Landing in Santiago at one in the morning is fine – the airport’s quiet, and most of the other passengers on our flight from Brazil are obviously heading to Australia too. But as we make our way through customs, quietly lining up in queues, masks on and socially distanced, the camp stretchers along the corridors with assorted back packers and passengers waiting for a flight, dominate the space. There’s a kiosk open for juice and snacks, and not much else. And the flight from Santiago to Melbourne is, on the whole, about as good as a long haul flight could be under the circumstances.
With the plane flying at about one fifth capacity, I have a row to myself, and alternate between the twilight zone of feeling the buzz underneath me and a deep, much needed sleep. Though it’s basic flying, to be honest. No alcohol, not much food, and a very light breakfast at about 5am. And at 6.50am, right on time, we land in Melbourne. Home. Almost. We’re all a bit shattered, and have no idea where we’re being sent, we just know that we’re in quarantine somewhere, and make our way off the plane, into the walkway pipe and straight into a bevy of nurses in full PPE waiting with temperature guns. A couple ahead of me are telling the nurse they have sore throats, but that it could be from a camping trip they were on in Peru. High altitudes, draughty tent, etcetera etcetera. I jerk back, almost into the couple behind me, and decide to wait until the couple in front of me have well and truly cleared.
Down another floor and the baggage carousel is a challenge, my bags are stuck behind others, and I have to ask for help. By this time, I can feel the nerves of everyone in the space tingling, we know this is serious. An officious customs guard wants to pull me up as I drag my two suitcases past, but an officer pushes him aside and waves me on, into a queue at the end of the baggage hall, through desks of PPE clad government workers, handing out snack packs. “That’s thoughtful,” I think to myself, and look around – everyone is tucking in and so grateful to have a little food and water. It’s after 10 and a long time since breakfast. We are finally waved out onto the tarmac where buses wait as we load our own luggage and head off to who knows where? Our destination is still a damned mystery.
The familiar landscape of Tullamarine and outer Melbourne slides past and we eventually pull up at Crown Promenade, to face more queues, more government officials behind desks, and I think to myself, “Well? Crown Promenade? Not bad, Chrissy. Not bad. I can do this. Two weeks? I did three days in São Paulo, no problem. Two weeks here I can do.”
“Passport?” The young woman looks at me. She’s bored and obviously tired.
“Any dietary restrictions?” her eyebrows raise as she asks the question.
“Nope, easy. Grateful to be cooked for anytime,” I respond. She doesn’t even smirk, and a security guard ushers me into a lift, and presses the button for Floor 9. My home, my cell, for the next two weeks.
The mini bar is lukewarm, but well stocked with everything but alcohol. Of course. I don’t expect the government to pander to our bad habits, or little luxuries. The television screen is on, welcoming me personally, with the icons of offerings staring blindly at me. House movies, but no cable. Not even Netflix. Bugger. And I’m hungry. It’s well after lunch, so I call reception.
“Hello? Yes, can I help you?” she answers brightly.
“Starving”, is all I can get out, then, “are we being delivered lunch? Anything?”
She pauses, as if checking something and comes back with, “Oh, so sorry, but we do not manage the food in this case. It is coming from outside the hotel.”
I sigh, and feel after a slick and smooth entry, the wheels are falling off.
“Well, please tell them to hurry up. I am sure everyone who was with me on the flight will be in the same boat. We had breakfast at 5am and almost nothing since. But thank you for the mini bar. Much appreciated.”
She mumbles something about checking it out and following up, and I turn my attention to snacks, and hoe in.
Nuts, chocolate, juice, okay, but I need real food and fling myself on to the bed and wake up, hours later. It’s dark, and had I heard a knock? 7pm, and I go to the door where there’s a large paper bag which is obviously dinner.
A container of warm beef goulash with peas, carrots, mash (very generous), an apple, an orange, a chocolate bar, packet of Grain Waves, Mainland Cheese and Biscuits, a jelly, and a Primo juice.
Wow! This would last me a dinner and several snack times, so I tuck into the beef and reserve the rest for later.
Breakfast is cereal, and assorted fruits, juice, crisps, more chocolate bars, and lunch is invariably a small cup of soup, two apples, a salad or cold pasta, a couple of baps and butter, the ubiquitous cheese and biscuits, chocolate bar, crisps and juice.
I’m not going to starve at this rate, and the quality of the food is fine, considering the logistics of cooking outside away from the hotel, delivering and sorting who gets what in this massive warren. Girls and guys in white uniforms drag steel trollies up and down the hallways, ticking off deliveries, and knocking or buzzing when our food is at the door. The corridors are always night – with arced downlights creating a kind of illuminated gloom, and I try to talk to a guard a couple of doors up from me and he quickly shuts me down.
“Into your room, sorry ma’am, but you cannot leave your room.” And he moves towards me so I scurry back like a rat in a cage, slamming the door behind me.
The view is of the Crown Casino opposite, and I try to drag some pleasure out of the small trees around the grounds and below my room, high up. Early autumn shades colour some of the trees, and I watch staff come and go, police cars enter and exit, and the mostly silent streets with not even a tram or bus in sight.
“This is not the Melbourne I know,” I think, and I ponder my four years living in the South East, working and reflecting then on two big years previously living in Japan. “Hell, if I can adjust to living with my daughter in Japan, then I can smash just two weeks in a hotel room here,” and I head to the phone and order up some very expensive wine and a few beers to tide me over.
But you know what? It’s not that easy. Walls around me get closer and closer, the air seems, well, stale, and my friends and family are happy I’m back in one piece, but as always, busy with their own lives. The house movies disappear all too quickly, until there’s nothing else that really grabs me, and the news on all the channels is depressingly Covid centric. I lose interest in even the view outside, struggling with the damned air conditioning, and yearning, longing for fresh air.
My family, someone to talk to and hug.
The hours sneak slowly into days, and the loneliness is broken by the very occasional – every 3 or 4 days – phone call from a nurse, “From the government, we want to make sure you’re okay,” and as soon as I say, that, “No, I’m not sick,” it’s “Fine, good then,” and a very strongly implied and silent, “Next!”
I sing, loudly, in the shower.
The acoustics are great, but without my laptop it’s impossible for me to write, and my headspace isn’t right for that anyway.
The third night, the food falls in a hole, and the evening meal is a dodgy looking pasta bolognaise, with fatty white lumps throughout it. I can’t touch it, terrified of getting sick, and memories of dysentery in Egypt in 1982, which left my stomach in tatters forever, haunt me to this day. The name of the restaurant in Luxor was “Mahaba” or “Hello, Welcome” and the memory of that moussaka and the state of the ‘rest’ rooms will be with me until I die.
The manager of the hotel Crown Promenade – or guest services or something, who I track down on Facebook, receives a photo of the offending dish and a note from me, on Messenger:
“Shaun – I am quarantined up in room 991 at Promenade. The experience so far has been fantastic – but the meal I was served tonight needs investigation and the food delivered to other rooms is now sitting outside – clearly the guests have left. Photos attached.
I know it’s a huge logistical issue and until now it’s been fantastic and the staff have been fantastic, but I think the wheels have fallen off at 100 miles per hour.”
Under the text are four photos of the meal as well as the sad and lonely meal drops waiting, unloved, outside the doors opposite me in the hallway. I obviously wanted to impress him that I was happy overall, by the use of the word fantastic a hundred times, but I never did receive a response, and Facebook tells me he didn’t even read my missive.
It’s March 31, my third night in quarantine, and already there’ve been two government letters slipped under the door, to add to the pile that are on the desk when I arrive. All the usual governmental dross that whoever wrote it thought it might soothe us in quarantine, and my angry valve goes up every time I look at the letterhead, with very prominent words,
“Requirements for self-isolating in Government provided accommodation.”
Self isolation this is not, and I start to wonder about the barrage of useless memos we have shoved at us by some silent, ghostly messenger, filled with platitudes that beggar belief:
“It may sound obvious, but the most important thing overall is to be kind to yourself. This quarantine situation is only temporary.
… Routines sound dull, but they’re good for our mental health. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time, eat at regular times, shower, maintain a level of physical activity in your room, and change your clothes… “
They brag of an onsite nurse, and hotel concierge, who are as elusive as water sprites and just as effective. Half way through the first week, and I pick my breakfast up at the same time as the young guy next door, Jake. We’re both desperate for a chat.
I look at him as he picks up his order:
“You been tested, Jake?” I ask.
“Nup, not once,” he shakes his head and peers into the goody bag. I nod over to the collection of food parcels outside several doors opposite.
“Know what’s happened to them? Or are they just busy?”
He shrugs. “I think they got shifted to another floor – the one above us… you’d think they’d stop delivering their food here, wouldn’t you?” He says, shaking his head.
I nod, as a big fat guard starts walking, then attempting a gallop, shouting at us both,
“Get back in your rooms!” he bellows, and waves his hands towards us, as if we’re cattle, “Back, back,” and as he gathers speed, like a messy freight train that’s wobbling just before it leaves the rails, I yell back,
“We didn’t leave our rooms! For fuck’s sake!” and turn round, slamming the door behind me.
Lions 10, Christians Nil.
I decide, after breakfast, to call the government number again to find out about my flight home.
It’s Wednesday, and after two futile calls the previous two days, I’m starting to get worried that flying home is going to be another massive challenge, and booking early will be mandatory if I don’t want to get stranded in Melbourne. My friends here, in this big city, are in the high risk category, so I can’t even stay with them in case I have contracted the virus, and a care package is out of the question – we’re not allowed that. Damn.
And, it’s always the same, waiting on the phone for ages, being answered by a young, extremely stressed government employee who can’t seem to get any information or decisions from the management level above, and is obviously copping the frustration and anger of quarantiners who are sick of being kept in the dark.
I get the usual, “I’m sorry, but if that’s what it says on the leaflet, then that’s what is going to happen… No, I can’t tell you any more. No, there’s no one in the office at the moment.”
My heart bleeds for these people, who have no control over anything, and have been shoved on the front line – cannon fodder.
That’s what they are, cannon fodder.
When I hang up, still none the wiser, I wonder about the collateral damage that will spin off this government decision, and lack of process and consultation.
The government leaflets all insist:
“We will help you make the necessary plans to leave such as rebooking flights or arranging a taxi.”
But, I’m old enough and wise enough to know that governments lie. All the time. And I have a gnawing suspicion that this is all a big lie. Not the virus, it’s the platitudes – the “We’ll help you out. We’ll be there for you…” But, like everyone across the eastern seaboard, who are stuck in hotels at the moment, my fear is growing that getting out is going to be a lot harder than getting in.
The room seems smaller than ever, and I’m finding any exercise impossible to do – I guess I could jump from bed to floor and back again a few times, but would probably break a leg. No You Tube on the television so I can’t even find some online classes that might fit the tiny space between the bed and the wall. I move furniture, but then decide that’s difficult to navigate, so move it back. And lie down.
What was that ad for pain killers in my mother’s era?
“A cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down.”
Bex were a powdered aspirin in a small sleeve of paper – I think it was my father who lived on them though, possibly as a salve for the headaches from the gallons of home made beer or whisky that he felt were important to his well being. And then with a goodly tranche of beverage on board, he would make his own bullets, at a desk on the front (enclosed) veranda, with a tube of gun powder, tapping it gently into the end of the shell case, and seal the bottom with a good tap. A cigarette, (lit), invariably hung out of a corner of his mouth, and testing of the batch of new bullets took place on a trivet on top of the gas stove. In the kitchen if you please. If the test bullet fired into the ceiling, it was success.
No wonder my mother left him.
My friends will say probably that it explains a lot about me.
The next morning I catch Jake at his door as we both reach for our paper bags.
“Any news?” I ask.
“Hmmm, we’re getting a bit worried about making it back to Brisbane.”
I look across the hall and the bags of food are piling up outside, still.
“Not a lot of communication, is there? And now someone’s committed suicide on the next floor so I hear,” Jake shakes his head.
I gasp. I can’t even fathom the despair it must have taken to do that.
“Oh hell, I… can’t even…” I stop mid sentence, too stunned to continue. Jake flicks his head to the right and ducks back into his room, as we see another security guard trundling down towards us.
I retreat, and the door slams again.
Next: Lyndey Milan’s battle with the inedible at the Hilton in Sydney
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