Travel in the Time of Covid

This is my first blog in ages as I mainly write about my travels and sadly there has been very little lately. I will bring you up to date on my lockdown time, travel back to Canada including quarantine and the prospects of taking my show in the road again.

Malaysia During Lockdown

I was in Malaysia when Covid starting making the news back in January. I did have a short trip planned to Indonesia in February but I started to get a bit nervous about it, not because of the Covid but because of the travel restrictions that looked imminent. I ended up cancelling that trip, I was going to hunker down in safe and sunny Malaysia.

I would have to say it was a great a decision. I couldn’t imagine anywhere much safer than the island of Penang during those times. There was a pretty hard lockdown which started around March 18 and went on for several weeks. It meant you could not be more than a few kilometers from where you where staying and no one was allowed out later at night. No biggie for me as I like to keep it close to home and am almost always in bed by 10 anyhow. The two shopping malls next door were open but only the grocery stores and a select few eating places were actually open. There were only a couple of entrances open with security guards doing a forehead temperature check of everyone before being allowed in. Once inside, it was strange being in the huge malls that are often heaving with people but now you would barely see another soul until inside the grocery store,

Besides the shopping malls which were 2 minutes walk away, I was quite happy the fresh local market stayed open as well. The market is about 15 minutes walk away but I like it because the food is fresh, good value and I like to support the many independent vendors there. Here again the entrances were limited and you had to have temp check and hand sanitizer before entry. I remember a few days into the lockdown I had checked all the pharmacies and stores for face masks but they were all sold out. I got to the local market with a scarf as a mask and one of the health officials taking temperatures asked if I had a surgical mask and kindly gave me a new one, even though there was this shortage.

Besides the good, convenient grocery selection, there were still many restaurants and hawker food stalls open, most only for takeout/delivery during the hard lockdown. There was never the feeling you were forced to cook for yourself every single meal. The food delivery businesses (Grab Food and Food Panda) are well developed and affordable, usually less than $2 per delivery. This opened up a whole lot of possibilities, though only used delivery once or twice.

The dining scene in Penang is so great with regards to taste, variety, cost and convenience that I would say in normal times I would be eating outside at least 80% of the time but during the covid it was probably down to only 10 to 20%. I sure learned the value of a rice cooker.

As you can see, food was no worry whatsoever but how were other things in my Malaysian lockdown? As for the people, there were a couple of days between the time lockdown was announced and when it started that you could sense people were stressed and in a bit of panic to get to the shops and whatnot. Once the lockdown was actually in effect, people calmed down, following the protocols of mask, distancing, etc. because they wanted to get back to business as usual as soon as possible. I felt safer going out in Malaysia than I do here in Canada, enough said.

One change that I absolutely loved was how clear the air became after a few days/weeks of lockdown. The thing I like the least about Penang, like many parts of Southeast Asia, is that the air can get really bad at certain times of the year. This is mainly due to smoke drifting long distance from slash and burn “agriculture”, though there are a lot of people and vehicles packed into the island which doesn’t help. In fact, the week before lockdown an old friend came to town for a visit and I remember the air was really bad because we went to the top of Penang Hill for the panoramic view but we could hardly see anything from the haze. Mainland Malaysia is about 15 kilometers away but more often than not, you cannot see it. Contrast that with just a few days into the lockdown and it was crystal clear.

Crystal clear view over to mainland Malaysia during lockdown

There was a wonderful calm that came along with the great reduction in traffic. I fondly remember one evening sitting out on the balcony which has a birds eye view (34th floor) of a major intersection which is normally very busy until late into the evening. It was about 9 PM and there was almost zero traffic because of the restrictions. Then I saw group of about 8 cows saunter leisurely through the intersection and walk up the street towards the malls. That there was a bit of magic for this old farm boy.

After several weeks the initial lockdown transitioned into a more relaxed lockdown, were travel all over the island was allowed, most shops re-opened and even my favourite weekend activity, the Hin Popup market, resumed. Of course, masks/distancing were still in effect. These were good times which I got a few months of. Still, I did have the idea of venturing back to Canada for a few reasons. For one, I was missing the family and like to get in one good visit a year, with summer obviously the best time. Another thing was that my visa to stay in Malaysia had long since expired. The government said as long as they had Covid measures still in place that it was okay to overstay but details on this were murky at best. Also, the new cases were down to almost none in Malaysia and quite low in Canada. This had me thinking that travel was on verge of getting back to normal. I obviously blew it on that assumption, should have known a second wave was coming. Anyhow, I decided to fly back to Canada in late August and hopefully enjoy a bit of the elusive summer there.

Flying To Canada Via Japan

I am a big fan of crossing the Pacific with one of the Japanese Airlines ( Japan Airlines or ANA) because of their great service and attention to detail. That felt even more important to me for the long flights home during covid times. Unfortunately, I could not make a booking with either airline using points, so I ended up booking with Japan Airlines for cash. The fare was higher than usual ($915 one way, KUL-YYC) but I was pretty pleased that my first, long-haul covid-era flight was with this 5 star airline.

My first big flight was from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo with a late evening departure. I have been to the KLIA airport many times and at all hours of day and night but have never seen it as eerily quiet as this time. On the landside part of the airport none of the shops were open and there were so few lights on that you almost had to feel your way around. Check-in with the airline went easy, nothing out of the ordinary except a temperature check (which I got at every airport along the way). I bid a sad farewell to my sweetie, then made my way to immigration , more than a little nervous with my severely expired tourist visa. It took a few minutes and I had to fill out a form as to why I over-stayed but it was no big deal. Once through security, things were slightly more lively with the lights on and a few coffee shops and restaurants open.

Boarding the plane, everyone was doing the distancing so it took a bit of time. The plane was far from full, I had a window seat with the seat beside me empty. Once we got up in the air I put the immigration jitters behind me and enjoyed the feel of soaring above the earth again. It was a late night flight and combined with covid restrictions, the in-flight service was fairly basic. We landed at Tokyo Narita bright and early.

Good to be above the clouds again

I had a long layover in Tokyo, about 12 hours, which I would normally relish as an opportunity to explore ever-fascinating Japan. I found out quickly that these were not at all normal times. I was not allowed to leave the terminal which, given the circumstances, I fully expected but it still stung a bit with the whole day there ahead of me.

The big surprise came when I got to looking around the departure terminal. In the whole terminal, there were only about four shops open and ZERO eating places open. It seemed like there were only about 20 or 30 passengers in the terminal most of the day so little wonder they couldn’t keep a restaurant going. There was one airport lounge open, the Japan Airlines First Class lounge, and I tried my luck getting in there but with my lowly economy ticket they weren’t having it. Very fortunate for me, I uncharacteristically had a cup noodle in my bag. There was hot and cold drinking water available so at least I was able to eat that. I sensed the few passengers who wandered past me eying my precious cup noodle enviously.

Even though it was daytime it was still damn spooky almost alone in all that big space. I had visions of a Japanese horror movie playing out but really, I couldn’t have been in a safer place. At least there were a lot of good spots to take a rest.

Without any eating/drinking places open, those hours sure dragged. Towards evening , things got more lively as people trickled in for a few evening flight departures. I sure was happy once boarding time rolled around and I would be on my way again. Instead of my usual window seat, I choose the middle aisle because I was able to get the 4 seats to myself. It was another night flight so I would be able to stretch right out and hopefully get a bit of sleep. Once I was buckled up, I had a word with the flight attendants to let them know I had been stuck in the terminal all day without food, boohoo. They were so sorry and said they would serve me something just as soon as they could. True to their word, I got served first along with the special menu orders.

Plenty of good seats available at Tokyo Narita Airport

Even though I got to lay out across 4 seats, sleep was not easy. We were required to wear the masks throughout the flight and as there was occasional turbulence, the attendants came around to make sure everyone was buckled up, even if laying down. Also, I think the jet was a bit older and the seats were not super comfy, . It is only about a 9 hour flight from Tokyo to Vancouver, I should be able to do that standing on my head, right? Well it wasn’t quite that easy but I did make it to Canada, bedraggled but safe and sound.

Arrival in Canada

It was good to be back on Canadian ground again though I had mixed emotions with beloved Asia behind me. Now I had the unenviable task of customs/covid questioning. My understanding is if the agent does not like your quarantine plan, they can send you directly to a government quarantine facility for 14 days. I filled in a special covid arrival form online before departure but they also gave us a paper one to fill out on the plane. The customs guy was friendly enough and gave me the okay to proceed. I had enough time in the beautiful YVR airport to grab a bite to eat and a well-earned craft beer.

Just to add a bit more spice to my journey, with the limited flight options I had to catch a connecting flight to Calgary. This flight was on no-frills Westjet, which was a little tough to swallow after Japan Airlines. I found it odd the flight attendant handed everyone an antiseptic wipe as we boarded, I guess to wipe down armrests, trays, etc. That was about the extent of service for us economy folks. Masks were worn by all.

It was fairly short layover in Calgary, with much of the airport shut, then it was one more quick flight to conclude my flying for awhile. Finally around 11 PM, I arrived in Regina. I had made it, after 4 flights (about 18 hours total in the air) and 38 hours after leaving Malaysia. Though weary, I was safe and sound with not so much as a sniffle. Rest assured if you follow the precautions like mask wearing, frequent hand-washing, etc., you can fly safely in these times.

Quarantine on the Ranch

My brother was there to meet me at the airport. It was good to see him again after more than a year. We got on the road to the farm right away, this was my quarantine destination. I figured it was a good choice as there are more square miles out there than people. In the very unlikely event I had the Covid, I wasn’t putting a whole bunch of people at risk. The farm is also a familiar and favourite place for me to hang out and perhaps I could help my bro out a bit while I was there. August is very busy time of the year for him work-wise. By the time we arrived on the farm at 1 AM, I already had 1 day of quarantine under my belt, as the day of arrival in Canada is counted as day 1.

The time difference between Saskatchewan and Southeast Asia is a daunting 14 hours, it really is like night and day. Whenever I arrive back to Canada that jet lag is quite punishing for the first week or more. I didn’t do a whole lot those first days back. I wasn’t sure if during the quarantine I was allowed to have free run of the farm (as long as not contacting anyone) or have to stick to the yard? I played it safe and hung around the house/yard. Lucky for me I hit some of the best weather of the year, sunny and warm throughout. This meant my brother was busy out in the field most every day making hay for the cattle. I puttered around the house doing a little project or two. The garden produce was coming on big time and I harvested some of that and a ate a lot.

Plenty of yummy. garden-fresh vegetables were on the menu

One thing I made and had fun playing with was a brick rocket stove. I am fascinated with rocket stoves which, due to their clever design, generate a lot of heat from very little wood . Basically a handful of twigs is enough to cook a meal. They are called rocket stoves because once they get going, the flames roar like a rocket up the combustion chamber. Great fun for any pyromaniac. You can see videos for it here and here. By the way, these are my first ever Youtube videos.

Violating the quarantine could result in a hefty fine so I liked to keep close to the phone in case someone called to check up on me. No human every called but around day 7 I got a call with a recorded message telling me good job on my 7 days quarantine and next 7 days were also important. That was only check up that I am aware of though there were some low flying fighter jets that flew right over the farm, keeping an eye on me? I really doubt it, the air force does practice flights regularly in the area.

I did make it through the two weeks on the farm no problem and bear in mind that is without any internet. I think I even stayed an extra day because I wasn’t quite sure how they counted the last day. Anyhow at that point, I’m sure my brother could use a break from my nonsense as he has been living solo for many a year.

Since quarantine I have been mostly been in the city with family. I have also returned to the farm several times, enjoying going all around the farm with my brother. I helped him gather quite a bit of wood for his winter heating supply. You can see photos of farm fun times here.

Next Trip?

I have had a few international flights booked this winter but so far have cancelled them all. My reasons ranged from the destination going into a restrictive lockdown just before my departure to just not feeling like travel with the increased hassle. Fortunately I had enough points to book the flights with so refunding was pretty painless.

For me, Asia is where I really want to be so, even though it is a big world out there with about 50 countries open to Canadian tourists, I am not that inspired to travel to other areas if there are many hoops to jump through. Asia is still locked up fairly tight at the moment, though maybe Bali will open soon? If Asia doesn’t open soon, I am considering Latin American destinations like Mexico,, Panama and Ecuador. I will let you know when I get the show back on the road again.

Conclusion

Though my trip back to Canada this time looked quite a bit different from usual, it was a successful and fairly painless mission. I believe if you follow the precautions such as masking/social distancing, frequent handwashing, etc. it can be as safe as day-to day life anywhere in these times. If you choose to travel at this time my advice for you is:

  • Investigate travel requirements thoroughly including for any transit stops you have. This is tricky because changes are frequent. For Canadians I recommend the information on TravelOffPath
  • Follow the safety protocols.
  • Bring food with you for the flights and airport transits. Flight service is likely very reduced.
  • If you will be required to quarantine, have a good plan to fill that time

That’s all for now. Stay healthy and hope we can all travel again soon.

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