Greek getaway turns into 3-month pandemic odyssey for Singaporean woman

Dylise in Santorini. Photos: Dylise Dai
Dylise in Santorini. Photos: Dylise Dai

Being stuck in a foreign country during the COVID-19 pandemic could be terrifying for many, but not for one couple recently stranded in Greece.

Dylise Dai, 32, who is now a week into 14-day hotel quarantine at Marina Bay Sands after returning to Singapore, had intended for her romantic Greek getaway with her boyfriend to last for a month before they both hopped to other parts of Europe to live and work abroad. 

But when COVID-19 struck, those plans changed, and the couple ended up stranded in Greece for 95 days before returning to Singapore, mostly living in Athens and then venturing Santorini and Milos, where they found themselves the only tourists around. 

“Our original plan was to come back [to Singapore] every 90 days for a month or two and then go back to Europe. Definitely the plan was not to be in Greece for three months,” the finance account manager told Coconuts Singapore by phone. 

Dai and boyfriend Lawrence Lim, 39, were reluctant to cancel the trip they had been planning since last year as they had given up their lease and were able to work remotely abroad. Greece seemed like a safe choice for the couple, given its relatively low number of infections at the time and precautions being taken. 

“We didn’t cancel our trip because Greece was very quick to do the lockdown, taking precautions the moment the numbers in Spain and Italy were rising. The moment Italy became quite bad, Greece immediately took swift actions to impose social distancing and close the borders,” Dai said.

They landed in Athens on March 13, the same day Greece announced the closure of tourist attractions like museums as well as cafes, bars, malls, and restaurants. Nine days later, Greece ordered a nationwide lockdown. 

Singapore had reported 200 cases by March 13 while Greece was only behind by a few with 190 known infections at the time. COVID-19 had hit Singapore a month before Greece, in late January. Singapore also saw a spike in imported cases in March, including individuals who had traveled to Europe.

Dai stressed that the couple had taken extra precautions and were not in close physical contact with strangers most of the time. The couple had also considered staying in Greece until they recovered if they were to become infected. 

“We definitely took everything into consideration and every point of time we are considering the health of ours and others,” she said.

In Greece, It was also compulsory to wear face masks in confined spaces and people had to carry passports or IDs, with written permission to buy essentials such as groceries and medicine.

One reason the animal-friendly country allowed people outside for was to feed stray animals.

“At that time we had also booked our first Airbnb for a month, so we told ourselves to make the best of the situation, stay at least for a month and see how things go. If it gets better we stay, and worst case scenario fly back to Singapore,” she said. “Every day I just put down the reason, feeding stray cats and exercise!”

Only tourists around

As travel to domestic islands was restricted, the couple spent the first two months in Athens exploring the city’s historical sites and supermarkets by foot, and recreating local dishes in their Airbnb where they also worked from.

“We didn’t take any public transport, so we walked a lot, went on hikes, explored the neighborhood, sometimes up to three hours a day just to explore Greece and make the most out of it,” she said.

When all movement restrictions across the country were lifted, they explored outside of Athens on wheels, visiting places like Meteora, Lefkada, Thessaloniki, and Ktistades.

The couple adjourned to Santorini and Milos for eight days after Greece lifted travel restrictions to domestic islands. Due to the lack of tourists, the islands seemed deserted. 

“It’s actually very different when it’s a dead town. Paradise is not paradise without the people and the holidaymakers and the ambiance that contributes to the atmosphere,” she said.

“When I went there, the one good thing is that I could take a lot of really nice pictures without people in the background but on the other hand it was eerily silent,” she added, describing the tourist towns as “dead empty.”

Even the Greeks joked to the couple that they had the islands all to themselves, they said. Throughout their trip, they felt like they were at the center of attention as curious locals questioned how they ended up there. 

After island-hopping, the couple decided to return to Singapore for fear of contracting the virus in Greece without medical insurance.

Greek authorities had also decided not to mandate COVID-19 testing for people entering the country, which made the couple feel less safe. 

“We read that Greece was not going to mandate testing at the customs which we felt that it wasn’t going to be safe anymore,” she said. “All the Greeks will be covered [by insurance] but we won’t. We felt that it wasn’t going to be safe anymore so we thought we were left with no choice but to come back to Singapore.”

She later added: “We were running to and from the police because our 90 days visa was running out and our flights back home to Singapore kept getting canceled.”

Looking back, Dai had no regrets making the most out of the trip. Now back home, the couple is safely in quarantine at Marina Bay Sands.

“On one hand, I’m in a good place. They put me in MBS, I’ve been told that some of my friends got tiny hotels,” she said, referring to friends with children who were put up at hotels with not enough room.

Editor’s Note: After this story was published, Dai reached out to say that she was referring to stories she had heard about people being put up in small hotels, not her actual friends. Additionally, the story has been updated to add information about her difficulties traveling back to Singapore. 

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