My almost 8-month journey through Asia came to an abrupt end due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus, or Covid-19. And I’m not the only one who has had to cancel or postpone its travel plans because of this Coronavirus. When this virus broke out in Wuhan at the end of 2019, I found myself in Indonesia. Many didn’t take this outbreak seriously, same as me at that time. In addition, no strict measures had yet been taken in most countries.
When I decided to travel to the Philippines in early March, more and more countries started to go into lock down due to the further spread of the coronavirus. Also parts of the Philippines and also very abruptly. Shortly after I landed in Cebu, it was announced that Manila would go into lock down for one month, Bohol for at least a week, and a few days later the entire island of Luzon would also go into lock down.
Stuck in the Philippines
And there I was, in Moalboal in Cebu. When I rented a scooter the day after arrival and went out, all the tourist attractions like the waterfalls and canyoning were closed. Fortunately, I was still able to visit Osmeña Peak and some beaches, but those sights also closed a few days later. Yes, the government closed all beaches and the police neatly sent everyone who walked on the beach away. We’ve often been on small deserted beaches, but there too we were happily dismissed after a while. All bars and cafes closed and there was a curfew from 10:00 pm to 5:00 am.
When we went out for dinner one evening, the police came by at 9:20 pm to close the restaurant immediately. It was very busy and we had been waiting for our food for about an hour, but also went back to the hostel empty-handed. Unfortunately, nothing else was open either. Well, as a backpacker you are generally used to living on chips and cookies.
More and more countries started to take more strict measures because of the coronavirus and flights were canceled, including my flight. If I wanted to book a new flight, I could dig deep for a crappy flight with at least 3 changes. Also with the risk that it was canceled, usually without refund. Well, it seemed that I was stuck in the Philippines, so I decided to make the best out of it.
Coronavirus in Moalboal?
Because our hostel was fully booked for one night and we were too late to book more nights (recognizable?), we slept one night in another hostel. We shared the dorm with a Finnish boy we went out to dinner that same evening. He was coughing a lot and we made some Corona jokes (also recognizable?).
When we asked about his other symptoms, he mentioned that he had been feeling a bit short of breath and had a fever for the past week. After a few more questions, we found out that he recently visited Iran. But he preferred not to go to the doctor, because then he might have to be quarantined and he didn’t feel like doing that … Did we just have dinner with someone who might have the Coronavirus? And should we also sleep on this dorm with this irresponsible guy ?!
After this shock, we stayed in the bar of our old hostel all evening. Before curfew we went to the new hostel. We both agreed not to sleep in one room with this suspected Coronavirus patient. It seemed that the airport bench in front of the hostel was our sleeping place for the night. Due to all the barking dogs and the uncomfortable sleeping position, we didn’t keep this up for long. So after a few hours we decided to sleep in the dorm anyway. The next morning we immediately packed our things and left with our sleepy heads to our old hostel.
Living in Moalboal for a week
Together with my Austrian travel companion and two other backpackers we decided to rent an apartment for at least a week in Moalboal. This apartment had a kitchen, common room, a bathroom and two bedrooms. Despite the unpleasant situation, we had a great time.
It was very nice that we had this apartment, because a few days later the rules were even more strict and you were no longer allowed to take to the streets without a health certificate and for good reason. Police checkpoints were everywhere and sometimes the police even came to hostels for checks. If you weren’t in the Philippines for two weeks and didn’t have a health certificate, you were quarantined. The streets were now deserted and it seemed like some kind of war.
Sweeper flight to Manilla
In the late afternoon on March 25, my travel companion received an email about a rescue flight from Manila to Austria. To get from Cebu to Manila we had to take a special domestic sweeper flight. This flight was scheduled to go the following day and to qualify we had to go to the airport in Cebu the same day to write our names on a list. After a lot of phone calls and consultation, we decided to take a taxi directly to the airport in Cebu. We quickly said goodbye to our roommates and friends and left Moalboal behind.
It was about a 3 hour drive from Moalboal to Cebu. On the way we passed several checkpoints where our temperature was checked. Fortunately, a week and a half ago we met someone who has a house in Cebu City. We were very welcome to spend the night in his house. After writing our names on the list at the airport we took a taxi to his house.
But when we arrived, all the lights were out and he didn’t open the door after knocking and shouting. After looking around we saw the empty liter bottles of beer. Mystery solved. It was now 0:30 AM and because of the strict curfew there was no other option than to sleep on the terrace. In those 8 months of traveling we slept in many weird places, so we were used to it. We accepted our fate for this evening and took the cushions from the bench and put them on the floor to sleep on. A few hours later he finally opened the door and felt extremely sorry for not opening the door more early. We could take all the food we wanted and were able to sleep in a bed.
Unfortunately the alarm went off only a few hours later and we quickly took the taxi to the airport. That was also quite a challenge, because due to the strict measures, taxis hardly drive and many prefer not to take Western tourists, because they are afraid that we are infected with the Coronavirus. After about 20 minutes we managed to get a Grab taxi thanks to our friend.
Waiting, queuing, waiting
The queue at the airport was quite long. While waiting we met a German girl and a Filipino man who both also planned to go to Austria. After about 3 hours of waiting, the staff announced a list of the persons who are allowed to join the flight. Everyone was anxiously waiting for their name to be announced. Unfortunately, non of our names were on the list, but there was still hope. About 4 hours later there would be another sweeper flight if there were enough passengers. And yes, our names were on the list!
But then doubt started to hit me … Did I have to take this flight to risk getting stuck in Manila? In Cebu City I had a free place to stay and Manila is a lot less safe. The photos of tourists sleeping on the street in Manila did not really make me happy, nor did my parents, of course. In addition, it seemed that most Dutch people were in Cebu and so it would make sense if the Netherlands embassy sent a rescue flight to Cebu. In addition, I would only be allowed to join the Austrian rescue flight if there was room left. After a stressful brainstorming session, I decided to take the risk and still go to Manila.
Once arrived in Manila we took a shuttle bus to the Hilton Hotel, which the Austrian Embassy had reserved for my travel companion for 3 nights (own expense of course). However, it turned out that we had taken a wrong shuttle bus that went to terminal 1. There was nothing to do except for walking the last 15 minutes with our backpacks. On the way we passed many police checkpoints where they pointed out that Manila is in strict lock down and there is a curfew. Fortunately, they let us through everywhere after our kind explanations, but perhaps also out of pity after looking at our exhausted faces.
Very tired we arrived at the hotel late at night. I haven’t had such luxury in 8 months. And not at such a high price either, oh dear! The rescue flight was scheduled to depart at 1:30 am on the 30th, so that meant we would spend 3 nights at the Hilton.
Rescue flight to Amsterdam?
The next day I received an email from the embassy with a possible flight from Manila to Amsterdam on the 29th. Yes! I made a good choice to go to Manila. The days came closer, but I got no further information about this flight. On the 29th I finally received an email saying that on the 30th we would receive more information about a possible rescue flight to the Netherlands. I lost hope a bit, so I decided not to wait for the Dutch rescue flight, but to try to join the Austrian flight. A risk I had to take.
The next morning we checked out of the Hilton and took a shuttle to the airport. After about 3 hours of waiting, everyone was called forward and the names were ticked off one by one. An exciting moment, because it wasn’t certain whether my name would also be on the list. But yes, it was! I was very happy to put my “confirmed-sticker” on my shirt. The rest of the day consisted of waiting at the airport. A very long time, about 10 hours.
That evening I got a text message from a pilot in training from the Maldives that I had met a few days earlier. He said a small plane had crashed at Manila airport. At first we thought it was fake news because we hadn’t heard or seen anything and after all we were at the airport all day.
After a while it became clear that it wasn’t fake news, and that it was now all over the news: “8 people killed by crash plane with medical team in Philippines“. I could hardly believe it. Very scary and sad news.
Everyone was called to the gate an hour before our flight was due to leave. Indeed, the Austrian embassy told us that an airplane had crashed and our flight was unable to leave because of this accident. They arranged for us free accommodation at the Hilton Hotel and our checked baggage was left at the airport. Unfortunately we no longer had clean clothes, but we did have a good night’s sleep.
While checking in at 2:00 am we had to laugh with the staff at the fact that we told each other the previous morning that we would rather not see each other again because of the circumstances. Pretty ironic.
Strict Coronavirus measures
The following afternoon we were taken to the airport by shuttle buses. After many hours of waiting we finally got onto the plane. Strict measures applied on board because of the Coronavirus. For example, everyone was obliged to wear a mask and if you didn’t wear it, you were immediately informed by the staff. In addition, contact with the staff was minimized, so no meals were served, but snacks that you could grab before entering the plane. We were also advised to keep 1.5 meters apart. But that is of course a bit tricky on an airplane.
First it was a 3 hour flight to Hanoi where more Austrian travelers came on board. During this 3 hour flight, we had the worst spots in the middle row in the middle, between coughing people! So sleeping was unfortunately not possible. When the new people came on board, we asked the staff with our sweetest smile if it was possible to exchange places, for example in business class for the next 11 hours? They informed us that we could do everything we wanted, after all it is a rescue flight. We didn’t let that say to us again and we quickly moved to business class. There were two spots left, what a luck and what a luxury! I’ve never slept so well on a plane. It was well deserved!
From Austria to the Netherlands
Once arrived in Austria everything went smoothly. The day before, I had already booked a flight from Austria to the Netherlands with KLM and had to wait 8 hours for this. I was already kinda used to all that waiting. The same measures also applied on board this flight because of the Coronavirus. After 1.5 hours of flying I finally landed in Amsterdam. The arrival was a bit crazy, of course, because I couldn’t see friends and family and the airport was deserted. It wasn’t even possible to give a hug to my parents. It’s not a very pleasant way to come home.
Of course I didn’t envisage ending my trip through Asia like this. It seemed as if I had ended up in a really bad movie starring the coronavirus. In the end it took me almost a week to get from Cebu in the Philippines to Amsterdam. It was sometimes quite stressful, but I often remained positive. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone during this hectic time which I’m very grateful for. Let’s say I have a special story for later!