We got in by the skin of our teeth, but we’re not home yet.
Our journey began February 8th with a four-week stay in Rishikesh, India. At that time Covid-19 was a thing in China, but was not much of an issue for the rest of the world. Even by the time we left India March 10th, although it had exploded in Italy, there were still only a handful of cases in India, and only a handful of cases in Malaysia, our next destination. We were keeping an eye on it but were not concerned, especially since the cases in Malaysia were all in or near Kuala Lumpur and we were going directly to Kuching on the island of Borneo. We thought we’d be fine to keep travelling, especially since there were no cases on Borneo. We had our temperature checked at both the Kuala Lumpur and Kuching airports and were allowed to continue.
During our three days in Kuching we received emails from friends saying we should come home. Eventually the message started to land though we were far from panicking. Mostly we were moving on faith, intuition, presence, and love. We couldn’t make a decision and we didn’t want to push the river. We continued to simply allow the unfolding. We weren’t ready to come home. We weren’t ready to panic. We felt safe. And the only thing we knew for sure was that we would continue on to our next planned stop: three days in Sepilok to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. We wanted to see the orangutangs. That much was clear.
I’m not sure when we heard two things. The first was that Air Canada would waive fees to change our flight home, so we began to consider it. When we planned this trip we discovered that the most efficient way to travel was a Vancouver-Delhi return flight and a Delhi–Kuala Lumpur return flight. If there would be no fees to change our flight home we thought why not change it to fly home from Kuala Lumpur? Then at some point we heard the second thing: the Indian government had rescinded all visas issued prior to March 12th. That clinched it. We really did have to change our flight back to Canada.
In the meantime we continued on our merry way.
Our time in Sepilok turned out to be magical. We had a lovely spacious hotel room at a resort with a small lake and tropical gardens. It was especially appreciated after the tiny scuzzy hotel room in Kuching that I’ve completely erased from my memory. But the highlights of course were the orangutangs, the native Bornean sun bears, and a pygmy elephant, along with many macaques and proboscis monkeys. It was a rich, happy, openhearted time. We kept saying how lucky we were. We’d landed in a little slice of paradise.
On the morning of March 17th we were still feeling to continue travelling, and the night before we’d booked a hotel for three days in Kota Kinabalu. As we were waiting for a Grab car (Asia’s Uber) to take us to the airport a couple of other tourists told us that Malaysia would go on shut-down from the 18th, but it was not clear if it was from midnight on the 17th or sometime the next day. And that we had to leave the country by the 18th!
That got our attention!
We flew to Kota Kinabalu as planned and instead of going to our hotel we stayed at the airport for hours trying to find a flight home while at the same time trying to get accurate information. I could see the Malaysian government closing its borders to international travellers. I could see restricting the movement of Malaysians within the country. But forcing all foreigners out at a moment’s notice? That made no sense to me. Meanwhile the service desks for Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines were swamped with people trying to get home. Suddenly every foreigner was trying to get out of the country – in a panic, and in a hurry. Including us. In our panic we booked a flight at stupid o’clock in the morning (ie getting up at 3am) thinking that if we were to find any flight on the 18th we needed to be in Kuala Lumpur stat.
We hunkered down trying to get to the truth. I suspected there was a lot of misinformation flying around. We waited on the phone to Air Canada for almost two hours trying to change our flight and at the same time kept trying to change it online on a hopelessly overloaded system. Flights showed up then disappeared. Prices changed. At one point it looked like we’d have to pay an extra $6000 or so because the only seats available on any flight on the 18th were business class. Then it looked like we’d have to take a two-hour flight to Jakarta, followed by a nine-hour layover, then a seven-hour flight to Tokyo, another nine-hour layover, and finally an eight-hour flight to Vancouver. Brutal. Thankfully that offer suddenly disappeared.
Meanwhile I kept searching. I just couldn’t believe that we had to leave by the 18th and finally I found confirmation of that. Phew. That gave us breathing space. We found, and booked online a flight via Tokyo for the 21st at very little extra cost.
On the 18th we arrived at the hotel we’d booked in Kuala Lumpur and quietly died inside. It was supposedly a three-star hotel, colourful and a little funky, but from the pictures online it looked pretty good. It had good reviews – 8.8 out of 10. In reality it was absolutely dire. Old, grubby and shabby, the room tiny and not at all like the pictures we’d seen. We were shown two different rooms and said no and no. Just no.
It was time to splurge a little. We got online and found a place with a large bright room with armchairs, and a desk, and beautiful crisp clean linens, a huge bathroom with two sinks and a rainfall shower, and room to unpack. If we were to be stuck in a closed city damn it we were going to be comfortable! From my hippie backpacker do-it-on-the-cheap days I find I’ve now turned into a princess. We happily walked away from the dire dive into four-star heaven.
Arriving at our new place we walk in and this time quietly die with joy. Even the lobby is heaven. The woman at reception tells us we must pay cash for our room. This is when we learn just how close to the wire we have cut it. The shut down included a directive that hotels were to take no new bookings after 10am. It is 11.30. We are in by the skin of our teeth.
We’ve found a deserted mall
where only the pharmacy and supermarket are open, and a convenience store for water and snacks. Restaurants are serving take-out only, including the hotel breakfast, which was given to us in take-out containers to eat in our room. There’s a large park nearby. We assumed the small zoo, the museum, and the tower in the park would all be closed, but today we discovered that the entire park is closed. So we walked to the famous Petronas Towers.
Through all this we are content. Except for that short time of panic when we thought we had to leave on the 18th we’ve been completely calm about it all. It is after all minor First World problems. We look at each other with love. Sometimes we burst out laughing at the absurdity of life. At the same time we understand from a deep well of gratitude that we are among the lucky ones.
Even our mistakes turn out to be right choices. In Rishikesh Don forgot he had more than ten thousand rupees stashed away. Towards the end of our time there we were getting short of cash so we got more from an ATM. When he discovered his hidden stash we were both mildly annoyed. We left India with a big bundle of rupees. Not a big deal, but you know, we “should” be able to do better. As it turned out the hotel we’re in required a cash deposit. No problem! We handed over the rupees. And that really early morning flight from Kota Kinabalu? We thought we needed it to be in KL so we could get a flight out that same day. When we booked our flight home for the 21st we were a bit annoyed with ourselves for having booked that early flight in a panic. We could have flown to KL at a more reasonable hour. What we didn’t know at the time was that we needed to be in KL in time for that 10am deadline which for us was stretched ‘til 11.30. Otherwise we’d have been stuck in the dire dive. And if that tourist back at Sepilok hadn’t told us about the shut-down we’d have wandered on our innocent way until it slammed us in the face. I am humbled by the way the universe takes care of us.
Taiwan has recently closed its airports to all international flights. Our only concern is that in the thirty-six hours between now and 8am on the 21st when our flight leaves that Japan will do the same. We have no reason to think they will. And no reason to think they won’t.
Meanwhile I’ve been reading about some lovely things happening in the world amidst the ruthlessness of this pandemic:
Since the lockdown: Venice’s canals have become crystal clear. Italy’s coasts have dolphins coming nearer and nearer. Japan now has deer roaming free in the streets, and Thailand the same with monkeys. China has record-breaking pollution cuts. The Earth has already begun showing signs of amazing things that are happening from the absence of human pollution. What if – and hear me out – what if the entire human population used this as an opportunity to restart society on a greener, more environmentally conscious foot. What we’re seeing in the span of a couple of days is amazing. A pipe dream.
I do hope it’s not just a pipe dream.
by Br. Richard Hendrick, priest-friar of the Irish branch of the Capuchin Franciscan Order.
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
Across the empty squares,
Keeping their windows open
So that those who are alone
May hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
Is busy spreading fliers with her number
Through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
Are preparing to welcome
And shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a New way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
To touch across the empty square,
Edited to add: All went smoothly and we are now home in Vancouver. It is good to be home!
Next posts: Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know that I write about our travels chronologically. But now I’ve gotten so far behind that doesn’t really make sense any more. Future posts will come randomly from the following travels:
1. Feb/Mar 2019 and 2020 Rishikesh, India – the holy men, the pilgrims, the nightly ritual and prayer to the Ganges, activities at and in the river, the wildlife, and a day trip to Haridwar.
2. Mar 2019 Kyoto, Japan – after we left Rishikesh last year we spent two weeks exploring in and around Kyoto – a festival, a fishing village, a rural hike, and blossom hunting.
3. July 2019 Vancouver, Canada – my sisters came to stay and we played tourist in our hometown – a street food festival, some funky neighbourhoods, a Japanese festival, the gardens, the Pride Parade, and the naked bike ride.
4. Summer 2019 Saturna Island, Canada
5. March 2020 Malaysia – eight days on the island of Borneo. Wildlife magic.
6. Oh and somewhere in there I will do a post on Montreal where we spend two weeks with family every winter.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.