20 March 2020, 08.37 AM
Our Travels, Post by Heather
Taking a Time-Out
Oh, where to start. I guess I should begin by saying we are back in the US, self-isolating after our travels, doing our part to protect our family and friends, just in case. We made the decision to come back after it was announced last week that US borders were closing to non-nationals for people who had been in any of the Schengen countries (this includes where we were in Spain and Portugal). With no plans or bookings made past our time in Porto, Portugal, it made the most sense, especially since more and more European countries were going into official lockdown, borders were closing, and non-essential services/businesses were shutting down. I feel like once the US decided to further limit travel to include the majority of Europe, that’s when people in Portugal started freaking out, not just with flights, but also in public – we started seeing people buying and wearing masks, and “panic buying” was starting to pick up. TP at the grocery store near us was still in full stock, but shelves that had held soaps and sanitizers/cleaners were noticeably picked over.
Since we were a little slow to the game at making a decision to come back, flight prices from Porto to the US jumped to ridiculous amounts because of the sudden panic from Americans to get home (from $600 per ticket in the morning to $3000-4000 per basic economy ticket just within a few hours from Porto and Lisbon). Luckily, the UK was not on the ban list yet, so we were able to get creative and booked a cheap flight from Porto to London on Saturday, and then found a reasonable fare from London to Chicago on Sunday.
We were nervous about what we would encounter at the Chicago airport since we had seen news reports of nightmare lines and people waiting for “eight hours” to get through customs/immigration and health checks. We were pleasantly surprised though – they were incredibly organized, fully staffed, and very kind/friendly despite the stressful circumstances. They were even handing out snacks and bottles of water, which is not normal. In the end, getting through took us around 30 minutes for customs/immigration and the health checks. For the health checks, they assessed our travel history, asked if we had any symptoms, took our temps (we were both in a normal range), told us to isolate for 14 days, monitor our temperatures twice a day, and gave us guidelines of what to look for in symptoms. That was the extent of our health screening.
We rented a car and road tripped home to limit our exposure to people as much as possible. The beauty of technology in this day and age makes social distancing pretty easy as far as buying and paying for things. Pay wave on credit cards/G Pay/Apple Pay/Samsung Pay, etc., makes it easy to never have to touch something someone else touched – no money exchanges hands. We were still diligently washing our hands and using hand sanitizer though, before and after going in anywhere. Now that we have reached our destination, we‘re staying put for the prescribed time, no contact.
Now, on to the fun bits of the last three weeks of our trip! When I left off last, we had just arrived in Madrid from South Korea via Abu Dhabi. Eric and I have both been to Spain several times, but neither of us had spent any time in Madrid. What a great city! Our quaint pension was situated very close to the city center, so it was very easy for us to explore the city by foot. We spent five days wandering the neighborhoods, checking out the many beautiful parks, an art museum, the palace, Grand Via, the cathedral, and eating tapas! Plus, I was able to get some practice using Spanish – I remember way more than I realized! I am nowhere near fluent, but was able to get us the basics and understand most questions people were asking me. I had been using the Duo Lingo app off and on over the last couple of years, and that little bit of refresher and new vocab really helped! There’s a free version with ads/commercials, or you can do a paid version with no ads. It starts off very basic, but then gets more difficult as you “level up”. The app has many other languages besides as well – I tried Korean, but didn’t start soon enough to do us any good, as the characters are too much of a deviation from the English language for me to learn quickly. Maybe someday!
Because we made such a quick departure from Asia, we had yet to do any research/planning for Europe, and had a hard time deciding what to do and where to go from Madrid. Finally, we zeroed in on Porto, Portugal, mainly off the recommendation of a friendly restaurant owner we met who was from there. He was so passionate about the beauty of his home city, that we knew this was the right place to start in Portugal. We stayed in an apartment in the city center, and again, were really able to walk just about everywhere we wanted to go. Granted, we were walking 10-20 miles every day, but when we decided we didn’t want to walk, the central metro station was right across the street from our place, and there were local trains that could get us out to nearby towns. Porto has a fantastic, miles long, river promenade that follows the Douro river out to the ocean. It’s also a very hilly city, so has amazing views of the city at different vantage points. One thing I really loved about the buildings, old and new, in Porto, were the tiled facades. Usually just the fronts of the buildings, but some buildings were tiled ground to roof on all sides with beautiful painted ceramic tiles and ceramic tile murals. I slowed us down a lot by stopping to take snapshots of all the different designs. Porto is also the region of the world where Port is produced. We visited a couple tasting rooms in the city, and also took a drive up the Douro river valley to see this unique wine producing region after a visit to Santiago de Compostela. The beauty of the countryside was breathtaking, and definitely a cause for pause to soak in the moments.
So, here we are, taking a time-out, four full days into our isolation period. Our temperatures still remain in normal range and we don’t have any symptoms, here’s hoping it stays that way! Sending love and wishing everyone health and sanity during this weird time in our lives.
Heather and Eric