In downtown Cairo four years ago, in the baking July heat, 19-year-old Elyse Lam walked out of a convenience store carrying two bottles of water. At that same moment, countless speakers mounted on electricity poles suddenly came to life, simultaneously broadcasting the same message in Arabic.

Elyse Lam in Egypt. Phoro: Supplied.

Everyone dropped to their knees, all facing the same direction, leaving Lam standing dumbfounded on the street, which had been hustle and bustle a moment ago.

“I was very ignorant back then. I was wondering whether there were earthquakes in Africa,” she told HKFP. Her companions then explained to her that people were performing salah, a ritual prayer that all adult Muslims must perform five times per day.

The occurrence inspired Lam to take more notice of local people and their customs during her six-week adventure in Egypt. “These clashes and exchanges [of culture] are exactly what I want.”

To Lam, that is what makes travel so fascinating. “When you’ve been to more places, people may say you become more knowledgeable,” she said. “But you’re not. If you truly travel with your heart, you will only feel more and more ignorant.”

Elyse Lam
Elyse Lam and her travel companions in the six-week-long Egypt trip. Photo: Supplied.

In the first two years of Lam’s university life, she would vanish from Hong Kong at every opportunity to take part in tours organised by different NGOs.

Lam said the experiences taught her to be a more humble person. Her learning of these valuable lessons, however, was called off without notice by the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Travelling was my life’

For public hospital nurse Sally Chu, the arrival of the coronavirus dealt a double blow.

Sally Chu at Iguazu Falls. File photo: Supplied.

“I saw travelling as my life,” Chu told HKFP. To temporarily take her mind off her busy work shifts, she would squeeze in quick getaways whenever she could.

But as Covid-19 swept across the city and the world, she not only lost her breathing room as borders were closed, but her workload as a nurse increased. That left Chu depressed and lost for almost a year, until she found an outlet in hiking and rock climbing in Hong Kong.

By the beginning of this year, Chu said she had already “adjusted” her mind to accept the fact that she could not travel. “Except if I resign,” she said, “but that won’t happen anytime soon.”

Quarantine cut broadens horizons

For Christy Tang, travelling gave her “purpose” especially in moments when her job made her feel lost.

The 22-year-old told HKFP that even after more than two years of strict border policies, she had not gotten used to life without travelling.

Christy Tang joined a tour venturing into the Sahara Desert from Morocco. File photo: Supplied.

However, since the government cut the hotel quarantine period for international arrivals to three nights from last Friday, travel is once again on Tang’s horizon. First stop, South Korea.

The cost of a seven-day hotel quarantine stay had been too expensive for Tang to consider any trips, she said. But the recent reduction made a “great difference,” not only because she needed to book fewer nights in a hotel upon her return to the city, but because she could go away for longer with her limited annual leave quota.

Tang has already booked time off at the end of November and in early December. Now she is just waiting for some friends to join her.

Christy Tang
Christy Tang. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Lam, however, said she had not paid much attention to Hong Kong’s newly relaxed Covid-19 border rules.

Even with the hotel isolation period shortened, she said her employer’s restrictive annual leave policies meant she was unable to properly go travelling.

She said her company might also be concerned if she was to return to the office shortly after a trip, while her QR code in the government’s contact tracing LeaveHomeSafe app was still amber. “It’s better to avoid unnecessary trouble, especially when I am new to the workplace,” Lam said.

Hope returns

Although Chu did not have enough leave to travel this year, she said the reduced quarantine requirements had given her hope again.

More than anything, she wants to visit Nepal and trek to Everest Base Camp. She had originally planned to go in April 2020, but was blocked by Covid-19 lockdowns.

Sally Chu at Machu Picchu. Photo: Supplied.

Chu said she would be happy to settle for hiking trips in Japan or Taiwan, but the two popular destinations among Hongkongers have not yet opened their borders to self-guided tours.

As for Lam, she said she would need to “recharge” herself with another solo expedition one day.

Now 23, she told HKFP that she used to be able to recall every detail of her previous trips, but now the dates of some memorable moments evaded her.

“I think you have to keep collecting these memories… as their significance fades over time.”

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.