The highs and lows of travelling during Covid

It took us such a long time to decide to make the trip to Greece, that even when we were on the plane, we were still questioning ourselves. We didn’t really feel comfortable until we had been in Greece for a few days and the sun, the people and the normalcy of life there calmed us down.

We can’t say we were right or wrong in our decision – I don’t know if that is quantifiable. We chose Greece because of their low Covid numbers and because of their government protocols. We asked ourselves how we would fulfill our responsibility to the Greek citizens to travel responsibly, and we answered by keeping distance, wearing masks, practising constant hand hygiene and avoiding crowds.

I think of navigating the world with Covid and compare it to driving a car. Every time I get behind the wheel, I am accepting the risks that it might not have a good outcome. A blown tire, sudden snowstorm, drunk driver, a moment’s inattention – all risky possibilities. I mitigate those possibilities by maintaining the car, wearing a seatbelt and driving defensively. I haven’t eliminated the risks, but I’ve lessened them and I drive almost every day without giving it a second thought.

So…the decision to travel was made, we arrived in Greece and then what? What was it like to travel during Covid? Short answer – the same and different.

I’ll start with the lows of Covid travel.

Loneliness: One of our great pleasures of travel is meeting people. We have a number of good friends we’ve met during travels and still keep in touch. Memories of pre-Covid travel include innumerable chance encounters, long chats, lunches and dinners with new friends.

We did find people willing to talk to us, but the conversations were shorter and more reserved, and no-one was inclined to suggest joining a table or sharing a bottle of wine, or meeting up later. As well, we did not meet a single Canadian, so we had brief chats with Europeans without feeling any connection. There was the one exception of a Parisian who was excited to discover we came from Vancouver Island. He is a diver and it is his ambition to come to Nanaimo and area for cold-water diving.

Sadness for the locals: We were struck by the resolute nature of the Greeks, and their wonderful hospitality in spite of the fact tourism is down by 75%. We were wondering if we would be the only guests in hotels or the sole diners in restaurants, and it wasn’t like that. There were people out and about; life going on. But Greece is hugely dependent upon tourism – how long can the small cafes, souvenir vendors, tour guides and boat operators survive? It was wrenching to have chats and encounters with so many Greeks and imagine they might not make it.

The highs of travelling during Covid:

No crowds!
Greece is one of many destinations that has become wildly over-touristed, and no, the irony of being a tourist and complaining that there are too many of us out there is not lost on me.

Santorini is a stunning island, but its beauty draws an inconceivable number of visitors – way more people than the tiny streets can reasonably accommodate. In high season, cruise ships drop between 11,000 and 15,000 tourists Every. Single. Day.

Pre-Covid, this would be a typical day in Santorini, with thousands of tourists inching along the alleyways, and thousands of cameras poised for the sunset shot.

Looking at this photo gives me the willies. I regard watching a sunset as a religious experience – it is a wondrous and solitary and reflective moment. I cannot imagine being crowded and jostled and anxious as hundreds of people around me chattered and whistled and clapped.

This was how Santorini looked during our visit:

Everywhere we went in Greece was similar. We could drop into any restaurant, easily find sunbeds on any beach, and not worry about finding a seat on the bus, ferry or plane. But yet, there were enough people around to feel like we hadn’t missed the party.

Greek hospitality (filoxenia)
The loose meaning of filoxenia means “friend to a stranger”, but there is a deeper cultural intention of extending courtesy and comfort to visitors. We found the generosity of people who probably could scarcely afford it this year to be overwhelming.
We visited very few restaurants that did not offer something on the house – a drink, some fruit, a dessert, and in the case of Crete – always raki.

Travel Similarities
There are certain precious elements that are common to almost all our travels, and we found them in Greece as well.

Discovering what we don’t know
We learned very quickly that our knowledge of Greek history and mythology was sadly lacking, but we knew that going in.

What I mean by “discovering what we don’t know” is that ineffable understanding that our tiny corner of the world and our tiny lives within that corner are not representative of how much of the rest of the world lives. Ours are not the only standards by which to live. When we travel, we learn that truth over and over again. That old saying about “not knowing how lucky we are” is true, but we also see that many people who have far less than us feel far luckier.

Getting rid of fear
I’m not a big fan of being afraid. Unless I’m being chased by a rhino, I consider most of my fears to be groundless, or at least manageable. The exhilaration of setting out on an adventure that may carry risk and require using judgement and common sense is one the biggest paybacks of travel.

Serendipitous book discoveries

I LOVE this one. When we travel, we only carry a couple of books with us, and hope that the book gods will provide. And they almost always do – in the shape of Take a Book, Leave a Book shelves in hotel lobbies.

The old standards – Ludlum, Grisham, romance novels – are reliably there, but so are the treasures. Books you’ve been meaning to read or authors you’ve never heard of turn up on the shelves – so exciting!

This time around, I picked up three winners – an old P.D. James The Lighthouse ; Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keene. I had not read the latter two authors and I’m keen to find more of their work.

Travel buddies
Since we are together 24/7, it is important to branch off and give each other space as much as we can. It also provides the opportunity to experience what is unfolding in front of our eyes without ongoing commentary (often mine, I confess).

This is a very dear sight to me – Stephen walking with hands behind his back, lost in his own thoughts.

Time slows down

Without the familiar prompts and requirements of home, time seems to shape-shift when we travel. Every minute of every day brings something new that demands our attention. Whether it is a beautiful garden to admire or a bus we just missed by two minutes, we are fully engaged. That engagement means that our time does not flow by unnoticed and our days don’t disappear into weeks.

If I could figure out how to bottle that essence, I would, but in the meantime, here are words to live by.

Our experience travelling in Greece during Covid has just made us keen to plan our next trip. We won’t be foolish – we have a couple of months to get through yet as the second wave rolls around the globe, but if there is an opportunity – we’ll grab it.

We have added anew page to our site – Financial Summary. We have started it with this trip, and will make a feature from now on.

It began because so many people have asked us indirectly (and very directly!) how we afford to travel as much as we do. It’s a natural curiosity and we’re happy to share.

We want to be mindful of travel costs so that we can continue to live this lifestyle – travel, pay our bills and home and continue to save.

This is Stephen’s bailiwick – he is the plotter and planner of all things fiscal, and he keeps us on track.

We consider ourselves to be budget travellers. We are not adverse to staying in a hostel, but more likely we will find a modest hotel or Airbnb. We eat at tavernas, family-style restaurants, or do takeout. We stop for coffee, or beer or ice cream. We will not miss museums and attractions, but take advantage of half-price or free days, if possible. In short, we don’t do without, but we don’t waste our precious travel dollars – they can go toward the next trip.

If you are interested, please check out our page “Financial Summary” at the top of our blog.

And now, we are on Day Six of quarantine. It is not so bad – we have lots of little projects to do, and daily activities – exercise workouts, studying Spanish, reading, catching up on Netflix.

The weather is cooperating – we are not being taunted with glorious sunny days. We came home to this – our view from our condo.

And we have a lot to look forward to – once quarantine is over, we will be heading to Vancouver to see our little grandson, Leo (and his parents!)

Thanks so much for following. We wish you all a healthy, happy fall-into-winter and hope to see you back on these pages before long.

A Year of Living Precariously

While it would be high drama (and wildly misleading) to suggest our last year was “dangerous”, it was marked by constant change, joy, loss, grief, and now, with Coronavirus dominating the news, “precarious” does not feel like an overstatement. The whole world is precarious.

What the heck is going on? If our original plan three and a half years ago was to “leave ourselves behind”, we’ve done that in spades. But the world is no longer cooperating and the rules have suddenly, totally changed.

So let’s go back to when we last chatted, in August. We had finished our travels in the Yukon and were anxious to get back to Vancouver to see our grandson. (For those of you who already know this story, just scroll down to the coronavirus part.)

When we first started travelling full-time, friends warned us that things would change with a grandchild. “You’ll travel less”, they said. “Hmmm,” we said. (secretly believing otherwise.) Now, we’re not so sure. Our Leo is a pretty compelling draw, and we’re not sure we want to leave him for months at a time. Plus, we really like his parents.

I could show you dozens of photos, but I do know better. Well okay, let me add one more – our creative daughter-in-law’s first Hallowe’en outfit.

So, yes, we are smitten grandparents – the kind who show photos of their grandchildren to complete strangers.

Leo was our first big change of the year.

The second big change was our decision to sell our trailer. We put a lot research into deciding what type of RV would suit us and the Escape trailer seemed to be it. Made in British Columbia, lightweight fibreglass body, well-designed, and virtually problem-free, this was the ideal introduction to RV-ing for newbies.

Our challenge was we never got the hang of backing up. One day we would wheel right in to our campsite like pros and the next day we would wrangle it for what seemed like hours. Our other challenge was we felt like we were taking up major real estate on the road. We didn’t feel free, we felt hindered. We were “dragging ourselves behind.”
At some point, we will look for a smaller unit – a truck camper or a van. We knew our upcoming travel would be overseas, and figured it might be a couple of years before we would hit the road again. So we handed our trailer over to an excited new owner and we have many very happy memories to tide us over until the next time.

The third huge, unthinkable change was the death of my mother in October. At 89, she was a force to be reckoned with, full of life and brimming with health – we all thought she would go on forever. She and my dad came out west from Ontario in September to meet their great-grandchild, and this is the last photo I have of her before she died.

My parents had to cut their trip short because my mother was not feeling well, and two weeks later she was gone.

The months since then have been a blur of shock and grief and sadness, as well as the busyness of helping my dad get settled into his new life. We all continue to cope with a world that does not have my mother in it.

Also, we are facing the unpalatable reality that we’re next up to bat. Not yet old, but no longer young. So how do we make the most of our valuable time remaining?

Our fourth big change was our decision to put down roots and buy a condo. For the past few years we had been balancing our travel time with housesitting and renting Airbnb’s and for a while that worked very well.

Increasingly though we were feeling the need to come “home” between trips. We knew we didn’t want to buy a house, with all the yard work and maintenance that required – we wanted a comfy roost we could lock up and leave without worry. At some point, I think, I want to have a garden and house plants and a bit of a yard, but for now, we want to continue travelling as much as we did before, but come home to our “stuff.”

We decided to buy in Nanaimo – central to our friends on Gabriola and Vancouver Island, family in Vancouver and an easy walk to downtown and the ferries. We bought this condo in September, but spent the next three months in Ontario with my dad. We’ve only been living here and setting up our home since early January. We began with an inflatable mattress and two camp chairs and by now we are getting close to being furnished. The “stuff” collecting has begun once again, but this time, we are choosing everything very carefully and minimally. It has been fun feathering our nest.

This is our condo building in Nanaimo – we are the corner unit on the second floor.

And now…to travel. We had planned a trip to South America this past winter, but of course those plans were shelved. We did get away for two weeks in February to Puerto Morelos, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Heat, colour, fabulous swimming and snorkelling, and great food. It didn’t feel new, or demanding or even exciting, but it was a tonic and exactly what we needed.

In April, we were going to drive down to Portland to visit friends. This summer we were planning to drive through the northern United States, up into Ontario and visit family and friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Next winter we were planning to go to South America – Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos and Peru. Now all of that is up in the air.

Everything has changed – who knows what the weeks and months ahead will bring? Will we be allowed across the U.S. border in April? What will our road trip look like this summer? As for South America – another big question mark, even so many months away. We are all adjusting our realities on a daily basis.

We have two sets of friends who have had to cut their trips short and come home, and another who is stranded in Peru for the next two weeks. Our son was supposed to have left on Monday for Thailand – he cancelled that trip just last week, as the news became more urgent.

Covid-19 – it’s not unscary. Don’t watch the movie, Contagion, by the way – it’s not going to help your state of mind. It is immensely prescient.

We’ve been madly hand-washing, have become acquainted with the term “social distancing”, and have been postponing get-togethers with friends for at least the next week or so. We ran into an old friend today at the grocery store – someone we hadn’t seen in five years. We began this awkward hug-not-hug dance, until we gave up and took the chance on an embrace. We stopped for coffee at our favourite spot, normally packed, and today with just three other tables. Wherever we go now, we feel “germy.”

Worst of all, at 67 and 70 years of age, we don’t fit into the “frail elderly ” category, but we are considered vulnerable.

So what do we do? We go for walks in the many glorious parks around Nanaimo.

We’re reading, watching Netflix, keeping in touch with friends and family and waiting it out. Waiting for, if not better news, at least something more definitive.

Future travel – unreservedly, yes! As soon as we get the all-clear, we’re booking our trips. Not for one minute to minimize what the entire world is facing, but let’s face it, if one goes down, we’re all going down. It’s a new world order and what we knew to be true two weeks ago is no longer the case.

When we get back on the road, what will have changed? Small businesses gone? Significant health risks attached to travel that can’t be ignored? Environmental damage that can’t be ignored? None of us know.

In the meantime, we are doing as we’re told, being responsible citizens and trying to find the light and look for the humour.

Funny sign on a Nanaimo liquor store: ” Free roll of toilet paper with every six-pack of Corona.”

Stay healthy, dear friends. With any luck, we will be chatting again soon.