DAY 1 – WEDNESDAY 16 DECEMBER 2020
It’s a very small island, and we visited it once before, just over a year ago. In that case, it was a 3 day en-route stop to refresh before connecting to Guyana. In those 3 days we rented a car, toured the island and did just about everything the guidebook says that there is to do.
So why go back, with a general holiday travel policy of avoiding islands and not repeating the same destination (or at least not unless it is many years later).
Well, simply, because (a) it’s hot and sunny in December, (b) it’s got a very low COVID infection rate and (c) it’s about the only country that fits those criteria that will actually let us in. Coronavirus has actually or effectively closed many international borders, and most of the other countries that satisfy category (a) and (c) have absolutely terrible COVID statistics. Brazil, for example. Or there are no flights (or only ones with connections that even dissuade me), like Costa Rica. Or that restrict you to limited areas or hotels, like Cuba.
Barbados has restrictions too. It’s been either intelligently governed, or lucky, or both, but the infection rate has stayed really low; just one or two cases each day, always from arriving tourists. Only 7 deaths in total, and zero since April.
To keep it that way, yet still allow in tourists, they’ve put in place some seemingly draconian but quite acceptable restrictions. Admittedly, it makes an expensive destination even more expensive, but I guess those that can afford the time and money to go, like us, don’t complain.
First, you need to have a PCR test 3 days or less before travel (commonly described as 72 hours, which is true for many countries, but here it’s 3 calendar days before arrival, which gives a bit more flexibility). Government tests aren’t acceptable. In the UK, most private PCR tests involve DIY swabbing, but that’s not acceptable for Barbados; they insist on professionally administered clinic swabs. You also have to upload the certificate of the results to their immigration website at least 24 hours before arrival; given that PCR test results take at least 24 hours and often 48 to be received, it’s actually essential to plan to get tested on Day-3. Even if that is a Sunday or public holiday.
There’s not many clinics even in London that offer tests on a Sunday (since we were flying on Wednesday) and they charge premium prices; the cheapest I could find was £199, and if I hadn’t been watching like a hawk they’d have charged £249 (“oh, I assumed you’d also want the Fit to Fly certificate”). Mail order swab-yourself services start at under £100, and are acceptable for many of the countries that now ask for PCR certificates, but I’m not sure I would trust the turnaround times if sending the swab in from somewhere remote – a next day courier would add £50.
Anyway, we paid our money, got swabbed and, after a night’s tossing and turning wondering whether the results would come back positive, got the negative certificates back 23 hours later by email. Good to go!
With a very sociable flight time of 13:30 leaving from a very sociable airport, Heathrow, the journey proved relaxing and entirely hassle-free. The plane was packed; we weren’t the only ones escaping the British winter for warmth and longer days. In fact, with up to 3 flights a day from the UK, it’s a very busy route.
I’d read other blogs that described the arrival experience as crowded, slow and generally painful, especially with several flights arriving around the same time. Based on that, I forked out a bit more money to buy a “fast track arrival” service. It was nice to have but I’m doubtful it was necessary in our case. We were on the last longhaul flight of the day into Bridgetown, and the previous arrival had been processed an hour or so earlier; since we were near the front of the plane (disembarkation is by seat row number – it probably feels pretty slow if you’re at the back of the plane).
But it’s true that we moved forward a bit faster; we were met at the foot of the aircraft steps by a charming young lady, who had already completed most of the necessary forms; all we had to do was sign, and she got us seen and approved at the health desk more quickly.
The immigration formalities are actually minimal in the circumstances. First, someone standing in the aisle as you enter the terminal area checks your PCR test result certificate; since ours were not very clear PDF printouts, either the check is pretty cursory or they see so many they know where to look for the details. Next, your temperature is checked with one of those handheld gun thermometers, then at the immigration desk you hold your passport, open at the photo page, up to the glass so that the officer on the other side can enter whatever they enter (presumably the passport number) into their terminal. Although, when you complete the immigration forms online (at least 24 hours before arrival) you’re emailed a three page receipt with bar and QR codes that it tells you to print out and present on arrival, we didn’t get asked for them. Then one goes to the health desk, where they checked the form that our guide filled out earlier, wrote down our names and where we were staying longhand in an exercise book (no QR codes here!) and handed us temperature monitoring forms, of which more later. Oh, and a red wristband. Contrary to all the scare stories I’d read, total time from entering the terminal to baggage carousel was less than 5 minutes. Shame that after that we had to wait 30 minutes for the luggage.
So, in our case, the fast track experience was largely unnecessary and a waste of money – but earlier in the day, when several big planes arrive one after the other, I can understand the potential value.
The official web site says you have to have specially approved transportation to get to your hotel, but there was no sign of anything other than ordinary taxis. OK, there’s a sign saying “approved”, but I think that’s just that they’re approved to pick up on the airport. The taxi dispatcher writes out a chit with the fare to your destination, payable either in Barbados or US dollars – easy enough to convert at a rate of 2 BD = 1 US$. US dollars are so ubiquitously accepted across Barbados that it seems to be more a national vanity thing to have their own currency since it doesn’t float and the exchange rate is always the same. The taxi itself is a somewhat battered old Toyota van, not looking like it’s seen any any cleaning at all in a long time, never mind COVID-secure cleaning techniques.
We’re staying at the Bougainvillea Resort, which turns out to be very nice. I’d originally booked a cheaper hotel but then in the last fortnight there were some terrible TripAdvisor reviews about the way that quarantine guests were accommodated and treated, and for the first time I took notice, cancelled and booked somewhere with a better reputation.
Every arriving traveller has to quarantine until they get negative results from a second PCR test that’s done on the island, either 4 or 5 days after the test that had to be done before leaving home. Quarantine has to be in approved accommodation, which means most hotels on the island and some villas. My research before leaving home revealed that every hotel seems to have a slightly different approach, but the common theme is that you’re confined to a restricted area of the hotel with all the other “uncleans” and cannot go out of the hotel grounds or to the beach. Some hotels enforce staying in one’s room for the whole time; others, like the Bouganvillea, put all the quarantining guests in one block with access to an outside area with a pool to which “green lighted” guests shouldn’t go. Every meal has to come from room service; theoretically you can ask the hotel to shop for groceries, but since they request 48 hours notice, and the idea is to finish quarantine in that time, there seems no point.
Anyway, the room is big and has a nice outside terrace; being on the ground floor, we can even walk out to the central area, though I later find that’s forbidden to people like us with red wristbands. Food arrives in nasty card or Styrofoam containers in green carrier bags, delivered by a waiter dressed in full PPE, just to remind you that you could be infectious despite the negative test you took before you arrived. But there’s a kitchenette in the room, so food can be transferred to plates and eaten politely on the terrace; it’s really not that bad at all.
And it should only be for a couple of nights. With our first tests done on the Sunday, 3 days before we arrived, we can have our second test tomorrow, Thursday, and should get the result on Friday. It’s a little worrying that the emails I sent to the hotel asking them to arrange the second test for early on Thursday were never looked at; nevertheless, the receptionist assures me that her manager will arrange it first thing the following morning and it will be no problem. Not sure I share her confidence.
DAY 2 – THURSDAY 17 DECEMBER 2020
I sleep well; no need for pills, and no jetlag. Well, it’s just a four hour time difference, and I got a 2 hour siesta on the plane, which is about the amount that I would have calculated using the system I’d developed when I was travelling on business every few weeks. I’m wide awake by 7am, earlier than I’m used to these days, but it’s daylight, and I can hear the birds singing.
Out on the terrace I can see the sun shining in an almost cloudless sky, the temperature is already nearly 30, and there’s a ginger cat in residence on the sunlounger, who scarpers when I move to sit at the table. All I need now is coffee and juice, but for that I’d have to ring room service, which would probably mean disturbing the sleeping beauty, and wait half an hour. There’s a kitchenette in the room, with an electric kettle, a percolator, a fridge/freezer….. but no supplies. The first real sign I get of how mean this hotel is; usually I’d expect to find at least a few teabags and sachets of instant, but here nothing. Not really very good, especially when they claim four stars and know that the room will be occupied by people straight off a plane who’ll be quarantining. Never mind, water will have to do, even if it’s pretty warm straight out of the tap.
I leave it until just after 8 to call reception and inquire about our tests. She knows about it but cannot book them herself; she’s waiting for the manager to get in. I’m getting itchy feet about this; if the tests can only be done late in the day, or even the following day, we’ll end up with at least another night in quarantine. The receptionist assures me that there’ll be no problem getting tests done the same day.
Nevertheless, I look up the website for the one private service in Barbados that has an online booking system (there are two other private providers but they only take phone bookings). A couple of days earlier when I looked I could have booked any time from 8am; I only didn’t do that because the hotel assured me they would look after it. Now the earliest I can book is midday. Well, 24 hours turnaround means release from quarantine tomorrow at 12, so not really any worse than 8.
Room service breakfast, when it arrives, delivers both calories and a very good reason for escaping from quarantine. Apart from the unattractive packaging and delivery service (nothing, it seems, is too little trouble) the contents are unappealing too, but that might be what we ordered. Cold coffee (OK, can be reheated in the microwave), sweetened juice and stale pastries. Well, sustinence, anyway. But starting to worry a little about future meals; based on this, it looks like Barbados has retained all the bad points of old British cuisine (it’s improved so much since the colonial past, really it has) and American too (Starbucks and others have largely eliminated tasteless watery coffee, but it lives on here).
At 9, I call reception again. The manager isn’t in and only she can book the test. Hmmm. Empowerment.
The Barbados website says that one can get a government PCR test for free, but it can’t be booked before one is on the island, and one has to go to a testing centre by approved transport. I’d decided before we came that private tests would be a better option, even if they did cost US$ 200 each, simply because I don’t have much confidence in anything that is government organised, regardless of country. But I decide to call their hotline to see if we can go for a test there today. No luck; a recorded announcement to say that they are fully booked until next Tuesday and to call back then. I’m certainly not waiting another 5 days to get a test and then at least one more in quarantine; it costs a lot to go to Barbados, so $400 more is “just money”.
At 9.30, the receptionist says she is still waiting for the manager to come in but that she knows she is working offsite and will phone her. At 9.45, I go back onto the Urgent Care website. By now, the earliest I can book is 3.30, but better today than tomorrow, so I book it, cursing and wishing I had had the sense to book the test before we’d left London. I call reception and tell them to forget making arrangements, I’ve made our own.
At 10.15, I get an email and text message from Urgent Care saying that our tests have been rescheduled for 12.30. 3 hours earlier. Good news. At 11, I get a call from the manager, who tells me that she has booked tests for us at 3 with a different provider; she also says she has been in the hotel at her desk since 8. Ha. I tell her to cancel; seems that is no problem.
The nurse arrives early, at 12, and we are escorted by a security guard to a closed restaurant terrace on the property where the swabs can be taken. I relax when I realise he’s only showing the way; this is the side of the hotel where we are allowed to sit outside, with a pool and all. Not as attractive as the main area, but who’s complaining when it’s warm and sunny?
It takes longer to pay the $400 than for both of us to be swabbed, and within 5 minutes the whole process is finished and the nurse is on her way. Not before she’s warned us, though, that the only laboratory on the island that can do the analysis is getting swamped and backlogged, and we shouldn’t expect a 24 hour turnaround – “probably more like late afternoon tomorrow”. We go and sit by the new-found pool and resign ourselves to a few more hours of restrictions. I don’t much like sitting around doing nothing; but hell, I could write a blog! Life could be so much worse. We are so lucky; we were able to travel, could afford it, the weather is wonderful and it’s as near to COVID-free as anywhere else on earth.
So I spend the rest of the day variously reading, playing killer sudoku, editing my first book (just putting the finishing touches now, but that will take time, and anyway I doubt many will read it, never mind like it), reading newspaper articles (trying to keep the proportion of COVID-related stories below 50%) and straining my eyes; using screens all day isn’t good under any circumstances, but in bright daylight, however good the umbrella, it’s much harder on the eyes.
At 7 we take our temperatures again. Another Barbados government requirement: for the first seven days, everyone has to take their temperature morning and evening and send the figures by WhatsApp to the monitoring service. Every traveller has to bring their own thermometer or buy one on arrival. 36.3 again; we have to point the thermometer at other surfaces just to prove it’s not stuck.
At 7.30, I get an email from Urgent Care Medical apologising for the delay in getting us our test results because the lab is overwhelmed. It’s obviously a bulk email sent to everyone whose results are delayed from previous days, not today. Not a good omen.
DAY 3 – FRIDAY 18 DECEMBER 2020
By tonight we should be free! Dinner in a restaurant! No red wristbands, no security escort, better still no room service! The thought stays with us throughout the day.
A day just like yesterday; sitting around with nothing to do. I take a walk round and round the pool area, thinking that I’m having a Major Tom moment; we can’t go on the beach, we can’t walk down the road, we can’t use the hotel gym (not that I am ever into doing that, but if there is no other way of getting movement into my limbs…) so that’s the only exercise on offer. I’m not the only one; more athletic types jog or run, despite the heat.
Then I look at “Barbados News Today” on my phone, and see that in fact Major Tom beat us to it – he arrived here two days before us. As a guest of the government tourist service; it seems he’s been attending several functions, so I’m guessing that either they exempted him from quarantine or fast tracked him. Well, good for him. He told the newspaper that he likes it here; so would anyone coming from a British winter. Me too.
By midday I’m checking my email as often as a teenager checks her Instagram feed, just in case the results aren’t as delayed as expected. Nothing doing.
I’ve no idea what time Urgent Care closes, so just in case it’s 5, I phone them at 4.45. She tells me they’re there 24 hours a day.
“I’ve just come off the phone with the lab and they are working on the tests now. I’ll send over the results as soon as I get them.”
“Will that be today?”
“I am sure it will be very soon, probably in the next hour”
She checks she has the right email address for me, I hang up and cross my fingers. It’s not that quarantine is bad; it’s just waiting for results that makes me nervous. For the first time I wonder if they are positive, and what happens then.
I overhear a couple of girls who are sunbathing nearby and in conversation with one of the security guards. I can’t catch more than a few words, but it seems they’ve been there for days waiting for results. They’re complaining because they were expecting to move on to somewhere cheaper before now.
It gets dark before 6. Now back in the room, we decide to give it until 7.30 before calling again. It’s about the last time that we could hope to get “released” by the hotel and be able to go and eat in a restaurant rather than have room service. But it was not to be; I call Urgent Care again, who at least are quick to pick up and unfailingly polite despite the fact that they must be really hassled. No results yet, but she is still sure they will come tonight.
Time to order more wine. Oh, and some food. Why am I feeling so nervous? My appetite is diminished; not surprising, I’ve done nothing all day; it’s almost extinguished by the arrival of those green carrier bags. Apart from the good one with a bottle of wine in it.