• Tarnie Simms

And then COVID

One day we were out having dinner at a beautiful restaurant and the next complete lockdown. Overnight the buzzing little town we were in, was frighteningly deserted, with the police patrolling the streets. You were able to leave the house for only a minimal amount of activities; mainly to get groceries or to go to the doctors.

Things deteriorated quickly from there. We started thinking things would pass over, holding out hope that after a couple of weeks things would ease which is how I think everyone felt things would go, but as Spain began to truly suffer and the police patrols became more regular our conversation went from pushing the trip back two weeks to, is it time to go home?

In the time frame of two days, we learnt that the Morocon borders were closed indefinitely and the Australian government issued a level 4 travel ban and urged Australians to return home. The level 4 travel ban essentially means all areas of the world are now considered red and a no go zone. We finally realised that at least for now, Africa was simply not going to be feasible, no insurance would be valid, we had no idea how long the borders would be closed and the idea of being in Africa if this pandemic were to take hold there as well was not appealing.

There was no time for sadness or a certain time of grief for losing the trip, our life quickly became the most important and complicated logistical challenge to date. Richard and I tend to be pretty relaxed when we travel but this mattered, the outcome mattered. We decided to divide and conquer, Richard focusing on where the fuck we were going to put a beach buggy, as we did not have the paperwork to ship it home with us, nor was shipping a car as cargo priority given the current state. I was focusing on how we were going to get out of Spain and home.

It was a stressful 48 hours and there were a fair few heated conversations, I was taking a much more cut throat approach to the buggy with an attitude of, ‘as long as we get out,’ Richard was more deliberate and adamant on making sure the buggy was safe. At the time, my anxiety of being in a country overtaken with a deadly pandemic was at the forefront and I couldn’t leave fast enough and there may have been a few, okay more than few harsh words of ‘it’s just a fucking car!’

We hashed it out and in reality it’s not just a car, it defined our lives for the past year and letting it go wasn’t an option so we explored option after option, friends in Spain, friends of friends, the Australian embassy etc and even the owner of the Air B&B, who was incredible and did indeed find a solution for us as well (Do stay with her when Veja is an option again.) Finally after what felt like weeks, but was in fact only 24 hours, an old friend of Richard’s stepped up more than we could have ever asked for. Flying into Spain himself he arranged for us to drop our buggy with a contact in Madrid and have it shipped to his family home in Gallicia for us where it would be safe until we could have it transported back to Australia.

Flights were no walk in the park, they seemed to become more and more limited with each passing moment, and with all good consumerist societies, as they became more limited fairs would increase. We settled on the priority, get the hell out of Spain! To Amsterdam it was, from Amsterdam we would fly with Ethiad via Abu Dhabi back to Sydney. So we booked 48 hours to make it to Madrid.

An email came through confirming our flight to Sydney, one small issue, the travel agent had booked our second leg to take off before the first one arrived and so the games began. After 45 minutes on hold to Student flights we finally were able to cancel and receive a full refund. Still left us without a flight though! This time to make sure no errors were made we went straight to the source and booked through Ethiad, it may have cost a bit more but at least we had peace of mind.

Onto the next challenge, amidst lockdown, how in the world were we going to make it to Madrid which was a good 800km north of our current location. We decided given the speed of the buggy to do it over two days. Because Richard was still working, the first day would be a short one, getting us just north of Seville the second day would be the big one. We said goodbye to Veja, the slight sadness sunk in here, just a little further.

The roads were eerily quiet with trucks and police being the main contingent of people out there. As we approached the outskirts of Seville, we were pulled over by highway patrol. We didn’t speak Spanish, they didn’t speak English, there were a lot of hand gestures regarding planes, and home. They kept saying “No illegal” We kept saying, “no choice!” This carried on for a very long 10 minutes until they seemed to give up! Nope then we were back on again, as if they had decided that would be too kind to let us go! A further 5 minutes and threats of one of us clearly having to exit the vehicle, which evoked a fait amount of fear and they took pause. They walked slowly back to the car and after a pregnant pause, we were free to go! Taking with us a warning that we may be fined with police further up the road.

Off we went, tense and constantly looking over our shoulders. We made it to a hotel in the north of Seville and aside from their confirmation over the phone that we could stay, there was nothing else to indicate they were open. Turns out they were not legally open but it was a bed, we would take it! The hotel in non Covid times would have been very nice, given the time though it carried a very eerie environment of an abandoned mansion house. We walked downstairs, in search of food, frozen pizza, it would have to do, washed down with a glass of wine it got us through.

I logged onto emails and waited with bated breath for flight information. Cancelled. Our flight from Madrid to Amsterdam had been cancelled with no scheduling for a future flight. I have never searched flights faster in my life. I booked two one via London and one direct to Amsterdam with two separate airlines. We would have to wait and see if that would work.

We woke and with our packed lunch of stale white bread, spam and cheese we set off, with nothing but thanks for a wonderful family who had really saved our arses. This was to be the most tense drive of our lives, with a sharp intake of breath with every police car we saw. I am not sure how but all of them were on the opposite side of the road. With each rest stop we entered for petrol there was a police presence, one of us would quickly move away so as not to be seen together until the police would drive slowly away to the other side of the stop. The signs for Madrid allowed a sigh of relief as we would be able to explain our presence if we were to be pulled over. Ghost town doesn't cut it, we came across perhaps a dozen cars on the main highway into Madrid. It felt as though a nuclear bomb had gone off and we had somehow managed to survive. The airport surrounds made it clear we were not the only ones here and we expelled a sigh of relief, little did we know the stress was to continue.

Another cancelled flight, which would make getting to Amsterdam for our flight to Sydney virtually impossible. I jumped online and booked a flight to Amsterdam via London but before we had barely let go of the breath, the flight to London was cancelled, another useless credit to add to the bank. This called for a completely different change in tac as it started looking like the walls of our airport hotel would become very familiar. We were going to try and fly from London to Sydney instead, which would at least mean we could focus on rearranging only one flight.

I had already spent a good deal of time calling Ethiad only to receive an engaged tone, I felt for the staff I really did but as I considered throwing my laptop across the room my compassion was limited. Finally I got onto the hold queue which was a minor miracle and the hold music began. 40 minutes passed and unlike my usual impatient self, giving up wasn’t really an option, so I hung in there. Finally we got through and with the help of a wonderful staff member our flight was changed from Amsterdam to London free of charge.

With that problem solved we booked onto 2 flights to London with the awareness that one would likely be cancelled, and forfeited the London to Amsterdam leg. The tension in our small hotel room was palpable and Richard suggested we put the laptops away and take some time out to watch some crappy TV and have some room service as the queue to the restaurants was excessive as they were only allowing a very limited number of people in at any one time.

The night stretched on for what felt like forever, and as dawn broke we made our way to the airport. The terminal was closed, with tape cordoning off the shops , for all but one food outlet and WHS Smith. Unfortunately for us we were starving which, given the price for the baguette was very fortunate for the food outlet. It was a dam good Serrano ham baguette though, even if it was consumed and sat on a cold floor in the middle of what felt like a crime scene.

As we sat on the plane, there was still a tension that the plane may not take off. As the wheels left the tarmac a certain relief set in and we were on our way home

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