We had several obstacles to overcome before I could be sure of setting off on my journey back to the UK. I say ‘we’ but in fact it was Paul who took on the research and tasks for obtaining all the forms and documents I would need to present. The hardest part for me was getting tested for the virus. A negative test result was one of the mandatory requirements for travel and it needed to be taken at a specific time before departure. I was glad to leave it to Paul to work out the mathematics involved in that, considering time differences and the consistent confusing information emanating from the UK government.
The flight had been booked just before infection rates increased to the extent that more and more restrictions were put in place, which culminated in the UK’s third national lockdown. My intention to resume work in schools for the employment agency I work for, as well as to see family and friends would once more have to be put on hold. As the weeks went on, there was every chance the flight would be cancelled, borders would close and Mexico would be added to the ‘red list’ of countries. The prospect of spending any amount of time in a quarantine hotel held no appeal at all and when the cost of it was revealed we decided it would be more economical to cancel the flight and rebook later if necessary. All this uncertainty was extremely frustrating for me; not least because I have a tendency of needing to know ‘what is happening when’ (not an ideal trait to have during a pandemic – I’m working on it 🙄). All I could do was keep up with the foreign travel updates and attempt to adhere to Paul’s suggestion to not worry about it until nearer the time.
The place we were in was ideal for this. We had been in the marina at La Paz since the beginning of December, and without regular access to local news, politics and television updates on the pandemic, it was easy to settle in to simply enjoying daily life in the charming capital of Baja California. We were obviously aware of, and heeded, the common sense precautions for avoiding risks, while still safely socialising with our friends, Arturo, and Dirk and Silvia. The weather was just perfect. The searing heat of summer had been replaced by temperatures that allowed for walking and cycling without collapsing in a pool of sweat.
The days were leisurely and relaxing, so I had no cause for complaint. Not until I had the test, anyway! From various sources, I knew it was likely to be uncomfortable but I hadn’t expected pain. The procedure was explained to me by the two female nurses in the tiny Salud Digna testing centre. The language barrier meant that we had to communicate via writing, a translator app and hand signals. When they were ready for me, I adopted my usual stance when undergoing intrusive medical tests – closing my eyes until it was all over. It was the nose swab that caused me to yell out. I thought it was going to give me a pierced nostril! With my eyes still tightly shut in a grimace of pain, they had to tell me it was finished and I could leave. Outside, I had to wait until my eyes stopped watering and the burning sensation in my throat cleared before we could cycle home. Maybe I was just unlucky or it could be that I’m a bit of a baby about things like this. My dad was fond of repeating the story of how I had frightened all the other children in the waiting room once with my yells and sobbing while in the dentist’s chair when I was 10.
Gradually we collected and completed all the forms and I had the necessary sheaf of documents, my bags packed, and a list of provisions for a 10 day quarantine period, ready for my daughter, Tess to deliver to my flat. Two self-testing kits for COVID-19 had been ordered for delivery at my address. No cancellations, and I was ready to go. I had mixed emotions on the day of departure. Although I have a return flight booked for September, it’s still not certain when we will be able to resume our nautical travels, or when Paul will be able to return to the UK. I knew I was going to miss him terribly (as well as our boat birds, Maria and Carlos). On the other hand, I still hoped to be able to earn some money and see much-missed family and friends once lockdown ends.
The journey itself was also causing some anxiety. The first part was easy. Paul had hired a car for the drive to La Paz’s airport, avoiding the risk of taxi delays or infection. Once inside, we discovered that we had omitted to fill out the health questionnaire, required when departing from Mexican cities. We weren’t the only ones, judging from the amount of people we saw holding their phones up to capture the QR code to fill it out. Paul (again) took that task on while I queued at check in with my bag. Then it was time to say farewell, and I just about managed to hold my tears in until he was out of sight as I made my way through to security. Once on the plane, which was almost full, it was good to see that everybody had a mask on. I had an aisle seat and the couple next to me spent the entire hour and fifty minutes looking out of the window, thus creating a natural social distance for much of the journey. They disembarked us row by row and once I had collected my bag, I found myself in the enormous arrivals hall. It was a lot busier in there, and I kept getting jostled and bumped while I stood looking up at the vast array of signs, trying to work out where to go next. I couldn’t remember if I had to go to immigration then, or after checking in. The flight to Heathrow wasn’t displayed yet as it was still some hours away from departure time and no information desks were open. I messaged Paul, but in the half hour before he replied I had managed to find my way to the BA desks, which were totally deserted, and had taken refuge in a bar near to them until they opened.
By the time I went to check in there was a small queue at each of the two desks for the Heathrow flight. It looked as if Paul’s prediction that there probably wouldn’t be many people on the plane might prove correct. At the desk, I was finally asked to present my sheaf of papers for inspection, along with my immigration card and passport. I was pleased that they were all looked at after so much effort to get them. It’s always a relief to deposit the hold bag and I now had a few hours to kill before the 9pm flight. After clearing security I spent those few hours browsing the shops and then reading in a bar near to the gate. Not many people were in the queue for boarding, confirming that it wouldn’t be a full flight. As we entered the plane and I showed my boarding card I was greeted by name and given a hand sanitising kit by smiling cabin crew, and I hadn’t been seated for long before someone came to check that I had booked a vegan meal. Next, came an offer of a glass of prosecco (with top ups when empty) – and this was all before takeoff! I had a whole row to myself and could have chosen to move to any number of empty rows. Along with the usual airline tannoy announcements, there were several COVID-related ones. The main and oft-repeated one was that masks were to be worn at all times, covering both mouth and nose except when eating or drinking, with no exceptions. Despite this, the lady in the row ahead of me by the window kept pulling hers down and was repeatedly told to put it back on until she got the idea. We were also reminded about the strict rules regarding passenger locator forms and proof of a negative covid test at the UK border.
It was relaxation for all of the 10 hours after that. I had wine, a delicious meal of rice with roasted vegetables and a savoury sauce and then stretched out to sleep. In the ‘morning’ I asked for a coffee and looked at the flight map on the screen, amazed to see what I recognised as the west coast of Ireland. After breakfast and more coffee, preparations for landing commenced and we were informed that the weather in London was ‘dull’ or ‘dreary’ – something like that. At least it wasn’t freezing or snowing. It felt fairly mild in fact for the short time we were outside before entering the arrivals building at lunchtime on the 16th February. From previous journeys I knew I had to follow the purple route for flight connections at Terminal 5. As we all made our way through the corridors it was a lot emptier than I expected, even for ‘these times’. Not empty of signs though – they were everywhere! Most of them held warnings and information about prohibited actions, penalties for disregarding regulations, new quarantine rules and so on. Frequent announcements about passenger locator forms were played, and ‘requests’ to keep a mask on at all times. At one point we passed a solitary man holding a sign much like a lollipop man or tour guide bearing the handwritten words ‘passengers from red list countries this way’. No one went that way.
As people began dispersing towards various other gates and onward destinations, a few of us were left following the flight connections route towards A and B gates. By the time we reached the train terminal for transporting passengers to gates, there were only about a dozen people in front of me. They stopped and looked at a sign and then strode on. The sign had arrows pointing to the train on the left for A gates, as well as straight on. A tannoy announcement made me jump, stating that passengers should board the train to get to gate B and remain on it for gate A, leaving me undecided about what to do. After a couple of moments the trains remained stationary and nobody was inside them, so I decided to follow the the route the other people had taken. They had all disappeared by this time and a long and empty corridor stretched before me. For five minutes I didn’t see another soul as I trudged along and it felt really eerie. Finally a member of staff came out of a lift and I almost pounced on him to reassure me I was going the right way for A gates, poor guy! I must have missed something about why the other passengers had shunned the trains.
When I reached the passport and immigration area, that too was deserted. I could only see tall Perspex screens at the front of the row of desks but no one was seated at them. A Tensa queue barrier was in place but with no people there it was tricky to find the way in. In the distance to my right, I caught sight of an arm coming from one of the kiosks there, indicating for me to go to the end desk. There, I saw a man – his head was bent down so I waited politely on the line until he would call me. After some moments I shuffled and coughed to make sure he knew I was there and he eventually beckoned me over. Tiredness and confusion was making me feel a bit irritable, and the thick Perspex screen, along with both of us wearing masks made it hard for me to hear what he was saying to me – and he had a surly manner – so I just pushed all my documents under the screen for him to inspect. Finally, he signalled for me to pull my mask down to check my passport, got me to confirm I had arrived from Mexico and waved me on. More Tensa barriers to navigate made it feel like I was hemmed in when I tried to move forward and the lady who had signalled to me earlier helped me find the way through. She showed me where to scan the passport and told me the way to security. It was something of a relief to be among people again (not something I feel very often 😉). Now it was time to prepare for flight number three, to Manchester.
The departure time had changed from 2 30 to 3pm but it hardly mattered since I was in no rush. From memory, the A gate area was normally a bustling hub of activity with shops, bars and cafes filled with travellers. Some food outlets were open but the shops were all closed apart from Boots and the Duty Free one. I didn’t have long to wait or far to go once my gate number was announced and was pleased to just flop into a seat and wait to board. I was immediately joined by a member of BA’s staff who asked me if I would mind answering a few questions for a passenger survey. I didn’t have the heart to refuse as I was the only one there at the time. The ‘few’ questions took at least 5 minutes, which is a long time to pay attention when you’re tired and frazzled, – I could barely focus on the answers! As we queued to board, it began to rain and once seated we were told that the weather in Manchester was showery and chilly. I pulled an extra layer out of my carryon bag in readiness. The flight was only 35 minutes long, and was more than half full so I was surprised to hear them state that the in-flight service would be commencing shortly. This turned out to be a bottle of water and a bag of crisps. While they weren’t exactly chucked at us, you can imagine how swiftly they were delivered.
The late afternoon air of Manchester was the coldest I had felt for months – and it was raining harder there. Procedure at arrivals was a smoother affair, though and once I had collected my bag, I just had to walk to the station to get the 5 o’clock train to Liverpool. The first thing I noticed outside was that fewer people were wearing masks. It seemed strange to me after 5 months in Mexico where it is compulsory. It seems that if you are given a choice people will make up their own mind despite the risks. At the station, I was paying for my ticket when the cashier alarmed me by shouting at someone to ‘stay away’, ‘stay away’, ‘social distance’. I looked round and saw that a guy was standing right behind me instead of on the 2-metre line. He probably won’t make that mistake again!
On the train, it was a similar story with the masks: not everyone was wearing one. Signs on board state that masks must be worn by all passengers, unless they are ‘exempt’. I gather that you can buy badges and lanyards in shops stating that the wearer is exempt, so if people don’t want to wear them they just won’t.
A short, 10 minute walk from the station and I was home in my flat. It hadn’t exactly been a dramatic journey but it was definitely different. I have taken my first test and the next one is due on Tuesday (23rd Feb). Hopefully it will be negative like the first one. I have also received a telephone call from a government official to make sure I am at home and adhering to quarantine regulations. My self-isolation ends on 26th February so at least I can take daily walks and go shopping then. The view outside is quite a contrast from the sunny one in Marina La Paz. I can see Lidl’s car park in the drizzly rain and the only birds I spot now are the huge seagulls who like to perch on the lampposts. Paul has been keeping me up to date on marina life on our daily chats (videos and pics of our birds are always welcome). I do miss it all and I know I will be back there at some point. Hopefully it won’t be long until I can travel to see family and enjoy drinks in a pub with friends. In the meantime, lockdown life consists of reading, watching dramas and documentaries on Netflix and listening to the radio – not such bad ways of spending time really.