On travelling while Covid

Familiar hubbub greets me, although today it feels a little awkward as it has been months since my last routine. Flight crew performs their usual and soothing benedictions while the plane taxis on the runway in snail speed, flanked by permanently idling planes on either side. The wings lift and comes alive, the wheels fold away and the pilot turns left for Singapore. Incheon sky and the West Sea down below look beautiful and peaceful.

Obstacles that fate throws their way – as if in retribution for the sins for hope of earthly happiness – is perhaps omen for things to come my way for Covid-time escape to Indonesia

Banged out a proposal so time for a movie to wind down. Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhou feat, check…Soul, done that, too. An Affair to Remember, 1957 Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr classic is on. I loved Warren Beatty (and Annette Bening, whom he married just before this movie) version… let’s see how true to the original Beatty’s remake was.  That tan on Cary Grant is sublime as is the rhythm of graceful banter from the protagonist of leanly cut suits.  It turns out that it really is a remake than an adaptation. I notice many lines in which Beatty channeled Grant word for word.  And Deborah Kerr’s all-time howler of a last line… which I remember vividly recited by Bening. “I was looking up! It was the nearest thing to heaven. Don’t, don’t worry darling. If you can paint then I could walk. Anything can happen, don’t you think?”  Obstacles that fate throws their way – as if in retribution for the sins for hope of earthly happiness – is perhaps omen for things to come my way for Covid-time escape to Indonesia (yes, Indonesia of all places). Well, the movie does conclude in classic Hollywood feel-good ending… I tell myself not to worry.

On stiff refreshments on offer… it turns out that they do carry some. Just before landing a nice male staff offers a few sips of single malt on ice, in single use plastic sadly. By the way, SQ has gone all paper boxes and wooden utensils – American takeaway chow mein style. ‘Designed for a cause’, Tiffany’s ring box-size bento reads. I don’t know if I should root for minding the carbon footprint or lament the timely purpose-washing during the unprecedented aviation downturn.

I am en-route to Jakarta and Belitung then Bali for projects. I’ve been writing a marketing plan on the side for digital nomad business so I figure I walk-the-talk and spend a month mixing work, visiting some old friends and good’ol fashioned loafing. I am transiting in Singapore with naive hopes of putting my PPS (sitting like a duck to be expired at SQ’s whim) to work, with plans to kill time at SilverKris lounge and stock up on bourbon at The Whiskey House in T3.

For the second year in a row, it looks like August holiday plans won’t exist. Unable to decide whether to hang on for a trip to the west coast US (forced on me to begin with by Cathay Pacific by way of expiring miles) or bail early and book somewhere nice in Korean countryside, I have skilfully managed to do neither. The net result is that Greece and other sunny destinations in Europe seem to be booking up at exorbitant prices as quick-witted holiday makers snapped up every location within EasyJet’s range of the Mediterranean and Adriatic Sea. Things are so bad I may have to go to a travel-warning country and return just to secure a hotel room near Incheon airport (I mean two-week government facility quarantine).

To be clear, that isn’t why I am travelling to Indonesia. What did come my way was to pick up the work from where I left off for Maritime Eco-tourism Development project when the boarder closed in Belitung. Be.li.tung (phonetically spelled) is an island on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia in the Java Sea and has a population of 270,000, meager density in this part of the world. The island is primarily known for tin mining and the name ‘Billiton’ (of the mining conglomerate BHP Billiton) comes from Belitung. I have been working on and off in concept development and branding of the 320Ha Maritime Eco-tourism Development site (see my 2019 blog here for more on one of few remaining paradises in South East Asia). In the time since, Belitung has been designated UNESCO Global Geopark thrusting the spectacular granite landscape and white sand beaches further on the eco-tourism map.

My naive hope, naiveté it was. Upon arrival in Changi, transit passengers were swiftly whisked away in single file to a drab quarantine transit zone at the far end of the terminal.  Indocafe three-in-one mix and Oreos were served, yikes! Poorly supplied snack counter was just the beginning of troubles. Just before midnight, I get a call from Jakarta saying mandatory quarantine hotels are not assigned upon entry but that I must find my own accommodation. Having my own choice is refreshingly welcome news but being told this 10-hrs before landing in the small hours of the night isn’t. I scramble to make a flurry of calls to hotels which all keep ringing except for one dutiful duty manager at the Wyndham (yikes again). 2M IDR nightly for 40 sq.m. room with full board and two PCR test inclusions later, I have a confirmed reservation so I can finally rest in peace. It’s almost 2 am so I lie down for some shut-eye before my early morning connection.

Some good news (omen for good things to come?): an upgrade for the second leg to Jakarta. It’s 930am, I’m so disoriented from going horizontal on the hard, transit-hall bench I almost ask for something stiff. I guess single malt at this hour is entirely inappropriate. Can’t really collect my thoughts at this point… let’s just hope entering Jakarta becomes reality.

There’s really no one here to mind who’s coming in. It was beautiful.

Unattended jet bridge and long, dimly lit terminal walkway to immigration towards the light at the end, near empty travelator on which but a few fellow travellers brisk walk, unsupervised and following each other at this point, in anticipation of what will meet us at the other end. I have yet to be told exactly what entry process during Covid entails. So I’ve equipped myself with a stack of print outs from invitation letter, PCR test report to health insurance policy ready to be waived at any bureaucrat taking issue with my arrival. Yet, the space we arrive into is a deserted immigration hall with a beeline straight to passport control booths. There’s no one really here to mind who’s coming in. It was beautiful. I glimpse the barren spaces around me: rows of empty faux-velvet seats, laid out for what purpose I don’t know and a cold-looking storage room stuffed with clear plastic bags full of unused masks and sanitary gloves. It must be the remnants of giant repatriation attempt that didn’t happen.

Only sign of life is 20-something dudes in military kit, lounging around scrolling through their Facebook feeds. “Do I have to do anything before I go to passport control?”, I ask. Guy doesn’t bother to look up, slowly stretching his arm and pointing his finger in the general directions of nowhere. Watching people in professional uniform of any kind, I am constantly amazed at how the body seems to have its own language. With movement it can convey and release emotion (in this man’s case, lack of) in ways that can either expand us or sap our energy and collapse us. This man is the latter. Soon, I do find that I need to have my PCR test report verified in a hidden corner office.

That was less than 20 minutes through the waiting hall, three chops for PCR test verification, immigration and luggage carousel (my oversized golf bag adding one-full minute)! I’m certain I shaved a few minutes from my last, pre-Covid, arrival. Only thing on my nerves is owing to the so-called hotel staff who greeted and escorted me to hotel van disappearing with my passport saying the hotel will hold it until the end of my quarantine. That’s one way to make sure I don’t disappear (apparently a few guys did in the proceeding weeks… as write this post there’s rumors that quarantine will extend to 14 or 21 days depending on the in-coming country).

So there it is. I write this post as I conclude 120-hour quarantine in room 1509 of the Wyndham Casablanca Jakarta. Hotel staff just took my second, in-room, PCR test and I await the result to depart the hotel (considering this is my third Covid test in 8 days, I know I’ll be fine).

How was it? Three square meals arriving exactly at prescribed hours, two daily ‘yoga-with-Adrien’ Youtube sessions and a lot of catching up on New Yorker… I can’t complain. Should I have done this to begin with? Yes. Was it worth it? I think so. Why? Because I only have to brave two more domestic flights to get to sand so fine it squeaks under your feet as you walk in Belitung. Also, in Bali I hear people still hug (I haven’t leaned in to anyone outside my household for more than a year). Like those trapped Chilean miners, I coming back out into the light and facing the shock of the crowd.

Adventure to be continued in Part 2 so please come back and read on.

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