Daring and Lucky: My Summer Break Traveling during the Pandemic

Sunday, August 9 was the first workday of the semester. I had to appear on campus, sign a slip of paper verifying to the department that I was actually in the country, and (I almost forgot) fill out an online form verifying to the university that I was back from summer break. Normally, this would be a time for me to catch up with colleagues that I haven’t seen all summer, converse about our travels during the break, and feed off the beginning of the semester energy. However, this year, due to Coronavirus and measures put in place by the university, I was to sign in during my allotted time between 10-11am in order to minimize the number of people on campus and in the department building at any given time. After greeting me and thanking me for coming in, the Head of Department informed me that I didn’t need to be back on campus until September 1, when classes were scheduled to return to campus. All courses and meetings would be online until then. Ok. 

I quickly checked in with the business English course lead who was in his office (BTW I am the co-lead), dropped off a laptop at the IT building, and was heading home from campus by 11am. A pretty uneventful start of the fall semester! Especially after a summer of many uncertainties, a summer in which I had been both daring and lucky in my decision to travel in the midst of an international pandemic.

In a previous blog post, I recounted the events leading up to my departure for the US (June 7) and my departure for Turkey (July 7-9)–I spent 32 hours in transit! At the end of the post, I was waiting in the airport lounge in Doha for my flight to Istanbul, not sure what obstacles I would encounter when I landed at Istanbul Airport. Well, when I landed, I submitted a paper form attesting that I did not have any of the Coronavirus symptoms and was allowed into the country. That was it.

I spent one week at an Airbnb in Sultanahmet on the European side of Istanbul, one week in Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of the city, and one week in Bebek back on the European side. I only had the first Airbnb booked before I arrived in Istanbul. Normally, I might have all my lodgings booked prior to my arrival in a country in order to secure rooms and pricing for my visit. However, not certain I would be allowed entry into Turkey, I only booked my first Airbnb stay. Once I was in Turkey and becoming familiar with Istanbul, I would book my next Airbnb several days before my current stay was set to end. Additionally, I was planning on leaving Turkey on August 1, but if Qatar didn’t allow residents to return to the country, I might have to stay in Istanbul for another week or more. 

One of the perks of biding my time in Turkey was the favorable exchange rate between the Turkish lira and the US dollar (7.33 TRY: 1 USD). I paid about $18-20 USD per night for Airbnb accommodations, and with additional fees, plus two nights at a boutique hotel towards the end of my time in Turkey, I spent just under $600 for lodging during my stay in Istanbul. Not bad at all.

While I was in Turkey, I requested a voucher for a return flight to Qatar on July 7. When I originally booked my flight to the US, I bought a roundtrip ticket with a tentative return on July 7 to Doha so that I could get a better ticket price—knowing fully well that if I was not allowed to return on July 7, I could ask Qatar Airways for a refund or voucher for the unused flight. Then mid-July when Qatar officially announced its return date for residents, I tried to change the destination of my August 1 one-way airplane ticket from Istanbul to Chicago, to Istanbul to Doha. I was not, however, allowed to make this change. No matter. I would request a second travel voucher and purchase a one-way ticket from Istanbul to Doha. Even though I was purchasing a ticket less than two weeks out, I thought the price was quite reasonable—for Qatar Airways: only $375. Prices might have been cheaper if I flew Turkish Airways, but I wanted to accumulate Qmiles and was uncertain about the airline’s cancelation policy. It was a good thing that I purchased my ticket when I did because the price jumped up to $900 several days later. Hamdullah.

Prior to August 1, I had to email the Immigration department at Qatar University to request my return permit in order to be allowed reentry into Qatar. I also had to sort out my check-in luggage allowance. My plane ticket said that I was allowed 30 kg, or about 66 lbs of check-in luggage. I had been back in the US for one month, bought personal items and gifts, been staying in Turkey for another month, and bought even more personal items and gifts (because of the favorable exchange rate), so between three bags I easily had about 50-60 kg, about 110-140 lbs, of check-in luggage. Thankfully, because I was promoted to Silver Class at the beginning of the year, Qatar Airways provided me with an additional 15 kg of complimentary check-in weight, and just to be safe, I purchased an additional 20 kg over the phone prior to my departure. When I flew out, not counting my two carry-on bags, my check-in luggage weighed 61.5 kg. Because favorable exchange rate.

My biggest worry prior to flying out was getting push back from Qatar Airway regarding my check-in and carry-on weight. The check-in crew didn’t even blink an eye as I loaded my three hefty bags onto the check-in conveyor. However, after my bags were weighed, I was told by the staff that I needed a Covid 19 test or a hotel package. Otherwise, I would not be allowed to fly. I had neither. I argued that this was not correct. I had spent three weeks in Turkey (a low-risk country) and could take a Covid 19 swab test at Hamad International Airport and home quarantine for a week. I believed this to be the case because I had read this information in The Qatar Tribune and Qatar Living on July 22. The check-in staff insisted that this was incorrect, and another check-in staff member said that this was “one million percent wrong.” So, using my phone, I bought the cheapest hotel package in order to be allowed to fly to Doha. And, when I arrived in Doha, I was allowed to take a Covid 19 swab test and quarantine at home because I had been in Turkey for three weeks. Turns out, I was one million percent right.

Upon getting home, I unpacked my bags, contacted some friends in the building, and left their gifts outside of my apartment door for them to pick up. I took my home quarantine seriously, and my status on the tracking app was yellow, notifying people that I was supposed to be quarantining. The day after my swab test, I received a text message informing me that the results of my swab test were negative. Great. One more test, and my quarantine would be lifted. I also sent my first morning back writing an email to Qatar Airways Customer Support detailing to them the incorrect travel information their check-in crew provided me, forcing me to erroneously purchase a hotel package. I insisted on a refund. They responded that they would investigate the matter. Inshallah.    

The days went by uneventfully. Then Thursday night I received a phone call around 8pm. It was someone from the Ministry of Public Health. I was glad that I took the call from the unfamiliar number. The representative from the MoPH said that I could go get my second swab test. If negative, my home quarantine would end on August 8. Great. I rushed downstairs, and my car that had been collecting dust for the past two months started up with problem, and I headed to the Umm Salal Medical Center, which was about 30 minutes. However, not so fast! When I got to the entrance of the medical center, the security guard stopped me. Sorry, sir. You must wear trousers to enter. No shorts. What?! I have to drive all the way back home to put on a pair of pants?! Yes. I did. Because Doha.

I was annoyed but dead set on getting my second swab test that night. Suddenly, I had an idea: some of my friends lived in a compound nearby, maybe I could get one of them to come outside and lend me a pair of sweatpants? I got a hold of Ismael, and he met me at his compound gate and threw a pair of sweatpants into my passenger side window. Then I was on my way back to the medical center and received my second swab test. (BTW both swab tests didn’t cost me a single riyal! Because public healthcare.)

Friday, the next day, I waited and waited for my second test results. The medical center said that it would take 8-10 hours to process the results. At 5:15pm, I received the news that I had been waiting for. Negative! Great, who should I see or invite over? However, when I checked the tracking app, my status was still yellow. I resisted the urge to leave my apartment that night because even though I received two negative results, I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the lifting of my quarantine. I even checked the app at 12:01am to see if my status changed. It did not. Fine. I’ll go to bed.

Saturday morning, the next day, I woke up. I checked my status. It was green. Yes! I made plans with a friend to go to a mall that afternoon and do some grocery shopping. 

It was at that point I had truly returned to Doha and survived my risky two-month travel venture during the Coronavirus pandemic. With my quarantine lifted, I could appear on campus and sign the slip of paper verifying my presence in country. This meant that I was eligible to work, even though the first two weeks of the semester would all be online. This meant that I would be receiving a paycheck, even though it was unclear what financial allowances would be suspended or reduced due to financial cuts to non-Qatari government workers. This meant that I would have some security for the foreseeable future, even though things are still very unclear internationally due to the still rippling and reverberating pandemic.

I don’t know with one million percent certainty what will happen this semester, but I am grateful that I was able to leave Qatar for two months, grateful to have spent a relaxing month in Turkey, and even more grateful that I was able return back to Qatar and resume my employment.

Photo by Medakit Ltd on Unsplash

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