I spent my spring break in Canada.
I know, terrible time to travel, but at the same time, hindsight is 2020. I’ll take this as a learning opportunity for the next pandemic — when people are even whispering about a supervirus, don’t book anything.
When I was looking at when I should be going abroad, I was still under the impression the coronavirus was something I shouldn’t be worried about.
“It’s just a bad flu!” “The death rate isn’t anything special.” “It’s still just in China.”
Even just a few days before I departed, friends, family, and news sources were all over the place.
Wear a face, or wait, don’t wear one at all. You can’t spread it unless you’re coughing, or wait, you still can. Can I get it from drinking a certain brand of beer?
A certain clueless Gen Z kid like me pounced on the sight of an affordable trip in some world-class cities. It’s only how much?! To be fair, I’m a young 20-something year old that is honestly far too sheltered for his own good, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get out my comfort zone.
My gateway drug into Canada was Calgary, Alberta. The company I work for, ChessbrahTV, operates there so I’ve been there for work and play a couple of times. The fresh air, great conversion rate, and generally relaxing vibes of the city drew me in.
Naturally, I wanted to explore the massive country some more, and what better than the east coast? Toronto and Montreal had been built up in my head as these massive party cities with incredible food, nightlife, and sightseeing, so I was ecstatic when I finally hopped on the train to Chicago.
Life had been monotonous lately. The same swing of things, the same old, same old. I exchanged ignorance for bliss; I turned a blind eye to the impending doom of the pandemic and instead looked forward to a week where I didn’t have to worry about chores, traffic, and where I could really explore some new places.
In Chicago, I went to a bar alone for the first time.
No, I am not an alcoholic.
The Broken Shaker was a lounge where 80’s disco hits could only permeate a sense of welcoming. As I looked through the menu, I was chatted up by a friendly guy whose name I can only remember as Darron. We joked about the coronavirus, I had possibly the best mojito ever (for now), and he educated me about what funk really was.
Thursday came around and it was time to pay O’Hare International a visit. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for the incessant blasting of coronavirus safety measures and breaking news.
“Wash your hands for three and a half hours before rinsing with boiling water.”
things go south.
Toronto turned out to be a different kind of city. I had been to dense urban jungles before, but the amount of glass surrounding me was astounding. I felt like I had to dislocate my spine every time I wanted to get a good view of the buildings around me.
My first Airbnb was a 50th-story condo in the heart of downtown. I had never been so high up before, especially somewhere I could stay. Riding the elevator up felt a tram speeding up, and when I finally checked into my room, there were only two words.
“Holy shit.” If I had a photo encapsulating the feeling of small I felt, I would have posted it here. But I don’t.
The first thing that went wrong was entirely a sense of panic after I took a nap and woke up feeling like absolute garbage. My head hurt, I was short of breath and nauseated.
Naturally, my head only went to one place.
“I must have the worst luck on the planet.” I thought. Day 1 of a vacation I had been looking forward to for so long was just about to get shot down by weeks with a bad flu.
My first 24 hours abroad consisted of panicking over the fact I probably had coronavirus and taking drastic measures to prevent it from getting worse. I had a lot of cranberry juice and slept through most of the day.
Friday morning came, and along with it: the USA bans all incoming flights from Europe, all the concerts I was looking forward to were postponed or canceled, and I suddenly became very thankful I had 3 months in Canada without a visa.
A lot of expletives went through my head as I quickly considered I should book a flight back home, which was quickly shot down by a $1200 price tag.
At this point, Airbnb and most airlines had not announced any cancellation/change waivers, so when I looked through my options, I felt like I was locked in.
This was the last day I saw people outside in Toronto. As I hurriedly went to a grocery store nearby, I found myself in a sea of people with the same idea. Lines were dozens of people long, and shelves were starting to get picked apart.
Looking back on it, I was a terrible doomsday prepper. I only got two protein shakes, two protein bars, some Maple Cheerios (which are incredible), and soy beverage. Oh, and a 4-pack of blueberry muffins.
If the apocalypse arrived Saturday, let’s just say I wouldn’t have lasted very long.
I was planning on going to a concert that night, which fell through. As I sat in an Uber heading to the bars, I felt as if things were too quiet. The streets were essentially empty.
where is everyone?
These were taken in the middle of the day in a city of 6 million during my 10km walk around the city. I’m not sure about what Saturdays usually look like, but there are more people out in St. Louis than this on average.
It was like everyone in Toronto decided to pack up their bags and all go on spring break somewhere else, all at the same time. Not even 24 hours before, I had gone to Ikkousha Ramen, and it was filled to the brim with people. The next day, it was practically empty.
That night, I met up with a local to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Now, I had never celebrated that holiday, mind you, but I was absolutely dying for some human interaction after a day where I barely saw anyone.
A lot of Corona was had.
In my drunken state, I, of course, decided to post my escapades onto social media, which resulted in a very hungover me getting an onslaught of angry messages from my sister, who is a nurse.
A full 180 followed on my attitude towards the pandemic. My entire Sunday consisted of reading about the coronavirus and getting educated. The misconceptions that I had left at the door several days ago were completely updated with a lot of “oh shit” moments.
As I packed my things and got ready to check out, I sat in Union Station thinking a lot about pneumonia for some reason.
My travel plans changed. I needed to get home as soon as possible. I had read on CBC that Trudeau was planning on closing the border soon, so I shortened my trip by two days. I took a train to Montreal instead of flying.
I rerouted my layover from Chicago to Dallas, and which I realized Dallas was one of 13 airports accepting international flights from Europe, I had to revise that plan once again to fly through Minneapolis the next morning at 6am.
self-isolation in Montreal
My first experience in Montreal was an Uber driver that seemed very upset about how I didn’t speak a word of French. Upon asking him to teach me some phrases, he said something so fast that I didn’t even have the nerve to ask him to repeat myself.
“So, ‘Merci’ is ‘thank you’ in French, right?”
I immediately downloaded Duo Lingo.
Even though I tried my very best, I couldn’t seem to get the locals to understand “Je ne parle pas Francais”, which means “I don’t speak French” in French. Most of the time they would just respond in French and I was forced to resign.
The rest of my trip wasn’t very interesting. I took a couple of walks to get food, but for the most part, I survived off of Uber Eats. I took self-isolation very seriously, so I spent most of my time listening to music, podcasts, and trying to do a lot of pushups.
As I watched the global economy crumble, I was also shocked at the rebooking cost for my Airbnb. What was usually an apartment costing well over $100 was just under $20 per night. The Canadian dollar got weaker, and with that, the tips I gave out got higher.
I spent my spring break inside, in Canada.
I felt like I was trapped in some kind of time chamber when I was in the Airbnb, seeing photos of desolate grocery stores, mass panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and posts surfacing about the number of cases developing in the United States.
Panicking also followed when I a) found out that Trudeau was actually closing the borders and b) I couldn’t check-in online because I had to see a gate agent.
Like Toronto, my planes were empty. I think I counted 9 other passengers on my first leg and 12 on my second, which soothed a lot of anxiety about infection and really let me stretch my legs.
Also, side note: early morning flights are the absolute best. Exhibit A:
Would I have changed anything for this trip?
Not really. I’m bummed out I didn’t get to meet up with friends or party a lot or get to go to my concert or meet a nice French girl, but at the end of the day, this is a once in a lifetime trip for me. When else am I going to get the chance to travel during a developing pandemic and watch as the world grinds to a halt?
Hopefully, not for a long, long time.
While the spread of COVID-19 poses a lot of questions about job security, globalization, and what it means to be a good person/corporation, my individual experience has been pretty eye-opening.
I’m currently at home in Saint Louis, seemingly corona-free. However, I’ve still taken it upon myself to quarantine myself for a full 14-days (I’m on day 4) so I can be sure I’m free of the virus before exposing myself to the world.
I’m glad that I have group calls, video games, a lot of online entertainment, and the ability to work from home.
Wash your hands, stay home, and don’t forget to not book plane tickets during your next pandemic.
P.S. I now have a Flickr account. You can see these photos and more by clicking here.