In the end, I was lucky. At the beginning of this month, I was calmly wrapping up a 2.5 year stint as a visiting professor in Brazil at the Universidade de Sâo Paulo. I was going to return to my home in Victoria Park and the bliss of conjugal life. Slowly, ill tidings of a spreading virus began to drown out the normal din of world events. “Pandemic” was now the word on everyone’s lips, and “flatten the curve” became a mantra. In the course of a week, I watched a mega-city of twenty million souls slowing to an eerie, near silence.
Once-busy avenues of honking cars were suddenly clear, the standing-room-only metro trains and formerly-teeming buses now vacant, once-bustling sidewalks trodden by few.
Harbingers and bad omens dominated the news. Did the airport close? Which country had just declared their borders sealed? Unintentional misinformation and malicious disinformation were rife, as the authorities seemed ill-equipped and incapable of a coherent response to the demands of the hour. Rumours of miraculous cures competed with ill-natured, loose talk of political scapegoating. As the strictures of social distancing began to bind, it appeared that the slowing economy generated as much anxiety as the dreaded sickness itself.
The quickening pace of events was unnerving, and I responded by sequentially shifting my intended departure date by a month, then by a week, and then by a single day. The day before my departure I tried to check-in for my flight only to discover that the first of three legs had already been cancelled! This discovery took place while speaking on the phone to my wife, who sensed a newly anxious tone to my voice, “Everything all right?”. Refusing to panic her before she went to sleep (there is a twelve-hour time difference between Sao Paulo and Perth), I reassured her that all was fine and bid her good-night before hanging up.
So began a day of chances taken and steady good luck, hurriedly buying a new ticket to
Santiago under the assumption that Qantas would honour my ticket from Chile to Oz (Bless them, they did!), packing the rest of my belongings and bequeathing unto my neighbour the remaining contents of my refrigerator, making my way to my aunt’s house to unburden myself of all but the most essential baggage. The speed of my arrival at the international
airport was itself disorienting, what was usually a 14 km journey of 2-6 hours was accomplished in 20 minutes. The confusion of the airport was not the usual bustle of people arriving and departing, but the incipient panic of the red flashing word “cancelled” which dominated half the flight board.
Hours of haggling with gate agents would be followed by a night spent sleeping on the floor of the Santiago airport together with several scores of travellers in transit.
The next day found myself waiting at the gate, nearby sat two retired couples from Australia. As soon as I heard them comparing the merits of various caravan models, I just knew somehow that she’d be right. 15 hours later, the sight of the Sydney harbour bridge and opera house greeted me, and a short eight hours later I would disembark into my wife’s arms and a blissful 14-day quarantine at home. You know, I would have been happy with a forty-day extension!