Good morning from Portugal, and what a surprise to be here. We arrived two days ago and have put ourselves into self-quarantine for the next 20 days. We were originally planning to only leave Penang, Malaysia at the end of March, heading to Australia to see family before wending our way to Greece via Qatar, and eventually ending up in Portugal to commence our move and settling down (end of our travels) this May.
In Malaysia, everything was very calm, and Penang was proudly covid free. Yes, hand sanitiser and masks were everywhere, and restaurants were a bit quieter than normal, but beyond that life continued as normal. Kuala Lumpur had several dozen cases, but that was KL. We decided though, in an abundance of caution, to cancel our travels to Australia just in case we picked up covid on the flights. Our visit was to multiple family members in their sixties+ and nineties with a variety of underlying health conditions, and we decided we couldn’t risk it. As we began unravelling Australia, and figuring out the best way to get to Greece from Penang, the rest of the world began unravelling around us.
At first we simply changed our flights to skip Australia and then, upon seeing Spain, France and Germany’s cases begin to climb amid talk of lockdowns, we decided to cancel Qatar and Greece altogether and head straight to Portugal. It’s funny, from our current state of total lock-down, this feels like the obvious choice, but just a week ago it was still a debate. The world can change so fast.
So our flight to Lisbon was for 19th March, which gave us a week to wrap things up in Penang and ride the horses a few more times. And then, only three hours after we booked that flight, we saw Spain beginning to shut down, the US ban all flights from Europe, and Malaysia discover that the enormous religious event in KL (16,000 people!) was a new source of transmission. We rang the airline back and changed our flight one final time, to 15th March, which was just a day later. In total over three hours and £50 spent *just* on hold, sigh.
And thank goodness we did: we packed and rushed to the airport, with zero health scans or questioning in Penang, Qatar, or in Lisbon, and arrived first thing Monday morning in Portugal. Our temperature wasn’t taken once, and hand sanitiser was nowhere to be seen (we had brought our own, though, thankfully). During our layover in Doha, Qatar, we tried to fill up our water bottle at the water fountains. People were trying them, pushing the buttons and fussing with them, but no water. I asked, and was told that due to the virus they had closed the fountains for safety. But without signage, so many people were touching the fountain button failing to get water, then rubbing their eyes and more, that risk was certainly increased! Hopeless.
In Lisbon, we disembarked from our Malaysian-Qatar flight and were welcomed with open
arms: not a single question, no health checks, not even a confirmation of our address or plans or recent countries visited. We weren’t advised to self-isolate, and there was more information about Ebola than about covid-19. There were a few small posters up with guidance to wash one’s hands, and be on alert for fever, cough and shortness of breath, but they were small and hard to read.
Out in the suburbs of Lisbon, though, people seem to be taking it more seriously: our Airbnb had no food or supplies, so we needed to mask up, repeatedly sanitise up, and head to the grocery store for a very careful food shop. Aldi was only allowing a few shoppers inside at once, and everyone in the queue was admirably self-distancing. Because there were so few shoppers, everything was very calm, which perhaps was why there were no limits of item quantities. No toilet paper or dishwasher tablets to be found, though. It was culturally educational to see which foods are undesirable even during a pandemic: barbecue-flavoured frozen pizza. And frozen clams. Plenty of those!
Now we are safely settled in our Airbnb. Since we left Penang three days ago, Malaysia’s cases have expanded exponentially and the entire country has gone into lock-down. Businesses are closed, and life as we knew it has ended. In Spain, our new neighbour, the borders have closed and there is an absolute lock-down, with threat of arrest and fines for being out without evidence that it is strictly necessary. All hotels and short-term accommodation in Spain will be closed as of 24th March, with tourists being told to leave and return to their own countries. Serious.
The European Union has closed its doors as of yesterday, meaning we flew in with 30 hours to spare. And in Portugal, there is an unofficial lock-down, with all beaches closed (if your foot touches sand, you will be fined, supposedly), and all bars and restaurants shuttered. It’s hard to find precise information, and even the New York Times’ comprehensive alphabetical list of countries and their covid-19 protocols goes from ‘Paraguay’ to ‘Russia’. Really?!
Coronavirus Experiences by Country
In our travels and lives in the UK, Spain, India and our travel-centred Instagram community, we’ve been keeping in close touch with friends and family all over the world. Below are a variety of angles and experiences we have heard....and we’d love to hear what your experiences are – perhaps for a Part 2…? At least it's a break from the endless news cycle!
In Spain, Madrid is the epicentre with around half of the country’s cases. There is a total lockdown, but unfortunately the government allowed a few days between announcing the shut down and enforcing it, although schools and businesses had closed. Spain has a culture of each person having their 'aldea' - or village - where their family is from and elder family still lives. This has resulted in people fleeing Madrid, heading back to their family’s villages – and it seems, spreading the disease. To make matters worse, as highlighted the countryside in Spain is depopulated with ageing populations and limited medical services. A recipe for disaster.
In Madrid itself, people have been renting out their dogs, as dog-walking is one of the approved reasons for venturing outside! One set of Spanish friends in Madrid have just had a second child, alongside their existing toddler (both 'qué mona' - how cute!) so are dealing with a newborn, an energetic little girl, the lockdown, working from home, no grandparent help allowed due to isolation...and all within a culture that normally vive en la calle - you 'live in the streets'. A lot of love around, but tiring!
Another family we are close to sadly has an unrelated and sudden sickness in one of their children, a serious and scary one that is still being diagnosed. You can imagine the fear as hospitals get taken over, no longer safe, and diagnostic tests get cancelled. This is one reason why everyone must respect the social distancing, none of this 'well I don't feel sick, I can do what I want' attitude.
And on the breaking news front as mentioned, Spain has just announced that ALL hotels and short-term accommodation will be closed as of 24th March, meaning visitors must leave by then. We now need to hope that Portugal doesn't bring that rule in - at least until we can find permanent rental accommodation.
In France, there’s a total lockdown and if you are found to be out you have to justify why you’ve left your home. In the deep countryside in the Gers, another friend who moved with her family from the UK, and is renovating a house and upcycles beautiful furniture, showed us the police form that you now must complete and present to the gendarmes (French paramilitary police) if you venture out. There are only a limited number of reasons to be outside, namely food shopping, essential work, or hospital.
In the Netherlands, our Dutch friends their tell us everything is shut, and on 9Gag we can see very long queues occurred stocking up on weed before the shutdown commenced. Everything but food shops is closed.
In the UK, schools are now being closed (as of this Friday the 20th March), and all other businesses are being urged to shut. For university students we hear from both family and friends-in-faculty, that everything is switching to online classes, extending Easter holidays and encouraging social distancing. On the positive side there is a groundswell of charitable action, with a focus on getting supplies and attention to vulnerable communities, such as the homeless, rough sleepers, the elderly and anyone who is needing to self-isolate and therefore can’t go shopping. In the UK block of flats that we volunteer-manage, neighbours are coming together in Facebook and Whatsapp groups, offering each other support. The shortages are of course worrisome where family need to visit multiple supermarkets for basic supplies. Let's hope that's short-lived as people get panic-buy-exhaustion.
In Malaysia, the country went into full lockdown on 17th March after cases spiked due to a large religious gathering in KL, which went ahead despite the warnings. In Penang, the horse stables where I rode up until just recently have limited entry to only the horse owners (not public), and in general all non-essential businesses have been instructed to close. The iconic hawker centres of Malaysia (large, delicious and cheap food courts that are a way of life for most people) have said they will only be open for takeaway, however this is not working very well: our Malaysian friends tell us people are showing up, collecting their food, and then sitting down to eat it. Additionally, the new PM who only came into power two weeks ago isn’t allowing opposition states into his emergency meetings, meaning that Penang (an opposition state) is being excluded from plans. Politics at its worst.
In Australia, family that works at supermarkets are seeing the frontline of panic buying. Grocery stores in Australia are reserving the first hour of each day for elderly and disabled shoppers, so they have a chance to restock on food and essential supplies which is good. All food demonstrations have of course been cancelled, and staff have been reassigned to trolley sanitising duty.
Another (Syrian) friend just moved to Australia as part of a refugee programme, and instead of spending his first few weeks learning about his new country and finding work, just as he found his new home he has to be on complete lockdown. Not what anyone wanted. We think of him often due to the smell of traditional Syrian soap on our hands (a recent gift) as we type!
In Kochi, India, the major mall and grocery store Lulu has closed, and our family there say it’s nearly impossible to find rice anywhere for sale. For such a staple, and a hugely population-dense country, this is particularly concerning. In our family’s apartment building where they live, security won’t allow anyone inside who has used public transport, but cleaners or staff arriving by bicycle are able to be admitted.
In Hong Kong, life is very quiet, and although there’s not an official lockdown people are choosing to stay at home. Restaurants are empty, tourist attractions are closed, and doctors are being cautious with full haz-mat suits, forms and temperature checks before allowing entry, and endless hand sanitisation.
Hong Kong also seems to have cracked the testing challenge: if you think you have symptoms or would otherwise like to be tested, you ring a number and a test kit is delivered to you. You self-swab at home, and send it back – so you never need to leave your home and possibly infect people.
We know from our family there that schools in Hong Kong have been doing pure distance learning since January, which is brutal for teachers and students alike – especially those in the final years of high school where grades and exam results will make all the difference for college admissions. In January, many international students flew back to their home countries, as their parents believed it would be safer in Australia, the UK, America, etc. However, now that those countries are seeing far higher numbers than in Hong Kong, those families are returning .....but, the schools can’t now risk reopening because those students are back and could be bringing the contagion into the classrooms from these far-away places.
In Cambodia, we hear from American friends recently settled there, that the situation is quiet, but it’s hard to know if this is due to actual lack of the disease, or lack of testing and information about it. Shops are open, though quiet, and shelves are fully stocked.
Our Philippine friends say that Metro Manila is on full lockdown, and in typical Filipino spirit people are making the best of it. President Duterte joked, during his announcement, that this should be viewed as a chance for everyone to explore their home and perhaps discover new parts of it. This has resulted in an avalanche of social media posts of people’s cupboards, under the bed, behind the toilet, and on top of the kitchen cabinets. Much exploration! Such adventure!
In Singapore, normal life is slower, but otherwise pretty normal. A long-term Singaporean tea friend tells us schools are still closed, and sensitive locations like hospitals require temperature checks, people are working from home if possible, but life feels calm and reasonably safe. The border has closed, though, between Singapore and Malaysia, meaning that 10% of Singapore’s workers can’t get to work now which triggered a brief spate of panic buying. But not to worrying, there is still toilet paper.
In the US, level of worry is varying by state and which politician or commentator you choose to believe. There is deep distrust of the entire system, and doctors and nurses are already being run ragged. One friend of a friend is working on the frontline as an ER nurse, and said that a resident she works with just tested positive. However, the hospital isn’t sending home workers even if they have known contact – but only if they test positive themselves. Furthermore, as her hospital is developing their own in-house testing facility, she knows they will soon be overrun as word gets out they can test. For others, work continues apace and businesses are struggling to figure out ways for people to work from home. School closures are varying by state, and events are being cancelled. The number of news commentators and anchors that are spreading untruths, downplaying the whole thing, and risking lives is staggering.
What's it like for digital nomads caught up in the midst of the coronavirus?
For homeless digital nomads like us (until we find permanent rental accommodation here in Portugal, and truly commence our move here), life is extremely uncertain. For us, we have our accommodation booked for another two weeks, and then beyond that we don’t know.
For fellow nomads in Spain (BBQ Boy and Spanky if you want to give them a follow), they were exploring different cities to choose where to settle, and have now been trapped in Leon, as that was where they were staying when the shutdown happened. Thankfully, their Airbnb host has allowed them to stay on indefinitely. For the Goats on the Road travel couple, they ended up getting stuck in Lisbon, and also have found a helpful Airbnb host who is happy for them to stay until they are allowed to leave.
For permanent housesitters like Hoopla Adventures, all their housesits have been cancelled and they are left wondering where to go – especially as borders are closing closing closing. They are currently in the UK for a few months, and watching as one housesit after the next is cancelled. We have also had our housesit in May in Spain cancelled (understandable and welcome given everything).
Malaysia has kindly waived fines for tourists who overstay their visa, which gives some relief to the many travellers there, while Thailand has made comments that ‘dirty Westerners who don't wash’ are spreading the virus. Having spent a few months in Thailand, and often passing lots of backpackers and hostel-lodgers (even at a distance)....well.
People who are location independent, like us, have a challenge on our hands: we travel with a few bags, no food, minimal supplies. So arriving in a new place always means heading to a supermarket or eating out, and needing to buy laundry detergent, toilet paper, and basic supplies. A challenge when the stores are sold out and the restaurants are closed! We had to twist the arm of our Airbnb host here to offer some extra rolls of toilet paper, and the only washing detergent we found ended up being de-calcifying tablets! Oops.
We also normally have deadlines to leave a country, so for Malaysia for example we had to leave by 5th April to not overstay our visa. It’s rarely a good idea to believe that rules will be waived, as the consequences of trusting that one edict could result in deportation if the border authority doesn’t agree. All of which means, permanent travellers are left looking at the list of countries they can get to, what the self-quarantine guidelines are like, and hoping their Airbnb or hotel won’t cancel on them. For us, for example, our Melbourne Airbnb host respectfully asked us not to come as we were travelling from the dreaded ‘Asia’. And only a week or so later, Australia implemented mandatory self-quarantine for anyone arriving from anywhere, so fair enough.
Okay, this post is getting long, so I’ll save further experiences for a Part 2 - thank heavens for social media and the internet, as we can stay in touch despite everyone’s self-isolation. Send us updates on what it’s like for you either via our email or on our Instagram, or post in the comments below.
And of course: stay safe, stay isolated, stay healthy - both for yourself, and to protect those around you.
~ Elizabeth & Vientiene
Useful resources for tracking the world situation are here:
John Hopkins' Tracker - Updated constantly and extremely useful and easy to read