Moving to the place your heart resides is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Take inspiration from these lionhearted ladies who went off the beaten path and dared to go to their dream destination amidst the challenges brought by a pandemic.
Before the pandemic hit, the world of travel was a bustling scene. It’s not unusual to hear stories of people traversing through multiple cities in just a few days, visiting as many sights as possible in a short period of time. If we’re being honest though, while it’s fun and exciting, it sometimes leaves us feeling exhausted.
Isabel Leong, who has been a travel blogger since 2015 and visited 38 countries by the age 26, is familiar with this vacation hustle. In fact, she shared that from 2018 to 2019, she was back in Singapore for only two weeks at a time.
All this changed when COVID-19 happened. Like the rest of us, she had to slow down and stay home for months. Not used to being stationary, Isabel began feeling sluggish and disheartened. “I kind of reached a state where I felt burnt out and I don’t know what else I could do. I felt really unmotivated and demoralised,” she shared.
Her routine went from exploring new places each day to waking up late and burning time watching Netflix all day. She knew she had to do something. When the initial frenzy of the pandemic had abated and things started to settle into a new normal, Isabel thought of slow travelling.
Opposite to the hectic travel schedule we once knew, slow travelling puts an emphasis on experiencing more than visiting countless places. Rather than squeezing in as many activities as one can into an itinerary, slow travelling is all about immersing yourself in what each destination has to offer. It’s the perfect way to travel during the pandemic that forced us all to slow down. “I decided to book that one-way ticket [to Seattle] in October [to see a friend] and I’ve been on the road since then,” Isabel said.
From exploring the great outdoors of Colorado while living in an RV to staying in a beach town in Costa Rica, Isabel shares the bumps she’s encountered along the way — getting deported from the United States, losing her laptop and phone — and the lessons she learned from each experience. Keep reading to follow her slow travelling journey.
One-way ticket to the off-beaten path
With the reassurance from her friend that she has a safe place to stay once she lands in Seattle, Isabel began her journey. To her surprise, it was smooth. “I flew with Air Japan and United. I had a stopover in Tokyo. From there, the next stop was already Seattle,” she said. When asked why she chose the West Coast of America as her destination, she said it’s because of her connections. “It’s mostly because I have friends there and I know that I can always count on them; they’re always happy to host me,” she said.
Admittedly, she found it very strange that it felt like “ordinary travel” except that everywhere she looked was almost always empty. “On my flights, I had the whole row to myself and then I had the whole front row to myself and also the whole row behind me to myself. So it was really, really, really empty,” she said. Her friend was already waiting for her when she arrived, and they stayed in a boat at Bainbridge Island, a small city in the western part of Washington. It was cold and wet but wonderful.
After a week and a half in Seattle, Isabel went to live in an RV in Colorado with her friend. “Colorado is known to be an outdoor playground, and so I did a lot of hiking, and rock climbing. It was a very different experience [from my other travels]. In a way it’s much more peaceful. I don’t know how to explain this, but [being outdoors] is much quieter, there’s less background noise, fewer distractions and so I can focus more on working as well,” she said. Isabel was reaping the promised benefits of slow travel.
After her visit in Colorado, Isabel did quite a long road trip to California. The first stop was in San Francisco and she eventually made her way to Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and Los Angeles. “I ate a lot of oysters, the seafood in this part [of the country] is really fresh. We also visited smaller towns and went to forests to hike,” she shared.
A part of her journey in this area was literally off the beaten path, so much so that Google Maps didn’t feature the location and they had to use a hiking map and rely on the wits of someone who’s been there before. Despite its discreteness (or perhaps because of it), the hiking trail became a magical sight for Isabel. “I saw the leaves turning from green to orange and as we approached nearer it was suddenly covered in snow, pine cones and all that,” she said. It was definitely far from the touristy travels she used to take.
By the time all these happened, Isabel had been staying in the United States for months already and her visa, which was only good for 90 days, was near its expiration date. And so she left the United States for Costa Rica.
Isabel chose Costa Rica for a few reasons, but mostly because it had the fewest restrictions and the beaches there are divine. She spent four out of her six weeks’ stay in the country at a beach town called Tamarindo, a place known for surfing. Isabel met a local from a snorkelling tour who agreed to teach her surfing. “So I learnt surfing, I learnt extensively and loved it,” she said. “I did it twice a day, morning and evening, depending on the surf conditions. It’s quite addictive learning a new sport.”
Bumps along the way
After her stint in Costa Rica, Isabel tried to make her way back to the United States — emphasis on “tried”. Upon arriving, Isabel got detained by the immigration department in the Los Angeles Airport (LAX). “They looked at my passport and they saw that I entered and exited the US in 2019 and it showed that I was in the US for months,” she said. “And so they decided to put me through further questioning.”
The whole ordeal lasted for about 12 hours and in the end Isabel was sent back to Costa Rica, her eligibility for the visa waiver program available to Singaporeans revoked. “It was traumatising but you have to get used to these unexpected events and deal with it on your own sometimes,” she said.
This is one of the challenges of slow travelling. When you’re staying for too long in one country, there’s a danger of encountering issues with your visa so it’s best to keep this in mind if you’re going to follow Isabel’s footsteps.
With the United States scratched from her itinerary, Mexico was the next choice for Isabel since Singaporeans can stay there for 180 days. At first everything was smooth sailing. “Those first two weeks were really productive because I was really focused on working,” she said. But then every digital nomad’s worst nightmare happened to her — her valuables got stolen while staying at a new acquaintance’s house at Playa Del Carmen, a coastal resort town in Mexico.
“The second night that I was there, I woke up with my phone, wallet, laptop and smartwatch gone. It was the most horrifying moment of my life because all my valuables were gone. I was really panicking, I had a nervous breakdown,” she said. Isabel filed a police report but the authorities couldn’t retrieve her stuff. Isabel has her own theories as to who the culprit is but in the end there was not much she could do except slowly recoup her losses.
Continuing the slow journey
However, the incident didn’t stop her from continuing her slow journey to Oaxaca. The ride wasn’t as smooth as when she started though. “I had to scramble my way around. It was a big hassle because I had to replace my bank cards and my driver’s license from Singapore and then my family had to send it over to me. I got a cheap replacement phone in Mexico but I couldn’t get a laptop because they have the Spanish keyboard so when I called to inquire [for an English keyboard], [they said] the minimum [waiting time] is one month to ship to Mexico City.
Luckily, my friend from Los Angeles was happy to take a weekend trip to where I was. So he managed to buy an English laptop and met me for a weekend. I was like, ‘Oh, thank God’. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’ll even survive without my laptop. This experience really taught me the importance of friendship and to not trust people blindly,” she said. Isabel shared on her blog that she would have “cried her way back to Singapore” if not for the support of her friends.
The last time we spoke to Isabel, she was already settled in her home for the time being in Oaxaca where she’s near a “plant-themed” cafe. But what’s next in her journey is not really certain for now. “It’s difficult to plan in advance because of how fluid everything is and with the constant changes, with the borders opening and closing, and restrictions here and there. As of now, I’m planning to maximise my stay here in Mexico just to minimise the border restrictions complication,” she said.
Tips for embarking on a slow journey
To anyone who wants to slow travel during a pandemic, know that it won’t always be easy but it can be worth it. Isabel leaves you with some of her most handy tips. First is to guard yourself especially during a pandemic. “As long as you keep to yourself [and a few trusted friends], it’s going to be okay,” she said.
Next is to set a budget with plans for contingencies and keep in touch with other “digital nomads” and connect with friends. “Before going to each city, I try to get a sense of what the cost of living is, like the rent, the food. In general, there are a lot of digital nomads right now so there’s a community that’s really welcoming and nice. It also helps you to meet a lot of different people,” she said. “But you have to be prepared to live in a suitcase especially if you’re travelling to countries with different climates.”
Lastly, never forget to update your loved ones back at home. “There’s a tendency for your family to worry so keep them up to date with your location and well-being,” she said.
Slow travelling will allow you to scratch deeper than surface sightseeing and forces you to immerse yourself in what a destination has to offer. However, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be met with challenges along the way and you have to be ready for it when it comes. In the end, it’s what a journey is all about.
(Cover photo from: @belardtheworld)
Next, find out what it’s like to move to another country during a pandemic.