Hostage: The Covid Caper Chapter 1, Amazon

Christine Green was there – stuck in Brazil with limited ways home, and finally, not in one forced quarantine situation, but two.

And there were others, at the same time, experiencing the despair and frustration of being powerless, homeless and stranded, sometimes for days in strange countries, and hostile airports. ‘Hostage: The Covid Caper’ takes the reader on these journeys through multiple viewpoints, with Christine’s experience linking them together.

before the covid caper chrissie and Amazon chief

Last day in paradise – the Amazon

For many, the hardest part was coming home: to an ill-prepared and ill-managed idea from government that all overseas travellers should be locked up, for two weeks.

We feel the frustration of the passengers as they fight to get home, and then face chaos outside and loneliness inside, in an unforgiving and brutal mess that was their ‘self-isolation’.  The euphoria on release is palpable, but for some, the nightmare continued in being released, only to be pushed back into a small room for another two weeks, regardless of situation or personal circumstances.

Mental breakdowns, suicides and illness followed our travellers, while front line workers for the government suffered as well.

‘Hostages’ is their stories, told in their words, unfolding a picture in the hope that the powers that be are accountable, and learn. Told without judgement, Christine writes the facts, and asks the questions, and leaves it to the readers to make their own decision. Here’s the first dash across the globe.

Chapter 1. Chaos

May, 2020. It’s a month after my second term of quarantine, and two months from a mad dash, which became more of a crawl, across Brazil. Today, I wake up tight, breathless – still half in a nightmare that encompassed being stuck, endlessly in a strange land, with no way home.

Replaying the movie in my head, I try to make sense of it. But sometimes dreams are hard to tackle and pin down to a meaning. I’d been surrounded by bags and bits and pieces of luggage, a backpack, a shoulder bag, and not able to cope with any of it. And no one, no one, could tell me how I could find the way home. Apparently I was at the wrong airport, and suddenly I was down a side street, accompanied by a woman who professed to know me in my restaurant days.

“Yes, I was a customer,” she turned as she led me into a busy, chaotic café/bar, with levels of diners going everywhere.

Looking around, the locals were Brazilian, a great mix of race and personality, and I felt… an outsider.

“How do I get to Guarulhos Airport? Please!” I’m begging and suddenly dawn I must be in São Paulo.

A sturdy man with a small tight beard comes forward and tells me, “No, no, no way to Guarulhos from here! No way.” He crosses his hands, shakes his head and shrugs. By now I feel sick, and start to pick up the bits and pieces of my luggage that seem to be spread everywhere. My ‘friend’ and former customer had disappeared, the bar is suddenly empty, my thin lifelines, gone.

And… I wake up.

Like almost all of the citizens flying back to my home country after shutdown, I had left Australia (for me, destination Brazil) long before. When things were – at least publicly – fine. Covid19 was a blip in China and the dragon that would soon breathe its fire around the world was not even considered a possibility…

It’s March 17, my Brazilian friends, Marly and Tassi are with me deep in the Amazon, flipping through Manaus, the capital, we head down river to walk in the jungle canopy. On the way we eagerly marvel at the conjoining of the two rivers – black and white, which don’t blend, and flow side by side for miles.

Hostage Amazon white and black rivers

Where the ‘white Amazon’ meets the Rio Negra but there’s no blending here

Chattering aimlessly our small group files through a buffet restaurant, waiting emptily, pulled together on an open shed splayed over the backwaters of this huge beast of a river.  Through another shed with the ubiquitous tourist temptations, a rough wooden boardwalk leads us into the jungle as tiny squirrel monkeys swing and lurch in front.

They chirrup and tease as we take in the smell of water, bark and dense fermenting vegetation that lies offering its bounty to ants and myriad insects on the forest floor. The monkeys follow us, a miniature welcoming committee telling their friends and enemies that – we have arrived.

Hostage before deep in the Amazon on a giant tree

Marly and Tassie at Iranduba deep in the Amazon

The boardwalk finishes with a viewing platform, cantilevered over a still pond covered in giant lilies with shy wildlife teeming underneath. Occasionally we see a splatter and a small alligator shakes its prey and disappears to enjoy lunch.

The bird sounds are teasing of so much life around us that is hidden in plain sight. Then as we stroll back past giant, ancient trees and ants’ nests high in the canopy that buzz like office high rises in New York, I spot an iguana, lying Sphinx like along a branch just off the forest floor. It moves a front foot, slowly, and I’m guessing it’s got its own tasty morsel in sight, unknowing, waiting to be snaffled up.

Lunch, at the aforementioned buffet restaurant, with red cloth topped tables and a choice of dishes worthy of a king’s table, finishes with an impromptu viewing of our guide playing pool with some locals. To me it seems bizarre to see this pool tournament here, in a back tributary of the Amazon, and memories of my last restaurant on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland flood back. Where local hospo workers would stream in late at night, after service, and watch their hard earned clatter down the slot, because going home without a drinks and distraction debrief was unthinkable.  I notice in spite of its size, there’s always movement on the river here, as a young man paddles in next to us to pull up with a fresh catch. He doesn’t even bother to moor the small boat, obviously knowing the lie of the water and its tides.

Hostage buffet in the Amazon

Our buffet waiting, deep in the Amazon

Later, a swim with the pink dolphins, then visiting an Amazon tribe to have our faces painted sends a ripple of excitement through our small group. As we leap across the bow and onto a rickety small jetty, I spy a large pig snuffling around the entrance to the tribe’s main pavilion. Tourist nick-nacks are lined up on a few trestle tables ushering our way in and the pig glances up, flicks its ears in disgust and rumbles off. We sit around the thatched shelter and watch the tribe march and sway to music that echoes of heart beats and steady jungle rhythms.  Women, men, children and babies all take part in ancient ceremonies that celebrate a good catch, or important milestone, and tattooed with grass skirts swaying, the tribe is hypnotic and invited, we join in.

Hostage Indians preparing for their dance display

Indians preparing for their dance display

We boat next to another jetty, to feed Tambaquiy, the giant pink and grey fish that swim eagerly, but silent, for our bait into muddy corrals on the banks of the river.

And we shop, for trinkets, watching a young Amazonian girl blow a feather-tailed dart with perfect accuracy into a board, hanging precariously on a rough wooden wall.

My friends and I agree this is the trip of a lifetime, and eagerly plan the next day, Wednesday, to visit the infamous opera house in Manaus itself. A city that for me is a constant surprise. In the heart of the Amazon, we find not a dusty frontier town of Marquez novels, but a bustling metropolis of two million people, with three huge shopping malls up the street from our hotel and traffic to rival Sydney or Melbourne.

My Brazilian hosts, Marly and daughter Tassi had stayed with me in Hobart the previous year, and they are keen to share their gorgeous country with me. Tassi had been studying for her PhD at UTAS on the presence of Ecoli in sushi, and both Tassi and Marly are brilliant, funny, delightful companions. I still love sushi.

The day after our superb trip down river, Wednesday, March 18, dawns, with other ideas. Almost everything is silent, and shut. Including the opera house, where instead of marvelling at an ornate, European style theatre, we sate our disappointment with an almost vengeful shop in a store across the street. It showcases art and products made in the Amazon, with a wall of clay fired Indian faces that are so lifelike I’m transfixed. The painted faces tell stories of solid black, geometric tattoos and hairstyles that are uniquely, recognisably Amazonian.

But we’re shocked at the sudden closure of all public and tourist sites. The news on television that night in our hotel is grim. The world has changed, and we have to curtail our trip and beat it back home. Not easy, either. Our flights to Rio and then Iguacu Falls? Cancelled, so Marly books us instead to São Paulo on Saturday, and we spend the ensuing time browsing the enormous wet and craft markets down at the docks, bartering with animated shop keepers, and dining on Tambaquiy in a restaurant that flows across to the busy boat filled riverside. An artist is finishing two sculptures of Anacondas that wind around poles at the entrance to the dining area, and the ubiquitous hawkers pester us gently to buy their watches, jewellery and anything else they can carry and sell.

Tassi and Marly hugging the anaconda at our favourite restaurant

Tassi and Marly hugging the anaconda at our favourite restaurant

We vow to return.

On Friday, we find our flights to São Paulo are cancelled (of course) and though it’s a struggle, we actually make it to Rio for just one night and the following day, en route to Porto Alegre. Hours of Marly arguing with staff at the Manaus airport pay off.

My weeks of travel hell are beginning.

Rio is disappointingly, for us, in the same headspace as Manaus.

Covid19 closed.

Shut for business, and even the beach, with its famous kiosks that normally bulge with life and atmosphere, is out of bounds. We dine at a very Brazilian style buffet restaurant, and I worry about the freshness of the food as dozens of dishes look at me, half-heartedly begging to be tried.

Marly has somehow managed to confirm our flights from Rio back to Porto Alegre, but that had already been changed and for some reason the airline has added a quick stop in São Paulo – we go with the flow. Marly decides that an Uber tour of the mountain view of Rio is essential on the way to the airport.

Hostage Copacabana side road

Copacabana Beach side road – empty

We crawl past favelas that scale mountainsides in a chaotic human-built jungle of shanties. Through tunnels that bore into enormous rocky outcrops, which seem to explode out of the ground, topped with trees or houses creating a higgledy-piggledy landscape like no other. Freeways past the massive, and now deserted, Copacabana Beach, are punctuated with machine gun armed police, lounging in or on their cars, supposedly as security.

Marly indicates and explains, “This is the most dangerous freeway in Brazil. Kidnappings happen here all the time. The police make it safer, Chrishtina.”

I lean back, trying to hide my very non-Brazilian looking face, but still see the sights as we pick up speed and head up an almost vertical switch back road to a tourist site with the promised view of Rio.

It takes hours, and I beg to go back down as the sun is setting and dusk covers the landscape in a blue haze.

“Not far, almost there, don’t worry, safe road,” says the driver as he roars and clips the corners until we push into an open space with a police car at one end, (whew!) and a couple of tourists taking photos in the half light.

The view is spectacular, with lights bobbing along the beach, and I look nervously over at the police car, until it suddenly drives off and leaves us, alone. It’s only then that Marly decides we’re late – late for our plane and need to get to the airport at warp speed if we’re going to make boarding at all. She utters some orders in Portuguese to the driver and we’re in a rocket, shooting back down the mountain road, and bursting on to the six-lane highway that frames Copacabana Beach.

Red lights? Irrelevant. Speed limits? Superfluous. Finding the right floor and terminal at the airport? Difficult.

Marly issues us with face masks, we fall out of the car, and Tassi and I fly past the check in and hit a roadblock at the security gate. An officious guard insists on rummaging through Tassi’s luggage, then tries out my hand sanitizer she dragged from a pocket in my backpack. I sweat, as a piranha and pig skin knife lies at the bottom of my case, and I’m determined to get it home to a loved one. I’m waved on, minus the sanitizer, and Tassi and I head down, down, to our boarding gate, as Marly handles the formalities back at check in. Our flight is being called as we drag our bags down the last set of escalators. And then we wait. But we manage a huge sigh of relief watching Marly come down, waving tickets and boarding passes signalling success. The flight is on.

I share around alcohol wipes I’d had the good luck to bring with me from Australia, and wonder at the lack of time and space between flights in Brazil. The new crews are waiting as the plane disgorges and they embark immediately to take their stations. When do they clean, I wonder?

The queue suddenly moves and we drag our luggage onto a bus, and head out on to the tarmac. Reminds me of a trip to Egypt in 1982, when we had to load our own luggage into the plane hold, swinging it up and regretting everything we dragged around with us. This time, we place our suitcases on the ground, and staff are waiting to load for us. There is a God in heaven, we nod to each other.

On the plane we settle in to our seats, and Marly checks with a hostess our arrival time in São Paulo.

“No, no stop there now, Porto Alegre straight,” and we all celebrate with small handclaps. And we’re not surprised. The chaos is difficult for us, but I hate to think what it must be like for the staff. Still concerned about the cleaning, as we are the last to disembark later in Porto Alegre I find the answer to my question. A single masked person with a large garbage bag in gloved hands, makes his way up the cabin collecting rubbish as the flight attendants file in behind him and start setting up for the next flight.

We bid goodbye to beautiful Tassi, whose partner will pick her up and chauffeur her back home to their university town of Pelotas. An hour’s drive later from Porto Alegre, we’re in Tramandai, Marly’s coastal retirement retreat, and relax into a quarantine-led lifestyle.

Hostage Militia in Tramandai

Militia picking up groceries, a sign of things to come

Leaning over her second floor balcony, Marly pulls up a basket of groceries loaded by her mum, Clélia, who at 85, has just opened a café in her building next door. And why not? I find this indomitable woman a shining example of age never being a barrier.

While opening a new café at the beginning of an epidemic might be bad timing for any new business, it’s a bonus for us, as food is easy to come by, and Marly’s main tenant on the ground floor is a Sushi restaurant, still operating with a focus on take away. Excellent. I love it here. My room looks over a quiet double lane streetscape with a verdant centre and noisy, busy neighbours over the road. The main shopping area is only two streets away, and we’ve landed back from our shortened trip in good health.

Marly's courtyard with a cousin and grandson, the bright Bernardo

Marly’s courtyard with a cousin and grandson, the bright Bernardo

The next day, Monday, March 23, my daughter calls from Hobart to tell me that the borders are closed in Australia, and I had better beat it back home. Now. I take some convincing. Life sharing Marly’s house in Tramandai is pleasant. Her family are around, and a café, Maria’s Cuzinha, housed behind Clélia’s new café, (and Maria is Clélia’s tenant) is so cheap I want to live there. Each day, lunch with steak or chicken, separate salad, rice, beans, sauce and garnishes with a glass of fresh lemonade and a small panacotta costs me just $5.30 AUD.

For me, this is heaven, and I struggle to see the benefit of returning home early, but my daughter is insistent. She pulls rabbits out of hats, and gets me on a flight home beginning from Porto Alegre the following day, Tuesday 24thMarch. I pack, begrudging every second I will miss this gorgeous place.

Streetscape, Tramandai

Streetscape, Tramandai

For the first time, I’m doing the airport trip in the daylight, and on my left flash past long stretches of golden beach, opposite the ubiquitous green chaos of jungle on the right, interspersed with Latin American style houses with terracotta tiles and farmed land that’s almost decayed looking, but not quite. I had asked Tassi about the number of half-built houses, and unfinished apartment blocks that dot the busy urban landscapes.

“Huh, they start to build, then run out of money – happens a lot here,” she informs me and I marvel at the optimism that would commit to sometimes large projects without the ‘money in the bag’ or the bank.

The airport at Porto Alegre is busy at just one end,  and my driver wheels my luggage past huge deserted spaces that are closed off and ghostly. At check in, (I’m flying Qantas Code Share on LATAM Airlines), a young man takes my details, checks his screen, and I wait. Staff come and go, whisper and look, pointing at details, then bustle off. He calls a girl over, gives her orders, and she comes around to the front of the desk to tell me,

“I’m very sorry madame, but we cannot give you a seat unless you have the next connecting flight booked, and all flights out of Rio are cancelled.”

My eyes widen, wow, things have gone very pear-shaped very quickly, haven’t they? My flights were booked for Porto Alegre – Rio de Janiero – Santiago – Sydney – Hobart.

Toss that. Gone.

She points me to the LATAM bookings office across the way, and it’s shut, but there’s a man lounging in front of it, looking expectantly, and a young couple with a toddler waiting as well. I think that it’s lucky I left with plenty of time, as we have a couple of hours yet before the flight is due to leave for Rio, and perhaps I can still get an international flight out from there. Or not. At this point, I’m still pretty relaxed and confident. I don’t know why, but as I look around and take in what’s actually going on, my spirits start to ebb, and my confidence melts away like a popsicle in the sun.

A small queue of travellers starts to form, snaking up the passage way behind me. They chat and shuffle, looking at their phones and occasionally darting expectant looks up at the counter, with the roller door shuttered in place still. An hour or so passes, and then their heads swivel, in unison, like baby birds in a nest, as a LATAM staff member bustles over importantly, and gestures to me to get out of the way. Or push on the roller door she’s trying to open.

I’m not sure which, and struggle to push the damn thing up, but of course it’s not going to budge, when other staff arrive and take over. The original girl has the hair-sprayed, slicked down look of all airport staff, and spends the next hour going to everyone in the queue behind me to chat, and direct. Me? She ignores. I think I just got put into the too hard basket.

The young mother moves closer to me and places her little girl on the counter, trying to get some relief from holding a large, heavy octopus desperate to break free. As another three staff members appear from inside the booking office, they gesture to her to move the child off the desk, and in a flash of inspiration, I grab my phone and start showing the child videos of my grandson. He’s playing a flute with just a nappy on, or kneeling on the floor and twerking to music, just being … perfect. And I’m not biased.

The mother looks at me gratefully and nods a thankyou, and as soon as one short video is finished the little girl’s hand, like a tiny paw, reaches out and touches my arm with a silent but clear “More, please, more.”

A young man finally enters from a back door and sits at the computer terminal in front of me. He fiddles with a facemask and fires the device up.

By this time, I know my flight to Rio has departed, and I’m stranded, still in Porto Alegre. He asks me a question in Portuguese and I look blankly.

“No Portuguese, excuse me,” and I hand him my phone with the flight bookings on the screen. His eyebrows lift and he hands me the phone back and sets to work. Or not. I’m not sure what he’s doing, but another hour ticks slowly by, he calls other staff over to point at the screen, discuss something, and a lot of the time he sits. Waiting. As I, and dozens around me, stand, waiting.

He rubs his forehead, shakes his head, and punches at some keys. Time slides by, in never land. Now it’s five hours since I’ve been at the airport, and he has something being printed out. Eureka! It’s a ticket to São Paulo, with a schedule to Santiago, Sydney and Hobart, and he points up the hallway and then up to the heavens. Then he gestures for me to go back across the hall to another check in desk and ask for, “Sofia.”

“Hey, the line’s here,” a woman yells as I push through and go straight to the counter. Feeling guilty, but not so guilty as to rescue my manners which have departed, shrugging my shoulders I lean over to the girl at the desk. “Sofia?”

“No,” she points behind me, and Sofia bustles up to the counter and I grab her, waving my ticket.

“Por favor, please, please check my bags.” And she does – all the way to Hobart. But she says I need to get another boarding pass once I’m in São Paulo.

For a short time, the stress leaves me in waves and the cavern disappears under my feet as the terminal yawns before me. I pull up a young guy passing me when I get off the escalators, show him my ticket, and he points, “Gate 32”. A maze of signs and redirections later, past taped off boarding gates, signs pointing to nowhere, shuttered tight shops and cafés, now the worry about having to rinse and repeat this to get out of São Paulo begins, but I push that down and head for the gate.

The girl at the gate checks my ticket and waves me on down the pipe to board the plane.

By the time we take off, I figure I’ve been travelling all day, and even at the end of this two hour flight, I’ll still be in Brazil. But, I’m on my way home. I think. I hope.

Settling in to my seat, cleaning like Mary Poppins every surface with disinfectant wipes, I remember the main airport in São Paulo is gargantuan, and why wouldn’t it be? A city of 12 million people, with endless, complete suburbs of high rise, low green patches of luxury estates here and there, the flight in at night is vastly different to the flight change and day we had there on our way to the Amazon.

We’re seated now with space between us, and I scroll through the videos I had taken of the current exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery on Paulista Boulevard. The collection of old masters we could move through, displayed on glass, some behind glass, others not, was breathtaking. Like a walk back through art history, I marvelled at the Gauguins, the Modiglianis, the Rembrandts, el Grecos, and on and on, such a surfeit of beauty and genius that Marly, Tassi and I could hardly believe our eyes. We vowed we would come back for a week and explore this wonderful city. On our way to the Amazon, we sang.

But as the plane now glides in to Guarulhos Airport, past more high rise than any other city I’ve seen, the dusky sky gives no inkling of the dramas unfolding around the world, and we wait, and file out, keeping our distance, heading for … home, or more chaos? The next round of patience stretching cancellations and waiting. Waiting.

I have to find the international LATAM check in counter, and wandering around lost, being directed and redirected what seemed a dozen times, when the long empty check-in looms, I actually think I’m back just an aisle away from where I started. A couple of friendly guys who have the requisite lanyards point me to the end of a sort of maze they’ve set up and barricaded off. Six long snake like aisles across, lie the empty check in desks. And I realise I’m at the head of the queue again, as people start to gather behind me. A good sign, I think, and a couple of other ladies chat idly to me, planning their returns to Portugal and England.

At six, as they open the sashes to let us through, I notice there’s just one young woman at the check in desks. Behind me? Dozens and dozens of tired looking passengers shuffle, hoping somehow to get home, wherever that may be. When I reach the desk, there’s of course a problem with my booking, and like almost everywhere in Brazil, no one speaks English. Black hair sprayed and in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, the check in staff shrugs, calls a young man over, who’s been chatting with other staff on the passenger side. They look at the screen, shake their heads, and wait.

At last, she looks up at me, hands me back my crumpled ticket, and waves me to a counter in a sort of cubby hole, at the far end of the empty check in desks. Blond hair and pale skin, another staff member takes his place behind that terminal, which is on a small dais like a pulpit, and fittingly, I pray as I drag myself over and prepare for battle. He looks up at me, takes my ticket, and goes to work. Then he puts my ticket down on the desk to the side of the screen, and beckons a woman on the other side, waiting. She comes forward, hands him her paper, and he kicks that off. Then he gets up, moves around me, and stands, leaning over another terminal.

He goes back to his cubby, sits down, picks up my ticket and punches in some keys. He looks at me with pale green eyes that betray nothing, this is just a job.

“Jor flight to Santiago, cancelled,” then goes back to the screen. My face must have crumpled, because he glances up, “Don’t worry, we find new one.” Then he beckons to another passenger, and by the time I lower my backpack and stretch my arms, he’s got four or five on the go. Mighty man.

And up the end of the check in desks, there’s still a couple of young guys chatting and now two girls actually doing the check ins, slowly, sending most of them down to our end to let our mighty man fix the mess of cancelled flights.

By this time, I’m singing softly to myself and flicking through messages on my phone. He looks at me sideways as he punches at his keyboard, and mutters to himself, “What’s your name?” I ask him, trying to curry favour, searching for anything that will help.

“Orlando,” he says, looking at me, then going back to his computer screen and chatting on a head set he’s just picked up from the desk.

“Oh, Orlando, my favourite name! Have you seen the movie with Tilda Swinton?” I chirrup madly, making a complete arse of myself and I don’t care. Then it dawns on me I don’t have my luggage, which could ostensibly be anywhere in the world now.

I gasp, “My luggage, Orlando, my luggage was booked through to Australia! Where’s my luggage?”

“Don’t worry, in store room, here, waiting for flight,” Orlando doesn’t miss a beat as he keeps focus on the screen, and moves deliberately between terminals when he feels the need.

A couple a few feet away, standing with a mountain of luggage, catch my eye, and the guy says kindly, “Are you okay? Heading to Australia too? …. Need any help?”

We introduce ourselves, and Ed fusses over his girlfriend, Ju, as she sits, looking forlorn, and sort of empty.

Just getting to São Paulo had been a struggle for them, and they’re both exhausted, yet he offers me help.

“Oh, I’m okay, I think, but thank you, thank you so much. That’s really kind of you.”

He looks down at his phone and says, not looking up, “What’s your number? Keep in touch and if you need anything, anything at all, just sing out, we’ll probably be around the same time…”

I give him my number, and he texts me a message which pings and I save. Random acts of kindness roll around in my tired brain, as I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and the food I picked up here on my way through the airport corridors many hours ago, is slumped in its plastic bag looking like me, tired, dishevelled, untouched.

….. next, Chapter 2. Things definitely don’t go to plan. At. All.