judgement. Only ten airports in the country are allowing citizens returning from Europe, and I feel confident seeing this setup, thinking we may be doing a good job vetting travellers into the country.

I leave the airport feeling disappointed. No temperature is taken at any point. We’re asked to fill out the standard form I’ve become used to and are paired up with a screener who asks a few questions from the form, to verify our response with what’s input. I’m given a lookover to make sure I’m not sweating profusely or coughing hysterically, then into the United States I go.

The months following our return are difficult. Wearing a mask has turned into a political statement, as if mildly inconveniencing ourselves for an hour to buy groceries is more important than potentially saving someone else’s life. If putting a piece of cloth over your mouth for a short period of time makes breathing that difficult, then you definitely don’t want to be put on a ventilator.

Since returning we’ve been asked innumerable times when we’ll pick back up on our honeymoon. The answer is we can’t possibly begin to organize a new trip, cannot think of ideal dates or destinations when we don’t know what the world will look like in 1 month or 6 months or a year. Plans rely on stability and no one makes a conscious decision to throw a kegger in a hurricane.

For all of the scrambling, the mad rush to get home, once we’re back on our couch all we can do is turn off the wait to get home and begin the wait to leave it.

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