The Long Way Back Home – Part 2

Intercontinental Presidente Hotel, Mexico City, 18th March 2020, 9.36 am

Are you in Mexico?

I have ignored her text last night. But this morning, I feel slightly better after 3 hours of interrupted sleep.

I am currently in quarantine at Presidente. Tonight, I’ll be leaving for Malaysia back.

Did you get to see Irving? Poor you! Is there room service for you to eat?

Truth is, I feel ashamed. What have I done to deserve such a good friend? She has always been there for me, us. In fact, she has always been there for everyone. I truly admire her for I can never do what she does. I assure her that I am doing fine. I just had omelette, hash potato and yogurt for breakfast. I got to see Irving for a few hours last night. It was not easy to maintain 3-feet distance from each other but we did it.

When did you find out about your next flight?

When I received a call from Irving at the airport (Mexico City).

I answer her matter-of-factly. I have long learned to delay my emotional reaction for survival. I did not break down nor retaliate when my father took a second wife, months before my major high school exam. On the contrary, I thrived because I worked twice as hard on my studies in order not to dwell in my frustrations. I tell myself, I need to conserve my energy to make it through the next 24-hour flight and 10 hours transit in Tokyo. Food was scarce at Schipol airport, so it is wise to expect that the situation at Narita Airport will be similar and be prepared. I remind my friend to pack some food for their kids for the long journey.

We heard rumours about potential evacuations, but we didn’t expect that we would be given such short notice! Where are we going to stay in Malaysia? We don’t have a house or a car anymore…

I was told that Mexico has only 6 public hospitals that are truly prepared for the crisis. To put that into perspective, the country has 130 million population. So, I totally understand the urgency of evacuating the staff and family members while the window is still open – we know that it is really narrow by now.

All of a sudden I forget about all my problems. My problem-solving mode is on now. These people, they sold their houses and cars to move here. Apart from their families, they have nothing to go back to. Now, they cannot even do that until they have completed their quarantine period. The public healthcare practitioner in me cannot look past this problem and feels compelled to ensure that everyone has a proper place to stay for 14 days in isolation before they can reunite with their relatives in Malaysia.

My family has a unit on Airbnb, I can try to reserve it for you. Do you know when your flight is?

Right away, I send another message to my family’s WhatsApp group.

Is our Airbnb occupied? Can we reserve it for a friend who is also going back to Malaysia from Mexico, for 14-day quarantine?

I look at the time. It is almost midnight in Kuala Lumpur. I will have to wait until tonight for the reply. But I also have only until midnight, Mexican time before boarding.

We haven’t got our tickets, our youngest son doesn’t have his passport yet.

I forget that she just gave birth 3 months ago. I also realise that another of our friend also gave birth one week after her. She could also be in the same situation.

Never mind, I’ll just hold the unit for you. Once you get your ticket, let me know.

I assure her. It is the least that I can do to help. My husband and I, we are very lucky that we have our own place and a car that I left with my parents. Upon hearing the news that we are going back, my parents loaded the car with food and essential items for us. Since I keep the car key with me, we are able to just pick up the car and head straight to our place without coming in contact with anyone inside my parents’ house.

Another text message comes in from another friend.

Aisha, I’m going back with the kids without my husband. We are going through Cancun and then Istanbul to KL.

Damn! That is a long route. And with two small children? I feel bad for feeling sorry for myself earlier. I have to tell her what she needs to know so that she is well-prepared. Also, some assurance that everything is going to be alright.

When I had my transit at Schipol, there was no (hot) food. Please bring food for your children and make sure that you all have a mask on. The planes have HEPA filter, it should be fine. But (wear mask) just to be safe. You can play a game with your kids, like ‘who can maintain 1-meter distance from other people?’. Maybe bring something that can be made 1-meter long for them to carry? Don’t worry, once you reach Malaysia you will see they are very well-prepared.

From her replies, I can see that she has regained her confidence and composure.

Now, most of us don’t know where to go. Hotels no longer accept our bookings. Someone’s reservation has been rejected. We are afraid it is because they do not want their premises to be used for quarantine.

It occurs to me that this is the time to put my social media platforms to good use. I start composing a Tweet.

This is hard, but we just gotta do it. Go and cry your heart out in the toilet now. After this, you have to be strong.

I am trying to console and boost my friend’s morale. It is not easy to make a 30-hour journey with two small kids without your spouse in the middle of a pandemic. I travel alone, and it is already taking a toll on me.

For the kids, right?

It sounds more like she is telling herself than me. I look at my Twitter account. People have started responding to my Tweet with all sorts of recommendations. Some even offer their family houses for rent. Ordinary Malaysians never fail to impress me with their big hearts and generosity. I screenshoot the responses and forward them to my friends.

Are they ok with us using their place for quarantine? Many people have been declined because of that..

I assure her that I made it very clear about looking for a place for quarantine.

Thanks, I feel like crying.

Just let me know of anyone who hasn’t found a place yet.

There’s one family who flew last night. They don’t have any accommodation option.

This is the family whose booking was rejected because the premise does not entertain anyone who is in self-quarantine. I swore at the company’s lapse in judgment – sending a whole family back overnight without so much as checking whether they have a place to go. Worse, it was suggested that they stay with their families in Malaysia. Which part of social distancing did they not understand? Trying not to add fuel to the fire, I shift my focus on solving the problem.

Do you know which flight did they take?

ANA at 1.55 am this morning.

Can you please give me their number? I’ll contact them directly. Let’s just hope they will reach me before my next flight tonight.

The hashtag cannot be more relatable. #KitaJagaKita. We take care of each other.

Benito Juarez International Airport, Mexico City, 18th March 2020, 10 pm

There are 12 of us en route to Tokyo – Kuala Lumpur. Irving and I are the only couple that gets to go back together. The other three families are leaving without their spouses. I can sense their feeling aggrieved by it. I am not that dumb to not read between the lines “Why did they get it (go back together) and not our spouses?”. Yet, I empathise and acknowledge their frustration, fear and concern especially for their small kids. It is heart breaking really, to see these parents part with their children.

Why doesn’t daddy come with us? I want daddy…

I turn away, afraid I might join the kid cry in public. I can never stand the sight of people crying – I too will break down. I salute the mother who patiently and calmly comforts her inconsolable son. This is going to be a really long journey for her as she will have to do it all alone – fill in all the documentation, pass through all the immigration counters, take care of the children when they get restless, make sure they don’t come in contact with anyone, wash their hands and in the end, carry all the luggage. I keep on apologising for not being able to help as I refrain myself from getting too close to anyone or anything. I am a petri dish right now – as some may put it. Best is to keep as far away from me as possible.

Narita Airport, Tokyo, 20th March 2020, 6.35 am

The lounge has never been this empty. I dare say we are the only people there. The kids start running around happily. I feel relieved for the parents. Still, we have 10 hours to kill before our next flight to Kuala Lumpur. I walk straight to an isolated corner where the chairs are facing the wall. There is a pathway that separates us from the rest of the sitting area. Good enough for my mini-quarantine. Meanwhile, my husband can’t wait to switch on his laptop and start working. From the airport.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport, 21st March 2020, 12.30 am

I keep asking my husband, ‘what day is it?’. I have lost count on how many hours of sleep have I had. All I know is I have been up in the air longer than I have on land. There were moments where I woke up confused – which flight am I on right now?

I have goosebumps upon arriving at KLIA. Earlier this week (how many days ago?), there were still people checking in and arriving from different parts of the world at this majestic airport. There were significantly less people, but today it is almost empty. Additional forms and pamphlet are distributed to all passengers. One of the kids in our group starts to throw tantrum. She must have been really tired from the long journey and her mom is not here to comfort her while her dad is busy with all the paperwork. I wish I could hug and try to make her feel better, but I can’t. I am not supposed to.

Good thing is, transports to quarantine places are already waiting for us at the arrival hall. Each family is given a letter from the company in case we were stopped by the police on the road. At this point, no one really knows the do’s and dont’s of the Movement Control Order. Therefore, it is best to be over-prepared.

Once I enter the car, I activate my Malaysian sim card to text my parents who might be waiting for us at home. True enough, a message from my mom comes in.

Aisha / Irving, you will drive my car to your apartment. The key is in your Myvi. Dad and I are in the living room (waiting for you)

Parents will always be parents. My suspicion tells me that they packed us a lot of supplies until they won’t fit in my 12-year old Myvi Cooper. I try to be as quiet as I can when I open the gate to my parents’ house. I am hoping that my parents are asleep by now. Even if they are awake, they should stay inside. I open the door to the driver’s seat of my car to reach for my mum’s car key. Then, I hear the sliding doors open.

“Don’t come out, ma” my voice was slightly raised.

“I’ll watch from here” she replies nonchalantly between the gap of the sliding doors. I leave the porch as quickly as I can to transfer our luggage into my mum’s car. Lo and behold! The car is loaded with groceries, electrical appliances, cookware, tableware, pillows, duvet and blanket, leaving just enough space for our luggage and cabin bags. I hear steps approaching us from the porch. My dad cannot resist from checking on us. I see him heading towards the opening of the gate,

“Don’t go out, don’t come near. We are ok, we can handle this. Get inside, get inside. We have crossed four airports…” I hope they understand that it is for their own good. This pandemic has claimed so many lives. Most were around their age and I am not going to take any chance on them. Once we close the boot, we bid farewell to my parents over the closed gate.

“See you soon” that’s my mum. I have seen her weather through life’s storms. It is like she’s indestructible. Always full of optimism and fighting spirit. Thanks to her, I know that this too shall pass. Just bite the bullet. For now.

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