The Long Way Back Home – Part 1

Kuala Lumpur, 16th March 2020, 7.00 pm

The Grab driver arrives at our front gate. while my dad is helping me with luggage while my nephews escort me to the vehicle. My mum, as usual will not let me go without a photo op. I hug each and everyone of them thinking, it would be at least 9 months before I see them again.

I’m on my third ticket and probably the last chance to fly back to Mexico and be with my husband. I was supposed to fly on All Nippon Airways through Tokyo but the ticket was postponed for later use amidst some concern about the severity of COVID-19 cases in Japan. On 5th March, I was booked on Emirates with two transits in Dubai and Barcelona. By 14th March, there were more than 1500 new cases of COVID-19 in Spain with 6 deaths recorded. My flight was cancelled.

…there might be a small window for you to fly back to Mexico City via Amsterdam (as long as the situation does not worsen there in the next few days). We also have the option of letting you wait it out in KL/Malaysia until the situation improves

It was the longest text message I received from my husband in 2 weeks. Already, I was very agitated by the lack of interaction and I was not willing to let more distance to come between us. So I decided to take that chance, and fly through Amsterdam.

I am relieved to see the mask on the driver’s face. There’s also a sanitiser hanging in front of his left side aircond and I see him rub his hands with it before shifting my luggage into the boot. The journey to the airport feels shorter than usual. There is no after-hours Monday traffic. The capital city seems to be quiet like the first day of Eid when most of its habitants go back to their hometowns to gather with their families. Only that, the mood here is quite the opposite. The air stinks of fear and uncertainties.

By 9.30 pm, I am at the lounge having a bowl of wantan noodles. The last taste of home, I thought. All along, I make sure that no one is within my 1 m radius. Social distance, everyone should be familiar with the phrase by now. Or maybe not. The Prime Minister during his 5 o’clock press conference said that he has a big announcement to make. Half an hour ago, a new poster was circulated informing that the announcement is postponed to 10 pm. Nobody wants to admit, but certainly there is growing anxiety with the PM’s ‘teaser’. If the rumour about lockdown were true, I guess I am lucky to be catching the last flight out. My phone battery is running out. I better charge it.

10.05 pm

“…the Government has decided to implement a nationwide Restriction of Movement Order beginning 18th of March until 31st of March. This Order is enforced under the Control and Prevention of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Police Act 1967”

“….A complete travel restriction for all Malaysians going overseas. For Malaysians returning home, they are required to undergo health checks and voluntary self- quarantine for a period of 14 days” I let out a sigh of relief for I’m leaving in the nick of time. I look at my surrounding. Some foreigners are taking photos with some of the airport staff for memories. Cute. “That photo could get you in trouble!” someone half-jokingly shouted from the back. These days, there are no photos of people being so close to each other that don’t receive serious public backlashes.

11.55 pm

So long Malaysia, we will come out of this stronger.

Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, 17th March 2020, 6.00 am.

How long has it been since I last came here?

2 years, that’s right. I had a transit at this airport in February 2018. I was on my way to Mexico City for the first time to celebrate our first Chinese New Year as husband and wife. There were a lot more people I remember. As usual, I make my way to the lounge for a shower. I see the space has gotten some serious makeover. The buffet counters were empty. Odd. Maybe they will serve the food later.

7.30 am

Did I get the wrong counter? Where is the food?

I walk around the big room, not sure if I should ask someone. A guest in front of me asks a staff some questions and I hear “cafes and restaurants are shut down”. I gulp. Open my Google browser and type ‘Netherlands’, ‘shut down’. It is true, no restaurants, cafes and bistros open in the whole of the country. I have 7 more hours to go!

Luckily, convenience shops are still open and allowed to sell some light refreshments and packed foods. I buy a plain croissant and a cup of coffee for breakfast. A packet of strop waffles and Pringles just so I could snack before my next meal on the flight. The food situation does not scare me. It’s the empty walkway of what used to be a very busy airport that gives me chills. I take a spot in front of the screen so that I won’t miss the announcement for my boarding gate. Almost three quarters of the flights have been cancelled.

2.20 pm

Mexico City, here I come.

Benito Juarez International Airport, Mexico City, 17th March 2020, 7.25 pm

¡Hola Mexico! Te extrañé.

It is weird, but it does feel like I’m home. Few days ago, I have given my husband some detailed instructions on how to prepare our guest room for self-quarantine. So, I’m looking forward to going home even though it means that I will be confined to a room for 14 straight days. At least, it is home. The staff at the airport are inefficient as usual. They stop me to inspect my heavily loaded luggage, but they don’t have a tool to unwrap the bags so I have to wait for another 10 minutes for them to find a blade. Nobody, not even the staff right in front of me bothers to give a hand when I ask for help to lift the bag to the counter for inspection. My arms are sore from the exertions and heavy lifting. I am not doing all this again any time soon. I am just going to stay put in one place for a long time.

The worst thing about the airport is that you have to return the trolley as soon as you leave the arrival doors. Traveling alone means I have to push two luggage bags and a cabin bag by myself. I look for my husband. He is nowhere to be seen. I try not to have any negative thoughts. A man with a surgical mask approaches me “are you Irving’s wife?”

“Yes”

“Irving is sorry, he can’t make it because…” his voice is muffled underneath the mask. Truth is, I am too upset by the fact that my husband is not here and too tired to be reasonable about it.

Until the driver says “We are going to Presidente”.

“The hotel? Wait a minute, I need to ask my husband what’s going on?” I try to connect to the airport’s wifi. I have not been in Mexico for 2 months, which means my pre-paid plan has expired. The phone rings. “Sayang, a lot has happened while you were up in the air. The company is flying the staff and family members back to Malaysia in stages. Your name is up in the group that will fly tomorrow” I must be shocked but not really because a part of me sort of expected this to happen. ‘Do I even get to see you?’ the words just don’t come out of my mouth.

“We have two options, I’m calling to discuss which one do you prefer….” my tears flow in the middle of his long explanation. In normal circumstances, I would have volunteered to go back without seeing him so that he wouldn’t be exposed to the potential virus that I could be carrying halfway around the world. I’d be the last person to demand that arrangements be made by the company to suit my convenience. But this is not a normal circumstance. I left my country just 2 hours after the Restriction Movement Order was announced. I have seen some shutdowns in the Netherlands and I can foresee what is going to happen as soon as I make a big U-turn to Malaysia.

“What do you think you prefer?” I want him to make the call. Please say ‘I prefer to go back with you’. For this one time, can you drop everything for me?

“I don’t know, which is why I want to discuss it with you” his reply is nothing out of character. To him, he cares enough about me to not make any decision without consulting me. Though if it were me, I would not wait a second to insist that I go with my partner especially when she has to turn all the way back after flying 30 hours just to see me.

“I want you to come with me” I am too broken inside to be the bigger person. I have done more than enough to deserve a demand.

Intercontinental Presidente Hotel, Mexico City, 17th March 2020, 10.25 pm

I am here

Husband texted.

I’ll come down (to the lobby)

Time passes by way too slowly inside the lift. I decided to fly home to Mexico to put an end to the difficult 5 weeks we had, apart. Little did I know that the worst is yet to come. My emotions are running high. All the arguments we had are playing in my head. I am angry, frustrated, worried and, I miss my husband. Part of me wants to punch him in the chest, another wants to hug him. Love can really mess you up.

The doors to the lift slide open. He is looking handsome in his work suit. I stop after a few steps out the lift. We have to maintain 3-feet distance between each other because I am supposed to be in quarantine for 14 days as soon as I arrived in Mexico. Which is why we are both upset and unable to comprehend the rationale behind sending me back on another plane in 24 hours. The good news is, it is confirmed that my husband is flying with me. I take a good look at him. There is so much to say, do. But with all the chaos and distance between us. Everything else can wait, let’s just get through with this.

“This is ridiculous, I could have just gone home and quarantined myself in the guest room” after all, the hotel is just 10 minutes away from home. He brings me Maggi and egg for dinner. The last meal I had was on the plane probably 5 hours ago. He tries to explain the company’s strategies in evacuating family members in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I know they are trying their best to protect everyone’s interest. But.

You know what, it doesn’t matter. We don’t have the luxury of time to discuss and debate every other possible option. The best thing to do now is to follow the instructions and not add to the stress that everyone faces at the moment. My phone keeps vibrating. New messages come in from other spouses in Mexico, asking where I am and how am I doing?

“Few people are texting me. I just, don’t have the energy nor the state of mind to talk to anybody now”

And tomorrow is another long day.

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