As many of you know, I was supposed to spend the next 3.5 months travelling through Europe and the Middle East. I was to spend 2.5 weeks in Israel before heading to Turkey with my brother on a 15-day Intrepid Travel adventure. I then had a month to spare before I was going to Greece. I booked an adorable Airbnb on my favourite island, Paros, for 3 weeks before I was to host my first ever group tour: Greek island sailing.
I was beyond excited for this adventure and had been looking forward to it for 3 months. But then, COVID19, aka coronavirus, struck.
I left for my travels anyways, knowing it was a threat, and ended up getting caught in the mayhem. Many of you followed my journey on Instagram stories but I wanted to write about it anyways. To share my thought process, why I decided to travel, and the struggles I had on getting home.
Here’s my story.
Why Did I Choose to Travel Knowing About Covid-19?
Before I dig into what happened I should probably answer why it happened. After all, I made the conscious decision to travel knowing that the virus existed and was spreading. Why? After all, seeing what I went through and the state the world is in now, it seemed pretty dumb. But I promise a lot of thought did go into this decision.
The Status When I Left Home
To start with, let’s be clear that Covid-19 was not considered to be a pandemic when I left, that happened while I was in Israel. That being said, the virus had spread rampantly across parts of Asia and into a few European countries. It also did exist in North America including my home country of Canada, though cases were fairly minimal and none in Canada (at that time) were listed as serious. Israel had only about a dozen cases before I left and Turkey had none.
Prior to me leaving, there were no major red flags for my specific travel plans (I debated Italy with my mom but decided no in the early stages of Corona). Canada had only issued travel warnings about China and Northern Italy. Flights were still running normally and the companies I was set to work with for the press trips, both in Israel and Turkey, had no concerns. This gave me a lot of confidence. After all, no brand wants to send a journalist/blogger into dangerous territory or put them at risk.
Media Played a Big Part Too
Of course, we can’t have this discussion without mentioning the media. COVID-19 has been on the news and across social media for months now. Some messages are apocalyptic while others treat it as a joke. And while you can’t trust everything you read on the internet I looked to specific trustworthy sources for my information; major outlets and doctors who had experience in the travel field. The overwhelming response to “should I cancel my travel” was no. Not unless you were high risk, travelling to a heavily infected are (ie: China or Northern Italy), or were a caretaker of someone who was considered to be a high-risk individual. Again, these trustworthy and professional opinions gave me the confidence to follow through with my plans.
I also paid attention to social media and those who I knew were in the ‘infected’ countries. While Northern Italy was a no-go zone, I was told that life was going on as normal in Rome. In fact, there was a lot of complaining about how they wished tourists would come because it was safe there. The news, many argued, was blowing things out of proportion and making things sound way more serious than it actually was.
My Pre-Departure Thoughts
Three days before I was set to leave, Israel blocked out certain countries from arriving in the country due to the number of coronavirus cases they had. This was an unprecedented move at the time and, quite frankly, shocked the world.
However, if take into account the Israel/Palestine conflict it made sense that Israel would be especially wary of the virus. After all, this is a country that depends heavily on their army and soldiers on a day-to-day basis. To Israel, Covid-19 was more than just a threat of people getting sick. It was a potential threat to the country itself.
At this time, I was set to fly from Canada to London, England where I would spend the night. I would then fly from London to Israel. However, seeing how Israel was reacting to European countries with the virus, I started to get worried. What if England was next? What if I couldn’t get in?
Ultimately, I ended up cancelling my original flights and re-booking a new route: Canada- Turkey-Israel. At this time, Turkey had no coronavirus cases and since Canada’s were so minimal, I knew I would be able to get into Israel safely and without issues.
I lost $400 and paid 70,000 points for this change. It hurt, but I consider myself to be a smart traveller and thought I was making the best decision to protect my travel investment. After all, Israel was supposed to be just the beginning. Funnily enough, I was criticized for making this change. A few people told me I was being silly and over-reacting. One man on Facebook even made a “Koolaid” comment when I shared the changes. But, I did what felt right to me and I didn’t regret it.
My Original Contingency Plan
While I was confident in my plans to start, I was hesitant to book anything past the press trip to Turkey. Yes, I was running my first sailing trip in Greece at the end of May so that was set, but I still had a month and a half between the trips. Originally I thought I would island-hop through Greece but as coronavirus spread I decided not to book anything quite yet. Just in case I needed to get home or, more likely, hunker down somewhere for a while. If things flared up I did not want to continue travelling. I didn’t want to risk spreading it.
I know some have accused me of being selfish and thinking only about myself with this trip, not considering the more at-risk populations but that’s not true at all. As an asthmatic with a history of poor lung health, I AM part of the at-risk population. While I did choose to travel, I honestly feel like I did do my research ahead of time and was being cautious. I did plan to set up base somewhere if I needed to. I did think ahead. But things escalated so much more than anyone could have predicted.
From Purim Parties to Panic
I had two reasons for going to Israel. The first was to give it a second chance. My first Israel experience was eye-opening but incredibly political and I felt like I didn’t get the real experience. So when my Instagram friend Brittany from The Sweet Wanderlust told me to come meet her and celebrate the local holiday, Purim, I thought ‘why not’.
The offer was made even more attractive when a local tour provider asked if we would be interested in trying out their new tours and trips through Eilat. Beaches, hummus, and costume parties? How could I say no?
My second trip to Israel started amazingly. I hit the ground running, spending my first day dressed up as a mermaid exploring the streets of Tel Aviv with Brittany and her best friend Josi. The three of us got along perfectly and laughed as we ate hummus, drank flowery sodas, and posed for locals and tourists alike who all wanted shots of us in our costumes.
While the official Purim street parties were cancelled, events still went on. The streets were full of costumed partiers as were the bars and the clubs. While we did our best to avoid the biggest crowds, there’s no doubt we danced and sang and partied with hundreds of people.
Behind the bright lights and glittery costumes, things were rapidly changing. Not 24 hours after I landed the Israeli government announced that no foreign travellers would be allowed into the country unless they could self-isolate for 14 days. All Israeli citizens who returned from travelling had to self-isolate as well. For this reason, the work aspect of my Israel trip was cancelled. With no tourists allowed in, there weren’t enough people to actually run the tours. It sucked for sure to lose the work but the locals I spoke to all just kind of shrugged it off as paranoia. A young soldier we met on the train to Jerusalem re-affirmed my original thoughts: Israel was being extra cautious because it couldn’t afford to have sick soldiers.
The Purim parties in Jerusalem, which take place 2 days after the one in Tel Aviv, were a little more subdued. Again, there were no official street parties this year but that shuk was still jam-packed with party-goers and the streets in some of the neighbourhoods were full of mini dance parties. We even got pulled into a local’s house and were served food and alcohol. “It’s like the old days” they told us as we drank in our costumes. “No tourists”.
I will say it was incredibly strange to see Jerusalem and Tel Aviv so empty of tourists. My first visit I could barely make my way through the Old Town. This time around, I could have danced through the streets of the Old Town souks. I felt bad for the local business owners but, to be completely honest, I loved being one of a few tourists in the Holy Land. It felt so much more authentic. More local.
Of course, all good things come to an end. Just days after I landed I was sent an article by an Instagram follower of how Israel was trying to figure out a way to make tourists leave. Four days into a 2.5-week itinerary, I started to worry. Where would I go if I was kicked out? I still had a press trip in Turkey and they were getting picky too at who they let in as the virus continued to spread in Europe.
Over the next day or so, shit hit the fan. COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic. Italy shut down, quarantining the entire country. Trump declared that nobody from Europe would be allowed into the USA. The severity of the situation really started to hit as COVID-19 cases grew at a rapid speed. Suddenly Israel and Palestine had over 200 cases, there were reports of cases in Turkey, and even in my hometown of Ottawa. Schools, tourist sites, sporting events, and more being shut down and closed worldwide to help stop the spread. Tour companies, including the one I was doing my press trip with, cancelled all tours. It was at this point that I realized things weren’t going to go as planned, and I needed to figure out what to do.
My first thought was to stay in Israel. I searched apartment hotels in Tel Aviv, thinking that if the government actually didn’t kick us out, my best bet would be just to stay put rather than to move on or try to get home. With so many borders closing I saw the flights and airports as more of an opportunity to contact the virus, whereas in Israel I felt safe. I felt healthy. I didn’t feel like I would endanger anyone.
Of course, that wasn’t an option. Israel put more motions into place to get tourists out and my home country of Canada announced a global travel warning: Avoid all non-essential travel. Even if Israel didn’t kick me out, that warning was enough to convince me to go home. That level warning only gives me 10 more days of travel coverage and there was no way I was staying abroad in a foreign country, during a pandemic, without travel insurance.
The Struggle to Find a Way Out
While going home early was my worst-case scenario of my original contingency plan, I never expected it would be difficult. But on that Friday night after Canada told its citizens to come home, I realized just how hard it would be to find a way out of a country that had essentially already closed its borders.
Flights that should have cost $600 one way started at $1200 and rose to $4000. Routes were hard to find, some tracking me through 3 or 4 airports along the way. Between the astronomical prices and the multiple layovers which, realistically, could be cancelled any second based on how quickly countries were closing borders, I started to panic. I could feel a heavy weight in my chest as I struggled to maintain control over my breathing. I honestly don’t think I have ever been that stressed and worried in my life.
I did find some more affordable options for later in the week- Wednesday or Thursday. My buddy Barry even found me a great deal where I could use points for business class seats, but I was worried that would be too late. Things were changing by the minute, I needed to get home as soon as possible.
I ended up finding a flight home on Monday. Tel Aviv- Washington DC, then Washington DC home to Ottawa. About 20 hours of travel time and nearly $1200. I didn’t hesitate to use my points towards the ticket- points that I had planned to use later this year on a trip back to the South Pacific. The value for points for this ticket was terrible but I didn’t care, I was just grateful to have the points to use to get out.
The truth is, I was lucky. Lucky to have the points so I didn’t have to fork out the cash. Lucky to at least have a couple of options on how to leave, because so many others are stuck and stranded as borders continue to close and flights are cancelled.
Experiencing Racism as a Tourist during COVID19
Unfortunately, times like these bring out the best and worst in some people and Brittany and I experienced both during our last few days in Israel before we got home.
It started on a bus to Mitzpe Ramon. A woman helped us get tickets so I assumed she would be ok if I sat beside her on the bus (I did ask and she said yes). However, as soon as I sat down she asked me where I was from, when I came and ended with ‘you don’t belong here. Tourists aren’t allowed’. It was loud enough for those around us to hear which made it even more awkward. I didn’t answer back. Instead, I put my sunglasses on hoping that they would prevent anyone from seeing the tears that threatened to fall.
Two days later, on Sunday- our last full day in Israel, we experience more. As of 6am that morning a lot of Israel shut down including many businesses in the tourism sector. This meant that we had nowhere to stay. Brittany contacted some friends asking for help but those ideas fell through. We literally walked down a street and knocked on a hotel door asking if they were accepting customers. Even though many hotels said they were open online, they were, in fact, shut down and not accepting check-ins.
As we walked through the streets speaking English trying to figure things out, we got dirty looks from some locals. Many physically went out of their way to avoid passing by us with our suitcases. An older man on a bicycle blew his nose and threw his dirty, used Kleenex at Brittany, muttering in Hebrew angrily at me as he rode by. On top of that, we also heard several people mutter ‘corona’ on the bus we rode as they passed by us.
While I understand that these are extreme circumstances, that’s no excuse to treat people poorly. We were made to feel monsters which left us nervous and scared. We just wanted to hide. To be invisible. To disappear.
Thankfully, while those experiences were brutal, more people treated us with kindness than with disgust. Most locals understood our predicament, that we were stuck and just trying to get home and several went out of their way to help us out which I am incredibly grateful for.
Lessons Learned About Booking Travel
Without a doubt, this has been a learning experience. As I struggle to get a hold of Turkish Airlines to try to get credit for the flights I had booked for my brother and in Turkey, I’m realizing more and more how important it is to support brands and companies that actually care. While I can’t get through to Turkish Airlines right now, I still have a week to try. I’m just grateful that they, along with many other airlines, are offering the option to get the credit without having to pay a fee.
Another company I am incredibly impressed with is Intrepid Travel. They have had to cancel almost every trip from mid-march to the end of April. Throughout this past week, they have been regularly sending emails and posting on social media about what they are doing for their customers. Right now, those who had trips for this time frame are receiving 110% in credit towards future trips which really is going above and beyond.
Thirdly, many people now are struggling with travel insurance. I am a HUGE supporter of having travel insurance and use and promote SafetyWing. Like Intrepid, they have been incredible in sending emails about updates throughout this process. Information on what areas are and aren’t covered, whether evacuation applies and how to go about doing that etc. Their response to this has absolutely earned my loyalty for future travels.
So, What Now?
This last week has easily been my biggest misadventure yet. While I will cherish my Purim and baby alpaca memories forever, and am beyond grateful to have met Brittany and Josi, this whole ordeal is not something I want to go through again.
I am now safely home in Canada, seemingly just in time. My local airport is set to close this week along with the border to the USA. I’m reading about Canadians stranded and stuck and am so thankful that I did actually make it back. However, the ordeal isn’t quite up yet. Not only have I had to spend a lot of money changing flights and then getting home, but I have an additional $4000 tied into travel over the next couple of months. Not to mention my work is essentially non-existent. Travel isn’t exactly a trend right now so my blog income has dropped about 90% and my main freelance gigs seem to be on a temporary hiatus. I know I’m not alone in this.
As I said, I did make it safely home. I am currently in self-quarantine at my mom’s house which means I just stick to my bedroom and the bathroom. I can’t cuddle my dog, as the bacteria could be transferred to her fur, which just makes things harder but it is the right thing to do. So far I don’t feel like I have any symptoms, but I will wait out those 14 days just to make sure. COVID19 is no joke as I hope we all know by now.
As for blogging and writing, I will continue to do so. I’m going to start with more personal posts and stories rather than travel guides and pieces. I want to keep it appropriate but I also want to continue promoting travel in an ethical way. Countries are going to need those tourism dollars when this clears up and I absolutely plan on getting back to adventuring as soon as it’s safe to do so.