Part One of the Maltese Backpacker Dispatch can be read here.
Scrambling off the South Island that fateful Monday seems like a distant memory now. It was time to enjoy the last few days, albeit limited to a walk to the beach and back, before my inevitable departure from New Zealand.
During my first few days back in Auckland, I was on the phone to the Maltese Deputy High Commissioner in Australia, as well as to the Maltese Consul in Wellington, to see if they could help me find a way back home. Although I know they were doing their best, the situation looked bleak, with most of the transit airports back to Europe already closed. I was informed that I should prepare to stay until the lockdown period ended.
I agonised for days over whether I should stay in the country and wait it out until things got better, or keep looking for a flight. In the end, I decided to keep looking, because there was no way of telling when the local authorities would lift the restrictions. They’re in place for at least a month, and with a significant number of new cases being announced each day, the lockdown period could easily go on for longer than the initial four weeks.
With a heavy heart, I realised that my adventure had come to an end. I spent the rest of my time in the country in the company of my sister and her boyfriend, scouring the internet to see if any flights would become available. I feel for the handful of Maltese who are there at the same time as me – I consider myself lucky to have had a relative close by to help out in these unsettling times.
One evening, I decided to call Air New Zealand to see if I would have any luck trying to book something over the phone. After holding for more than half an hour (the airline was inundated with phone calls for days), a customer service representative finds me a route back to London via Los Angeles, but it would mean an overnight stay in London before being repatriated by the government the following afternoon. I bit the bullet and booked my flight back.
The day I left was difficult. I was in two minds about boarding the flight that evening. Did it even make sense to travel back across two oceans and a continent while all of this is going on?
Begrudgingly, I decided to take my chances. My sister and her boyfriend took me to the airport to board my 9:45 pm flight. They wait outside just in case I have a last-minute change of heart. The terminal is almost deserted. There’s something very eerie about an empty airport, but I try not to think about it. I check in my bag, and speak to my sister on the phone, telling her to go on her way.
Right. Here we go. It’s a 12-hour flight across the Pacific to LA. I hang around a food court that was all shut down save for one juice bar together with a few other passengers. I’m nervous about the journey ahead – travelling over the largest expanse of ocean in the world during these circumstances doesn’t seem like a thrilling prospect.
The flight is full to the brim. Almost everyone is wearing a mask. Apparently it’s the last one operating this route for the foreseeable future. I sit next to an Irish man and his elderly mother in my row. I thought she must be brave to be flying now, and undoubtedly a little fearful. It turns out that they’re on their way to London, like me.
The next 12 hours are restless and uncomfortable. The fuselage of the Boeing 787-9 I’m flying in, a wide-body airliner that can seat 280 people, is battered by crosswinds for what feels like hours on end. I try to get some sleep, but it’s no use. Mercifully, the wind and the turbulence abates as we draw nearer to LA.
Clearing customs at LAX is as lengthy and nerve-wracking as you can imagine – I was body scanned, fingerprinted and then interviewed by a Border Patrol officer before picking up my checked-in bag and taking it to be checked in somewhere else for the next leg of my journey.
I walk to the terminal where Virgin Atlantic planes depart from. More customs checks. A few places are still open in the terminal building, so I make my way to a diner, order a few pints of beer and, being in America, the obligatory cheeseburger. It wasn’t the worst seven-hour layover in the world, but I was definitely ready for off by the time I came to board.
The plane over to London was much quieter than the one on the Auckland-LA leg. I was lucky enough to have a whole row to myself and the flight was smooth all the way through, so 10 hours seemed to go by relatively quickly.
I landed in London on the afternoon of 1st April. The exhaustion and jetlag hit me like a ton of bricks as soon as I cleared customs. It initially looked like I would have to spend the night in the airport after hotels in its vicinity and across London were instructed to shut down. I was dreading the thought after travelling for 29 hours by that point, and I was still more than 24 hours away from my front door in Malta. Thankfully, there was one hotel within the terminal building itself that was still open.
A bagful of groceries from a small Marks & Spencer and a well-needed shower later, I hunker down for the night. I only emerge at around 1 am to smoke a cigarette.
There is literally no-one in the terminal other than a couple of cleaning staff. A solitary cab driver stands outside next to his wheels. It’s surreal being at Heathrow and seeing it pretty much empty.
A tube ride over to Terminal 4 the next day saw me arriving to check-in for my last leg home at around 11 am. It’s a pleasant surprise to see one of my ex-colleagues on his way back to Malta. He’s a Liverpudlian – he set off from his mum’s in a rental car at 5 am this morning to make this repatriation flight. Good old Air Malta, I thought.
The inevitable hanging around for departure ensued, but the tension seemed to be particularly heightened that day. As we find a place to sit, there’s a flight bound for Italy that’s boarding. They’re screening everyone to see if they have a raised temperature. My mind immediately turns to everything that’s going on in that country right now.
It turns out that it isn’t just Italians being temperature screened – we’re submitted to the same process just prior to stepping onto the flight home. I’m certainly relieved when I’m told I can board. We’re given a form to fill in so the police know where we’re heading to quarantine after getting off the plane. A tailwind helps to get us home in a mere two hours and 45 minutes.
Touchdown. I’m home!
A foreign nurse equipped with a thermal scanner greets us before clearing customs. All seems to be well with my body heat. I collect my bag and before I know it, I’m in a cab on the way home, where I’ve been ever since. It was like going back in time maybe 10 or 15 years to see Malta with so few cars on the road in the middle of the day.
Luckily, I don’t feel ill or have any coronavirus symptoms (so far – touchwood). Last Friday happened to be my birthday, and my first day in quarantine. I haven’t seen anyone other than my mum and a good friend of mine, who come and stand at the other side of my landing for a chat and to make sure I’m stocked up with groceries.
These are certainly extraordinary times that we live in. I’m just hoping to get through the coming days and weeks without losing my mind! Let’s all hope the situation around the world gets better sooner rather than later – for ALL of us. One thing is for certain – I’m definitely not done with New Zealand or that part of the world just yet! Keep safe, I wish you well.