This is The World Vegan Travel Podcast episode 15. I’m Brighde one of the founders of World Vegan Travel Tours and The World Vegan Travel podcast is all about showing you how you might explore this world as a vegan! We USUALLY do different types of episodes. We share our vegan travel experiences and the experiences of others to inspire you to get out into this beautiful world. We conduct interviews with people doing amazing things to promote vegan travel as well as individuals and organizations that are protecting human and nonhuman animals in a destination you could be visiting.
This is an unusual episode because these times are somewhat different from what they were just a month ago.
At the time of recording this episode, we are in about week 3 of serious changes being made to the way we live our lives. Many of us are living sheltering in place or incomplete lockdown situations, perhaps we are working from home and without a doubt, there are many people who are suffering. So many people have lost their jobs or at least lost hours, many people are dying from being infected by COVID 19, and for those of us who are especially vulnerable or have loved ones who are vulnerable. As a result, we are feeling at the very least rather discombobulated and in some cases completely fearful of the future.
While the impacts of COVID has had a huge sweeping impact for all of us, I thought I would spend this episode sharing my COVID19 travel story and also updating you on what on earth is going on with us, the World Vegan Travel team, and explain why we have not published a podcast episode for nearly 3 weeks. I am also really hoping that explaining what happened with the hope that it might actually help me with processing the whole ordeal and hopefully entertain you in some way. Spoiler alert, it DOES end well so despite the twists and turns it is a happy ending.
So, this episode is not especially informative (indeed we hope you never have to go through this) but hopefully it will be entertaining and explain our absence on social media, email newsletters, and the podcast. We will get back to sharing more informative content with you from next week!
So, let’s begin!
Many of those listeners will know that I (Brighde) until just a few months ago was teaching full-time at an international school in Bangkok, a city we had been living in for nearly 7 years! Due to the success of our first few tours, we decided that the time was right for me to finish up teaching and focus on the tours full time. We knew that we were ready to leave South East Asia. We had lived there for the better part of 17 years and we were keen to move to a place that had nature, seasons, and ideally mountains. For a couple of years, France was the place we wanted to move to. Both Seb and I are French speakers and we really wanted to move to Europe so after I finished teaching we started researching that at length. As we realized, this was a little bit more of a challenge than we had anticipated. Brexit meant that we didn’t know how it would be to move to France (I have British citizenship) and no one seemed to have any idea (not least the British government and Europe) about how freedom of movement would be for the British in Europe moving forward. More and more research didn’t seem to give us any clarity at all with this and I was ready to just throw my hands in the air with the whole France plan.
In January, we started thinking about where else might be an interesting possibility, and moving to Canada started looking more attractive. Seb is Canadian. He was born and raised in Ottawa but most of his family had lived on the west coast for the past 15 years in Vancouver, Squamish, and Whistler. It ticked a lot of boxes. Having family nearby, mountains, not too cold during the winter. We started doing research and carefully weighing up all the pros and cons.
By mid-February, we felt like Canada did seem like a good idea, but we felt like we needed to go there and check if it really did feel like it could be a home for us. We arrived and spent a few days in Vancouver which we loved but realized that it was probably not quite affordable for us and we thought we would check out Squamish (a town just 45 minutes north that Seb’s sister and her family live in and Seb’s family had recently moved to.
We traveled up there and we realized that Squamish might fit the bill. We told Seb’s parents our thoughts and of course, they were very excited at the possibility of moving to be close to them. We started looking for a place and found a perfect place, right in the same building as Seb’s parents with views of the mountains and the Mamquam Blind channel (where we have seen seals) as well as The Chief, one of the largest granite monoliths in the world. The town of Squamish, while small and a population of only about 20,000 people, seemed to have everything we would need, supermarkets with lots of fun vegan products, a vegan restaurant as well as some great vegan options and access to so much nature that we had been craving after spending so long in huge cities.
As we were deciding, the situation with the Coronavirus was ramping up and it became clear that this situation was going to become a lot worse before it got better and we started to get concerned. Our cats were in Bangkok being cared for by some lovely housesitters in our home and we started to worry that perhaps travel restrictions might prevent us from heading back to Bangkok. We decided that Seb would stay in Canada and start getting our new house organized for a week or two and that I would get head to Bangkok at the first opportunity.2 days later I arrived in Bangkok, the most visited city in the world to an airport that was much quieter than usual and it was with a huge sigh of relief that I got in because just 24 hours after I arrived more travel restrictions were put in to place including, for non-Thai residents you had to prove that you were COVID19 free before entering. This meant taking a test that was pretty much unobtainable so Seb resigned himself to the fact that he would not be able to come back to Thailand to say goodbye to our home of 7 years.
The next few days were spent coming up with a plan for this HUGE move. We had to Marie Kondo the whole house. I could easily do all my stuff but Seb and I did have a few mornings where we had to get on Skype I had to go through all his stuff and ask if it sparked joy and created piles of things. Things to go in my suitcase for Canada, things to go on the boat, things to sell, to giveaway, etc.
We started making arrangements for getting the cats shipped. If you have never traveled with animals, there are essentially a couple of choices.
- You can have your animals with you on the flight which is a cheaper option. Depending on the airline, you can have them in the cabin with you (although of course restrictions do apply) or in the hold which is pressurized and temperature controlled.
- As unaccompanied baggage which is more expensive but in normal circumstances is very easy to do.
We started booking the flight for me to go to Vancouver. As I didn’t have residency in Canada (although we had the intention to start that process as soon as I would arrive in Canada) I would be arriving in Canada on a travel visa but Canada like so many countries in the world, they were closing off their borders to non-essential travel, however, (and I am so grateful for exemptions that they have made) I would still be allowed to enter due to having Canadian immediate family. We checked the small print carefully and checked to see if we have the evidence they would need to prove this for immigration in Canada. We dug out leases, took screenshots of photos of us over the course of our relationship, found utility bills that show that we lived at the same address. While we were doing this we started hearing that flights were being canceled left right and center and some countries were stopping air traffic from entering and in some cases like Peru and Morocco, simply closing all borders. Would Thailand do something similar? We started researching flights to Vancouver and found an airline with availability that was still allowing cats as excess baggage with transit in Tokyo for 4 hours.
Now, in case you don’t know, airlines always check that you have permission to enter a country before you can check in. This is because I believe airlines are responsible if a traveler is not able to get in. I’m not sure if it is a fine or if they have to send you back where you started but whatever the reason, they are always really strict about it. It suddenly dawned on me that we would not only have to prove to Canadian Immigration that we were a couple but that we would need to provide it to the airline as well, in Thailand a country that does not give common-law marriages legal standing.
I called ANA’s customer service in Japan and asked them if it would be a problem and it quickly became clear that it would be. Communicating was so hard not because their English wasn’t good (it was very good) but the line was such bad quality and almost incomprehensible and discussing the subject matter was hard (explaining the intricacies of Canada’s new travel restrictions and why the evidence that I had should be enough to board). They said they would contact Bangkok airport to see what they thought. I got a call back saying that in order for me to board I would need a letter from the embassy. I decided to also go to the airport and have a conversation face to face with the person who makes the call and see if dealing with someone face to face would help. I traveled over to the airport and spoke to the person who said that I would need this letter from the embassy and refused to look at any of the papers I had.
The next day I headed to the Canadian embassy. Now as you can imagine embassies are pretty busy at the moment dealing with so many Canadians who are stranded, who have had their flights canceled, it felt like looking after my case would be pretty low down on their list of priories. I managed to speak to someone at the embassy who told me that for consular matters such as this, I should email them. I did some calculations and realized that I needed to have a reply from them in 3 days because we only had a narrow window of time for the cats. In order to get the necessary paperwork like an export permit and a health certificate that involved taking them to the airport to the animal quarantine and leaving the country within a certain amount of time from the moment the paperwork was signed otherwise the health certificate would no longer be valid. I emailed the embassy and explained my situation and kept everything crossed for a quick reply and to get this letter that the airline said they needed.
In the meantime, we started looking at a plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D, AND a Plan E.
Plan B was flying to Seattle (where there were no travel restrictions for me at that time) and crossing the land border to Canada either by Seb getting special permission to travel into the USA (exceptions were being made for crossing the closed border for compassionate reasons) or somehow I would get up to and cross the border by myself. Handling 2 huge suitcases and 2 cats crossing the border didn’t seem like a whole lot of fun to me but I would do it if need be.
Plan C was staying in Thailand, overstaying my visa, and being with the cats.
Plan D was seeing if we could find a Candian heading to Vancouver to see if we could get them to take the cats for us to Vancouver and Seb would meet them at the airport.
Plan E was heading to Australia (where my family is and just waiting for I could travel to Canada ) and shipping the cats as unaccompanied baggage to Canada and just swallowing the expense). We found out that Plan E (me heading to Australia while we shipped the cats to Canada) was no longer an option because airlines were no longer shipping animals as unaccompanied baggage people due to the precarious situation. Plan E became me going to Australia and having a friend look after the cats in Thailand until such a time as we could reunite. This was the least desirable option. The idea of leaving my cats for goodness knows how long seemed like the most difficult thing although a dear friend did offer to help me with that if needed.
One day passed and nothing from the embassy, two days passed and still nothing. On the third day, I got a reply from the embassy. They told me that I didn’t need a letter because I was exempt from the travel restrictions. I asked if they could give me a letter anyway and they replied that they could not as these letters were only for those people who were not already exempt and that if there were any problems during check-in, I should ask the airline to contact the Canadian embassy ICE liaison who would give the go-ahead or not.
This felt like progress and a huge victory. I called customer service to try to explain all of this, but it was extremely hard to communicate and they were stuck trying to liaise between me and Bangkok airport. I decided to take matters into my own hands and go and talk to the airline directly at Bangkok airport and do a dummy run of checking in. The idea of turning up on the morning of my flight with two cats and no house to come back to did feel a little scary. So, that’s what I did. I went to the airport and spoke to the gatekeeper about all of this, was able to show her my paperwork and she was prepared to work with me and actually read what I had, she checked with the Canadian Embassy who said that they would let me in! I resisted the urge to say “SEE!!! I told you I was allowed to Canada and headed home with a little more confidence.
That was the night of the 26th of March. I had a lot to do in the next 5 days before the 1st of April. I had to have the shippers come around and pack up my house and do all the paperwork associated with that, we had to have the cats picked up for the visit to the airport animal quarantine to get their export permits as well their health checks. I had to get the last bits and pieces sold, I had to get Seb’s computer dismantled and go to the ice rink and get his hockey locker emptied (which I managed to do on the last day of the shopping malls being opened) while hoping that ANA would not cancel the precious flight or that Thailand would not stop flights altogether.
I am happy to report that the last few days went well and time even lagged a little bit. I was not able to say a proper in-person goodbye to dear friends or to my favorite Bangkok haunts but I was just so pleased to get on that flight even though I was terrified for the cats and the journey they would need to do. There were tears of joy as I collected them from oversized baggage in Vancouver. Reuniting with Seb at the airport was the best, we drove to our new house which was already feeling pretty homely. Seb had purchased some essentials and Seb’s parents have lent us some bits and pieces to keep us going until our shipping arrives and bought some pantry essentials and some non-essentials including lots of vegan ice creams.
So, we are now on Day 2 of 14 of my quarantine (Seb is also quarantining with me) all feel pretty right with my world now and I am spending a couple of days recovering from this ordeal and reflecting on this whole situation. Despite the stress of everything I have described, I’ve realized just how privileged I am. This whole experience has given me a better understanding of just how much safety and security are so important for well-being and just being able to function. For the whole two weeks, I was unable to focus on anything other than getting to Canada to be with my family. Doing my normal job was not possible and the stress was almost unbearable despite the fact that none of the many plans I had were terrible plans that would cause considerable suffering.
I can’t help but wonder how much more challenging it must be for people who are displaced for much scarier reasons like war or natural disasters and for very long periods of time perhaps even years and then finally when they do escape to the safe space they have so many barriers and face so much discrimination. This whole thing has been a very good opportunity to check my privilege and also be grateful for what I have. I’ve also been thinking about how having space with a balcony for some fresh air and some savings so I can self-isolate without having to worry right now and working from home is also a privilege. As I scroll through my social media, I see the impact that these lockdowns are having on marginalized and oppressed people. I can’t help but wonder about those people who live in households that are abusive and how being able to go to school, or work or just step outside to escape a very tense home atmosphere is not possible for now and perhaps some time. Gratitude, compassion, and empathy for others are so important and I hope that I remember this if and when life goes back to normal.
I also want to let you know that while I have focussed on my experience in all of this, Seb although not with me was trying everything he could to try to help from his end as well. He certainly was not just sitting in Canada twiddling his thumbs. Indeed, if he had not been supportive I am sure there would have been a lot more tears. Without a doubt, this problem was sorted out through collaboration and the miracles of modern technology.
So, that’s my little COVID19 travel story and hopefully explains why I have been a little bit disconnected from communicating with our World Vegan Travel community in the past 3 weeks. I’m hoping to be back on track with podcasts, newsletters, and some travel inspiration because while we don’t know when this whole ordeal will pass, it will and we are not quite sure if the world will ever be quite the same again, we’re confident there will be people who are curious about the world around them and hopefully World Vegan Travel will be bringing people to the world even if for the time being it is just virtually.
We will be back next week with another episode featuring an interview with Anna from My Travel Scrapbook looking at the pros and cons of different kinds of accommodation through a vegan lens! Please feel free to have a look at the blog post for this episode. I will show some cute pictures and some pictures of what Bangkok’s airport looks like when nearly all flights are canceled.
In the meantime and of course in the near future, please come and say hi to us on any of our social media platforms. It would be so great to hear from you and of course, stay safe and sane and keep others safe and sane too.