S'pore travel blogger, 27, booked one-way ticket to US during global pandemic to live in nature

Stories of Us: In October, Isabel Leong hopped on a plane from Singapore to the U.S. We spoke with her about her adventures in the U.S. and her decision to travel in the middle of a global pandemic.

Jane Zhang | December 12, 2020, 01:53 PM

For most of us, 2020 has been a year of kissing our travel dreams goodbye, at least for the time being.

But not for 27-year-old Isabel Leong.

The Singaporean travel blogger is currently in the U.S., after flying there from Singapore in October this year. But mostly wandering in nature, she tells us.

She has camped in negative 12°C weather, rock-climbed on natural rock formations, soaked in natural hot springs and explored national parks.

But why did Leong decide to leave Singapore, where strict safe distancing measures have kept Covid-19 more or less under control, to fly to the U.S., where the number of infections continues to climb daily?

Over a Zoom call from her friend's home in Los Angeles, Leong told me more about her unconventional travel decision.

Developed passion for travelling while studying abroad in Europe

Leong first caught the travel bug when she was on a university exchange programme in France in 2015, travelling around the continent since she figured it was the only break she would have before graduating from university and diving straight into working life.

In those months, Leong travelled to 55 different cities in 16 countries, spanning from Lisbon, Portugal to Cappadocia, Turkey.

Leong in Athens, Greece. Photo courtesy of Isabel Leong.

Leong in Helsinki, Finland. Photo courtesy of Isabel Leong.

As she wanted a way to document her travels and share her stories, itineraries, and photos, she started a blog — called Bel Around The World — which she now runs full-time.

Returning to Singapore after her whirlwind semester in Europe, Leong continued growing and working on her blog part-time, landing sponsorships and overseas media trips even while she was still studying.

In 2016, she graduated from Singapore Management University (SMU) with a degree in psychology and communications, and found a job doing what she did best — managing social media.

However, she soon realised that it wasn't quite what she wanted to do with her life at the time.

Leong had to turn down opportunities for press trips from companies that reached out to her because of her blog, as they were often offered on short notice.

"So I had to turn down multiple offers like that, even though like my heart was calling me to do it, because of work. I couldn't just give, like, a one week notice to go somewhere else."

So in 2017, she quit her job in Singapore and went on a "working holiday" for six months in New Zealand, with a company that brought tourists to hike on glaciers.

After the six months of working and travelling, Leong found herself at a crossroads in her life, as she decided between taking on another job in Singapore and travel blogging full-time.

"So I decided to give myself three months to either make it or break it," she explained.

During this time, she was also doing a variety of different jobs, such as freelance writing and personal training, to figure out what worked for her.

These experiences culminated in 2018, when Leong decided to become a full-time travel blogger and "digital nomad".

Today, she makes money by working with clients on sponsored content on her blog and Instagram, and also does freelance work for social media management, SEO, and public relations.

She has visited 38 countries, with New Zealand having a "special place" in her heart, as it was the first place outside of Singapore where she lived for such a long time continuously.

Leong in New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Isabel Leong.

Covid-19 pandemic hit

In January of this year, Leong flew back to Singapore from the U.S., where she had been travelling around and doing press trips, for Chinese New Year.

Little did she know that her planned return to the U.S., which was scheduled for May, would be significantly delayed, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the months passed, Leong missed travelling, and lamented being stuck in Singapore:

"I was approaching the eight-month mark — bearing in mind that last year [2019], I wasn't home for more than two weeks the entire year."

One of her friends saw her lamenting on Instagram, and replied, "You know you can just book a flight and leave, right?"

Leong admits that she hadn't thought too much about actually leaving before that, as there were many reasons not to go.

However, her decision ultimately was aided by the encouragement of a number of friends:

"I had friends in the U.S. who were telling me about the situation, and how it doesn't seem to be as bad as the media portrays it. That helped."

It also helped that a number of her friends in the U.S. told her that they would be willing to host her, if she decided to go.

It didn't take much convincing for Leong, who was looking for a change of pace and a "mental break", to book a one-way ticket to the U.S. for October.

Flying from Singapore to Seattle

Leong's parents, however, were more worried.

"My parents definitely were more paranoid than I was. They gave me this whole face mask — like face goggles with a screen mask — which I didn't get to use at all."

The flights from Singapore to Tokyo to Seattle, which Leong documented on her YouTube channel, were less than 20 per cent full, and the process of flying over to the U.S. felt surprisingly normal.

"I didn't have to do anything at all. It was just like a normal flight, except that you had to put on a mask at all times."

"As you can see, my whole row is empty." Screenshot from Youtube / Isabel Leong.

There was no requirement for Leong to get tested prior to boarding the flight, nor was she quarantined when she arrived.

"Once you're past immigration, you're just like a normal person in the country."

One thing that she did notice, though, was that the questioning process when she passed through U.S. immigration was more strict, and she had to go through three rounds of "interrogations with very mean-looking customs people".

Exploring nature around the U.S.

For the past two months, Leong has been staying with friends, filling her days with exploring national parks, camping, and being in nature.

She didn't have much of a plan when she arrived to the U.S., other than knowing that one of her friends — who lives with his girlfriend in a recreational vehicle (RV) in Seattle — invited her to stay with them.

Leong also says that her decision to fly to the U.S. from Singapore wasn't about checking tourist attractions off a list:

"I really came out here to take a mental break, just for mental clarity and sanity's sake.

[...] It was just about exposing myself to different environments and just a whole different style of living. It felt less stifling than if I were to stay in Singapore and do work there."

Most of the time, Leong doesn't plan more than one week in advance, and most of the decisions she has made have been played by ear.

Luckily she says, many things "just fell in place", and she has been able to have a number of cool experiences in the great outdoors, including:

  • Staying overnight on a boat in Seattle
  • Experiencing a snowstorm in a small town in Colorado
  • Rock climbing on a natural rock face
  • Trying her hand at hunting squirrels
  • Road tripping and car camping through California and Death Valley
  • Living in a RV in Seattle
  • Soaking in a natural spring

Soaking in Crab Cooker Hot Springs in California. Photo via Leong's Instagram.

Rock climbing in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Isabel Leong.

Exploring Death Valley National Park. Photo courtesy of Isabel Leong.

"People here are even more careful about wearing masks"

When I ask Leong whether she feels that her friends were right — that the Covid-19 situation is not as dire in the U.S. as media reports make it out to be — she points out that most people that she has encountered have been very mindful about Covid-19:

"Surprisingly, the people here are even more careful about wearing masks and staying two metres away from each other. So every time I would be walking down the street, they would make a mini detour just to avoid me."

She has not opted to be tested for Covid-19 at all — testing is free and accessible through community-based testing sites in the U.S. — as she hasn't experienced any cold symptoms, but Leong tells me that she takes other precautions, such as sanitising her hands regularly.

And she has travel insurance that covers Covid-related medical costs.

What would she say to those who feel it isn't responsible to travel so much during a global pandemic, I ask.

"It's been quite isolated, because, apart from me and my friends, we don't really meet other people. So with that, I would say it's pretty safe over here, and with such a big country, there's lots of space."

She has also been minimising air travel, opting instead for RV living and road trips, and has not spent much time in cities.

For those thinking of travelling at this time, Leong also cautions that the current situation isn't conducive for inter-country travel.

"Unless you're going to be in one place for a long time, or you're able to isolate yourself," she says, "I wouldn't recommend travelling for the sake of discovering new places and going to different attractions every day."

Visa expires in January

Leong's tourist visa in the U.S. will expire soon, and she will need to leave the country by January 5, 2021.

Unsurprisingly, given her flexible schedule and play-by-ear style of travelling, she has not yet decided what exactly she'll do when she needs to leave the country.

She may decide to head to Mexico or Costa Rica while hoping that her U.S. visa will get renewed.

And after that?

"I haven't really planned anything further than that, since I'm working consistently even when I'm on the road, so where I am doesn't really affect me that much."

What about her plans in the coming weeks, before she has to figure out her visa renewal plan, I ask.

"I honestly have no idea," she laughs. "My plans are up until the coming Sunday, so we're really quite flexible."

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

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Some quotes have been edited for clarity. Top photos courtesy of Isabel Leong and from her Instagram.