On Saturday, I waved the white flag and booked a flight from Ponta Delgada, in the Azores, Portugal, to my home town of Toronto for Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Despite all my attempts to continue travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming more and more difficult. I like to think I know when to quit and, so, I am trying to.
But let’s back up a bit. I had booked a 6 week holiday in Spain back in December to begin March 31, when I was to meet up with a friend in Madrid. Over the last few months, hotels and Airbnbs had been booked, a rental car reserved, advance payments made when requested. I’d also arranged to meet my son here in Ponta Delgada for a week of sun and hiking during the second week of March, a well deserved holiday for him as he left one job and was about to start a new one.
In January, new reports started filtering out of China about a novel virus and a city under quarantine and ships getting turned away from ports in the Far East, but it was a distant thing, of little concern to me. In February, I flew to Accra in Ghana and, after a week there, went to Senegal.
It became time to start booking plans between Senegal and Spain. Everywhere was safe except China and maybe South Korea. I booked 10 days in Lagos, Portugal on the Algarve coast before I was to head to the Azures. After a week in the Azures, I would visit a new country for me, Malta, before going to Milan, Italy, where I planned to visit the iconic opera house, La Scala, and take a train to walk the five towns that make up the Cinque Terres before flying to Madrid.
At the time the plans were made, in late February, the virus had barely hit Europe and was traceable only to persons who had been to China. But once I got to Lagos, events started happening quickly. Italy, mostly Venice and Milan, started reporting outbreaks. My flight from Malta to Milan was cancelled by the airline. A few days later, the flight from Milan to Madrid, on Ryanair, was cancelled. To its credit, Ryanair offered the best, most simple refund mechanism imaginable. Just a few clicks on the link it sent me and the money was back on the my credit card.
Then my son sent me an email from his new job indicating all employees who had travelled to China or been in contact with anyone who had been would not be allowed to enter the building for 2 weeks. He was nervous ( it turned out rightly so) they would expand the ban to anyone who had travelled internationally. He told me he wouldn’t be joining me in the Azures.
Lagos seemed to be operating normally; there were plenty of tourists and no obvious precautions. Nonetheless, I started watching YouTube videos on how to properly wash my hands, managed to buy 3 small bottles of Purell for the usurious price of $26.00 and realized, to my chagrin, how often I touched my face. Twelve days later I left, via Lisbon where I spent 4 hours in the airport. Again, nothing out of the ordinary was observed.
On Thursday, my 3rd day in the Azores, Trump gave his disastrous pep talk from the White House and, all of a sudden, things started going a little crazy.
A digression and a bit of history. The Azores is a group of 9 islands in the mid-Atlantic, about 1500 kilometers from mainland Portugal. Portugal explorers discovered them in 1427 and started settling them soon after. They’re volcanic, with the last major eruption in 1563-4. Today, on the island of San Miguel where I am, are a number of calderas filled with lakes and hiking trails.
On Friday, I noticed a cruise ship outside the harbor. It had been denied entry and was sailing away to parts unknown.
I had booked a tour of San Miguel Island, the largest and most populous island in the Azores, which went to two of the crater lakes: Lake Green/Blue which, as its name suggest, has both a green and blue portion and Lake Fugo
The tour was scheduled to visit Caldeira Velha, a national park with hot springs and sulfur steam spraying from cracks in the ground. But alas, that morning, the Portuguese government had ordered a shut-down of all parks. I contented myself with the beautiful views of the Blue/Green Lake.
More bad news when I checked GoogleNews during lunch. Malta would impose a mandatory 14 day quarantine on all non-Maltese newcomers who landed on the island. After the tour ended, I went to cancel my flight and hotel reservation there. After being on hold for 3 hours with Expedia, Air Malta cancelled my ticket and refunded it all, despite it being non-refundable. Not so the Grand Excelsior in Floriana, Malta, who didn’t seem to care that its government was telling tourists to stay away, and refused to refund any of my money. So please, if you go to Malta, boycott this hotel.
As I already had a flight booked to Lisbon on my way to Malta, I decided I would go there for a week and managed to book a Lisbon./London/Toronto flight for March 24th. But that night, the authorities ordered nightclubs and museums to close all over Portugal. On Saturday morning came the news that 5 flights from the UK to Spain had been turned around mid-air since they wouldn’t be allowed to land in Spain.
Enough was enough. There is a non-stop flight from Ponta Delgada to Toronto on Tuesday, March 17th. I booked a seat. The timing was lucky. Later in the day, Trudeau told all Canadians to come home as quickly as possible. My flight sold out soon after.
So it is Monday now and I wait for the flight, hoping it will go. The island is quieter than when I arrived. The Tourist Office and half the restaurants are closed. Packets of sanitary wipes began appearing on the tables at the hotel breakfast yesterday and today the entire staff is wearing gloves. Only 2 people are being allowed into pharmacies at a time, so crowds are mingling on the street as they wait their turn.
I can do little more than walk around or cycle on the 4 kilometer bike path along the sea wall. It is a beautiful town, its architecture a mixture of Portuguese and colonial. Most prominent are the white buildings framed in black, basalt stone, a nod to the volcanic nature of the island.
If for some reason I do not get home tomorrow, I keep telling myself it is no big deal. My hotel, with a balcony overlooking the harbor, is very inexpensive and has lots of toilet paper. The restaurants which are open serve great fish and meat dishes. Before the islands turned to tourism, their main source of revenue came from cows, a breed brought over hundreds of years ago from The Netherlands. They are grain fed and apparently their milk, cheese and meat are highly prized. The steak I had was delicious.
The weather is also wonderful. Semi-tropical, the temperature rarely goes below 15 or above 25. A warm breeze keeps the air humid and, even though the temperature was only 17 the week I was here, it was warm enough for just a t-shirt and shorts.
But I get the message. Now is not the time to be travelling. Much as I would like to take advantage of the near empty, normally crowded tourist hotspots, I don’t want to be disrespectful. Governments don’t want foreigners on their soil, potentially spreading the virus and imposing on all ready over-burdened health care systems.
Besides, it is not fun anymore. I am inundated with hourly emails from back home from concerned friends and family reporting the latest WHO figures or the newest closures. Emails from lists I have long since unsubscribed from all start with their concern over my well-being and safety. The news reports nothing but the COVID-19 virus. My plans, and the back-up and the back-up to the back-up, have all been thwarted. I hate the uncertainty.
So I will be responsible. I will return home if my flight leaves here tomorrow, armed with a few cans of tuna, a bag of rice, lots of hand sanitizer and 12 rolls of toilet paper.
For now, my travels are over.