As a frequent traveller pre-COVID, I enjoyed (endured) 300 days between my last flight pre-COVID and my return to flight as Australia came to grips with a COVID normal state.
My first flight was Canberra to Melbourne. Canberra had pretty much avoided the dramas, while Melbourne had finally negotiated a harrowing winter and extreme lockdowns.
So hopping in my cab at 5.15am on a crisp Canberra morning in mid-December carried with it a certain amount of trepidation. Not only travel related, but I had also just started a new job and was venturing to Melbourne to meet new colleagues and staff.
Moses, my trusted long term driver in Canberra was in his usual high spirits. He’d been driving me for 15 years and loves regaling me with stories of is youth growing up in Somalia. COVID is nothing compared to what he endured as a teenager!
The pre-dawn in the east greets us as we travel along Parkes Way. We are the only ones using the road this morning, with Christmas just over a week away, tired school kids are sleeping in as families start to enjoy a break in a year we all a want to forget, but somehow will all remember. Moses is telling me a story from the 1980s where he encountered a warlord from Ethiopia. Moses was negotiating the releases of hostages in exchange for food. He laughs as he tells me what a good negotiator he was, he sent the food into Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian warlord sent the hostages across the border. “Wow”, I said, “well done, that must have been a great outcome.”
Moses laments for a minute: ”Yes, it was, I got them back, but they were all dead. Shot and put into the shipping container he sent over. He called out to me, “You got them back, you didn’t say you wanted them alive!””
A different world, a different life.
We arrive at the airport. I bid farewell to Moses and look at the edifice that is Canberra airports. It’s been 300 days since I entered the cavernous space that leads to the security check in area, Qantas to the right, Virgin to the left.
I try to walk to security but am stopped by barricades that send me in a different direction. I eventually locate the entrance and snake my way to the security check in point. What strikes me then is that I am alone. I am the only one wending my way, left and then right, left again, right again. My feet clicking on the polished marble floor as their echo enters my consciousness. At that moment I am overcome with a wave of depression.
Airports are made for people, lots and lots of people. When full, they never seen large and imposing. When empty, they are tombs to travellers past. When full, the excited sounds of families getting ready for travel surrounds you. When empty, the silence hangs over your like a heavy fog. When full, the joy of loved ones, friends seeing each other after an absence abounds. When empty, the despair of boarded up shops, empty arrival and departure boards and the emptiness consumes you.
I breeze through the security area. The five guards pleased to see someone. The area has been remodelled since the last time I was here. I chat to the guards to try and lighten the depression, but like me, they long for busier times.
I pass the coffee shop where I’ve enjoyed a hot chocolate from time to time, closed. Then the newsagent where I’ve bought, chocolate, lip balm, deodorant, closed. The book store, where I’ve never bought anything, I can’t read books because of my eyesight, but I’ve looked at bestseller lists and new releases, closed.
The depression deepens as I ascend the stairs into the Qantas Lounge. As I enter there are people scattered here and there and the mood seems upbeat compared to the desolation below. I sit and listen to my surrounds. I’m not sure how food and drink service works, but am neither thirsty nor hungry. So I sit and wait for my boarding call. I process some emails. My new job is very very busy. I am responsible for a large and geographically distant team and email is the best form of communication. I’m loving the new challenges presented by Vision Australia and am really looking forward to getting to know some of my team when I arrive in Melbourne.
My flight is called. Qantas are calling people in rows to respect social distancing and to make boarding a little less chaotic. That’s a plus. I board and take my seat. Baggage stowed I settle back for the 55 minute skip to Melbourne.
During the flight, Bec, the cabin manager offers me a drink and welcomes me back. I say its great too back. She asks is she can sit next to me. Sure.I tell her this is my first flight in 300 days and I’m pleased to see people flying, Qantas getting back on its feet and staff smiling. She agrees and asks me about my last pre-COVID flight. That was from New York in mid-December 2019, a month or so before things got bad. Bec loves New York and can’t wait to see to again. I agree. Bec tells me about her period of stand down from Qantas. She was lucky to secure an office job processing payroll for a small company in Melbourne. She hated it. But she also realised how lucky she was as many of her colleagues just didn’t get any work. Now she is back flying and loving it. We chat about my new role and my return flight, which she is also working on. It was great to engage with Bec and share a story or two.
We land in Melbourne. I alight the plane and say good-bye to Bec, agreeing to see her on Friday when I return.
I arrive at gate 22, a walk downhill and then a right hand turn to find the exit.
As I walk through Melbourne airport, it’s a ghost town. Not only are all of the shops closed, but most are simply boarded up. Not random boards here and there, but boarding that looks permanent. Floor to ceiling boards partitioning shops from the walk way, as if there was nothing behind the hoarding.
The feeling of depression washes over me again. As I enter the main baggage claim area in search of my driver. This should be easy I say to myself, there is no one around. A few minutes later we connect and I hop into the cab bound for work.
The drive to Kooyong takes about 30 minutes, 12 months ago this drive would be an hour or longer. Just as the airport was empty, so too are the roads. The city glides by on my left as we arc around it. I love cities. Tall buildings. Bustling streets. Something always happening.
But like most world cities, Melbourne today is devoid of the din of a large crowd, the honk of a horn. The clang of the tram is all that is left as a reminder of how busy this city can be.
I arrive at Vision Australia and get into work. Can’t wait!