Hostage: The Covid Caper – Chapter 2, Brazil

Sao Paolo clings onto me with a deathlike grip, and just getting out of Brazil becomes a wonder of patience, chaos and new friends.

Orlando suddenly looks up at me, pulls over a chair and beckons to me to sit down. I hesitate, thinking I’ll be on a flight soon anyway, sitting for a day at least. He insists, and slumping into the curve, I investigate the food which looks as appetising as week-old scraps, but force feed myself nevertheless. It’s 11pm.


Orlando, my saviour

Just after midnight, Orlando tears off a boarding sheet and hands it to me, circling roughly the flights.

My mood soars, as I look at the itinerary, São Paulo to Santiago, Melbourne and then Hobart. Delighted that I’m rescheduled via Melbourne, not Sydney, I get ready, hoisting my back pack onto my shoulder, then read the flight to Santiago is … in three days’ time. Oh fuck. And then the spectre of my luggage hovers, but Orlando is on to it. He calls over an older staff member, who ambles across and leans into Orlando’s pulpit to take orders. He nods and moves past me, taking off his belt as he makes his way further up the check in desks, then removes his shoes, hands them to a girl, and pads away in his socks, while I and several travellers watch him, puzzled. Security must be tight in the baggage room, wherever that may be, probably through passenger screening and down under the terminal somewhere I’m guessing, and he returns a while later with my two suitcases.

A miracle. “Obrigada, Obrigada,” I scream, clapping my hands as he disappears again and returns with a luggage trolley and loads me up.

“Ju go downstairs, cross over, and find bus for hotel. No problem,” he says as he ushers me away from Orlando, across the hall, and points the way to the lifts.

It’s 1am, and I’m struggling with luggage, on my own, in the largest city in South America. And I have to find a hotel for 3 nights. Somewhere. Close.

Aerial view of Sao Paulo

A tiny portion of Sao Paulo from the air – enormous

Sightseeing is off the menu – I have no doubt that São Paulo will be just as shuttered as Manaus, and I push away waves of panic as the lift empties me out into the undercover multi-lane entry, with cars and buses all pulling up at intervals, at various stations. I stop and send an urgent message to Marly and her dentist daughter Tatiane to find me a hotel in São Paulo. “An Ibis?” They ask, we were happy with the Ibis in Manaus and Rio… “Yes! Ibis!” I say, and put my phone away as I look up.

There’s people waiting at various bays, but I can’t make out a designated hotel/accommodation pick up area. This is when I really start to panic. The ‘what ifs?’ flood my cloudy brain and I see a small group waiting across two lanes.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I beg a young woman who’s crossing the first lane at the same time.

“A little, but no Portuguese, I’m afraid, I’m from Argentina!” she laughs and I think she’s as flummoxed as I am, but she manages to find me the hotel shuttle bus station, another lane over, and I wait. And look. Until a portly guy in a suit and tie marches up to the group waiting above me, and a bus arrives. He loads them in, swinging suitcases like tennis racquets, starts organising other travellers on to buses and waving them off.

“English?” I ask him meekly, and he grins, adjusting his tie, then reefing up his belt over a tummy that tells of good food and beer.

“Si, madame, a little, what you want? Oh, Mauro,” he introduces himself, “You need hotel?”

“Ohhh yes, I need… a nice hotel, a good hotel, with a… mini bar, and room service, please!” he looks at me with sympathy, clicks his tongue, checks his phone, and in ten minutes, Mauro has me, and two other Brazilian ladies, who ignore me explicitly, boarding a shuttle bus, and heading out of the airport. Written on the side of the bus are the words, “Slaviero Hotels,” and just the name puts the fear of death into me.

My heart starts the boombedy boom that echoes physically, emotionally, the sparks of terror going off in my brain’s neural pathways. What was I thinking? Am I being kidnapped? Why am I so trusting? And I feel sick with fright. I could disappear here, and no one would ever find me. Last seen at Guarulhos Airport, destination? Unknown.

My phone pings as Marly tells me they have an Ibis near the airport ready to check me in. I don’t know what to say. But I tell them that I may be on the way to another hotel, and will let them know if I arrive. Watching the traffic pass, slumped back in my seat, the airport lights merge into generously lit roads, heavy trucks roar along beside us as we pass the Airport Holiday Inn, and we merge and filter towards… somewhere. The two women in front of me have stopped talking, and look out the windows as well. I wonder if they’re as frightened as I am, but we take a turn off after about 10 minutes or so, pass an Ibis Budget Hotel, and pull into a smart, newish looking hotel, the “Slaviero Essentiel.” If I weren’t old and tired, I think I would have done cartwheels in the driveway, as the driver leaps out and helps me with my luggage. The good manners of the Brazilian people and respect for their elders, is an aspect of the country I marvel at often. In Tramandai, Marly had pointed out designated ‘older people’s car spaces’ and at the airport there’s a special priority lane for the old, disabled, or parents with small children. Vainly, we were almost insulted as we were constantly shuffled into priority, but it sure beat the long queues on the other side.

The reception at the “Slaviero Essentiel, Guaralhos” is modern, bright, with three eager young reception staff waiting behind a counter, in front of which is a line to keep us at a distance, and hand sanitizer on the bench.  My young man speaks English, and nods as I give my name, “Si, Mauro,” he says as he checks my passport, finds me a room key, and holds his hands up to count.

“Floor 6, enjoy.” Looking across at the two ladies who’d been on my bus, they are animated, happy, and if I’m reading them correctly, as relieved as I am. We’ve fallen on our feet.

My room is big, luxurious, comfortable, and clean, with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto a semi-urban landscape. My phone pings and I remember with shame that I’d asked Marly and Tatiane to book me an Ibis. It’s ironic, I think as I look out and realise my windows face the Ibis across an intersection, and I feel quite proud that the Slaviero is perfect, having organised it myself.

View from the Slaviero hotel

View from the Slaviero Essentiel

My friends are nervous for me, but my video of the room and its contents put them at ease, as bed – king size, with fresh starched white sheets – looks ever, ever so inviting. Ed and Ju my new best friends from the airport, email me to let me know they’re in a comfortable but very basic hotel somewhere 15 minutes from the airport, and are in touch with more Aussies arriving in São Paulo tomorrow. They plan to head back to the airport early.

Breakfast arrives the next morning, magically, and I make a mental note to pass on my thanks to Mauro who understood exactly what I needed.  I call the embassy in Brazil to see if they have any advice? Not really, and no strings they can pull either, is the word. I guess we’re all in the same boat, but they do say I should head to the airport to do battle myself again – it’s every man for himself and no one, no one, can predict anything. Sitting on my bed, I take a deep breath and look around me. The mini bar is stocked, the menu is inviting, and room service? Aaaah, the caipirinhas will be my undoing if I don’t show a great deal of restraint. “But they’re so cheap”, my taste buds beg, so two (just in case) arrive with my evening meal. Staying put, in spite of what the embassy says seems like the best option for me.

Dinner with 2 caipirinhas

Dinner with 2 caipirinhas

That second night my phone pings and I have a message from Ed and Ju, They actually made it to Santiago, but are having to sleep in the airport on camping hampers, waiting for a flight to Australia, with no idea where their luggage is. They must be beyond exhausted. Ed advises me to go back to the airport here between 4am and 9am and find Mara who helped them on their flight to Chile. He doesn’t relish two nights on camping hampers, the thought of a very smelly plane load on the way home, but he feels they need to be there just in case.

I read the text a few times, breathe a big sigh and decide again that I am where I need to be. I have my flight and connections booked from Friday, and trusting my instinct, (and Orlando), settle in for a pleasant break. Ridiculous to think I’ve only notched up one leg so far, and I need a break already, but the fear of being kidnapped, mugged or worse, is still embedded deep in my gut. I decide that lounging in a luxury suite beats a camping hamper in an airport in South America any day. What I don’t realise is that the three days’ difference will mean that when I finally make it to Melbourne (if that works out…) I will be forced into two weeks’ isolation in a hotel, somewhere. And then have to do a rinse and repeat in Hobart… But right now, my ignorance of what that means is keeping me sane.

The streets outside the hotel are quiet, and the hotel staff had told me the city was shut. Television isn’t bad, and a glorious documentary on the Amazon Indians reminds me why I came, and of my euphoric experience with Marly and Tassi, for whom that visit was a first as well.

Amazon Elder with books

Amazon Elder with books

During the day small cars with loudspeakers blaring, motor slowly up and down the streets, telling citizens to sanitise, stay home, be careful and considerate to loved ones. Having seen them in Tramandai, I get a small hint of what a massive job it must be, to inform such a diverse, scattered and often technologically challenged population, of new pandemic era rules. The issue at this point is protection. How on earth is Bolsonaro going to keep his people safe, and healthy? Keep them up to date with new laws, a different approach, a changed world, in a country where people on the lower rungs fight to survive, and of those the lucky ones live hand to mouth delivering micro business consumables on the streets and in gathering places – now empty, as silent as the grave?

It’s Friday, 27th March and my flight leaves at 8.30pm. Figuring on more chaos and queues, I make it down to reception at 4pm, ready to get a shuttle and enter the fray. Three tall immaculate air crew – pilots – are checking out and wait in the lounge, glancing at me quickly and dismissing just as fast. As their shuttle bus pulls up, I leap to the concierge and ask for my luggage. He looks at me quizzically, “Why? Not now, yet.”

I point madly at the pilots swinging their cases into the bus, “Yes, with them, they’re going to the airport, aren’t they?”

“Ahh… yes, but you wait… Bus at 5.30…”

“5.30?? No! I need to go now, I really do… I need to get there… early!”

He shrugs, and the pilot bus drives off. I kick the tiled floor and go back to my seat, changing it twice to escape a virulent aircon system belting out freezing air that makes me cough and splutter. I look across at the startled expressions on the staff, and can’t summon the energy to tell them, “It’s not Covid! Really, it’s allergy…”

My post nasal drip is a problem that’s dogged me for more than a year, and my body’s response to create extreme sensitivity to either hot or cold air hasn’t helped. Flying? Cold draughts of air flushed into the cabin on take off and landing make me cough like a tuberculosis patient, and everyone moves and glares, nervous. But here, now, my coughing and spluttering under the damned air vents in the hotel lobby suddenly seem a blessing. The concierge beckons me silently, pushes my luggage on a trolley in front of him, and points to a bus pulling up outside the hotel. He’d ordered a special. Just for me.

Strange, I ponder, are these times when a particularly stubborn curse becomes an open door to a path I need to take.

This time, as the driver unloads me, finds a trolley, and sets me up for my trek to check-in, at least I know where I have to go. The airport is busy – in sections. The check in area of LATAM, though, is silent, empty. My heart starts pumping again with a dread that’s becoming all too familiar. The roped stanchions are arranged as before, aimed at squeezing a long queue in the smallest space possible. I grab a couple of LATAM boys with lanyards swinging from their necks and they position me, at the top, where they promise the queue will start.  “Five thirty?” I ask. They nod, in unison, and we all make the Buddhist praying gesture with our hands, looking to the heavens. And then laugh with our synchronicity and the stupidity of these crazy times.

Latam check in Sao Paulo

Latam check in, or not!

By the time I make the check-in, I’m starting to get the jitters again, and there’s another issue with my booking. I want to scream, stamp my feet, and throttle the poor girl on the desk, but I smile and tell her Orlando booked me and it must be right. Glancing down the counter, Orlando is at his pulpit, hammering away with a small crowd around him, waiting.

The girl in front of me punches at her keyboard, and finally, I get a boarding pass. For São Paulo to Santiago, but nothing for the Santiago/Melbourne leg. I sigh with frustration, as she points me away, and tells me that I have to get my boarding pass for Australia in Santiago. She tags my luggage, and I’m dismissed. It’s a four hour flight to Chile, and that means arrival at around 1am. Sure, sure, I think, there’s going to be sweet fuck all open then, if this place is anything to go by, and I am not going to risk getting stranded in Santiago. I straighten up and head down the counter to Orlando.

“Orlando, excuse me, but do you remember me from Tuesday???” I hand him my ticket and the one boarding pass I have. He looks up, squints, and then, “Of course, madame, of course,” nodding.

“She won’t give me a boarding pass for Santiago to Melbourne, and I don’t want to be stranded in Chile, please,” I beg.

Orlando nods, takes my ticket, spends a few minutes punching his keyboard, tells me to wait and finally, out comes my boarding pass for the Santiago to Melbourne leg. I want to kiss him, but refrain, and toss my head haughtily at the girl who’s watching us as she serves another passenger. I pick it up and wave it in the air, as I make my way through security, and finally, down the pipe onto the plane out of Brazil.

Next: Television chef and Hilton Hostage saviour, Lyndey Milan recounts her crazy trip back home from the UK.