Among our far-flung correspondents is Jade Chan, who writes for The Star, an English-language newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Jade was on vacation in New Zealand just days and hours before that country — as well as Malaysia and Australia (where she had to transit) — severely limited travel to combat the coronavirus threat. Getting home was something of a trial — “I was ‘saved by the bell,'” as she puts it — but at least she wasn’t stranded for weeks on a cruise ship.
I’ll let Jade take it from here (note that a somewhat different version of this piece originally appeared in The Star).
By Jade Chan
My family had planned for a holiday in New Zealand more than half a year ago, and departed for the Land of the Long White Cloud in February of this year.
While the Covid-19 outbreak had already happened, its impact had not been massive enough to hinder our travel plans, which included flight transits in Singapore and Australia. New Zealand also had zero Covid-19 cases then, so it seemed safe to take the trip — and we had a marvelous time, visiting scenic and cultural sites in both the south and north islands.
This isn’t to say there were no warning signs as the trip progressed.
The New Zealand government was quite quick with their Covid-19 preventive measures. About midway through the trip, the government announced that arriving tourists would have to self-quarantine for 14 days or they would otherwise be deported!
And they were quite strict about it too, as they actually had police following up on new tourist arrivals when that measure was newly implemented. (Imagine being a tourist in a foreign land and having to stay put in a single place for two whole weeks on short notice with no help from friends or family.)
After my relatives returned home, my own trip ended in March in Auckland, where I stayed with a close friend and her family.
All was going remarkably smoothly. By a stroke of luck, I somehow managed to visit several places right before they closed ahead of New Zealand’s lockdown.
For example, my friend and I thought of visiting the Auckland War Memorial Museum on a Saturday or Sunday. But since I had a full Friday free while she went to work, I spent most of my day at that museum alone (which I like as I don’t have to rush through the exhibits).
I had a similar experience with two secondhand bookstores I visited on a Sunday. The stores’ employees both said they would be closed the following day as New Zealand’s lockdown extended to non-essential services.
But my luck soon seemed to be running out.
The first indication of possible trouble was that I was unable to check in online for my original Auckland-Singapore-Malaysia return flight on the eve of my departure.
In hindsight, that might have been a red flag, but I hoped it was just a glitch and I would be able to check in at the airport. But as I later discovered, it was because Singapore and Malaysia had already closed their borders to non-citizens by then.
The following day, my friend drove me to the Auckland Airport and, on a hunch, said she would wait for me at the airport carpark until I had checked in.
To my horror, I was informed that one of my flights home had been cancelled.
But a certain kind of luck was still with me.
That flight had included a transit via Singapore, which, I now learned, had closed its borders to tourists. Which meant that if I had been able to board that flight, I would have had to land in Singapore — a country that is completely foreign to me — and self-quarantine there.
I was then directed to the airline sales counter to look for alternative flights back to Malaysia.
My heart sank when the airline agent told me that all flights via Malaysia Airlines over the next few days were full, but she managed to book me a flight the next day on Latam Airlines that included a transit via Sydney.
The airline agent reminded me not to miss it, because Australia would close its borders a few hours after my Sydney transit.
So I spent another night at my friend’s house and prayed that I would be able to return home.
Back to Auckland Airport and Beyond
I was a bundle of nerves upon arriving at Auckland Airport the next day.
Passengers were directed to enter the airport via a single entrance. Security officers only allowed those with proof they were flying that day to go through.
The check-in process took nearly an hour.
I had to go to one counter to check-in, then another counter to get clearance from the Australian authorities to transit, collect my boarding pass and drop off my luggage.
With not much time to spare, I rushed to the customs and immigration gates, and finally reached the boarding gate for the flight to Sydney.
The nerve-wracking journey was not over, as I could only collect the boarding pass for my Sydney-Kuala Lumpur flight at Sydney Airport — and who knew what I would find there.
Upon landing at Sydney Airport, I rushed to find the correct transit counter, before being informed that the boarding pass could only be issued at the boarding gate.
It was only when I collected the final boarding pass that I heaved a sigh of relief as I would finally be able to head home safely.
Back in Kuala Lumpur
Upon landing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I was directed to a health check queue just before the Immigration counter.
All travellers and airline crew were required to go through this health check manned by Health Ministry and armed personnel.
I had to declare in a form my travel and contact details, and was then handed a health alert card to inform me on what I should do next.
This included a self-quarantine for the next 14 days, to monitor my body temperature and to maintain good personal hygiene.
The two-week quarantine went by relatively painlessly, with work, reading and watching television keeping me occupied. Even housebound, it was far preferable to the alternatives — getting stuck in transit lounges or who knows where — which did befall some other less fortunate travelers at that time.
Note to Readers: If you have a story about getting home during a lockdown anywhere in the world and would like to share it on clarknorton.com, please leave a comment or email me with details to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks and stay safe!