Covid 19 Repatriaton Saga
THE FIRST….HOPEFULLY THE LAST
I’ve never been repatriated before but then I’ve never been in the middle of a pandemic before. COVID 19 was already in Britain before I left. Going abroad didn’t seem like a good idea but as the holiday company hadn’t cancelled, I went. Even getting there was a trial, with an hour and a half spent standing in a hot and frustrated queue of people waiting to get a health and temperature check before being allowed onto Cape Verde. Just 7 out of the 15 of us had decided to brave it.
The first couple of days meant more travel. An internal flight to a smaller island, walks, dinner, a ferry the next day to an even smaller island and all the while the group discussing how long it would be before trouble struck. On the third day of our trip we experienced a glorious full day walk in the Cape Verdean sunshine. Think the Great Wall of China meets the terraces of Machu Picchu. Our homestay was in a remote village; beers bought from the one shop that services the small cluster of houses and food wonderfully fresh and local. We finally found ourselves in a proper holiday mood. Another day’s walking in the striking scenery meant we settled in for dinner with some optimism that we might actually get a holiday. Cape Verde is a delight for walking and our island felt removed from any of the worries and stresses of our everyday lives. The mood was chilled as we shared dinner and chatted about the days behind us and the experiences shared. When we fell quiet for our briefing on the next day, the news came as if never expected. Cape Verde had closed its borders and we were being repatriated.
The first question was how to get home from this beautiful but remote destination. There is a vague plan to fly us through several European countries. We are all instantly subdued.
Both the ferry port and the airport are busy with overseas visitors heading home. We desperately try and spend some of our local currency and get a good meal whilst we can. We land on a God awful flat salt plain of an island, popular with tourists for its sandy beaches and clear seas and at least our resort has lovely bars on the waterfront for a few beers in the sun. The hotel we stay in hosts us and one other couple. The local guide tells us that we should expect to fly to Luxembourg the next day and then Heathrow via Paris the day after. It sounds like a plan but worryingly, we have no paperwork to support these travel arrangements. It’s a really uncomfortable feeling and the stress levels are clear in all of us but we put on a good show of dealing with it. I think we are all comforted by knowing that we are in this together and we trust that we will look after one other. The experience is bonding.
Several phone calls the next morning get us through to a lady from our travel company called Emily and she quickly responds to our request and sends us the flight details, airline locator number and flight numbers and using the hotel Wi-Fi we manage to check in on-line for the first flight and book ourselves a hotel for the night in Luxembourg.
There is a strong hope that we don’t get stuck there; the budget would be severely stretched by the cost of a lockdown there. The airport in Sal is chaotic. The staff are in masks and gloves, the travellers are edgy and arguments at the check-in desks add to the heated atmosphere. The departure lounge is full. No-one is able to settle for long ,wanting to be first in the queue for their flight in case the plane is overbooked. Bizarrely, when we queue for the plane we are asked to keep 2 metres apart, everyone fully aware that once on the plane we will be rammed in like sardines. In spite of all the stresses, we are delighted to be on the plane and on our way to Europe. The flight goes without incident and also without food; the planes are only carrying water and some biscuits.
In Luxembourg, the total insanity of the whole thing continues as our taxi to the hotel gets lost. In the other taxi, they break down twice and have to get out and push! Once at the hotel the nice young man at reception tries to deal with the difficulty of 7 rooms all booked in the same name having been rejected by the computer, processing our passports and getting us our room keys whilst the hotel manager berates us for all standing in the reception area. ‘Only 3 people at a time’ he says ‘or the police will arrest us’. He cannot believe that those rules were not in place where we came from or in Britain. We are too tired to argue or to move; the priority being getting to bed for another early start.
Next day we arrive at an eerily deserted airport. Outside, it starts to snow. The whole thing is beyond surreal. Unexpectedly our flight boards on time and is full, of people but no food. We sit on the runway as they de-ice the plane for take off, watching the snow through the window and feeling very thankful that this country is not brought to a halt by a sprinkling of the white stuff. Next stop Paris and an equally deserted Charles De Gaulle airport. We have 8 hours to kill here and even though there are still no guarantees of the next flight, we all have some hope of actually getting back home. The departure board reads a long list of flights cancelled but ours slowly creeps round. With a tangible surge of relief we board and the last leg of our epic journey gets underway. I’d love that to be the end of the tribulations but of course there is always more.
We make it home but our bags don’t so we queue in Heathrow to fill out lost luggage forms and say our farewell to each other. Hugs all round are well deserved but we make do with elbow bumps and I waste no time getting a taxi back to the hotel where my car has been sitting for 7 days. The gravity of the situation at home hits me as I find the hotel where my car is parked in complete lockdown; 6 burly security guards on the front entrance. Stopping on the way home for a coffee and a break would be sensible but I drive straight back and fall into the house for the glass of wine that has had my name on it for the last 3 days. Two days later we are in lockdown.
By Sue Hoddell