28 February – 1 March, 2021, Travelling from Kent, UK to Kalutara, Sri Lanka

By Jerry Smith

Almost a year ago I wrote a piece for this journal describing our journey from Sri Lanka to England at the end of March. We – my wife Sally and I – live in Sri Lanka as foreign residents but had decided we needed to be nearer our family as the pandemic unfolded. What was intended as a visit of maybe three months until things started to return to normal ended as an eleven month stay.  We were finally able to board a repatriation flight from Heathrow to Colombo on 28th February.

Check-in at Heathrow was fine – our paperwork was efficiently checked (Fit to Fly certificates, a permission-to-land letter from the Sri Lankan High Commission as well as tickets and passports), though the guy on the Sri Lankan Airlines desk had evidently not been briefed about the difference between tourists and repatriates and insisted that we show him our hotel reservations. Eventually his supervisor turned up and all was OK. 

The flight was a mixed experience. Sri Lankan Flight UL504, usually our favourite way of getting to Sri Lanka, is in these times but a pale shadow of its former self.   We were on a smaller plane – an ancient A330 – with non-functioning entertainment consoles. The cabin crew were generous with the wine and provided each passenger with a litre of water, but the food was dire. There were 75 passengers on the flight – the current maximum capacity for purposes of social distancing. So when we climbed aboard we were surprised that all of us were herded into the rear compartment, sitting very close to one another, while the entire central section remained empty. When we asked a member of the cabin crew, she explained that this was due to balancing the plane as all the cargo was in the central section. This would have been fine but for the repeated droning messages about how vital social distancing was while in the air.

 We were asked not to move from our seats during the eleven-hour flight ‘except in an emergency’ (presumably needing a wee counted as an emergency). All previous health and safety in the air notices about walking up and down and avoiding deep vein thrombosis are hereby declared null and void. Of course, only COVID counts these days, as my now very swollen feet would testify, if they could talk. No menu choices, very limited options for drinks, either alcoholic or not, no ice; all of which were presented as somehow related to the pandemic and being measures introduced ‘for the safety of our valued customers’. If only the management had said: ‘We are facing financial meltdown right now, so we have had to cut costs and this unfortunately limits your choices. We hope to return to our previous high levels of customer service as soon as circumstances permit.’ Now that would have been as refreshing as an iced G&T.

The plague ship duly docked at Katunayake Airport early afternoon and things began to improve, though only perhaps because our expectations were so low, having read of others’ experiences on the Facebook Sri Lanka repatriation forum.  We’d been led to expect a march across the tarmac to a tented structure in which we’d be penned for about four hours and sprayed from head to toe with disinfectant (we’d dressed in old clothes ready for this eventuality) and given roughly-administered PCR tests at $50 each before being led onto a bus where we’d wait another two or three hours, followed by a trip of up to six hours to whichever hotel the army had chosen for our quarantine. But we were bussed straight into the terminal and passed efficiently through the various procedures. These mostly involved handing in what was essentially the same form but with a different heading in about five separate locations, ending in the vast Arrivals Hall.

We were eventually ushered onto a bus with about twenty others. Another hour sitting on the bus, but with the AC on, so not too bad, and then we pulled away from the airport. About halfway down the expressway I realised that we were tailing an army escort van, an otherwise unmarked white van with its hazard lights continually flashing. I imagined this was the kind of van used in the past for ‘disappearing’ awkward journalists and political activists. Once we left the expressway things got decidedly more interesting. For one thing, we were reacquainted with the Sri Lanka of kades, roadside advertising, a jumble of traffic, fish and vegetable stalls, wandering livestock, flowers and trees – all very good indeed for my starved soul. But secondly, our military escort began to earn its crust. Flashing, honking and gesticulation combined to strike terror into the hearts of even bus drivers, who normally regard themselves as kings of the road. For a moment I found myself thinking ‘So this is what it must feel like to be President’ but soon came down to earth, realising that this was what it must feel like to be a tanker full of nuclear waste. On the final narrow approach road to the quarantine hotel, a lorry had brought down an overhead cable, creating a temporary logjam that taxed even the army’s powers.  But we made our relentless progress, vans and wagons being forced to reverse into gateways to let us past and, soon afterwards, the plague bus pulled up outside the hotel reception.

And what a reception! Coming off the bus felt like we’d accidentally wandered onto the set of Doctor Who. Cybermen everywhere, holding weapons of various kinds (actually temperature pistols and disinfectant sprayers). But they only sprayed our luggage – irrelevant but inoffensive – took our temperatures and ushered us into the reception area. Three Cybermen (Cyberpersons, I believe some of them may have been female) stood at desks behind an improvised screen of heavy-duty plastic, with a mic stand to their right. Once we and our luggage were all assembled, one Cyberman moved over to the mic and began a welcome address in Martian. A combination of his clothing, mask, a distorting sound system and loud background music rendered the content impenetrable. Twenty pairs of ears strained to follow whatever it was he was trying to explain to us about the rules we had to follow for the next two weeks. After much gesticulating from us and some others, the mood music was turned off and we could make at least some sense of what we were being told. Fortunately, it was all set out in writing in our rooms.

So here we are in Room 228 (or should it be 101?), with a large, comfortable bed, a balcony with a sea view (though northwards up the coast, so we don’t get the sunsets), a brilliant shower, working TV and wifi and, now, enough flat space to write, eat and play board games. A sunset cacophony of giant fruit bats. Tropical birdsong to wake us up. Palm trees and palm squirrels. A bit of a change from the screeching seagulls and the monotone cooing of Kent pigeons. The staff have been beyond helpful and one gets the impression that they don’t much enjoy having to treat their guests as hazardous waste.