• I was told the situation at home was dire, but so was everywhere else. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
After my first flight was cancelled, I used the last of my savings to purchase a new ticket, writes Khalid Warsame.
By
Khalid Warsame

2 Apr 2020 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 2 Apr 2020 - 1:10 PM

I arrived at Athens International Airport Eleftherios Venizelos several hours early. Later I would thank myself for this, but for now I was merely tired, having slept little the night before. My taxi driver, a woman named Eiríni, made me promise to return to Greece once this was all over. She gestured at this in a twirling motion with her left forearm, encompassing the eerily empty streets of central Athens. A few weeks ago, when I had first arrived in Athens, Leoforos Alexandras was a calamity of traffic, throbbing with short-nosed cars, wagons, buses, scooters, taxis, trucks, and so many people. The previous week the Greek government had begun issuing a series of increasingly dire warnings through infrastructure I didn’t understand, which manifested themselves as special alerts on my phone written in Greek, a language I didn’t speak.

As the situations in Spain and Italy deteriorated, the riotous sounds of Athens became quieter and outside my apartment, cats began to roam the streets in great numbers. I had become morbid and started speaking to myself. I was in Athens to work on my book and a friend of mine joked that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined due to the plague. No way, I thought. Not me. I decided to leave that day, and just in time: another emergency alert appeared on my phone, again from the Greek government, the English translation underneath. It was filled with exclamation marks and dire warnings. Later I learned of a decree which required people to form lines in supermarkets, where they’d only be allowed inside three at a time.

I decided to leave that day, and just in time: another emergency alert appeared on my phone, again from the Greek government, the English translation underneath.

On the taxi to the airport, Eiríni would say something and it would take me a few moments to respond. I spilled some hand sanitiser fluid on myself in the backseat of the taxi because my hands were shaking. The alcohol volatilised in the air, causing a sharp and distinct smell. The driver didn’t seem to notice, and I hastily wiped my hands over and over, scooping up all the blobs that had fallen on my jeans. I remember looking at the patch of my jeans darkened by the spilt hand sanitiser fluid and thinking: if I ever need to lick my jeans, I know where to lick.

The airport felt both cavernous and claustrophobic: large signs warned us to keep a two-meter distance from our fellow passengers, and the screen with upcoming flights listed was filled with flashing red text saying ‘cancelled’ or ‘delayed’. The airport was close to empty. Here and there, people in facemasks shuffled around the terminal, and the sudden movement of a child running or jumping would draw everyone’s eyes. The airport staff all looked miserable, and would take long, circuitous paths to avoid clumps of travellers. I went up and down the terminal twice before I found my check-in desk. There they told us that our flights were cancelled, and furthermore, that Singapore had just decided to close its boarders to all transit flights.

One of the airline staff, who seemed senior to the others, had begun joking with us as we desperately crowded him, waiting for more information. He said that loads of people were relieved that they had an excuse to not visit their mothers. A few people laughed, but most were quiet. He then told us that everything was getting sealed up. That we had better get out as soon as we could, if we wished to get back home at all. He said that we should try our luck hopping on a flight via Turkey, or we could try to find a seat on an Emirates flight.

We huddled together and went over our itineraries - it struck me later how we had completely forgotten that we were each a potential vector for disease - and waited for more information. The man behind the counter laughed at something a woman from Queensland said, and he shrugged in response.

Someone in our crowd, a woman wearing a bright red Kathmandu puffer jacket, was on the phone to the consulate, and so was a friend of mine back in Australia. The woman on the phone said, ‘Thank you,’ and hung up and turned to us and told us that the Australian consulate didn’t know whether Singapore had closed their border to transit passengers.

I couldn’t stay in Greece any longer: the Australian government had begun urging all overseas citizens to return, and English-language Greek news websites were openly speculating as to when the border would be shut down and all flights grounded.

After my first flight was cancelled, I used the last of my savings to purchase a new ticket, for a flight leaving at noon. I couldn’t stay in Greece any longer: the Australian government had begun urging all overseas citizens to return, and English-language Greek news websites were openly speculating as to when the border would be shut down and all flights grounded. It felt like anything could happen, and that my window of time to return home was rapidly shrinking. A little before check-in, an announcement came over the PA: my second flight was cancelled. A woman who was on my second flight began laughing uncontrollably at the news: she was also on my previous flight that got cancelled. ‘Yeah, that’s it for me,’ she said. I asked her how she was going to get home now, and she said she didn’t know and asked me the same thing. I told her I had no idea.

Eventually, I got on the phone to my travel agents and they told me that there was one more flight leaving Athens that day. One more flight, and that was it. I managed to borrow money from a friend and purchase a ticket for the flight to Melbourne via Abu Dhabi ten minutes before check-in opened. The flight was almost empty: a Pakistani family of nine had been turned away at the check-in counter and told that their own country would not accept them unless they had a doctor’s certificate. The family looked exhausted as they shuffled out of the line. Another New Zealand couple were denied entry onto the flight as it was unclear whether they could transit home via Australia. My fellow passengers and I were all on edge and had become keen students of coughs. One woman, who had spent the past four days in airports was separated from her hand-sanitiser at the gate to our Melbourne-bound flight. She was distraught. She’d come so far with it only to lose it at the very end, just as she was about to board her flight home.

It didn’t feel like things were falling apart; it just felt like people were being left behind, or that the cruelties in systems were being exposed.

I had the whole row to myself, and I immediately stretched myself out as far as I could go, which I had never done before on a plane. The flight attendants kept on offering us seconds and thirds, and I found myself declining food on a plane for the first time in my life. I slept badly: I’d manage to drift off for a moment, before suddenly waking up from a dream that the captain was turning the plane around, or that the plane was making an emergency landing in the middle of the ocean. I kept on thinking about the Pakistani family, denied entry into their own country, who were probably still stuck in Athens as our flight path took parallel to the south-western tip of the Indian subcontinent; and about the woman who couldn’t get on a flight home after her last two flights were cancelled; about how close I came to joining them. It didn’t feel like things were falling apart; it just felt like people were being left behind, or that the cruelties in systems were being exposed. Soon I would be back home in Melbourne, where I was told the situation was dire. But then, so is everywhere else.

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for each piece has been provided by Winnie Dunn and Michael Mohammed Ahmad. 

Information on looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak is available at beyondblue.org.au

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household. 

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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