Accidental pandemic mini-break that should have never have happened

Aberdeen, Scotland & Colombo, Sri Lanka

My feelings are mixed about what is probably the last “adventure” I will have for a long time. (When I say adventure, I am not including whatever spiritual and mental journeys we are all supposed to be making during the lockdown, according to the online influencers and self-righteous life coaches.)

The fact that this journey ever happened is testament to the speed with which events evolved. My university course mate and myself were supposed to be completing a four-month social work placement in Sri Lanka. Despite my reservations, the university assured us we should continue as scheduled. So off we went on the 12th of March, bound for Sri Lanka. Here it is as I remember it:

The journey to Sri Lanka is mainly light-hearted. The security staff in Amsterdam are laughing and joking during our layover. People were mildly rattled in some parts and there were a number of masks. Overall, however, it is relatively normal, apart from the constant hand washing of course. 

From the moment we step off the plane in Sri Lanka, the timbre of our journey changes. Suddenly, assorted military and medical personnel, donning masks and gloves, flank us. Our temperatures are taken and medical papers assessed. After disembarking we realise we had been sharing a flight with Sri Lankan nationals being returned from Italy, who were then going to be completing a 14 day quarantine. Needless to say, this is not a reassuring discovery. We feel peeved not to have been made aware before. 

Scene at Colombo airport

We head to our hotel and it feels a little like normality has resumed, although this respite is brief. However, we were now trapped in limbo. Due to the passengers from Italy on the plane we don’t want to compromise the old people in the residential home we would have been working in. In addition, co-inciding with our arrival, the number of Covid-19 cases in Sri Lanka spikes. The country mobilises immediately. Schools, universities and religious buildings close. There is a palpable tension in the air. A friendly rickshaw driver advises us, very seriously, to buy masks. 

It is a very surreal experience to be beset with worries in a place of objective peace and tranquillity. We stay inside our beachfront hotel as the situation rapidly unfolds globally and locally, the updates coming rapidly. There is no clear idea what to do. Should we stay or go? Anxiety episodically fills my stomach in a knotted ball. At the same time, we enjoy the warm, blue, clear water and bright sun. We have nothing to do. It is the most bizarre trip I have ever taken.

Tuesday the 17th of March brings a decision with it. We are flying back home, this decision, like all actions at the current time, arrives so swiftly we ourselves have barely caught up. The atmosphere at the airport is ragged. People look at each other with cautious stares. Those whose faces are normally inhabited by smiles are neutral and blank.

To make matters worse, there is a storm as our plane is due to take off. An already tense situation made worse, higher stakes. A manic thought crosses my mind that it would be ridiculous to flee from corona virus into a plane crash. As we take off the airline plays an enthusiastic tourism advert showcasing the beauty of Sri Lanka. I comment to my friend that it feels like rubbing salt in the wound to show us what we missed. The journey feels subdued, I watch Frozen 2 as an exercise in escapism. Luckily I normally have no problem sleeping on planes and this makes it pass faster. 

We land in Dubai after 10pm. Another airport, the mood is tense and urgent. No smiles are cracked like last time. I feel that I truly understand the contagion of fear for the first time. 

Our flight to London is in the early AM so we mooch around the airport, sharing panicked giggles and snacking on Krispy Kremes. We try to keep upbeat and avoid panicking, even in the face of a cancelled connecting flight and the possibility of being stuck somewhere in limbo. “Corona” is the word on everyone’s lips. We hear it slipping through a multitude of tongues, Arabic, English, German and more. It is the ever present, invisible beast. 

Wednesday 18th, we land in Heathrow. Our flight back to Aberdeen has been cancelled. We aren’t sure if we will get on the next one or not. The queue for questions about connecting flights is seemingly interminable. The multiple flight cancellations and restrictions on flying cause problems for all. In the midst of the queue is a young couple with their child, I envy the boy’s carefree laughter, but it is a welcome moment of light in the disarray. On one side of us an elderly Swedish couple argue about being allowed to fly to Denmark where they apparently live. The overworked BA employee explains frustratedly that they need proof of residence now. That he can’t override international regulations. He promises the irate woman that he is not trying to trap them in the UK. On the other side I hear another BA employee exclaiming, in exasperated desperation, to a balding man that she can’t book a 9AM flight to Turkey because it just doesn’t exist. He will have to wait for over 12 hours. 

I thank the lady dealing with our flight rescheduling sincerely, the way they retain their grace and politeness in the chaos is admirable.

We sit and marinate in Heathrow for over 10 hours. I feel sure that we must contract the dreaded ‘Rona now if we haven’t already. After the intensity of Sri Lanka and Dubai, Heathrow is relatively relaxed. There is a bizarre mix of panic and normality with restaurants, duty-free being open but people are not travelling to holiday but instead we are all fleeing back to our respective homes.

We spend the next 14 days mooching around my friend’s apartment. Thankfully she offered me the chance to quarantine with her so as not to infect my parents. Remarkably, we have both managed to dodge it. Although, I did spend our 14 day quarantine period waiting for the other shoe to drop. Who knows if we will continue to dodge it for the remainder of the pandemic. It seems unlikely. 

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