Last year’s Year in Review is a funny bit of text to look back on, summing up how insane the first fortnight of January was and what a precedent it set for the year to come:
“Welcome to 2020! If the first few weeks of this new decade are anything to go by, this year will be an interesting one as politicians, Brexit, and members of the royal family vie for the headlines in the UK, nothing new happens in the USA and yet news reporters think a 400th report on impeachment is worthwhile, the coronavirus looms large, and we struggle to keep up with what’s happening in the actual places we are (Cambodia, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia in the last month). 2020 promises to be an interesting and exciting one for us as well.”
Little did we know that 2020 would see some of the strongest, most intense natural disasters and storms on record (wildfires, hurricanes, snowstorms, flooding, droughts, earthquakes, and more), it would also see a tragic number of torn-up peace treaties, border skirmishes and painful wars (Ethiopia vs Tigray, India vs China, Iran vs the US, China vs Hong Kong, Afghanistan vs Afghanistan, Armenia vs Azerbaijan, and more), the one of the largest explosions in history in Lebanon, endless Brexit smoke-blowing, the largest global protest in history with Black Lives Matter, the continuing Hong Kong protests, too many bombings, the ongoing (poorly-)attempted coup in the US for the first time in American history...and more.
And all this before mentioning the global pandemic that at the time of writing has taken 1.8 million lives, infected over 83 million people, and is the largest global trauma than we’ve experienced since the World Wars. So much collective suffering, poverty, fear, joblessness, pain and anxiety.
However, 2020 also saw us as a species try to come together and survive: much of the world closed down as best it could to prevent fellow humans from dying, neighbourhoods rallied together to care for the vulnerable, and we transformed into mostly mask-wearing beings. Healthcare workers, researchers, scientists, farmers, civil servants, and all other key workers continue to endanger themselves to keep us safe, healthy, fed and unpanicked. We also defied the odds to invent vaccines to end this ordeal, and they are already giving them to the most at-risk first. Not long ago all healthcare experts pulled in front of the cameras exlaimed that a vaccine before Christmas was all but impossible, so thank goodness new precendents have been set.
On a personal level, 2020 saw us end our 4 years of nomadic wanderings and put down roots in Portugal. It saw us grow our fledgling tea business, and buy property and get residency in the EU before Brexit. A big moment, already planned for but most certainly accelerated by COVID which brought us here months early and many cancelled tickets. A lot has happened, and we hope a lot more will happen in 2021 (only good stuff though please, FTLOG!).
We started the year under a surreal galaxy of drones at a New Year’s Eve party at a Manila casino. As the drones glided into formation and formation, inflatable flamingos bobbed in the pool (tethered in place, to avoid awkward fowl clusters) and we stood packed in, unmasked, shoulder to shoulder, with thousands of people on the roof of a waterside casino. We all counted down to celebrate a bright and shiny new decade of peace, ease and prosperity, while listening to Tagalog renditions of All Star and Moves Like Jagger. We left the Philippines just a few days into January, right before the Taal volcano erupted and closed the Manila airport. It killed 39 people and destroyed swaths of homes and crops. The contrast does not escape us, a stunning and tragic beginning to the year.
From Manila we headed to Brunei for a few peaceful days experiencing what turned out to be our new favourite countries/cities. We had considered staying there for a few months, as UK passport holders can visit for 90 days visa-free, but read so many blogs about how it was the most boring country on Earth (mostly due to size) that we decided to spend a long weekend instead. We learned it is not boring! Extremely calm, yes. Boring? Come on! Bandar Seri Begawan is a quiet capital city with water taxies whisking us to elegant mosques that welcome you inside, providing a cloak to wear for modesty. It's hard to imagine sharing public clothing now in a COVID world! It was the friendliest country we have visited, by quite a length, and our three days there led to more Facebook and Instagram friends than our two months in Cambodia.
While there were some news stories about a virus in China, but we spent our first week of 2020 ignoring the news. We scrolled through the city centre and enjoyed the smog-free air, and boated through the stilt villages around the centre. Bandar’s water taxis are sleek and speedy, and when you are the only passengers you can ask to go exploring. Our last afternoon saw us head up the river towards the palace and private polo grounds, careful not to arose suspicion of the royal guards, and then nose silently into the bank to wait for a monkey sighting. It will be nice to return someday and go further, up into the ancient jungle and down along the coast. Someday.
Then back to work. We arrived in Kuala Lumpur two weeks before Chinese New Year, and settled in to a routine: work on our tea shop, research Portugal, go for a swim, head out for lunch or dinner. When we stepped out of our Airbnb, we were immersed in scarlet lanterns, fairy lights, excellent discounts on tea, fruit baskets and red envelopes. Malaysia remains a happy, diverse country that with every visit reminds us why so many people embark on the arduous process of settling there. Thank goodness for 90-day visa-free visits!
Our Airbnb was in Regalia Suites, which for anyone who has visited KL seems to be the one and only place any traveller or backpacker stays. It is a complex of five tower blocks, each around 40 storeys, each containing flats that all seem to be on Airbnb. It has two large pools, shops, restaurants, gardens and all levels of accommodation. Ours was a cheap and cheerful flat, that was oddly cheap given the floor to ceiling windows and general spaciousness. However the cockroaches informed us exactly why it was so economically priced. Our host was very good at sending in multiple pest removal agents of death, and it did work, but at the cost of our nostrils as our flat became toxic to anything – no matter the number of legs.
As the month passed (and the roaches returned in the last few days), the news stories focussed less and less on Prince Harry and Meghan Markel and more and more on this new virus. We were only in KL for one month, and in that time we went from swimming every day to avoiding the Instagram-dream pool like zealots, from seeing everyone’s faces to us being the only folks not wearing masks (well, all the other Westerners weren’t masking up either and every single store we tried was sold out), from anticipating our train journey up the coast to Penang to dreading the close quarters of it.
We met up with a dear friend a few times, but by the end had to restrict our visits as he was moving to Australia and couldn’t risk get infected. We also wanted to spend more time outside our flat due to the smell and roaches, but ended up inside more than we would have liked. One day we were ready to head out, shoes on and keys in hand, when we heard a group stop outside our door and all start coughing and coughing for minutes. We quietly slipped our shoes off and went back to work…
Once in Penang, after the coldest train journey on record due to enthusiastic air con, we settled in to the flat we were renting from friends. Not a cockroach in sight! Views of the water! No covid cases in Penang! We began to relax, excited for a two further months of riding at the Turf Club and visiting with old friends. Almost immediately, of course, reality arrived. The play we had booked? Cancelled. The friends we wanted to see? Too worried to meet up which we understood. The museum tour we wanted to go on? Not a chance. At the stable life carried on as normal, but that was it.
There was a definite distraction as the progressive coalition Malay government collapsed thanks to political skulduggery, ending a brief two-year anti-corruption reign (if you missed it because, well, 2020, here’s the full story). But for the most part, all anyone could think about was COVID. My sister came to visit from Hong Kong for a Valentine’s Day shindig, and while wandering Georgetown we were all on the lookout for hand sanitiser. Hong Kong had sold out, and Penang was closely behind.
When we hugged her goodbye, we did not expect that would be the last family member we’d see for the indefinite future.
We continued with our tea shop and Portugal research, interspersed with riding and, more and more, getting take-away to eat at home. At the start of March things began to speed up and we began re-considering Australia, our next destination. What if we infected our family there after being in crowded airports, planes and Melbourne itself? Unacceptable. So what to do? The next week or so was filled with budgeting at least a dozen permutations of different plans: go to Australia, because we can’t change the flights, then immediately leave? Going straight to Greece (which was already booked), skipping Qatar and Australia? Ooh, there’s a housesit in Doha, stay there for a few weeks instead of only a few days? Go to Portugal directly from Australia? Or head to the UK and wait and see?
The UK was perhaps the worst place at that time, and we knew if we didn't get into Portugal prior to border closures (especially hard if from the UK and its record cases) our whole move would be indefinitely stopped in its tracks, and perhaps halted entirely due to Brexit. Once in Portugal but without residency, leaving for a family visit to the UK risked not being able to get back to Portugal. Australia and the UK were extremely sad cancellations - missing so much family and grandparents in Melbourne and Tasmania, Vien's father's wedding and Vien's youngest sister's graduation both in the UK. Things that cannot be repeated.
So, the wave of shutdowns, one after another as countries closed their borders, required the choice: it was mid-March, and we moved our flights for the third time and within 24 hours packed up and left sunny, hot Penang and flew to sunny, freezing Lisbon. The day before flying out we visited the mall to buy hand sanitiser, wet wipes and masks. HA! No masks in sight, but a chance visit to the dentist in February had resulted in one free one each. We were as prepared as we could get. We didn’t think to stock up on toilet paper though…
We had a brief layover in Qatar and watched one American guy stand in the middle of the waiting area coughing and coughing without covering his mouth. Most people were wearing masks, but we were still uncertain – so many articles had said in January and February that masks only made things worse, they made a great environment for the virus, and that unless they were surgical grade they wouldn’t help anyway. Turns out various news outlets and the government agencies eventually realised this wasn't the case! The Malaysians certainly understood that masks were a good idea, the world should have listened.
And then we landed. Portugal for us has been our safe haven in the storm of 2020: Lisbon welcomed us without so much as a temperature check or landing form (this was one day before the EU closed its borders), and greeted us with a literal rainbow over our taxi.
We quarantined south of the city for a few weeks given the flight, in what turned out to be a golf course. We got lucky, still able to go for extremely-socially-distant walks around the links anytime. We then found a medium-term rental in ghost-like Baleal, a normally packed surf town. We spent two months there, working, cooking, walking on the beach, researching (Portugal residency, property, immigration, etc), hand washing, walking, working, repeat. And then thankfully the summer arrived with dropping case numbers and easing restrictions, just in time for us to rent an Airbnb in Redondo, Alentejo, and get our identification numbers, bank account, and vehicle all set up.
We spent June and July visiting as many properties as we could find thanks to the Brexit clock ticking away, reminding us that we needed a permanent address in order to get residency. And without residency by 31 December, we wouldn’t be able to live here.
(As you can see I've just breezed through several months here in Portugal in a few sentences, and that's because we've already blogged about them! Links to those at the end of this post.)
We were also keeping an eye on COVID cases, and watching the Southern Hemisphere, Australia in particular. What is winter with COVID like? Lots of lockdowns. That would be Portugal’s future, surely. And so we paused our hunt for a farm and turned instead to the lesser challenge of finding a flat, a new home base that we could buy much more quickly (than our extensive and more complex wish list for a farm) and call our own.
As we had also been driving as much of the Alentejo as possible to find our favourite region, it was simple enough to narrow it down to Estremoz, the most charming town of anywhere we’ve seen in Portugal (which is saying something). By October we had completed on a cosy place, built within the castle walls and has existed since before the first maps were drawn. Some of the walls are over a metre thick! The property is divided into a 3-bed flat and a separate 2-bed, and we hope in 2021 to renovate both for Airbnb and/or rental. And someday, for family and friends to visit, so they aren't staying in our next renovation!
We moved in on Halloween, one day after the first lockdown began. Just in the nick of time… Since then, Portugal has been in an on-going State of Emergency, with different regions having varied levels of restrictions. Over New Year’s though, the nation will have a 1pm-5am curfew until 4th January, with all public roads closed, but case numbers are still staying stubbornly high. We are grateful to be tucked away in our little castle oasis.
November and half of December was one long month of all work, no play: preparing our tea shop for Black Friday and Christmas shopping, and making our new flat liveable. Getting appliances installed, unblocking drains, upgrading our website, fixing leaks, learning way too much HTML and .liquid coding, sleeping on the couch after our air mattress exploded, failing to ignore the post-election news out of America, wishing for news on a Brexit deal, learning our sweet, chatty next door neighbour has COVID.
But now, with the predictable cessation of tea sales over Christmas and New Year’s, we’ve been able to finally stop and reflect.
To think that a year ago we were in Manila, unaware of how profoundly the world would shift – we're so thankful. Thankful that everything has developed as smoothly as it has despite everything, thankful we are living in a green-gold-and-blue haven of kind people and big skies, thankful for the ability to work from home, thankful for hot, safe water from every tap, thankful for the new friends we’ve made despite our faltering Portuguese, thankful for Zoom and Skype and WhatsApp so we can see family even if hugs are a few thousand miles away, thankful to have stayed healthy in a year where being sick is a very scary option.
And most of all, thankful for Portugal: this country, and its people, have welcomed us with so so much warmth and it is truly starting to feel like home.
This coming year promises to be a busy one, with goals including renovating and renting both flats here in Estremoz, finding a farm to buy, making our tea shop carbon positive (the first ever from what we can tell), leasing or buying horses, and if we’re really productive publishing at least one book (we have a fiction one half done, and a non-fiction tea book partially complete).
My most ambitious hope is that 2021 will allow us to hug someone - but now I’m really getting ahead of myself.
So, that sums up our 2020. Thank you for being such loyal readers and happy 2021! As always, may the coming year bring everything you desire and everything you need, and please – stay healthy, stay happy, and stay safe.
And with that…
Happy 2021 from Travelling for Tea!
Elizabeth & Vientiene
If you missed it, here is our detailed recounting of our time in Portugal so far:
Part 1 (Arriving in Portugal)
Part 2 (April & May)
And to follow our adventures in real-time: Instagram.com/travellingfortea
And if you need tea while bracing for 2021, head to our very own tea shop for some delectable loose leaf (free US shipping no minimums so easy to give it a try!):