COVID-19 wins/ Me, the Tourist, loses

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

IMG_5835
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.

IMG_5858
The Green/Blue 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.

IMG_5890

For now, my travels are over.

Oman: Bridging the Gulf

My previous experience with Gulf countries had been somewhat negative. While I loved the wealth and modernity offered in Qatar and the UAE, I quickly became disenchanted with their social stratification based mostly on nationality and race, their imported labour kept in slave-like conditions and what I perceived to be a lack of responsibility to anyone or anything outside of their borders. I was expecting Oman to be the same, but after spending time in the poverty and dirt of Ethiopia, I was in need of some first world pampering, no matter the uglier sides that might accompany it, so I booked a flight to nearby Oman.

I was thus quite surprised when my first 2 encounters with Omani citizens, in the visa and immigration booths at the airport at the ridiculous hour of 4:00AM, were so congenial. They were smiling, nice, the immigration officer even joking with me.when I mentioned I was heading to Salalah, in the south to which he said “it will be cold”, but when I pointed out I was from Canada, he retorted “for you it will be warm. Welcome to Oman.”

Muscat:

In Qatar and the UAE, one of the irksome things had been my encounters with locals were limited to government officials and, in Qatar, museum personnel and shopkeepers in the local bazaar. All others were from somewhere else; cab drivers from Pakistan, hotel clerks from India, hotel managers from Eastern Europe, restaurant servers from the Philippines. Not so in Oman. Although my cab driver was from Pakistan, the hotel clerk was Omani, my tour drivers were Omani and my tour guide was Omani. They spoke English and were happy to talk to me about Oman.

And friendly. Deciding to take advantage of the good weather (about 25 degrees each day) and sidewalks (the latter sorely lacking in Ethiopia), my hotel shuttle dropped me at the main beach in Muscat, Qurum Beach, and I walked the 10 kilometres back to the hotel. All along the way, people, mostly men dressed in traditional white flowing robes called dishdasha, nodded or said “hello,” not in an harassing manner, just an amiable “welcome to my country” kind of way. They were all Omani – I learned to recognize them by the shorter tassels on the dishdashas. Emirates tassels are longer; Saudi Arabian dishdashas do not have them. Their use? Dabbed in perfume, after passing something malodorous, the tassel is brought to the nose to neutralize the stench.

Along the walk, I also enjoyed the Muscat architecture. Unlike other Gulf states, Oman has eschewed the skyscraper, preferring buildings reflecting traditional architecture – low rise, domes, white paint – but mud bricks have given way to concrete blocks. Its Royal Opera House is representative of the Omani style of building:

IMG_4781
The Royal Opera House

Muscat, of course, contains mosques, seemingly on every other corner. The largest, the Sultan Qabos Mosque, is open to properly attired visitors (females must cover their hair, knees and wrists) in the morning;

IMG_4799
The Grand Sultan Qabos Mosque

Muttrah souk is a typical middle eastern bazaar containing the usual souvenir offerings: leather works, brass, pottery, spices. Across the road, the fish market sells the daily catch. Above is one of many forts guarding the water. A city tour also took me to a museum and the Sultan’s Palace; again pretty but fairly restrained:

IMG_4852
The Sultan’s Palace

Nizwa and the Desert:

Oman is all about geography. Muscat lies on the Indian Ocean, in the Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf/Gulf of Oman, a marine city enjoying rain, fishing and beaches, but it is flanked by the Hagar mountains, which provide a natural barrier to the Omani desert. It is a true desert but also a “wet desert” with monsoonal rains, plenty of oases and underground water rivers which the Omanis have cleverly exploited with a series of forts for centuries.

Numerous wadis, or desert swimming holes, are reachable from Muscat. Pretty though they looked, as my hotels all had heated swimming pools, I really didn’t see the point. More interesting to me were all the date tree groves sprouting everywhere. Our guide explained the importance of the trees: the tall date trees provide shade, both to people and to the lower banana and mango trees which, in turn, shelter wheat and barley crops. Dates have long provided Omanis with a sweetener, but was also a formidable weapon in times of war, when the date paste was boiled and dumped on attackers, immediately burning them.

IMG_4876
Date groves with 2 forts visible

Nizwa, the ancient capital in the desert, is today a modern city with a souk offering the usual goods and an ancient fort we didn’t visit on our day trip:

 

We did, however, visit and the Jabreen Castle, a few kilometers away. Built by the local Sultan made rich through trade, especially frankincense, in 1650, it was more a palace than a defensive structure. Today, it remains a beautiful example of 15th century Omani architecture:

Salalah:

After a few days of sightseeing, I felt in need of some rest and relaxation, so I boarded a flight for the resort town of Salalah. The town was lovely, not that I saw much of it beyond the airport and the resort. Aside from the stunning beach, its main attraction is its closeness to The Empty Quarter, a vast, desolate desert infamous for swallowing up ill-prepared travellers. These days, 4-wheel drive vehicles offer exciting forays across the sand dunes culminating in sundowners and beautiful sunsets. However, the cost starts at about US$500 for a day tour, I’m not into crazy rides on sand and I had seen great views of the Empty Quarter on the flight in, so I passed.

Oman was tipped to be one of the best places to see the final solar eclipse of the decade and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I mistakenly thought it was happening at 7:00 PM, which I thought odd since sunset was usually about 6:00PM. When I finally realized it was happening at 7:00AM, it was over and I had missed it.

Thus I spent most of my time in Salalah enjoying my resort’s lazy river, floating about in a giant tube reading and listening to podcasts.

Final thoughts:

Oman has all the wealth and modern amenities of its neighbors, but is more egalitarian and less dependent on foreign labour. Its buildings were a delight, blending desert architecture with Mediterranean whitewash and not a glass tower in sight. It has a long history, including ruling Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzinia for a while, and lots of forts from a variety of centuries. But mostly its people were kind and approachable, a welcome change from the other Gulf states I have visited.

Next: Tunisia

 

 

 

Why Travel?

After 33 years with the same employer, I retired. This was not an easy decision- my job was interesting, well paid and I worked with great people. I enjoyed being at the office most days. The six mile commute each way not so fun. Toronto’s horrid public transit system meant spending two hours every day on overcrowded streetcars, squished between passengers screeching on their cell phones and slurping coffee or listening to the beat, beat, beat of music blaring through earphones that failed to smother the music. I t was not my job which drove the decision to retire but the horrors of getting there.

 

Once I decided to call it quits, the next question was what I would do with the next part of my life. Sitting around my condo watching TV for the next few decades solved my traffic woes, but seemed like a recipe for atrophy. Finding another job was not financially necessary and seemed too much like, well, work. Volunteering would be worthwhile and sociable, but would still leave me spending long months in cold Canadian winters. After much indecision, I decided to indulge in my greatest passion – travel – for as long as I could physically be able to do it and enjoy it. No more shivering wrapped in parkas and mitts and scarfs waiting for the long overdue streetcar on cold, dark January mornings.

 

That goal of avoiding winters also created the next dilemma: where to settle. Somewhere hot and tropical was an easy choice. Dreams of a condo nestled on an endless beach, with vistas of endless turquoise waters and waves lapping at the sand danced through my head, but the question became where. Nowhere in Canada is warm enough. The Costa del Sol in Spain was an early contender, but horror stories of shoddy construction, high prices and development run rampant erased that as a destination. Florida is a perennial favorite with Canadians, but a trip to the grocery store where everyone looked to be over 80 convinced me I was too young for there. Panama, with its enticing programs for retirees had the requisite beaches, young population and good transportation systems, but every time I visited, I suspected I would feel too isolated from Europe and North America. Reluctantly, I concluded that Panama was a little too far for me.

 

After years of torturing myself with this question of where I would retire, it dawned on me that I did not need to pick a single place. Websites like Airbnb would allow me to try a place for a week or a month or however long I felt like it. Flights and trains could be booked on the internet on a whim. I travel light, so the idea of living out of a tiny suitcase didn’t phase me. Slowly, the idea of not settling in to a particular place seemed to be the perfect solution. I didn’t have to find my new home. I would try different places. Stay if I like; leave if I don’t. Just go and experience whatever interests me and avoid what doesn’t. My new mantra became travel without commitments.

 

Thus, I committed to traveling until I don’t want to anymore. Welcome to my journey.