Travelling across the world alone can be the adventure of a lifetime, but no matter how prepared you are, catching COVID-19 is still a very real risk.
When I packed my carry-on full of bathing suits for a week of surfing in Portugal, I did not expect to return to Canada nearly a full month later. As someone who’s young, fully vaccinated and an avid mask-wearer, I thought my odds of catching COVID were slim. Whether that was naive or simply hopeful I’m not sure, but regardless it was wrong.
As a Canadian, you are required to get a PCR or Antigen test to enter Portugal and a PCR up to 72 hours prior to returning. While the first test went very smoothly, the latter is where I ran into issues.
With it being only three full days since my arrival, I went to the testing centre symptom-free and very confident that I was negative— little did I know how the next few days would unfold.
You Never Think It’ll Be You
The following morning I woke up feeling great (OK maybe slightly hungover) to an email notifying me that my results were in. Excited that they came early, I opened the message with no hesitation, only to have the words “COVID-19 DETETADO” staring back at me. Now, my Portuguese is far from passable, but I didn’t need Google Translate to understand what those words meant.
At that moment, I’m not sure if I could even process what was going on. Thoughts were rushing through my head faster than my mouth was able to vocalize them.
How do I tell everyone? Can I take more time off of work? How sick will I get? Will my dog be alright without me? Where did I catch it? Is it a false positive? Have I infected anyone else? When will I be able to go home?
The questions were endless and the uncertainty overwhelming. At 20 years old I’ve dealt with my fair share of travel incidents, but none quite like this. It’s an isolating feeling knowing you’re not legally allowed to return to your own country.
As I was staying at a surf lodge, the first thing to do was break the news to my fellow travellers and staff. While our group had grown close over the last few days, it was not a conversation I was really looking forward to.
Masked and 10 feet away, I stood as everyone shared their sympathy and concern. Their words were comforting but they did not stop a few tears from escaping my eyes.
Luckily everyone else’s rapid tests came back negative and as they headed off to the beach, I was left to figure out my next steps. It was at that moment that I accepted that there was nothing I could do but make the most of the situation.
The Importance of Travel Insurance
If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s to buy good travel insurance. I always travel with it and after this, I certainly always will. While the phone calls and email threads were frustrating, it truly was a life-saver.
The representatives were available to answer all of my questions and despite only costing 37 euros, the insurance covered my entire additional stay and new flight home. Without it, I would have been out thousands of dollars and much more stressed.
It was also a comfort knowing that if I ran into any other problems, there was someone I could turn to. While I am a big advocate for solo travel, when you run into something like health issues, it’s not always easy dealing with them alone.
Fortunately, I was also surrounded by some pretty amazing people who now feel like friends.
The lodge manager, Ramon, would be an incredible help over the next weeks and for that I will be forever grateful. From helping me find new accommodation, to bringing me cookies and dropping off any items I needed, he was one of the kindest and funniest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of crossing paths with.
It was really all of the people I met that made the situation so much better. From the staff to the surfers to the fellow travellers, I was surrounded by some of the coolest people the world has to offer. Once the initial shock of getting stuck in Portugal subsided, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation I had gotten myself into.
I came to the country by myself, but at that moment it didn’t feel like it. They made it clear that I was not alone and if I needed anything they were just a WhatsApp message away.
In Portugal, you have to isolate for 10 days after you test positive for COVID-19, but Canada requires 14 to have passed in order to fly back. This meant that my quick 7-day trip would end up being tripled.
Alone But Not Lonely
At first, the thought of being alone for over a week was a little daunting. I love meeting new people and get energy from social interaction, so the idea of being alone with just my thoughts did not sit well with me.
I filled my days with work, FaceTime calls and dancing around my room. The time surprisingly flew by.
Luckily my symptoms were mild—slight fever, loss of smell, back pain and a lost voice—and they all subsided within a couple of days. I was extremely grateful that I was vaccinated as I’m sure my COVID experience would have been much different otherwise.
Before I knew it I finished my 10 days at home and my tests were thankfully negative. The smile on my face knowing I could see people again stretched nearly the distance to Canada, and with my mask in hand, I re-entered the world.
With a few days left before my flight, I was able to have in-person goodbyes with all of my new friends, which was truly a bittersweet moment.
While getting COVID alone abroad was far from ideal, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t positives that came out of it (no pun intended). I was forced to spend time reflecting, which I probably would never have done otherwise. I got to know a number of incredible people from all over the world, many of which I plan to see again. And of course, I learned that sometimes you just have to take things in stride.
For a situation that literally forces you to isolate yourself from others, it was surprisingly one that taught me the power of human kindness—something that I will forever be grateful for.