Travel during COVID

I’ve traveled enough to know what normal looks like, even when it goes sideways.  Travel during COVID is a different beast altogether.  Rules are more stringent, more complicated and everyone is acting scared and overzealous.  Despite this I have arrived and am ready to get settled into my new home and while I have to wait it out 14 days, I am ready to get to know my neighbourhood and new friends.

So where to begin? I not intended to publish anything about my travel day, but since so many people asked about it, I’ve changed my mind.  To begin, in order to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia you need a visa.  As things stood when I applied you needed a letter of invitation, return express envelope, passport, $120CND processing fee, proof of $50 000USD health insurance that includes COVID coverage, a $3000USD deposit (to pay to COVID testing and government assigned quarantine) and a negative COVID test.  All of this was fairly straight forward except for the last, the COVID test…well that was another matter.

Once it became clear that CIS was unable to help get the visa (because of the changing rules) I sent in all the required documents to the Honorary Consulate in Toronto.  At that point I was asked to get a COVID test (test #1…keep count as my story unfolds).  Off I went, throat swab and I wait. Rule change…no longer need that test and the visa is on its way.  The rules changing is also a theme in this travel adventure.  I do still need a negative COVID test and the requirement is strict.  From the time of the test to my arrival time in Phnom Penh no more than 72 hours can pass.  You can well imagine that when the travel time is about 28 hours this doesn’t leave much time for the test and the results to get back to me.  You also need a letter from a doctor, signed, stamped (not in black, I know weird rule) so I also had to time a doctor’s appointment.

I booked a test, flight time changed, booked another test to ensure everything was lined up.  Packed my bags, printed documents, said all my see you soon’s and got ready to leave Canadian life behind.  A surge in COVID cases in Alberta meant that it was taking longer to get the results back and despite my many assurances from health link the local testing team would absolutely do nothing to expedite my test results.  I crossed my fingers and prayed that the results would be in when I arrived at my doctor’s office 17 hours before I had to leave Red Deer.  No luck, results were not back.  No way to help them along, no way to be certain they would be entered by the time the office closed.   Both Kevin and I went on a phoning spree, pharmacies, health link, ER you name it we called.  Over and over we explained why we needed the rush on the test, over and over we were told sorry, can’t help you.

I called a friend and asked for a professional favour, a rapid test and after-hours meeting.  This wonderful human obliged and at midnight (only 6 hours before I planned on leaving Red Deer) I had my COVID test documents.  Have you been counting? This rapid test was the fourth COVID test.  I went home to close my bags and check in electronically.  Having had an exhausting day chasing down the test I decided to upgrade the long flight, turns out this was a very good decision.

Arrival at the Calgary airport was uneventful and fairly normal as it was the full flight to Vancouver.  The only thing out of place was that all the attendants wore masks.  A late departure meant that I really had very little time in Vancouver.  Was just arriving at the gate when my zone was called so I just walked right on.  First time on the new 787 Dreamliner.  Beautiful plane.  The upgrade meant that I had a larger seat with more room between rows.  The breathing space on an 11-hour flight was a gift.  I also had the row to myself and no one behind me.  This makes it easier to move around, recline, shuffle items to and from my bag…generally everything.  Three meals, 4 films and a few games on my phone the time passed quick enough.  Service was a bit different.  No longer were there choices of meals and snacks, you were handed a bag on entry with sanitizer, masks, gloves, pretzels and water.  Meals were fully boxed, each item sealed and presented all together, not good if you are a picky eater.  All in all, this flight was delightful.

(The windows on the Dreamliner lightened and darkened at the push of a button. I may have played with them a bit)

Arrival in Seoul was smooth, as I exited the plane there was a service agent there with my name on a sign who escorted me through the health check, fill out a form please, temperature taken, then through security again and then through the airport to the transfer check in counter to get my boarding pass.  Feeling fairly good because everything was going so smoothly…I should have known better.  The agent at the desk begins to go over the documents, lab report – good, doctor note – good, insurance letter – good, $3000 deposit – what is this? Nope no good.  She asks for a credit card; she asks me to purchase a return to Seoul ticket; to both I declined.  My school had made arrangement to act as my guarantor and I didn’t need to pay a thing, just needed for this agent to understand. What’s App had all my school (CIS) contacts in it so I sit down and start texting.  The other CIS teachers flying with Korean Air had no problems and were sitting in the same airport at the same time enjoying Starbucks while I wait for the problem to get sorted out.  I get an image of a bank slip, still the agent will not accept it, more texts.  In the background I have two local ladies working their magic.  After I am sure a flurry of phone calls including the lady who owns Canadia Group and I finally have a boarding pass.

A nap in the boarding lounge was just enough to let me know just how long I had been traveling, 20 hours so far.  I was looking forward to sleeping on the next flight.  Boarding this last flight included another temperature check and visa check, again the row to myself and we’re off.  I slept for about 4 of the 5-hour flight, woken once by an attendant passing out forms, three to fill out before arrival.

Arrival in Phnom Penh!  Hourray!  Can’t read a thing, can’t understand anything so I march along following the rest of the passengers.  I see a sign with my schools’ logo on it and immediately feel a sense of relief.  They, a team of three meet me and help me with the various stations and processes.  First, health documents checked, then deposit slip from bank, then immigration (here they keep your passport until you get your hopefully negative COVID results), customs declaration, baggage claim and off to line up for a COVID test.  The school rep get me a SIM card, some USD cash and tell me how the next steps are to go.  As they were unable to follow me to quarantine, they head off having gotten me through the worst of the processing.

Every foreigner must have a COVID test before leaving the airport.  This was a bit surreal.  The old 50’s style metal office desks provide space for another form to be filled out and each of these stations is separated by old fashioned looking bamboo screens (probably quite modern but to my western eye it seemed like something kitsch).  Two people at the desk with the form and two workers taking samples at each of the nine or so health stations.  The people drawing the swabs were decked out in full gear.  Booties and gloves tapped over their outer scrubs, the inner suite pulled over their head and zipped to their chins.  Face masks, goggles and face shields completed their outfit.  Throat swab and two nasal swabs and I am headed out to the bus.  No signs, no one directing I’m just following the other travellers who seem to know more than me.

I find the bus for the foreigners, but have to abandon my trolley and deal with my two very near 50 lbs suitcases, carry on and hand bag on my own.  It wasn’t too far, maybe twenty feet, so I was good.  About thirty minutes ride and we arrive at the hotel.  The ride was uneventful as it was too dark to really see anything, though I smiled when we passed some night food stalls.  They look exactly like what I had seen on YouTube travel videos.

The two buses bound for quarantine were escorted by police and on our arrival we all poured out to the sidewalk, suitcases and all.  Again, no trolleys no helpers.  I gather my stuff and follow the herd.  Down what seemed to be an alley, clean but dark.  I can only make out the closest of details, wires strung from building to building and awnings jutting out. 

(photos of the road I took the next morning as I left. It was not an alley at all, just a regular neighbourhood road)

We are crammed into a little lobby, suitcases were sprayed (so were you if you were near the bags) given another form to fill out and begin to check in.  I get to the counter and hand my paper to the clerk and am told no single rooms, go back and wait.  I was tired so this bothered me more than it should have.  A gentleman about my age offered to share a room so we hand the clerk our papers together, the clerk takes one look at the papers, looks at us and says no, not woman and man together.  Apparently, this was outside the bounds of decency.  So, I wait.  The man I tried to room with calls over a few minutes later and points out a young girl just entering.  I talk with her and we decide to try rooming together.  My first friend a young lady from California.

We head up to our room and after unpacking, showers and getting electronics hooked up we fell asleep.  Awake very early because of the time change we headed off to breakfast.  I had assumed that food would be delivered during this quarantine time but no we all headed to the 14th floor for the buffet. Rice porridge (bor bor) was the new item for me.  Runnier than a typical oatmeal and savory in flavour from the chicken and vegetables in it (topped with fresh black pepper, fresh lime and green onions of course).  Yummy and hot so it really hit the spot.  We spent the day watching TV, talking and taking a nap.

(Hotel lobby was decked out in beautiful wood carving everywhere, two shrines, pillows…Bor bor for breakfast and papaya salad at lunch. The salad I had heard about and was looking forward to it. My roommate assured me this version of the salad was lacking so I didn’t feel too bad about not really liking it)

About 11pm the hotel calls and lets us know we are clear and can leave.  This means that all the foreigners on our plane tested negative and we were allowed to head to our own residences.  My roommate left by tuk tuk right away and I waited for the morning to have the school representative come get me. She and the driver help me with my bags and we are off to my apartment.  I still have to stay put and inside for the next 12 days but at least I can unpack and get used to my new home.

So, that is how far I have gotten.  I have managed to get the right apps going for ordering food and groceries.  My Internet is working on all my devices and I have mostly found a good home for all my stuff.  Since I can’t go shopping for the few things l’d like in my apartment, I am making lists, yes, making lists makes me feel good.  At the end of 14 days I will go with a representative from the school to get my last COVID test and if negative can venture out into the city and meet people face to face.  Over the next few days I will begin some school work, figure out how to sign out and back in again to Netflix on my TV (its all in Khmer), work on the craft projects I was wise enough to bring with me and read some of the books loaded on my Kobo.

Did you count…?  How many COVID tests did I have done?  A long story to be sure, sorry for that.  I have been saying often these past days, its complicated.  That is what travel during COVID is, complicated.

A short follow up…I made it through to my home many others have not. A colleague is stuck in Canada with getting a COVID test with the right timing, another had their guarantor document questioned until the flight was missed and a whole group are stuck in hotel quarantine as a person on their flight tested positive, these poor folks can not leave their rooms for 14 days.

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