Part eight of the repatriation ordeal (in which there is no hotel shuttle)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
This is what a real coffee looks like.
Peruvian coffee, Peru
January 2020

Miami airport is large. I’m not sure that it’s as large as Madrid airport where you can stand in the hall without seeing the other end of the building because it’s just so incredibly far away from you. However when you leave immigration and exit alone into an empty hall and walk through an empty corridor to find an empty set of facilities, pass alone up and down in some large empty lifts and through some more empty halls, completely lost, Miami airport feels very large indeed.

I sat down and called my dad, he said there was a hotel shuttle.

I called the hotel, a chap said there was no hotel shuttle because of coronavirus.

I went in search of a taxi

There were no taxi’s but a cheerful chap assured me that he could find me a taxi and what’s more I could pay with any card I liked. A bright yellow cab turned up. It was so yellow I laughed. The man who had called it up looked at me as if I might be mad.

I asked the driver to take me to the hotel. He tried. He got a bit lost. He tried some more. I paid. I walked into the hotel. I checked in. I looked for a lift. I found the elevator. I counted the numbers and found my room. I collapsed on the bed.

A short while later I decided that the best thing to do would be to have a shower and go back downstairs and find a cup of coffee. The shower was a good idea, the coffee less so.

I ordered my coffee, which came in a furry plastic cup, and found some of those small UHT plastic carton things which are supposed to contain milk.

This was when my brain finally conked out and I realised that I was going mad. I stared at the plastic carton whilst sipping my plastic coffee and I read the label.

Non-Dairy. Contains Milk.

I read it again

I asked the waitress. She read the label for me and said that she didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was supposed to be healthier than the alternative option, but she wasn’t sure. English wasn’t her first language. I told her that this English wasn’t my first language either because in my English milk is a dairy product.

At this point my day got suddenly much better because we switched to Spanish and everything seemed to make a lot more sense. Suddenly I was having a very real Latin American-esque conversation where I learnt about Cuba and how a certain ‘politician’ has caused some frustration for the Cuban residents of Miami as he’s made going home to visit their mothers a whole lot harder. I sympathised, I was on my way home to see my mother and had unexpectedly found myself spending a night in Miami. Going straight home would have been a whole lot more convenient.  

I then returned to my room and ask the rain fell in Miami, I slept.

Part seven of the repatriation ordeal (in which my apple is incinerated)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
You can’t take photos in immigration, so here’s a random purple flower.
Tuscany, Italy
May 2018

I landed in the United States of America very early on the Sunday morning. The sun had just risen.

The aeroplane had landed smoothly enough and silently I’d dragged myself from my seat and like obedient cattle we all filed off the plane and trotted down the corridors to immigration control. Here, two men, one in either half of the hall stood and shouted at us in Spanish and English, ordering us what to do, where to stand, when to move etc.

I was exhausted and my little brain wasn’t processing information very well as I put my details into the computer and got ushered into the next queue. I moved along, socially distanced from the rest of the queue, listening to the shouting repeating itself over and over.

It dawned on me at some point in one of the queues that in my rucksack somewhere…

I probably had an apple

I wasn’t sure if I did have an apple or not. I’d certainly eaten one of my apples which I’d bought less than 24 hours previously. I’d bought them for the bus journey. The bus I reflected, would be leaving in a couple of hours, trundling down the Pan-American highway from La Serena to Santiago, my seat empty because I was now in the United States of America.

Maybe, I concluded, I did have an apple. But I couldn’t be sure. In fact, I seemed to have barely any memory of what I’d stuffed in my rucksack on leaving. It had all been such a rush.

I told the security chap who wanted to check all my papers and know exactly which plane I would be escaping the United States of American on. Although he didn’t use the word escape. The security chap explained that apples were banned. Apples were not allowed in the United States of America and as such, my apple must be incinerated.

“How do I incinerate it?” I asked

He tried to explain to me where to go. I was tired. I didn’t understand. He decided that the best thing was to escort me to the special baggage reclaim area for people who accidentally forget to eat their apples before finding themselves in the United States of America.

I collected my suitcase and wheeled it through the door to customs, where a cheerful chap kindly asked me a question. I didn’t understand him, but I said I’d like to please have my apple incinerated because apples are illegal.

He asked me if there was anything else

I shrugged and said I had no idea. Maybe I owned some biscuits, I wasn’t entirely sure. And what about a cereal bar. I might have had a cereal bar in there. I told him I was very tired and that I couldn’t be 100 percent sure.

Thankfully the chap in charge of putting apples in the incinerator said not to worry. He smiled and told me just to pop my luggage through the machine. A Chilean chap who appeared behind me offered to lift my heavy suitcase for me. The bags rolled through the scanner.

Very sure of himself, the security chap told me my apple was in the side pocket of my rucksack.

“It’s not,” I said. “That’s a bottle of water.”

He let me keep my water. He took the apple, remarked upon its large size and told me I was free to go. I could keep my biscuits.

Part six of the repatriation ordeal (In which I compare airlines)

Torres del Paine, Chile
February 2020
This was on the eighth day of continuous hiking (in the same clothes).

In February I went hiking in the beautiful Torres Del Paine National park in the Patagonia region of Chile. My flight back to Santiago was with the airline LatAm. Shortly into the flight, the pilot came on the tannoy system and cheerfully told us that what with it being a really beautiful day, with perfect flying conditions, and a perfect view over the national park, he was going to just take a few minutes and twizzle the plane around a bit so that everyone on the flight could get a good look at the iconic stone towers for which the national park is so famous.

It was quiet flight to Miami with LatAm, but the staff checked we were okay, and they gave us food which to my surprise seemed like real food on what looked like a plate. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until I started eating. I had the entire row to myself as the staff gave us freedom to sit where we wanted to help us keep socially distanced and make use of the available space.

I don’t remember the food on the American Airlines flight to London, except for that when I got off the flight I was hungry and there was an awkward moment where I had to go to the kitchen at the back of the plane and ask for water because we’d been given so little.

The LatAm staff acknowledged the unpleasantness of wearing masks, but they wore their own mask correctly and set a good example.

On the American Airlines flight, I saw one senior looking member of staff not bothering to wear any mask at all, despite it being an obligation for everyone. He walked up and down the aisle from one end of the plane to the other, mask-less, a number of times throughout the night.

You’ll understand therefore if I now have a bias towards LatAm. I was exhausted, anxious, afraid and alone and the staff bothered to recognised it. No surprise that I slept much better on the LatAm flight that the American Airways flight.


On my return I did write to the booking agent, Opodo, explaining the situation. They have still not responded. There has been no apology for their screw up.

My father called British Airways about the first cancelled flight. Nobody ever picked up.

‘Tannoy’ is apparently, like hoover, a brand. I think it looks ugly capitalised mid sentence.

Part two of the repatriation ordeal (in which I discover the second flight is cancelled)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
Through the fence.
September 2019.
Elqui River.

You might want to read part one first.

I called the booking agent, Opodo, who acknowledged that indeed, it did seem that my flight on Sunday was cancelled and that the airline had rescheduled the flight for the Saturday. The signal quality was terrible and the agent at the other end just kept repeating that it appeared I was correct. Yes, the flight had been moved. No, nobody had contacted me. Yes, this was very inconvenient. Yes, getting to Santiago from La Serena with eight hours’ notice wasn’t ideal. However, they were unable to provide any support or guidance other than to advise me to ring the airline operator.

I rang LatAm in Chile

And thankfully they found a lovely lady who spoke beautiful English who wanted to help. The reason why I hadn’t been informed of the change to my flight was simple, the airline had no contact details for me. Opodo had failed to pass such information along. However she could now confirm that I had had my flight moved to the Saturday, and if that were inconvenient she would be happy to swap it for any other flight to Miami from Santiago.

I didn’t know what to do, so she offered to leave a note in my file saying that I would get back to them and choose a flight.

I called my father again

He asked if there was any possible way of getting to Santiago in the next seven hours as financially this seemed like a better option than trying to change the Miami to London flight. My darling housemate called the bus station and confirmed that there were no buses. I already knew there were no planes. I frantically contacted people at random asking if anyone had any idea how I could travel the 500km in the next seven hours.

My father looked up the car hire places in the city, but they all seemed to be closed. My housemate did the same and found one place, located by the supermarket, which offered to hire me a car which I could drop off near Santiago airport. I had to be at the agency within 45 minutes.

So I packed

My housemate made me a sandwich and filled my flask with tea. The other housemate called an Uber to get us to the agency on time. In a mad rush, I applied for another certificate this time to state that I was travelling by car, to the airport and that I still had no symptoms of the virus.

Mask on, I dashed out the house, into the car and we were off to the agency.

Now… punctuality is not a Chilean skill, nor is moving with anything resembling haste

I handed over my driving licence, passport and identity card and waited whilst the man behind the counter bashed down on the keyboard, failing to copy out my name, leading to a multitude of errors flashing on his screen.

After half an hour of this, at 2:30 pm, five and a half hours before I needed to be at the airport, he restarted the computer and decided to begin again. His friend arrived to lend assistance. My housemate went around to the other side of the counter and sat down at the computer to try and help. The three men stared at the screen, muttering quietly in Chilean Spanish, breaking all rules of social distancing, whilst I paced up and down the office.

Just before three o’clock I gave my housemate a huge hug, sat down in the driver’s seat, thanked the gods that the car was a manual and set off on the 500 km trip south.

There had been no time to think.

Part one of the repatriation ordeal (in which the first flight is cancelled and I fill out forms)

Closed borders and the like.
Elqui river, La Serena.
September 2019.

Last Monday, I awoke to a message from British Airways saying that my June flight to London from Santiago had been cancelled. This wasn’t such a surprise. The Chilean border is closed and the only flights out of Santiago at the moment are to the United States. Although, the British government website advises that there are still flights scheduled from Santiago to Europe and Brazil for June.

I called my father, then called my father again and then called my father again. We discussed the options. Getting home does matter because my sister hopes to be married and well, visas… We contemplated a flight via Barcelona. I went to pay the house bills and then returned and called my father again. The Barcelona flight no longer existed. My father was concerned that any flight we booked mid-May might well be cancelled by the beginning of June. I was concerned that come June I would have nowhere to live (although this would not actually be the case as my Chile-based friends are between them so generous that someone would have rescued me).

My mother had her word. She told my father to get me home as soon as possible. So my father booked me a flight for six-days later: Santiago – Miami – London.

At this point my life suddenly turned upside down

Or maybe it was upside down and simply revolved to point in yet another direction. I was heading to the USA for the first time, planning on doing three continents in three days.

By Friday I had given away or thrown half of my belongings. I’d been to the bank and I’d booked a bus ticket for the Sunday morning to travel into Santiago. On Friday, Santiago went into complete quarantine. To go to the supermarket, you now needed a certificate of permission declaring that you had none of a long list of symptoms. And there I was, planning a nearly 500 km journey by public transport right into the capital.

The certificate proved tricky. It asks you for the address of the residence, hotel or place of lodging to which you are going in Chile. You can only put a location in Chile and I was planning on lodging myself in an un-address-worthy, economy-class aeroplane seat. My housemate and I called the British Embassy, the phone suggested we email, I emailed the British Embassy asking for advice. Meanwhile, I created myself a variety of these certificates pertaining to all eventualities with a selection of possible addresses covering travel by bus and plane. The British government website declares that LatAm flights require such a certificate. The bus company told me I’d need one to board the bus.

On Saturday morning I bought myself two apples and a banana for my adventure

And four additional facemasks. Heading back home, I ambled through Puertas Del Mar in the sunshine trying not to think about the achingly long bus journey, there were horses in the street eating the grass. I had my train ticket from London to Leeds, I’d checked that the London Underground (metro) was running and I knew my route. I even had my ESTA for my planned 12-hour stopover in Miami and new travel insurance as my normal travel insurance covers me for everywhere except the United States of America.

Lawn-mowing.
Puertas del Mar, La Serena
May 2020

In the circumstances, I felt that I was doing quite well

I logged onto my computer and clicked onto the LatAm website to pay for my suitcase. I clicked through, parted with yet more pennies and was about to close the browser when the word SATURDAY caught my eye.

Saturday 16/05/2020 11.10pm

My flight, I thought, is not for Saturday. It’s definitely for Sunday.

I checked my email because it would not be the first time that I have found myself flying on the wrong day this year. The emails definitely all said Sunday. I checked the junk email folder, nothing. I tried to think it through, was it a result of the time difference? If so, why would it still say Saturday. I checked my emails again. It was definitely a Sunday flight.

I called my father

The chaos, it seemed, was only just beginning.

Someone else’s home (somewhere or other)

I don’t have my camera to hand here, so you will have to use your imagination and enjoy this picture from the north of Chile instead.
Near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020

I wake up at 07:30 as the white light comes through the curtain-less window. It’s white because outside hangs a thick mist, which hugs the landscape for much of the morning, although come afternoon there’ll be nothing but blue sky and scorching sun. Between the dark of the previous night, and the mist of this morning, I’m left with only a hazy idea of where I am. I know I’m not far from Santiago, although I feel knowing the village name and seeing the bob of my global positioning satellite assisted blue dot moving on a digital map doesn’t constitute knowing where I am. If there is a village here, I still can’t see it.

I get up and wander around the house

It’s an amateur build, a creative project, a mixture of a building site and a home. I cross the terrace and enter the open front door of its non-identical twin. The owner has gone to work already and I’ve been left here alone. I wander in and make myself a cup of tea. The part where I live lacks functionality.  

It takes time, but after rooting around this stranger’s cupboards, I start to understand where to find what I need. I take avena, an apple and a stick of cinnamon to make porridge. I load my clothes into the washing machine, switch a tap, prod around and hopeful water noises begin. A fluffball of a grey cat rubs against my leg affectionately.

I find some tools to remove the concrete floor

Concentrating on the area closest to the front door to begin. I work for a short while, trying to gauge the difficulty of the problem and then pause. It’s going to take some thinking. I step back outside. The mist directly above has developed a blue tinge and looking out I can see a small lake or rather, with this dry summer, a pond. There’s a suggestion of hill. In a neighbouring field stands a nonchalant piebald pony.

I figure it’s time to explore and so take the keys, hanging on a hook, and head down to the pyramid building below. Yesterday, it was just a glimmer of light, pointed out to me as the biblioteca, but now I discover that it’s a tower roof, missing the tower. By which I mean if you imagine a tall tower, with a triangular roof the colour of terracotta, then what I look down at from the terrace looks like the decapitated point. It slants up from the floor and in beautiful Egyptian form rises to a perspex skylight.

There is a door on one side

Inside is a small coffee table with a notebook lying atop, a few worn chairs, an old-style school desk and shelves with books: Oscar Wilde and The Little Prince, an English dictionary and the complete works of Dostoevsky – which is a coincidence as I am reading The Brothers Karamazov.

With the washing hanging, the sun appears and casts the garden in warm light

I marvel at the sudden appearance of hills, or mountains perhaps is the word. Now seems a sensible moment to start thinking about lunch, for I am going to have to eat. It’s a game of ready, steady, cook, which has me delving into the back of the fridge wondering if what I pull out is a courgette or a cucumber. There seem to be an endless supply of tomatoes and enough pasta to keep even me going a while. This though is a game I am quite adept at. I have practised many times before. Frustratingly there appears to be no evidence at all that anyone here drinks coffee.

Outside a horseback herdsman guides his cows to the lake

I watch him and his dogs and smile at the sound of an indignant cow before returning to scrambling in broken concrete. I whack a large hammer systematically at the weakest points of the floor trying to make it shatter, I prise it up slowly and occasionally tumble over. I’m surprised by my progress. I’m going to need wire cutters and a dustpan and brush, but soon the door will swing open freely and there will be space to begin my masterpiece. Meanwhile I place my tomatoes in boiling water to remove their skins and plan how I’m going to make a peach tart. There’s no need to rush anything here and nobody to rush me.