Saturday, March 14, 2020

Last night we returned to a changed America. The trip to Portugal had been planned six months in advance. My son, two grandchildren (both nurses), and I left on Wednesday, March 4, for a 9-day guided tour of Portugal. We were certainly aware of the coronavirus outbreaks in Italy, but our consensus at the time was that our destination appeared safe.  And it probably was.

Six days into our trip, on Wednesday, March 10, WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic, meaning that it will likely spread worldwide.

Bare shelves on Saturday, March 14.

We left a California where grocery shelves were stocked, the freeways congested, and my calendar full. Ten days later we returned to a different reality. Our flight got in last night, Friday, March 13, at 5:50 PM. We breezed home through light traffic. This morning the supermarket shelves were bare and the lines long. And my to-do list includes a list of events to cancel.

Portugal was friendly, clean, and full of experiences that reflect this country’s tumultuous history. We will never forget the date 1755, when Lisbon was leveled by a huge earthquake followed by fires and a tsunami. Listening to the mournful sound of Fado in a candlelit restaurant; tracing the escape of the Knights Templar who found refuge in Tomar; learning of the small Jewish community in Belmonte who lived their faith quietly through the Inquisition and for centuries after, not knowing that a larger Jewish community existed until 1926—all of these are part of our memories of our time in Portugal.

Coronavirus was in the news the weekend before we left on our journey. While our travels gave us an escape from the growing tension at home, we were always aware of the changing situation through the headlines on our smart phones.  On our flight from LAX to Newark, we found both airports sparsely populated and very few people wearing masks. The flight to Europe was not full. No doubt people had cancelled. There were a number of empty seats on the plane, including the one next to me.  The airport in Lisbon was not crowded and there were no masks seen on our arrival.

Thursday evening, at the introductory dinner, the tour director passed out a statement which we were meant to sign, declaring that we had not traveled in China, including Macau, Hong Kong, or South Korea in the last 3 weeks. They had emailed this notice to us in advance, so we had some advance notice.

St. Jerome Monastery, Lisbon

Friday, March 6, we found no crowds as we walked through Lisbon and saw St. Jerome Monastery. Granted, it was off-season, but the local guide told us that at this time of year there are usually a lot of tourists from China and Japan. Italian tourists were not allowed in either. I wondered whether I should cancel my July trip to Alaska, which includes a cruise. I read that a cruise ship wasn’t allowed to dock in San Francisco. The number of worldwide was reported to be almost 100,000.       

John began posting photos of monuments and sites with empty plazas in front of them, like Fatima and the University at Coimbra. By Sunday, March 8, I had developed a morbid habit of waking up at night to read the headlines:  

“Italy Prohibits Travel,” Wall Street Journal.

 “Efforts to battle coronavirus escalate around the globe,” (WSJ)

 “Health Officials Block Several Cruise Ships,” (WSJ)

“We’re Past the Point of Containment,” L.A. Times

Still life looked normal in Porto, where we took a peaceful river cruise and chatted over tapas in a crowded restaurant. Making conversation, I asked people about their upcoming travel plans and found that nearly everyone had something planned in the next few months. One of our group was a pharmacist with plans to go to Machu Picchu this summer, saying that his attitude is to go on with your life. I agreed, and shared tips on coping with the altitude of the famed archeological site.

Monday, March 9, headlines from the WSJ:

“Heard on the Street: How to keep calm as coronavirus fears turn into market panic.”

 “Virus Cases Outside China Triple in Past Week.”

“Containment Hopes Fade as Virus Spreads,” L.A. Times.

“Coronavirus: Italy lockdown plan leaked, thousands try to flee,” Business Insider.

Monday evening, my friend Julie and I texted about whether to cancel our Alaska trip. Our travel agent, unasked, sent us an email detailing our options on canceling versus going.

On Tuesday, March 10, we strolled through the beautiful gardens at Quinta de Avelada Winery, followed by a delicious lunch of tapas and wine.

Tuesday night all my plans changed. I cancelled the Alaska cruise/land tour. Julie and I discussed options for our birthday trip: a resort? A tour with no cruise attached? The guests I expected later in March cancelled their plans to visit.  Rehearsals for a performance of HMS Pinafore that I was involved in were still scheduled.

Sunset over the Evora city walls, Wednesday night

At this point, I still expected life to be pretty normal when we came home. Wednesday night after a full day of sightseeing, I was just beginning to think about which activities I might have to cancel at home.  Around 2 AM both phones (John’s and mine) started ringing like crazy with text messages. Half asleep, I silenced mine, but John’s kept ringing. I didn’t know how to silence his Android, so I decided to see who was texting. That was when I found out that President Trump had just declared a ban on travel from Europe effective Friday, March 13. Our friends and family weren’t sure when we were due home, so they were texting us and each other to see if we were going to make it home in time.

Our flight home was actually scheduled for Friday, so I figured we were okay. Just to verify the report, I looked at the news on line and found out that although the initial announcement said all travel was banned, it had been quickly clarified to say that U.S. citizens would be allowed to come home. I texted the 20-person conversation thread that in any case we would be home Friday. Then I shut John’s phone in the bathroom under a stack of towels and tried to get back to sleep. It was after three and we had a 6:30 wake up call.

Next morning we learned that Wednesday had been a busy day. Governor Newsome had declared a state of emergency in California and asked that gatherings of over 250 people be cancelled. The World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The stock market fell 10%.We learned all this at breakfast Thursday morning because of the 8-hour time difference.

News broadcast at breakfast

Our tour director told us that his colleague in Madrid had been called down in the wee hours that morning to find his tour group in pajamas in the hotel lobby frantically trying to get flights home. Our own group was pretty calm, considering the circumstances.

Walking through Evora

We were in the medieval walled town of Evora that morning, scheduled for a walking tour, but I chose to stay at the hotel to message our family that we were indeed coming home the next day. Then I walked down the cobblestone streets to the town square, did a little shopping, and had a coffee. I didn’t know when I would have such a leisurely morning in Europe again.

Friday at the airports: Lisbon Airport was not crowded. I only saw one person wearing a mask. Our next stop was Heathrow. Very different. Crowded, a fair number of masks, lines everywhere. We filed off our plane and took a shuttle to a different terminal, another security line, and just made the flight to Los Angeles, which was full. On the drive home from the airport, though, the freeway was eerily empty.

 On a personal note, I found out that our HMS Pinafore performance on March 27 was cancelled and options were being considered. A July trip to anywhere now seems unrealistic.

A day or two ago I would have thought that the suggested 14-day self-quarantine for people returning from Europe was excessive. Portugal was so peaceful and normal, with few signs of coronavirus concern. But on Friday, after experiencing the crowded airport shuttles, the crammed security areas, the passport lines, the boarding process, and the airplanes themselves, I realized that we had no control over who or what we might be exposed to. This virus has shown itself to be very contagious. It is a serious challenge to our healthcare system regardless of whether I personally think I was exposed. I have decided not to pick and choose events, but to actually self-quarantine for two weeks. I am convinced that it is a necessary measure if we want to control the rate of spread.

The number of cases worldwide as of March 14, 2020, is 156,433. There have been 5,821 deaths. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

By the way, if you want to read about the effects on the stock market as seen from Portugal last week, look at John’s blog:  https://johnonstocks.wordpress.com/   which he kept updated while we were there.

Stay well and safe. This is History’s Edge.


2 thoughts on “Portugal: Travel on the Eve of a Pandemic

  1. Hi Gail,

    Thank you for sending this. I’m glad you had a good trip. I love your photos.and essay. I like Phenix, weather is perfect and where Marion lives a little bit like our house. A nice trail behind her house. Today is the wedding day. I hope I can get home tomorrow without much difficulty. Hope we can walk in two weeks time. Hope to see you soon.

    Take care,

    Your neighbor Ahdoja

    Sent from my iPhone


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