Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Trapped in Fuerteventura by the Coronavirus

I guess it is about a month ago that I came on holiday here in Fuerteventura with my friend Orlinda. She had 2 weeks holiday and was very keen on coming to the Canary Islands. I looked at flights between 11th and 21st Feburary (or 10th to 20th). Even at this time there were rumblings of problems in Europe about the coronavirus, a single case in La Gomera. I made a chart showing flights to various islands, some were cheap to go but expensive to return. In the end I decided on Fuerteventura and bought the flights - outgoing on Ryanair and returning with Vueling. I booked the whole period in Caleta Fuste because I thought it would make a good central base, I had seen the resort publicised in the RENFE rail magazine but in fact it was full of English tourists. Many of the people working in the bars were English and in fact some of them only spoke English.

I wanted to add a photo of Orlinda but I can't find a decent one from the holiday.
Here she is in the Rambla in Girona.

I booked a "casita" which is the normal type of holiday residence here, a chalet. It was excellent value for money at €40 a night, but later I found casitas even cheaper. The weather was not brilliant, especially when we went to Coralejo which is right in the north of the island. The sky was cloudy with a  brisk north wind. Worst, we argued about something or other which made for an unhappy day. Things looked up when we decided to take the bus to Morro Jable in the far south of the island. When the time came to take the bus back at 3.45pm, neither of us wanted to return to windy Caleta Fuste so I looked up hotels and found Blue Sea at €60 for the night. But we were not prepared to stay the night, nether of us had our passports and I had my NIE which doesn't include a photo, so it is not a real ID. A NIE is my certificate to show that I am resident in Spain. But this was not acceptable to the rather scholl-mistressy receptionist. So she phoned the Guarda Civil. She asked us to wait for a few moments, I though that it was in order to prepare the rooms but all of a sudden, two police arrived on motor-bikes, went up to reception and then came over to speak to us. We had a pleasant conversation, I explained how we liked Morro Jable so much and finally they relented and allowed us to check-in on the strength of my NIE. A few seconds later, a police car pulled up but I guess their colleagues explained that all had been settled.

The following night, I offered to go back to Caleta Fuste to collect our essential items, incluing our passports of course and Orlinda could stay in Morro Jable if she paid for her room. I lent her €100. I guess Blue Sea was fully booked for the second night but Orlinda was busy chatting on her phone to a pension just up the road. I took the last bus back at 3.45 and when I got back, we chatted on WhatsApp. She was on the beach and very happy. Next morning I went back at 9.15, arriving around 11. Orlinda had slept very badly but it was not a surprise, the pension was very cheap! Some of the time, Blue Sea was fully booked so we ended up in a huge luxurious hotel slightly out of the centre beyond the lighthouse. Again, it did not comprise rooms but lots of small casitas on a hill. In the evening we had supper in the restaurant which was excellent. We went to the terrace at the top of Robinson Hotel and took loads of photos. I walked into the pool because it was not lit. But it was only 10cm deep so I didn't fall in, but it was a shock all the same! (You can see a photo of that pool later in this post). We spent happy times on the beach, I discovered a section of beach which was more "free" than the main section but since most tourists were German, we often saw people nude. Orlinda didn't join me. But Caleta Fuste was strictly not nude, very English!  But here is the link to my second holiday. And the second link was that, in a way, we had discovered "Colombia" but only three hours away. Maybe I could buy a small flat here. I have left out many details of our holiday because I wanted to tell you about how the coronavirus gradually took over my second visit to Fuerteventura and how I almost ended up living in the street. I am writing this section before I actually return to the Peninsula so I will write about that when I am back home which hopefully will be tomorrow. But I am getting ahead of myself.

When we returned to Girona, Orlinda went back to work and I sent €70 to a company in Italy to place an order for paper for my greetings cards but they were slow in seeing the payment and, by the time they told me to send the shipping agent, it was too late because I had booked a flight to go back to Fuerteventura on the 7th March. So I told them to hang onto the paper until I got back. But by this time the storm was brewing, especially in Italy. In a way, I was foolish to go away but I felt safe in that the Canary Islands are part of Spain, I wasn't going abroad. But little did I know how huge the crisis would become and how that the islands of Spain were effectively cast off from the Peninsula as if they were a foreign country. As you can possibly gather, I will have a long wait for that paper and in any case, I now have little opportunity to sell my cards as the shops are now closed of course.

But I have always been a little gung-ho! I had been depressed and bored for several months. I took many weeks to complete new designs for Ad Mundi, the shop in Girona Railway Station. I thought that if I went away again, I would get more inspiration. So on Saturday 7th March I went back to Fuerteventura on a cheap one-way ticket. The photo below is in Fuerteventura Beach Club in Caleta Fuste. This was the first time I wore a dress in public, it was lots of fun. Many people think that I am gay but it is not so. There is a big difference between how one feels inside and the people one is attracted to. I love women, I guess that makes me lesbian!


I spent 2 nights in Caleta Fuste before heading for my true destination, Morro Jable. I had taken a light dress to experiment with, meaning I would try wearing it in public. I took one or two photos by the pool but gradually gained courage and started walking around in it. It gave me a great sense of freedom. Those of you who know me know that a large part inside me is female. Often I wear all-female clothes but it is not obvious because they would be trousers and a top. In the summer I can wear female sandals because they fit perfectly. Obviously I never attempt to pass myself off as a woman. That is not important.



On the second day, I took the bus to Morro Jable where I had already reserved an apartment at Blue Sea. I will call it an apartment because there is a small kitchen and a living area in addition to the bedroom. I had a wonderful few days there, I went to my favourite beach every day, I went swimming. 







I took this photo as I thought it would make an interesting painting. 

Twice in the evening I went to "Sundowner" at the roof bar of Robinson wearing a dress. It is a popular event. The first time I went, when I was with Orlinda, I only had short trousers as we were not expecting to stay the night and they insisted on long trousers which I went out and bought. But no problem if I am wearing a dress, the gate-keeper let me in without hesitation! When I went with Orlinda it was later and dark and all the people were having their supper.

I met some German tourists, Robinson was 100% German-occupied I think, and they invited me back the following night. I was a little bit cheeky because after everyone had gone down to supper, I wandered into the pool area at ground level. There was music and young girls smartly dressed offering champagne and tapas. They beckoned to me to enter but of course I was not resident in the hotel. But I like music, it was great fun, so I went in. Afterwards I wandered into the restaurant. The buffet was huge and spectacular. Hehe, I was tempted for a moment..... Noo, not really, I went back to Blue Sea for my more modest supper.






But then Pedro Sanchez made the declaration of emergency and all of that stopped. The staff in the hotel wore face-masks and, of course, we could only go out to the supermarket or pharmacy. I don't use a face-mask, I have studied in detail how they can help and in a normal environment for a person who is not infected, there is little danger. The dangers as I understand it are either droplets directly from an infected person, or from surfaces where the virus can exist for quite some time. So I became very careful about keeping my distance and regularly washing my hands if I had been touching public spaces. The normal open air does not pose a risk as I understand it. In any case, now I am at home all day and go out maybe every other day.

It was 10th March that I thought that I should book a flight home. It wasn't really about the virus, I was still quite relaxed in the knowledge that I was in Spain and all the flights appeared to be normal. I booked the regular Vueling flight on Wednesday 18th March. On 14th March the State of Emergency was declared. On the 16th, Vueling cancelled my flight on 18th. It offered me 19th, this quickly changed to 21st, then to next Wednesday. But the State of Emergency didn't prohibit flights to and from the Canary Islands. So I assumed it was for economical motives. They still continued to fly to Gran Canaria. Then I booked a flight with Ryanair for Friday 20th but on the 18th, that was cancelled. As at the time of writing, I have been unable to obtain a refund or a response from Ryanair. Vueling have given me a credit note to be used later in the year if things relax a bit. Well, it will be next winter before I can travel again, for sure. (I added this later..... from home, I just found a page on the Ryanair website where I could request a refund and it accepted both my claims and I printed out the subsequent forms.)

On the morning of Thursday 19th I woke early in a panic. I was still in Morro Jable, people were leaving the hotel in droves and they were talking about closing. All the staff were wearing face masks which made the situation even more scary. I checked out at 6am and walked to the bus stop in a raging storm. But fortunately at that point it was not raining but it was sure blowing! The bus came at 6.30, there were two other passengers. The driver was a young woman but she was driving very fast and I could feel the bus being pushed around by the wind. It was dark. I connected my seat-belt. I decided to go to the airport but obviously I had no flight. Technically this was breaking the law. But I was very fortunate to do so. It was early, around 8am and the large crowds were to come later for their return flights on package tours. I sat in the airport dejected. In total, my flights had been cancelled 6 times. One couple in the hotel in Morro Jable had taken the ferry to Gran Canaria and had booked the Vueling flight from there. I though of doing the same but much later, I heard that the  Vueling flight had been cancelled. I kept my faith with Fuerteventura. 

I was wandering around the airport aimlessly watching the huge queues building at the check-ins for flights to the UK and Germany. I looked at the departure board. The only flight showing cancelled was the daily Vueling flight. And then I passed a group of young people speaking Spanish. OK, I know this is Spain but most people travelling were Brits or Germans... a few French. No flights to the Peninsula of Spain. I joined the group because I was very conscious of being alone. They had created a WhatsApp group called "Españoles sin retorno", and were obviously in the same boat as me. 


I quickly supplied my phone number. Most had either been let down by Vueling or Ryanair (in my case, both). It is not fair that an airline can simply cancel a flight with no consideration for its clients who are on an island with no alternative way to get home. Our mantra was, We want to return home. Or maybe it is the responsibility of the government. This group was my life-saver. Some of them were sleeping in the airport but I couldn't face that, so after chatting for a while and my promising to stay in touch, I headed back to Caleta Fuste to find a roof for the night. I found a hotel in Booking.com and stayed just one night. They have a super restaurant, normally full of British tourists, so I had my supper there rather than attempt to cook in the casita. Next day I went back to the airport early because the group were being interviewed on local TV and they wanted as many people there to back up our claim. Some of them had bought a huge strip of paper and a can of spray-paint for the camera. Again, technically I was not travelling home as there was no hope of a flight and I was getting very anxious. One or two people were making their own arrangements, for example going to Gran Canaria. I found a flight with Iberia Express for the following Thursday and booked that. Iberia was the only airline allowed to fly into Fuerteventura from the Peninsula. 

I went back to Caleta Fuste again and found another hotel made up of casitas which, after much pushing, agreed to rent me a casita until Thursday. I was on the point of paying for the rental when I received a phone call from the tourist office. They had organised a charter flight for Sunday at €185, was I interested? "Of course", I replied, cursing that I had so little faith and had booked the Iberia flight on Thursday. But one has to appreciate the permanent state of anxiety I had been in for the past few days, with the real threat of having no roof over my head. I rapidly changed my booking in the casita to 2 days. The Iberia flight cost me €180 and is non-refundable but they will give me a credit note for use, up to a year in the future. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a credit note for the whole of my last period of 7 days in Blue Sea which amounted to €350 which I can spend in any of their hotels in Spain. I left  in a hurry after 3 days but the credit was for 7 days. 



So I sent an email to El Corte Inglés in Puerto del Rosario as instructed by the tourist office and in return I received a link to a payment page. A few hours later I received a  form online, a bono, as my ticket. 


This was the programme recorded by the local TV station.
The group also got exposure on national TV.

The casita was very nice but one of the hot-plates in the kitchen tripped the electrical supply so my cooking possibilities were very limited. I was hungry, so I went back to the super restaurant and asked if I could eat there despite not being resident. As it happens, I left quite a generous tip the previous night and they welcomed me the second time. They had a huge buffet counter and probably threw away a lot of it after they closed. It was €18 including unlimited beer and wine. This particular evening was a real low point because at the end  of my meal, one of the waiters introduced me to two Spanish guys and a young woman. I told them about the group and the charter flight. I suggested they joined the group. I did ask in a way whether they could join but I let them anyway. Maybe I broke the protocol of WhatsApp groups, I don't know. But he was full of false news. He said that Madrid would be completely blocked (which of course was not true). He wrote various things on the group and then, before I knew it, he had left the group. So... not a nice person. I felt bad. Then the manager of the hotel came up behind me and remonstrated with me for using his precious restaurant when I was not a resident. He said that he would be liable to a fine (as would I). I said that I had asked permission. Technically he was right of course, but I wanted some decent food. So, by now, I felt doubly bad. But as I left, the waiter who I had spoken to before waved me on with a big smile. I didn't have to pay. But I slept very badly that night, all on account of the false news from this guy and feeling rather guilty about using the restaurant.

The following day, Saturday I didn't go to the airport. I went to the bank to get some cash and visited the supermarket. I had a really nice supper with wine, it was a chilled chicken curry which I heated in the microwave oven. It was rather like a good airline meal. I went to bed really early in excitement about the next day. Was I really going home? 

I am writing this last part on the high-speed train back to Girona so everything has worked out well. I arrived at the airport at about 7.30. I rescued a damsel in distress. I helped a young Italian woman who was at risk of missing the flight. She was asking people in a panic at about 9am about the link to pay for the flight! Wow, that was a little late. The group she was talking to drifted off to check in at the other end of the airport. She went to the Information desk but they did not know about it. Somehow by magic, the page appeared on her phone. But now she wasn't sure if she had enough money in her account. "I have the cash", she said. The web-page rejected her card. So we used mine and she gave me €185 in cash. She still had a lot of difficulty checking in because it was so late and they didn't have her name but, finally she got through. In fact she was taking an onward flight to Italy, I have forgotten where. But she said the same as me, there is no more secure place in the whole of Europe than Fuerteventura. She was staying in an Airbnb residence and the proprietor suggested that she stayed longer. But in the end, she came to the same conclusion as me, that we had to get out.

The flight left about 25 minutes early. Of course, when the plane arrived in Fuerteventura - it was an Iberia Express A320 - it was empty, it had come to take us home. Obviously on the plane were many people who were not part of the group, who had seen the announcement from the tourist office. I hope I would have done the same. As you can imagine, there was a huge cheer as the aircraft started rolling down the runway and there was a count-down and cheer as we touched down in Madrid.


We were all together at the back as you can see.

I had already booked a train at 4.30 but I could see in the RENFE app that there was one at 2.30. I wasted a lot of time at the airport looking for trains when I should have gone straight for the taxi rank, although the taxi fare was €30. The flight was well under 3 hours and we had left early but I didn't really know how long it would take to get to the train station of Puerta de Atocha. Finally I took a taxi and the driver flew along the motorways at high speed, obviously there was very little traffic. I hesitated changing my ticket on my phone till I was sure we would make it, which we did with 10 minutes to spare. So, that is where I am now, somewhere between Zarragoza and Barcelona, due to arrive in Girona at 6.15.

 I added some photos at home and now it is published!

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