COVID-19: Diary of an Outbreak

My first post from over here, Reporting from Portugal, featured all the photos, travel stories and assorted idiocy you’ve come to expect from this blog, and we have since put together a guide to hiking the Rota Vicentina – the best of Portugal’s hiking trails which goes along the Costa Vicentina through the beach towns and charming villages of Aljezur, Odexeice, Zambujeira, Almograve, Carrapateira, Vila Nova de Milfontes and Porto Covo along the way. Now, however, it’s time to talk viruses, wouldn’t you say? The coronavirus, or “COVID-19”, as it has affectionately become known, has thrown the world into disarray. Obviously, the effects are being felt in every aspect of society and business, but travel is what we do most and best, and it is the area we feel most qualified to discuss. This is the timeline of COVID-19 as it affected us.

See also:

23 Ways the Coronavirus Will Change Travel

In the midst of a 4-month trip we arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on March 3rd, the day after the country’s first case was confirmed in one of the northern provinces. When we boarded a plane in Guatemala City, the first of the sequence that would take us to Europe, the virus still felt like a fairly distant concern that may have ravaged China and, thanks to extreme mismanagement of the crisis (what we’d been hearing from most news reports at that point), one very unfortunate region in northern Italy, but not something of immediate concern to the rest of the world. “Wash your hands, watch for a fever” – that’s what we were hearing at that point. I’m sure many scientists and medical professionals would vehemently disagree with that assessment. Nevertheless, that was our frame of mind, and that of most people we knew, at the time.

Here is how everything had unfolded for us during our time in Portugal, presented in what is probably an inappropriately lighthearted manner:

Timeline of COVID-19

March 2

The first coronavirus cases are confirmed in northern Portugal.

Flew from Mexico City to JFK Airport in New York and spent the entire day killing time in the airport. I read part of an ebook and listened to part of an audiobook but spent most of my time charging devices and falling even farther behind Laynni in Wordscapes.

March 3

First coronavirus case confirmed in Lisbon.

Got a few hours sleep on the flight before arriving in Lisbon but it was still a monumental struggle to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime hour. Wandered the neighbourhood around our apartment for awhile, giggled at the trams like it was our first time all over again, then ate at McDonald’s, you know, to ease the transition.

March 4

Sightseeing, photo-taking, tram-riding. At one point I tripped on a broken piece of sidewalk. It hurt my toe and was generally pretty annoying. Tried my first “pastel de nata” custard dessert and, oh ho, it was pretty good, all right. Had to run to catch the Tower of Belém before sunset, then ran into a girl from Prince Albert in a funky burger joint nearby.

March 5

A little more wandering, then a hectic time at the post office trying to package up the items we wouldn’t need on our hike so they’d be waiting for us at the end. Had to buy packing tape next door because, hey, why would a post office have packing tape? That night Google News informed us that the coronavirus was not only still around, but had even graduated to a cooler, more menacing name – “COVID-19”.

March 6

Still just 13 cases in Lisbon. Everything business as usual.

Took the bus 2 ½ hours to Sines to start our hike. Pretty sure we touched every available surface on that bus and never thought twice. Not sure the bus appreciated it but we tend to get away with things as clueless tourists. Used hand sanitizer for the first time in Portugal, although only because we were trying to have lunch on a windswept beach and the blowing sand wasn’t really cooperating.

March 7

Full day of hiking, much of it through soft, exhausting sand, with stunning coastal scenery and only a handful of other hikers. Not a single one hugged me or even tried to pet my hair. Coronavirus-related? Or just because I was wearing a hat and sweating a lot? Impossible to say.

March 8

First case confirmed in the Algarve region. Restrictions being put in place in northern Portugal.

Got word that the virus is starting to spread to other areas of Spain besides just Madrid. We briefly wonder how this might affect our pending trip to the Andalusia region of southern Spain, just 11 days away now. Will the Alhambra be half-empty? That would be neat.

March 9

Another beautiful day of hiking, then sat on the terrace at our hostel drinking beer and soaking up the last rays of the day. A dodgy guy with a bag of goods stops by to offer me some very affordable leggings “just like” the ones I was wearing (for the record, they were long underwear, and very manly ones at that). It crossed my mind to look into the situation in Morocco, our planned destination after Spain. Good news! No confirmed cases. In fact, barely any in the whole of Africa. Completely in control of health and safety, that is sooo Africa.

March 10

Saw a bunch of storks. Not a single weasel. Word out of Lisbon is that, shockingly, the virus seems to be spreading.

March 11

World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a global pandemic.

We encountered the first cloud of the hike so far, which nearly ruined Laynni’s birthday. Luckily, the cloud soon moved on and we were left with clear blue skies and stunning coastal views yet again. Whew. Finished the day drinking beer on a sunny roof terrace in Aljezur. According to the internet, Spain is starting to get a little crazy, it might be time to look into this further. Or we could have another beer. Yeah, we should probably have another beer. Then get to the bottom of why that church steeple has a rooster weathervane instead of a cross or something.

March 12

The long walk out of Aljezur back to the coast finally allowed us the time and focus to discuss current developments and the fact we may need to look at changing some of our plans. Had a nice conversation with a lonely expat German who may have been trying to lure us into something sexual, then decided we may have to pull the plug on Morocco. “With Africa, you just never know what they’ll do next. I mean, they ride camels, for god’s sake”.

March 13

For the first time our group of friends begins discussing the possible cancellation of our Las Vegas trip planned for the beginning of May, although everyone agrees it still seems remotely possible.

Ok, Spain’s out now, too. As much as quiet trails and empty plazas sound appealing, the looming possibility of group restrictions and transportation shutdowns make it too risky. And with all Spanish fútbol cancelled, the populace is going to be in a seriously bad mood.

Update: all travel to and from Spain has been suspended indefinitely.

You know what they say about the Spanish president’s state of emergency speeches – if you see his shadow it means 6 more weeks of Portugal.

March 14

Lidl grocery store in tiny Vila do Bispo limiting people inside for fear of spreading the virus.

Fewer and fewer people on the trail. Not sure if that’s because some only wanted to hike the sandiest Fisherman’s Trail section or because people are rushing back to the questionable safety of Germany, France and England. While waiting in line outside the Lidl we fought off a compulsive urge to stock up on toilet paper. A Belgian friend cuts his trip short to return home and start teaching his 2 toddlers about transmission chains, herd immunity and primary colours.

March 15

Pharmacy in Sagres only allowing purchases through a walk-up window.

Finished our hike! The tour groups at Cabo São Vicente lighthouse seem to revel in physical contact. Who knew that humorous photos in a comically enormous chair required so much touching? The pharmacy attendant wearing a mask and gloves seemed to find our request for alcohol wipes amusing. I think we made her day. But didn’t get any wipes. We ate our last restaurant meal for the foreseeable future in a bar with a picture of a camel on it, and briefly panicked when I absent-mindedly touched the saltshaker with my bare hand. Decided to cut our stay in Sagres short by one night and to skip our 2 nights in Carvoeiro altogether to more quickly get into a self-catering apartment. We’ve decided to stay because we feel that the multiple buses and planes it will take to get home will exponentially increase our chances of infection and because it will be easier to self-isolate here than at home because our condo is currently occupied. We definitely don’t want to risk infecting friends and family, or even the questionable cleanliness of their couches.

Plus, I’m worried about going home before I’ve fully mastered all the new hyphenated virus words.

March 16

Portuguese buses are still running but with first three rows taped off and nobody allowed to pay the driver. Prime Minister Trudeau delivers strongly worded message to Canadian travellers abroad that “it’s time to come home now”.

Waiting for the bus on the street in Sagres with two other couples, all silently agreeing to glare at each other suspiciously out of the corner of our eyes. Worked like a charm. Foolishly bought bus tickets at the station in Lago and were probably the only people on the bus who paid. Got off bus in Portimão to hit the mall for essentials (yoga mat, backup Bluetooth speaker, pizza by the slice). Eventually arrived by bus in Armacão de Pera, hired a taxi to take us to hotel and were scolded for opening the door before he came around and doled out generous helpings of hand sanitizer. I assured him I had just washed my hands earlier that week, to no avail.

We’ve decided to stay despite Justin’s scolding, and I think if he saw my parents’ basement he’d understand.

March 17

Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin cancelled. Land border crossings between Portugal and Spain officially closed. Magic portals only options left.

Word has it Dublin’s Temple Bar was even more packed than normal since the parade was cancelled. We explored the mostly empty streets of our new locale while internally struggling with the possibility that we were making a mistake by not trying to get home immediately. Which seemed to make me burp a lot.

March 18

Portugal declares a State of Emergency to deal with the outbreak.

State of Emergency also declared inside our apartment to deal with swarm of ants that colonized the bottom of my shoe overnight. I had Oreos for the first time in a long time, and I can see why I like them so much.

March 19

Up to 785 cases in Portugal, although still less than 20 in the Algarve region. Surely that will last.

Joined Canadian friends for beers on the beach – we all seemed strangely confused trying to arrange ourselves without breaking the recommended proximity barriers. After my second beer I discreetly peed behind a rock.

March 20

It rained most of the day so we watched Prime Minister Trudeau’s press conference regarding Canada’s latest COVID-19 measures. He reiterated that all Canadians should be doing their best to get back. We are very relieved that he didn’t mention us by name.

March 21

Disturbing news out of Guatemala (border closures, road blocks, anger directed at foreigners).

Continual barrage of unpleasant news updates and social media information creating uncertainty in our minds. Then we go outside and see people placidly strolling around in pairs, others quietly waiting in an orderly line for the well-stocked grocery store and we’re reassured. Plus, I’ve got a package of 6 Snickers bars waiting in the fridge – anything is possible!

March 22

The ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States takes effect. Our Las Vegas trip sputters out its last few dying breaths.

Walked down the beach for an hour and still hadn’t reached the end. Is that what the apocalypse looks like? I hope not because we just bought a lot of popcorn.

Summary

As it stands, we are comfortable with our current situation and ability to deal with the restrictions being implemented in attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19. We are 99.3% certain we have not been infected and are safely entrenched in a self-contained apartment in the Algarve region in southern Portugal with easy access to groceries and no responsibilities that require us to put ourselves at risk in large crowds or close quarters. Most of the work we do takes place online, we are not at risk of being laid off or let go, we don’t have any children to support and we don’t have any specific date we absolutely need to get home to Saskatoon. However, we still question our plans every day, usually when we get to around our 4th or 5th pending doom article of the morning.

I completely understand that this has hit other people much harder than us and will continue to do so, but I still thought it could be informative to follow the timeline of events here in Europe where we are so much closer to the action, although “the action” has most definitely reached Canada now as well. Because if there is one thing we’ve learned watching it spread from country to country, over and over again, it’s that they all follow essentially the same timeline of COVID-19. The total numbers vary, and some countries have been far more successful at preventing deaths, but the rough schedule has remained the same. The challenge for those few regions that still haven’t been significantly impacted is to learn from those that came before and implement measures more quickly and effectively to, hopefully, produce increasingly effective results. Here’s to hoping.

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