Confession of a Pandemic Travel Blogger

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It has been almost two months since my last travel blog post!

But alas: Coronavirus.

Upon my spring break to Singapore and Malaysia at the beginning of March, the virus started to spread outside of China. As I embarked, Chinese and South Korean tourists were not allowed into either of the countries that I was visiting—which worked out in my favor because there were less tourists for me to contend with. My American passport was still golden! However, as I wandered the half empty attractions and restaurants, I was getting a glimpse into the economic portent about to spread across the rest of the world.

When I came back from my spring break, Qatar went into lockdown. The week after I came back to Doha, my university shifted to online classes, and many non-essential shops were required to close. Then gradually more and more activities were restricted. Going to the beach, gathering at the corniche or promenade, cruising around the city in a vehicle packed with friends—all these were restricted in name of social distancing. 

Qatar’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was serious, and the consequences for not following these restrictions were severe as well. 150 Nepali workers were deported for not abiding by the new social orders. (The government also alleges they were engaged in illegal and illicit behavior in addition to flouting the rules of public gathering.) A group of men were fined for gathering on the roof of their building and praying together. All the mosques in Qatar were closed, and people were asked to pray in the safety of their homes. The names of Qatari citizens, who were required to self-quarantine for a requisite amount of time but instead decided to go out in public thus prompting their arrest, was published in the country’s newspaper. Under recent legal amendments, these individuals could be subject to three years in jail and up to 200,000 QAR (approximated $60,000 USD) in fines. 

I couldn’t believe that the country was willing to shame its citizens in this matter. In this culture, you often err on allowing people to save face, even if they are clearly in the wrong. Some dummy rear ends your car with his because he was texting on his phone? You get out of your vehicles, shake hands, exchange license and insurance information, and go to the police station to sort it out. You don’t cuss him out or threaten him with violence, and you certainly don’t upload pictures or videos of the accident to social media in order to embarrass him. That could result in you being fined and spending some time in jail. Again, I couldn’t believe names were being printed in the paper!

However, a student of mine suggested that the printing of the names might be to inform those who interreacted with the individuals breaking quarantine, not necessarily to humiliate the individuals. Makes sense. 

Despite all the social restrictions put in place and spending most of the March in my apartment, I managed. I rearranged my two bedrooms; I organized my closet, cupboards, and drawers; I drilled holes in my walls to hang pictures and shelves. The days of the first month of quarantine were like a bowl full of potatoes, each potato distinct and discernable. You could tell one potato from the next. 

However, the days of the second month of quarantine were like a bowl full of potatoes in the process of being mashed; they were starting to break apart and blend indiscernibly into one another. That’s when I started to lose my motivation to work out, write, or plan for the future.

What future?

There was no end in sight to the virus. There was no where I could safely go, and I wasn’t planning on returning to the US because the Coronavirus case numbers and causalities kept climbing.

Writings from an abandoned blog entry:

Not exactly sure when my quarantine started or when it will end. I am somewhere in the indeterminate midst of this lockdown. Stuck in a terminal waiting for the time and location of departure to be announced. The needle on my mental state wavering between patience and apathy.

The other day my Coronavirus stimulus check arrived at my mom’s house. She deposited it for me in my US bank account. At different points in my life, I would celebrate a $1200 windfall. And, I realize for some people who were living paycheck to paycheck, this is a cloth to stop the financial hemorrhaging. But this is not one of those times in my life. I divided the money and gave half to each one of my sons. They need it more than me.

My oldest son was let go from work just as Wisconsin began the stay-at-home order. He has rent, a car that needs repairs, and student loan debt. My youngest son was set to graduate this month. However, his graduation ceremony was postponed. Additionally, my flight to the US this month was also canceled. 

The other day on a Q&A video meeting for work, our HoD informed us that if we were to travel back to our home countries during the summer break, and we were not able to reenter Qatar in August before the start of the fall semester, the university would work with the government to allow us to reenter the country or allow us to teach online from where ever we trapped. This was reassuring to all of us. Still, I don’t want to be trapped in the US. 

During my idle quarantine time, I have been playing a lot of video games. I spent 75+ hours on Horizon Zero Dawn and then, after a short reprieve, spent 75+ hours on the Witcher 3. Both are open world games that have provided me with diversion from my closed world reality. 

It was then, during my second month of quarantine, that I noticed I was becoming angry for no reason, which was likely a result of me going stir crazy from isolating myself in my apartment and the onset of mental health issues. I was starting to unravel. I had spent of March, April, and May mostly by myself, and with summer break coming, I didn’t want to spend June, July, and August in a similar manner. So, after discussing with my mother and siblings the possibility of returning to the US, I booked a return ticket for the first week of June. 

On June 7, I flew directly from Doha to Chicago. The plan was to spend one month in La Crosse, Wisconsin at my stepfather and mother’s house and fly back to Doha on July 7—if Qatar reopened its border to residents by then. At the time, only citizens and permanent residents were allowed to reenter the country during its lockdown. If the borders were not open by July 7, I would rebook my return ticket to another country, possibly Greece, Portugal, or Thailand and wait for Qatar to reopen. I had been scouring the news regularly to identify countries interested in opening for US tourists, and at the time, these were some of the countries who’d expressed an interest in welcoming tourists.

Unfortunately, mid-June, I learned residents were not allowed to return until August 1 for Phase 3 of Qatar’s reopening of the country. Then I learned that I would have to spend two weeks in quarantine at a hotel on my own expense. Then, then I learned that non-Qataris working in government jobs would be subject to a 30% salary reduction. (I did the math, and if my housing was still covered, working in Qatar was still more lucrative for me than working Stateside and having to pay rent and taxes.)

Still, I watched the news to see which countries would be opening for American tourists. Greece and Portugal still seemed like likely candidates. Thailand pushed its tourism reopening back to August 1.

But, then the idea of visiting another country popped in my head. What about Turkey? Mid-June, Greece suspended flights from Qatar Airways (my preferred airline) after 12 of 92 passengers tested positive for Coronavirus. And, after pricing out the logistics of flying and staying in Greece and Portugal, Turkey became the contender for where I would stay after my visit in the US.

My month in the US went by quickly. I hung out at my mom’s, saw my boys, and visited with my friends. I was surprised by the number of my friends who were willing to break their self-isolation in order to visit with me; I guess they were as starved for social interaction as I had been! Usually my boys and I take a road trip during my summer visits, but I apologized to them, “Sorry, the country sucks now, with no federal pandemic plan and BLM protests going on. It’s best if we plan a trip together come winter.” As my stay approached its end, I purchased a one-way ticket to Istanbul and a tourist visa.

On July 7, I rented a car, bade my mother goodbye, and drove from La Crosse, WI to Chicago O’Hare Airport. I relished the four-hour drive along Interstate 90, a trek that I took many times in my 40 years residing in the Midwest and arrived at the airport at 2pm for my flight at 6:45pm. I was early, but it was good that I was, because Qatar Airways check-in opened four hours prior to the departure time. I spent two of those hours arguing with its customer service.

You need a return flight from Istanbul, sir. 

Fine. I want to fly back to Doha on Aug 1.

Sir, that is not possible. 

Why not? Phase 3 says that residents can return on August 1.

That is not official yet, sir.

Fine. What’s the cheapest one-way flight on August 1. What about Athens? Or Lisbon?

Sir, Americans are not allowed to fly into the EU.

God dammit! (This was the first time in my life when my American passport wasn’t golden.)

Sir, the cheapest flight, for you, would be Istanbul back to Chicago.

Can’t I just buy a flight back to Doha and see if the rules become official.

No, sir.

Would I have to transit in Doha if I buy the tickets to Chicago?

Yes, sir.

Hmm. That doesn’t make any sense. But, oh well! I’ll just purchase the tickets and change the flight destination or dates through Qatar Airways if I need to.

Umm, sir. Do you have a smaller backpack for your carry on? The one that you have is too big.

What?!! This is the one I used to fly from Doha to Chicago!!!

I know, sir. But to Istanbul, they do not allow big backpacks.

Grumble, grumble. I suppose I can squeeze this backpack and its contents into my check-in bags. But that means I must carry my Macbook Air, Kindle, Nintendo Switch, and electrical charging devices in this shopping bag with my supply of face masks and bottle of hand sanitizer. Will that be ok?

Yes, sir.

Fine. So midway through my 32-hour transit from Chicago to Istanbul (13 hours from Chicago to Doha, 15-hour layover in Doha, and 4 hours from Doha to Istanbul), I am sitting in Al Mourjan Business Lounge in Hamad International Airport getting you, dear reader, up to speed.

O dear reader, I am heartily sorry for having procrastinated in my blogging and detest my sin of writing sloth, because I dread the loss of travel heaven and the pains of self-isolation quarantine hell. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my post-pandemic life. 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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