Covid 19 & Our Trip to Europe and the Middle East

March 2, 2020 was our departure date from Canada. The next six weeks were to be spent travelling to visit family; son, daughter-in-law and brand new grandson. The plan included London, Cologne, Dubai, Jordan, Oman, the Suez Canal, Greece with a friend, then back to family visiting & home. It looked like a wonderful holiday. Books packed for the time on board ship and ready to go.

In the background the Covid 19 virus was on the move.

Alas most of the trip was not to be.

Completing our family visit in Cologne to see our much awaited grandchild and his parents, on March 11, we headed to Frankfurt to catch our Middle East Airlines [MEA] flight to Dubai via Beirut. From the time of our booking in December the Covid 19 virus had grown steadily.

Uncertain whether to go, I contacted the cruise’s agent. Would they consider a refund given the state of the world in relation to the Covid 19 virus. The answer was a firm no, in spite of the fact that many cruise lines were offering postponements, refunds etc. Given the response of other cruise lines we found their response irresponsible. They were clearly placing money ahead of their guests’ well being.

Whether the cruise was cancelled or not we committed ourselves to visiting Dubai and if need be flying back to Frankfurt if the situation got completely out of hand. So off we went.

We chose Middle East Airlines [MEA] because they offered a reasonable fare and we did not have to fuss around with annoying baggage fees, paying to sit together, pretzels as a meal etc. They have a very generous baggage allowances, allowing two checked bags for the price of each ticket. They did not disappoint. The meal was good, the service was good, the flight was comfortable. And so it was after changing planes in Beirut, we arrived in Dubai about 0200 hours.

Prior to landing we encountered our first response by a government to Covid 19. It was an in-flight questionnaire from the government of the United Arab Emirates. Where had we been, any contact with carriers, our seat number on the airplane, our e-mail, phone and where could we be reached in Dubai in case we or one of our fellow passengers nearby tested positive. A thorough questionnaire.

As we walked down the corridor deplaning in Dubai it felt science fictionish. We encountered a hazmat suited individual operating a heat sensing camera on a tripod, scanning each of us deplaning. From there we queued. We watched as each passenger went for an interview, with what we presumed to be nurses and health professionals. Our questionnaire was reviewed. Every person on the plane went from the questioning to the next step.

Quickly rigged private booths, with health professionals. Ouch – the next step was a swab of each nostril. The person who did mine I am sure reached in far enough that a small piece of brain matter stuck to the swab. She apologized as she knew it was uncomfortable and with my eyes closed I teared up. DONE.

On we went to Customs and Immigration which was very straight forward. It always helps to be white and from the First World.

Depending on where we were masks were worn by anywhere from 1% to 70% of people around us. I brought along N95 masks that I had purchased during the previous scare from SARS. What I did not know is that these masks have a limited shelf life — but I thought something is better than nothing. They had been saved in almost perfect circumstances, original box, dark, dry….

In Dubai aside from very long walks, highlights were the standard tourist trip of the Burj Khalifa, and a guided side trip to Abu Dhabi which we will cover in more detail later. It was great to feel the +29 C temperatures with gentle breezes.

After a three of days in Dubai, we traveled to our cruise ship. There, we unpacked our suitcases, hung our clothes put everything away and settled down for an overnight sleep. The rumour was the boat would not stop at the previously scheduled ports, but staff were mum on the subject.

At last we were set, nevertheless anxious about what we were seeing and hearing on the BBC. Ports were closing in many places. Would we be stuck at sea?

Bedtime. About 2220 hours the phone rang. It was the front desk. “Your cruise is canceled. You should come down immediately so we can make arrangements for you to go home.”

So down I went to the front desk. They were obviously doing this in stages as there were only about six or eight people waiting. From there the receptionist whose English was limited took down our information, where we lived etc. and told us they would be in touch. She did not know when, there was too much chaos.

The next two days on board were spent lounging around. I was told we certainly could go into Dubai, but we could miss our name being called and miss the flight they were to arrange. Hmm not much choice there. So we waited. Each night we would hear a list of names being called. Not ours. We checked several times, nothing. The ship was emptying out. It was like a ghost ship with almost no one on our floor and perhaps 50 passengers on the entire ship.

Finally one evening we checked and yes, we were to fly out at 0200 hours.

At 2330 hours we, with our bags packed, assembled for a meeting. The management of the meeting did not instill confidence. There was no paperwork for us. We were divided into groups, based on language – Engish here, Spanish there. Out to the bus. By then the language groups had completely merged – mass confusion. We got on the bus and sat down.

A cruise employee came on and asked whether passengers were with Lufthansa or Emirates. This was the Emirates bus. No one told us, nor were we given any paper – so we made it clear we did not know as no one told us.

The representative checked his phone. We should be on the Lufthansa bus. So off we went, gathered our luggage and moved to the other bus. [As an aside we do not blame staff for they chaos. They were facing something entirely new to them, and they were losing their jobs.]

There was a 20 minute ride to the Dubai airport. There we were escorted to the Lufthansa line, and told Lufthansa would take care of it from here. Off went the cruise representative – with all the information.

We did not have anything to show we were flying. So we relied on Lufthansa to have our booking. Luckily they had our information. ‘Yes, we have you booked to Toronto through Frankfurt.’

Uhh…Toronto is 2000 miles from where we live. Since everything was already done the agent told us to travel to Frankfurt, then pick up our luggage, go through security, change the ticket then go back through security rather than using the transit lounge.

We talked to a couple of other Canadians. They laughed as they were headed to Nova Scotia. The agent kept insisting they would be booked to a tiny mining community. Obviously they had no knowledge of either booking or Canada.

Following that was our seven hour flight to Frankfurt. Once there we did as we were told.

However security had big line up. We waited patiently as our turn came. Belts off, electronic devices out, turned on and off. What followed was the most thorough check I had ever had. They also wanted to check the soles of our shoes. Too bad there are so many 70 year old Canadian terrorists out there. I asked the security person why there was this heightened security. “Oh it has nothing to do with you.” he said. The police were observing them to make sure they were doing everything correctly in case of a terrorist alert. He regarded it as an obvious nuisance.

I found it odd that in the middle of an emerging pandemic, they were not so concerned about the immediate pandemic, rather they were concerned with auditing their terrorist security procedures.

Once through with our luggage we were off to the Lufthansa ticket counter. There a, shall we say ‘clerically oriented’, customer service agent at Lufthansa said Calgary was fully booked but Vancouver had seats. He then told us it would cost $1,200 for changing our flight. When faced with a pandemic, and limited flights it was not a time to argue. So we gleefully pulled out our credit card, picked up our boarding passes then went back through security. It is always nice to see corporations respond so reasonably to travel emergencies. Just another opportunity to skim some money from passengers.

Landing in Vancouver it felt good to be home. A large banner displayed Covid 19 information. We were asked if we felt ill, cough etc. ‘Nope’ so off we went into the general population. We did not want to put friends at risk so chose to transit as quickly as possible through Vancouver.

The next step was how to get from Vancouver to Penticton. It was just after noon – same day that we departed Dubai. Gotta love those 36 hour days.

A quick check – ah – the 55 minute flight would cost $371 plus luggage – each! Wow nice to see corporations step up to the plate with greed during an emergency. A quick check of rent a car – $400 for the day [drop off at a different location]. No choice we would drive. So we took our luggage and traveled to the airport car rental kiosks. I thought I should check other than National Car Rental, but expected they were all the same. I went to the Hertz counter, where the attendant and I engaged in a conversation. He said business had fallen off a cliff, they had almost no rentals coming up in the next several days. Their price – $100. [They did charge us $45.00 to wash the car after we returned it in Kelowna – a first for me. Next thing you know they will be checking tires for tread wear and charging for that too.] So after 17 hours of flying plus another 12 hours of being awake, we were off for the drive to Penticton.

Although on edge because of fatigue the trip was uneventful, save one spousal skirmish over donuts. Always choose your areas of spousal conflict carefully. Make sure the subject is important and meaningful – donuts for example.

Exhaustion has a price.

Home – at last. Now waiting for our 14 day isolation period. Time to do some housework – maybe.

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