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Part nine of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drink real coffee)

Read the whole repatriation story.


Home sweet home, Yorkshire, May 2020

Things I remember about my tiny adventure in the airport hotel in Miami, the United States:

  1. The food was terrible.
  2. Everything was plastic wrapped.
  3. There was a lot of rubbish floating along the river.
  4. The hotel flooded due to the excessive rain.

But I curled up in bed and watched the film The Two Popes – on my phone due to not having a plug converter as I’d never planned on visiting the United States…. The hotel didn’t have one either, neither for a British or European/Chilean plug. How ill-equipped!

 And the film being partly set in Italy made me even hungrier for real food – those Italian pizzas – and a bit nostalgic for the Latin American life I was leaving behind – those crowded Argentinian streets.

Mostly though, I slept and thought about real food and real coffee

I needed the sleep as on the American Airlines flight home – in which not all the staff obeyed the rules about masks – I really failed to sleep. I wish I hadn’t thought so much about food as the meal on the flight was pathetic and just made me think of how much better the LatAm pasta had been. When breakfast came, I was so hungry and so disappointed that my stomach began to growl with frustration. I had no food on me as I didn’t want to get into trouble again for crossing borders with illicit apples – and I’d eaten all my remaining biscuits.

In summary: I left the United States inspired not to return, but to visit Cuba.

The next adventure was Heathrow and I found myself suddenly recalling my 2016 trip back from Egypt. During my Egyptian travels I’d covered my arms and used scarfs around my neck in respect of the customs there. It had become somewhat of a norm for me there although in England I’m the sort of person who if I have long sleeves, I roll them up.

Now I was travelling back from a city where we wore masks or got fined

In Heathrow, the only people wearing masks seemed to be the new arrivals. I stared down at the people unloading the planes in astonishment and mild concern. My stomach rumbled. I’d been wearing masks continuously for the previous 12 hours, and I was still feeling annoyed by the staff member who sauntered up and down the aisles with his posh clip board mask free.

Both on the return from Egypt and the return from Chile I found myself unsettled by the sudden onslaught of bare skin. It was like my internal norm had been somehow set to something non-British. Something more conservative.

Heathrow, being empty, proved surprisingly easy

I walked through immigration, picked my bag straight from the conveyor belt as it passed me and solitarily headed down to the tube. One other chap joined me on the underground platform, and we spread out, taking the opposite ends of the same carriage. A few stops later he departed, someone else got on, then off again. I had a shouting chat with one passenger – only the two of us were sharing the carriage but both wore masks and we social distanced with a dozen chairs between us – we remarked upon the absurdity of the situation. Then he got off.

I passed through central London however entirely alone

In Kings Cross station the cafés were shut, and my stomach was about to despair when I saw the little supermarket shop was open. I went in, bought water, a sandwich and pastries, pastries and more pastries and then sat down on the bench outside and feasted upon the food. Never has a shop bought, plastic wrapped British sandwich tasted so good. Unsurprisingly, given my homesickness, it was a palta, sorry… avocado sandwich. I wondered if the avocado had been grown in Chile and whether, like me it had been flown across the Atlantic.

I also desperately needed a cup of coffee, but none presented themselves. I sought out a helpful member of the station staff and explained my issues with tickets and things not downloading and after showing her my email confirmation was waved through the barrier with the assurance that there would be Wi-Fi on the train.

Finally, I boarded my train to The North and sat in a crowded carriage

There were three of us in it. A couple who sat at the other end of the carriage and me. Busy compared to the tube. Nobody came to check my ticket but I did find the WI-Fi and I did manage to message the father and beg him to bring me a real cup of coffee when he came to collect me from the station.

And then, a few hours later, there my parents were: stood the far side of the station one-way complexity. I bound through the gates and leapt into the arms of my loving family, still wearing my mask.

Finally, hesitantly after hours and hours and hours I removed my own mask

We walked to the car together, me with adrenaline pumping through my system, giddy on sleeplessness and my parents seriously relieved that I’d actually arrived home.

And waiting for me in the car, in a small flask, real coffee.

Wielding a butter knife

I’m supposed to be writing

In these weeks of uncertainty there is much I am unsure about, the anxiety of all the unknowns eats away at me, yet I know one thing: I’m supposed to be writing. I’m supposed to be writing, and I’m not. I’m not even writing in my diary.

Weeks pass and although my fingers tap away at the keyboard each day, bashing out lesson plans and assignments, I’m not really writing. Practical writing isn’t the sort of writing I ought to be doing. There’s nothing wrong with it, except it’s not enough. I’m meant to be writing something more, something to connect the war being fought in my heart to the outside world through some fanciful linguistic dance.

I’m meant to be writing

I don’t write because I’m numb. I’m sad and heart-bruised. I should respond to my emails and tell my stories. I should build on the scrappy collection of fiction that is stored in this mystical interconnected cloud, and I should translate all this impossible into something more tangible, something I can face, something I can deal with.

I’m homesick for a life I only imagined.

I tell my mother I want a butter knife

She tuts at me and pulls faces and gets one from the drawer. I’m a spoilt white girl with everything at her fingertips. My father obstinately refuses to have anything to do with the tiny precious silver knife. He thinks I’m being overtly and unnecessarily posh.

I live in a palace, although many people I know mistake it for a three-bedroom ordinary little house with a generous garden.

Do you know how lucky we are to have a butter knife?

To have all this food? I use jam spoons and cake forks because I want to treat the food as precious. In front of my eyes it has become precious, something that mustn’t be taken for granted. I’m putting on weight eating all these meals all the time, deserts, ice-cream, fancy cheese. It pains me to see anything thrown away.

I’m supposed to be writing, but I’m still kind of in shock

I’ve forgotten how to be the person I was before I left. On Friday I decided to cook a pasta dish from my Italian recipe book. I read the recipe and it required a certain type of pasta. I could have replaced it with any packet pasta. Tubes would have worked fine, as would spirals or those fancy little butterflies.

I take flour and water and make the pasta, covering every surface in the kitchen with sheets of tiny orecchiette, ‘ear-shaped’ pasta. With my kitchen knife, I flick off shape after shape, exactly as the Italian nonna does in the video. They really do look like little ears. Hundreds of pasta ears scattered across the surfaces of my parents’ beautiful kitchen.

I’m angry

I know I’m supposed to be writing and yet I’m not. I make myself extraordinarily tired with studying and teaching but it’s the inner battle that’s wearing me down. I’m supposed to be writing, and I’m not. I create pasta shapes as if doing so could save the world. It won’t.

I’m homesick for a community I don’t belong to.

I’m the sort of girl who gets to wield a butter knife.

In psychology there’s a phrase cognitive dissonance

It’s a term used to describe what happens when a person’s brain holds two or more contradictory ideas, beliefs or values. The result is a discomfort which people try to escape. It’s through deeply uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that we can change our beliefs about the world. This is always hard work. It’s ONLY through deeply uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that we can change our beliefs about the world.

That’s why people don’t want to change their beliefs.

Traditionally I write when I can’t order the disorder in my brain

It’s taken thousands and thousands of words to get me to here. It’s going to take me thousands of words more to settle with this current discomfort. My heart aches with what I have witnessed this last year. This time though it’s going to take more than a pen. This time I’m fighting not only with ink but with a tiny, precocious silver butter knife.

At least I’m fighting.

Part five of the repatriation ordeal (in which I board a plane)

Valparaiso, January 2020
Bedtime.

I hate filling up the car. I particularly hate filling up cars in foreign countries because filling up the car is, like ordering in a restaurant, an occasion where you take what’s being sold before you pay for it. I find that the cards in my purse are much more reliable in England where they belong, and that in foreign countries things go wrong. Imagine my fear of the embarrassment of whatever card is in my purse not working and the inevitable search in the bottom of my suitcase for a spare.

Of course, my Chilean card behaved perfectly

My problem came before that, when the kindly chap who was gallantly offering to fill up my car for me asked me to release the cap to the petrol tank. I had no idea how to do this. I opened the car door and he indicated places where the release might be, instructing me with a friendly polite Chilean Spanish from behind his mask.

It was now dark outside, my brain was flooded with anxiety because I had to be in the airport in the next twenty minutes, I had found the petrol station because I’d just taken the wrong road on entering Santiago. Ramon was waiting for me, somewhere. And I had no idea where the lever was.

Luckily Latin Americans don’t hesitate to mime when the occasion demands such

The situation, with our efforts at maintaining some resemblance of social distancing, required some excellent miming, and eventually, to everyone’s relief, I found the lever.

The chap filled up my car. I paid.

Ramon was waiting for me when I pulled up on the driveway of the hotel where he’d suggested we meet. He suggested I turned the car around and put it facing the other direction so that other cars could leave. I stalled the car. Put it in the wrong gear. Managed to do a five-point turn when none was necessary and turned off the engine.

I got out the car and pulled my mask back onto my face.

Ramon inspected the car

He found it acceptable. I hopped into the passenger seat and Ramon drove me to the airport. Calm, and with a gentle manner he asked me about my journey, my time in Chile and we discussed the quarantine. I knew now that I was going to be on time for my flight. It had taken a team effort, but I was heading to the United States.

Santiago Airport is a building site, and we drove past the carcasses of future airport lounges and pulled up straight in front of the door for international departures. I thanked Ramon. He lifted my case of the boot of the car and I headed inside. It was obvious where to go because there was one flight leaving that evening. The only other scheduled flight had been cancelled.

I walked straight up and placed my bag on the scale

The LatAm woman at the counter helped me to move a few books into my hand luggage to get the weight down, then I headed to security and was waved straight through. I placed my rucksack on the counter ready to go through the process of extracting my technology and liquids, but the security guards waved me through with a clear attitude of don’t stress yourself.

There were no tester perfumes in the duty-free shop, and the lights were dimed in most of the airport, meaning that I walked straight from security into my gate simply by following the light. It was like Santiago airport had been reduced to something smaller than Doncaster Robin Hood airport. There was a single open shop, some toilets and some seats. We spaced ourselves out and waited.

I expected emotion

I messaged that wonderful selection of Latin Americans and Europeans who had sent me messages like ‘ARE YOU OK???’ to assure them that I was alright and that somehow I was now about the head to the United States…

My brain was dead; I was emotionally in shock. Home was a five-hour drive behind me or a few days ahead of me whichever way I chose to think about it. Mindlessly, I followed the person in front of me onto the aeroplane. No emotion came.

I hoped that my housemates were enjoying the bottle of wine I’d bought for us to share that night. I wondered how it tasted.

Part four of the repatriation ordeal (in which I encounter the police)

Violent oppression of indigenous communities is one of the reasons why the Chilean police have such a terrible reputation.
Street Art, Limari Valley, Chile.
October 2019

Read parts 1, 2, and 3 first.

I pulled into the queue, slipped on my mask and opened the windows so that I would be able to hear what was being said to me.

I speak Spanish

It’s not a particularly wonderful Spanish. I can’t trill my r, my u scoops down a little too low in my mouth and I frequently put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. All combined, this seems to confuse listeners. However, if a Spanish speaker is patient and is willing to be open-minded to my butchering of Spanish pronunciation, then we can converse, and after a short time, with reasonable ease.

The problem for me is that every time I am about to engage with a new Spanish speaker, in Spanish, I’ve no idea if they’re one of the people who know how to speak slowly or clearly, or if they’re like a certain market stall owner who I have never yet once understood and always end up giving the wrong change.

And I was nervous of course because the Chilean police don’t have what you’d call a kind, loving, we’re out here as servants to society to protect society sort of reputation. Plus, the government website suggested that I needed to have my boarding pass on me, and I didn’t yet have a boarding pass – only a flight confirmation.

From the dark, two, cheerful, masked faces popped their heads through the passenger window

I said I was from England and waved my British passport towards them as evidence of my foreignness. Where was I coming from, La Serena, where was I going, the airport. And then? England.

The other problem I have with police officers – and airport security guards (Spain and Egypt I’m thinking of you) – is that I never have any idea what is a general question of polite curiosity and what is a question that required a detailed and accurate response. Whether they liked it or not, these two friendly looking women who marvelled briefly at my being from England had to have my trip itinerary explained to them and the reasons for my previous residency in La Serena. I babbled.

They took my temperature. It was thankfully normal. Then they wished me a pleasant journey, all without checking a single document.

I continued south

It was thankfully no longer foggy, but from time to time I’d see a bashed in vehicle or two on the side of the road with people gathered around. What’s more, cyclists, without lights, seemed to appear at the edge of the road, cycling against the traffic. There was no risk of me falling asleep with the adrenaline rushing through me as I endeavoured to drive quickly without hitting a seemingly suicidal cyclist or adding myself to the carnage that I passed. There were more cars now, and the traffic seemed heavier.

Then police lights and we were ordered into another queue

This time a young policeman came to the driver’s side window and asked in his mask-muffled voice, for my documents. He also eagerly wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going and what exactly was my business in Chile, but he asked in the sort of way that made me sceptical whether he was requesting only the personal data that pertained to his task. He had a look in his eyes which I recognised from the University’s students. There’s a point where they realise that they can ask this real, live, English woman questions and in their excitement stumble over asking me if I have any brothers.

I had a heap of documents laying on the passenger seat beside me, all prepared for his viewing, but the chap had now decided that this was a great time to start throwing in his high school English. All I wanted to know was which document. I waved them in front of him one after another until he exclaimed, I’d got the right one. He didn’t then scan it, he merely waved me on and wished me a good trip home.

Thankfully, that was the police encounter done

Next, I had to fill up the car and find a chap who called himself Ramon.

Part three of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drive through a foggy desert)

The Limari Valley, south of La Serena, Chile.
October 2019

If you want to know how I came to be driving to quarantined Santiago read part one and part two.

I set off heading south on the Pan-American Highway

…or ruta cinco as we tend to call it, stabbing my finger at the various buttons on the radio, twizzling the knobs and trying to work out how to use the radio since I hadn’t any time to stop and contemplate the device. I had a five-hour journey ahead of me and five hours before I needed to be at the airport.

The dual-carriageway double-laned road was empty apart from the occasional lorry trundling along in the sunny afternoon. There were beautiful views as the road winds along running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and from time to time beautiful empty beaches in magical looking coves appeared, then the road would snake around, through more cactuses and I’d feel like I was in the wild west.

The radio played half a song and they the signal went

Then another half song might play and then the signal would go again. At least focusing on the radio distracted me from the fact that in all the chaos, I hadn’t thought to use the bathroom before I left home. Emotionally I was in shock, all at once loving the freedom of being out on the road and actually moving yet, at the same time panicked, with my foot on the gas not daring to dawdle.

My fears were the following:

  1. The service stations would be closed
  2. I would get lost trying to fill up the car before dropping it off by the airport
  3. I would be missing some important piece of paperwork when the police stopped me
  4. In all my anxiety, I would cause myself a fever and set off a load of coronavirus alarms
  5. I would arrive at the airport too late for the plane

On this beautiful sunny afternoon what I hadn’t worried about was fog

The road sign indicated that I could go at 120km/h. The fog (or do you call it a deep sea mist) that descended threatened to slow me right down. I knew that if I continued to travel at 120km/h I might end up being posted back to the UK.

I saw a lorry ahead, then it disappeared, and a game began where I hunted down lorries and crawled around them. I switched the radio off to concentrate.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies cleared and the fog disappeared. I switched the radio back on and the sort of song that makes you want to dance came on.

Time however was ticking by

Two and a half hours into the journey I stopped at a service station, yanked on my blue floral mask and dashed inside where to my delight not only were there open, clean toilets but also a woman selling take away coffee. I checked my position on the map, shared my location with the chap who I had to meet to give back the car, and set off.

The sun set, the fog returned, I could no longer see the cactuses

So I practised taking long calming breaths. Everything was going to be fine. I prayed that all the lorries on the road had working lights. At least, I reasoned, there was no chance of me getting bored on this solitary trip. Thankfully, as I began to turn inland, Santiago is not beside the sea, the fog disappeared, however, the traffic grew heavier. I began to look out for the first of the police cordons.

A line of red lights, uniformed officers waving their arms and I slid into the queue

I rolled down the window, put my mask back on my face and wondered which of all my documents I would need to show. The British Embassy (contacted in part one) had never responded to my query. The government website suggested I needed my boarding pass and my passport, and then I also had my ‘I don’t have covid-19’ QR-code.

I didn’t have a boarding pass. As I was driving my dad was busy trying to do the check-in for my flight, but for whatever reason, the website didn’t allow him to simply send me my boarding pass. Two smiling highway officers poked their head through my passenger window.

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

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.