Welcome to Howard Springs. Welcome home.
I’m sitting here writing this now, 9 months into 2021 and covid is still ruining the world. Thankfully the good thing to come out of this year has been the vaccines, which have saved countless lives and will eventually allow us to live again. ‘Fortress Australia’ has been shut since March of 2020, only allowing Australians and immediate family in; very few people are even allowed out, and only for business or extreme circumstances - no holidays or any sort of travel for pleasure. This was done to stop the virus getting into the country and doing what it does best – wreaking havoc. It more or less worked, and Australia was one of the few countries that battled the first outbreaks well, employing a hotel quarantine system for returning travellers. Near-normal life was enjoyed by Australians for the most part, occasional small outbreaks and lockdowns closed land borders, but generally things looked pretty good there. Delta changed that, and now Sydney and Melbourne are battling this new strain. Melbourne’s “Ring of Steel” of tough lockdowns, night curfews and serious restrictions didn’t work this time. Melbourne has suffered a lot during the pandemic, and is now the unwanted holder of the title of ‘longest city in lockdown,’ overtaking Buenos Aires with 245 days (and counting). I have done nearly 7 months in lockdown, in Spain and now Sydney, and also 14 days solo quarantine, and I wonder if that is a kind of record. The only way out of this shit is through vaccination. We needed this wave of Delta to give us the kick up the behind to put the jab into arms, and it’s finally working – the state of New South Wales, the most populous state and home to Sydney, will have reached 70% double vaccinations by October 11, and 80% in another week after that. Everyone felt safe behind the ‘big walls’ of the fortress, but Covid crept in nonetheless. Very soon the siege will be over, the gates will be flung open and we will learn to live the virus, and finally be able to enjoy our lives again. Let’s learn our lessons, but look to 2022 as being better than the last 2 years. It has to be.
Meanwhile, let’s go back to late last year when Covid was hitting Europe in the second wave after summer. Spain wasn’t in the greatest shape, and was just starting to recover from the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. However, when Covid came, it all went downhill quickly. I did some reading and discovered that 16% of Spain’s workforce are actually in poverty. This country has, for a long time, had a problem with bad contracts and low wages, and because of the pandemic, this would only get worse. I had always worked on a ‘partial’ contract, meaning I work from September to June, get my holiday pay, then don’t work until September again, not getting paid in the meantime. This was why I did summer camps in other countries; to get a holiday while I worked and then be able to eat in August. So losing my job in September hit me pretty hard, added to the fact that my girlfriend also lost her job as we worked at the same school. I didn’t see our situation getting any better here, especially not as teachers. With the closure, more than 300 teachers were out on the street and looking for work, many of whom had worked at the school for decades and have a lot of experience. How was I to compete against that? I did look for work, and was offered a handful of hours and crumbs for pay. The thought did cross my mind to accept whatever came my way, as my unemployment benefits weren’t enough to keep me going. Many teachers I knew did this, as they had mortgages and kids. It was about this time though that the idea of returning to Australia really started to find its way into my thoughts and stay there. I would have my family, my language, I could also start studying and afford it, while being able to work and earn more money than here. The situation here, especially in Barcelona, would only get worse, with the number of unemployed teachers, schools closing down and also a new wave of people trying to move to Barcelona and become teachers. This last one confused me, but everywhere on Facebook were people trying to make the move here, even during Covid and the crisis of teaching, and many of them had law degrees and masters, so why come and teach? With the foreseeable future not looking bright at all, I decided to leave my second home, and go home. It wasn’t an easy decision, as I was in a long-term relationship for one, but also because I knew that I may never come back. Before leaving, my partner and I decided to make the move together – I would go first, as only Australians could enter the country, but she would follow when we got the visa. Not an easy decision, but the best option I could think of, and maybe the only viable one for our future.
I frantically tried to book flights, but I got more and more desperate over the next 2 months. I booked a decently priced flight one day, and within 48 hours, it would be cancelled. One case was from Barcelona to Sydney via Ho Chi Minh, and the last leg of the journey was cancelled due to Australia’s flight cap. So, I booked another flight, avoiding Vietnam, and again it was cancelled. The third time round, I decided to go the other way round the globe – via Canada. Yup, a mammoth 38 hours in the air stopping off in Vancouver for a night as well, but as long as it would get me there, I didn’t care. Cancelled a week later. My last attempt was a Etihad flight stopping off in Aby Dhabi and then Sydney – one stop was good and not in Asia should be safe. A day later, the Australian government finally got back to me and offered a repatriation flight from Frankfurt to Darwin, direct, for just a little bit more than I was paying. After a quick phone call to my embassy, I booked the flight. The guy at the embassy in Madrid said “Don’t hesitate, just take it! Things will only be getting worse and you may be stuck indefinitely.” Sound advice. Etihad, a wonderful airline, gave me a full refund. The flight ended up being cancelled and scheduled for the end of January I later found out, so I'm glad I got the repatriation flight with Qantas! I left Barcelona on the 12th of October, and it was an extremely sad affair. Not only was I separating from my girlfriend for what could be a year, but I was also leaving Catalonia, which had been my home for more than a decade. I’d actually spent more of my adult life living overseas than in my home country, so I would also be nice going back. Every time I go home to Sydney, I get very emotional, and this was no exception. There were tears at the airport and then more as I finally left Barcelona and flew off, heading for Frankfurt and the bigger flight in 2 days. Air Lufthansa treated me well as always, with beer and snacks on the flight. I then quarantined in a hotel at the airport, staying in my room for a whole day and a half, just a taste of what was to come, and already I didn’t like it. I had a Covid test as soon as I landed there and didn’t move from my room until check in 2 days later, all the while I was super nervous that after everything, I’d test positive and be stuck in limbo at the airport. Luckily, I was in the clear and boarding my flight at 6am on the 14th. It was organised chaos during check-in; the flight attendants had people moving quickly, everything was being thrown on the conveyer belts without being weighed, and some people had kids and what seemed like their whole lives getting on that plane. Well done to all the Qantas staff involved!
While waiting to board, all nerves about the 16 hour flight, mask on all the way, and a 14 day solitary confinement waiting. I overheard some Australian talking about Covid, laughing at a woman who had a face shield and mask, saying Covid was just a flu and that he wished that he could get it, and just be done with it. This, 6 months into the pandemic and with so many people dying. Some people will never believe it, or are too selfish to care about anyone else. Luckily I sat nowhere near him on the plane, but I was wedged between 2 guys, and in the middle row, all the way to Darwin. They were both nice, but after so long in lockdown and not going to bars or restaurants, it was a little too close for comfort. There was also no alcohol on this flight, but I had spent my last Euros and managed to get 2 beers at the airport, but I wasn’t really comfortable as the mask was pulling my ears so far forward I thought they’d rip off. The Qantas safety video was very cool, a lookback at the last 100 years of Qantas, and before I knew it, we were off. Midway into the flight, a woman collapsed on the ground in the aisle, and actually needed oxygen before they moved her. I had no idea what happened, but I made sure my mask was on even tighter and washed my hands. Thankfully there were no further dramas and we landed in Darwin sometime in the morning. They moved us off slowly, 20 odd people at a time, checking everyone in at the RAAF base. We provided our name and details, filled out some forms, and in turn got our temperature checked along with a swab down the throat and one up the nose so deep that I swear I could smell my brain for minutes afterwards. I’d never had one this way before, only down the throat, and that was mild in comparison. We were then put on a bus and escorted by police to our new digs for the next fortnight. Welcome to Howard Springs. Welcome home.
The next 2 weeks passed by without me realising what day it was, apart from Christmas Day. The catering team served a lovely meal of roast turkey and even some prawns, and I also watched the Boxing Day test the next day, eating Christmas leftovers, so it almost like normal. During my quarantine, I exercised, ate my delivered food (which was actually pretty damn delicious!), exercised some more and watched more tv. There wasn’t much else to do to be honest. I did have a small front porch with a table and a chair, as well as a line down the middle to separate me from my neighbour. I was also able to go for a walk around the complex, which was an old gas plant workers' accommodation block, rows and rows of portable buildings on stilts, but I enjoyed the freedom. The weather was extremely hot and humid, with temperatures around 36c every day, and there were also storms on a daily basis, sometimes two a day. I enjoyed it though, sitting outside watching the rain and lightning. My room was very pleasant, like a single student’s room. I was about 12 m² and had a comfortable single bed, a desk, small bar fridge, kettle, my own bathroom, everything I needed for the bathroom (toothbrush, gels and creams, shaver, the whole hotel setup) and the all-important air-con unit, which was running nearly 24/7. I spoke to family and friends daily, even using my quarantine time to join a conversation class in Poland to talk about my experience. I tried to use my time constructively, but I was also chomping at the bit to get out and join the real world! I booked my flight home to Sydney 3 days after my release, and planned to wander around Darwin and explore a little, as I’d never been here before. I counted down the days, watched all the Christmas movies (The Grinch and all the Die Hards), and even got into a little routine; I would have a morning coffee and breakfast, then sit outside and talk with my neighbours until I got too sweaty, went back in, exercise, lunch, shower, TV, exercise, dinner, movie, shower then bed. I knew exactly what time dinner was too – I started pacing around 6pm, like a bored housecat, and got excited when I heard the little trolley come around with the food. Some people did quite badly here; one guy sat outside and smoked all day long, another guy got taken away as he came up positive, but most of us did ok considering. However, I later found out that 8 people out of 150 odd people on the flight had actually tested positive upon landing. My 14 days came up though, with one last nose swab for old time's sake. I had everything packed and ready to go, and was very, very excited when the bus came and took us all (maskless!) to our hotels. Hello freedom!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. December 2020.