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.

28 December, London, UK

By Ian Burns

Facebook sent me one of those ‘A Year Ago…’ prompts this morning. In it I am travelling in the US, taking a train to Princeton. I took a photograph of a bust of Einstein when I had the privilege of being a guest in the library at the Institute for Advanced Study. It is sobering to think about our pre-pandemic freedoms, and to think about the power of ideas and the importance of study and education. In less than a year, attitudes to travel, to broadening the mind and to the joy of ideas have all been profoundly affected.

So, Christmas is over. Our government is celebrating a trade deal which is unlikely to get much scrutiny from Parliament. The predictable jingoism is evident in the usual newspapers but generally, as the country looks at rises in hospitalisation, deaths and thinks about a ‘new variant’, the pandemic is uppermost in minds. The pre-Christmas introduction of a new level of restriction on movement, tier 4, and the post-Christmas widening of the areas to which it applies, leaves a certain feeling of heaviness.

I have never been very observant when it comes to faith and I am a very rare attender of churches. I am sure that Christmas was largely unaffected for those who think more about Jesus’s birth than about shopping, present-giving and heavy food and alcohol consumption. For many others, though, it has been a difficult time. Plans were forced to be changed in the very last few days and it led to many more having to spend Christmas alone.

I was incredibly blessed. The changes meant that two of my children, who were planning to leave London to spend Christmas with their partners’ families in Sussex and Yorkshire, became tied to London. My son was staying with me. I had intended to spend Christmas alone, but instead I had company and we made sure we cooked a good lunch and consumed some lovely wines. I would not have shopped at Borough Market for my Christmas lunch or broken open an old case of Grand-Puy Ducasse, had my son’s plans not altered.

Before the tier 4 restrictions, I was able to travel to Ascot to see my parents and to catch up with my brother. Mindful of the best guidance, we went for a walk through the forest nearby and discussed our relationship, after I had highlighted to my brother the pleasures of a podcast called I wish I was an only child! We trod some new ground literally and metaphorically, as we walked. Many of my London-based friends are European and have either not been able to get home, or took the decision that it would be more prudent to not travel. One made it to eastern Europe because both of her parents had contracted COVID. Mercifully, her parents appear to have seen it off, despite other health conditions, but her mother had a time in intensive care. To see the strain in my friend’s face was to see a reflection of a much wider-spread traumatic response to the events of the year now closing.

If I started the year thinking about travel and horizons, ideas and study, I am ending it thinking about how the journeys have been made but differently: 2020 may have given us some things as it took others away. I am not the only person who has (re)discovered an enthusiasm for walking. I know my home city better than at any time in my fifty plus years and it has yielded up many pleasant surprises. Walking encourages thinking. Walking in company encourages conversation.

As we converse, we talk about how the events of the year have affected us. How they have made us feel. I find amongst friends a willingness to share thoughts and experiences that might have not been there before, because now conversations have time to develop depth. Travelling differently includes travelling within our minds and our imaginations. There is heartening evidence that book buying has surged this year.

My father introduced me to Singin’ in the Rain, many years ago, to marvel at the dance scenes and because he identified himself as a ‘legs man’ and he assured me that Cyd Charisse represented the apogee of feminine leggy beauty. This year I watched it with my son who had yet to see it. Ultimately, for all the awesome choreography and great numbers, it is about a girl who is not dazzled by the film star and woos him with her selflessness to ‘save’ his and his co-star’s careers. We watched “Grease” too, another joyful celebration of the girl who wins the guy, and does not allow herself to be knocked by teasing and bullying, but transforms herself to eclipse all around her.

Just as my father introduced me to many films, so this period allowed me to introduce my son to some. He had never seen the peerless Linklater pair of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Happily, he now shares my high opinion of them. In a way, they combine the themes of this year for me. Although the films are about physical travel – they meet in Vienna and in Paris – they are about walking, talking, philosophising and truly getting to know someone, through listening and reading non-verbal signals. As with Grease and Singin’, they are about good things coming to those who wait.

I think 2020 has been good for me. Even as I met a friend in the street today, and he noted how rapidly the virus is spreading around Tower Hamlets, where we live, and spoke about the death of a friend of his last month, we had some blessings to count.

19 December, Berlin, Germany

By Juliane Schumacher

A few days left till Christmas, and I am still not getting into the mood for it. Maybe because it is too warm – this morning in the park, the sun shining bright from a clear sky, it almost felt like spring. And maybe it is because of this crazy year that comes to an end without any sign if things will be better in the next one. Usually I love the weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, as we call it.  It used to be I did a lot of things I didn’t find the time for the rest of the year: decorating the flat, baking, doing handicrafts with my kids. We’d light candles, make hot chocolate in the afternoon, spend more time inside. But none of this feels special this year. It is what we are have been doing most of the year.  

The season of lockdowns has started again. A ‘lockdown-light’ was announced beginning of November, and at first, I thought I would not be affected too much by it. Bars, restaurants and sport facilities had to close, but shops, schools and daycare facilities stayed open – too bad had been the experience with school closures in spring. My older sons have missed almost a year of Maths and English, and there is still no plan of how to catch this up.  We went swimming on the last Sunday before the new lockdown started. It was not very crowded and the atmosphere was very relaxed, all the families knowing that this would be their last visit to a swimming pool for a long time.  

The next day, when the ‘lockdown’ started, I had the feeling I couldn’t breathe. I was exhausted when I just took the few stairs up to our flat, felt too tired to work. When it did not get better after a few days, I went to the doctor. She examined me, made some tests and finally told me that everything was fine. I have a lot of people with these symptoms at the moment, the doctor told me, mostly young women. It’s the situation, all this insecurity.  

When I was back home I thought she might be right. I always considered myself a very flexible person, able to accommodate fast to changing conditions and unforeseen circumstances. But now I am longing for the ability to plan, to know what I will have to expect. Will infections numbers continue to rise? Will schools and kindergartens close within the next weeks? Will I be able to conduct fieldwork next year? Will my scholarship, ending in summer, be prolonged under these conditions? When will I be able to meet family, friends and colleagues again? What if friends or family members get infected? When will all this be over?  

A few days later, I was quite sure that the ‘lockdown light’ would not work. Unlike in spring, there were no deserted streets, no silence or birdsong in the city-center. People went to work, went shopping, met friends. At noon, workers were sitting on banks outside, eating their lunch in boxes from take-away restaurants. Just in the evening, it became unusually quiet in our street. With the bars and restaurants closed there was no reason to be outside in the dark November nights.  

I wondered why people were behaving differently this time. Was it because the government was reluctant to impose stricter measures? There have been demonstrations against the lockdown measures, movements of ‘Corona-deniers’ who believe the virus is just an invention of ill-meaning politicians or digital tycoons in their attempt to take over the world. But their presence in the media, it seems to me, is much bigger than their actual influence. I don’t know anybody who thinks the virus is just an invention. Still, people seem not to follow the rules as strictly as the last time.  Gradually, I reflected that in spring, people were not reducing their contacts because because the state told them to do so, but because they were afraid. The virus was completely new, nobody knew exactly how dangerous it was. Now we know more:  it is not less dangerous than half a year ago, but people have got used to it. It is one risk among others that people take every day, like the risk of having an accident when driving a car or a bike. People were willing not to meet their friends or family for a few weeks, but they are not willing – or able – to do so for months or years. It’s somehow human. We are social beings, not made for a life in isolation.    

Infection numbers stabilised for two weeks, then they started rising again. The representatives of the regional governments met again. Ten days before Christmas, they closed schools, kindergartens and shops. For the shops this was a catastrophe – they make one-third of their total sales of the year in the time around Christmas, up to one billion euro a day. Nobody knows how many of the shops will be gone when the lockdown is be lifted. And nobody knows when this will be. No one honestly believes it will end on the 10th of January, as has been said up to now.  

Still, there were no big complaints, not even by the shop owners. Everyone seemed to understand that something had to be done. Many hospitals operate at their limit – not because they don’t have enough beds, but because there is not enough staff. In some cases, half of the staff has to stay at home, either because they are ill or in quarantine. In the nine months since the first Covid-19-cases were registered, no long-term concept has been developed, no concept of how to protect the vulnerable, how to ensure contact-tracing is working, even when numbers are rising. So another lockdown seems the only measure available. And we start the new year the way we have spent so many months over the last one: in isolation. We stay at home, plan to celebrate Christmas with the only other household allowed, and hope the vaccination campaign starting next week will be the wonder we are hoping for.

19 December, Worcestershire, UK

By Rachel Smyth

I cried tonight for the first time in a long time. My brother travelled back from London with his husband, earlier today, for Christmas. We have hardly seen him this year and the whole family was looking forward to (safely) spending time with him. However just as he arrived, the announcement was made that London was being placed under Tier 4 restrictions. After an hour-long discussion, not even leaving their car, my brother and his husband decided to turn around and return to London. I was oblivious to all of this and found out from a brutally succinct message in our family WhatsApp group: “He’s gone back home”.

Like many others, I had got carried away with the idea that we could have some sort of normality for just a few days. After deliberately keeping my head down and carrying on (very British) for months, following the rules and staying safe, I’d allowed myself to get excited and hope a little. The comedown was hard and unexpected.

As I cried in our lounge, my 3 year old daughter put her arms around my neck and asked what the matter was. I explained that my brother, her uncle, wouldn’t be home for Christmas after all. I said I missed him and felt very sad. “Oh I know. But you’ll see him soon Mummy, when the germs have gone. We can have Christmas then.” And she was right. Sometimes it takes the pragmatic words of a child to re-gain perspective. A hug, from those few who are still allowed to, also works wonders.

15 December, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

By Havaca Ganguly

It is mid-December and the ground has yet to really freeze, though the garden is bare. I am ready for the garden to be bare.  On a warm afternoon last week, I dug out all the okra roots.  I pulled all the lima bean vines from the trellis they were so romantically wrapped around.  I tore out tomato bushes that still carried a few nuclear-colored, sagging tomatoes that had never reached their prime before freezing in the night time.

Under all of those plants, I found a few onion-starts that I must have planted at some point. They were bruised and bullied, but it became my last garden thrill of the year. We used them all at once on the day that they were harvested.  Roasted and tossed in a noodle stir fry. The season is now officially over and we are able to slumber from garden chores for a few months. 

Instead, we busy our hands in the kitchen, making Christmas cookies and roasting nuts to package and gift to neighbors. We huddle under a reading lamp and write letters to our loved ones.  Then, tuck them inside of envelopes and send them to far-flung places like Missouri, Switzerland, Mexico and India.  This year we add a bit of tenderness to our words.  We hug those people in our minds as we send words from our hearts.  This is a grey year.  This is a year of remembering those we love, and truly wishing them the best, wishing them good health, and cherishing memories with them. 

We pick up different needles and we make all kinds of crafts that we hope to gift this year, instead of going shopping and picking out things. We crave so much the closeness to those we love who live in distant places.  We crave so much the idea of celebration. When we sit to pass time together as a family, it means so much that everything tastes a little brighter.  We do our best to make all of these times special and in our hearts imagine our extended family is safe and cozy somewhere.

10 December, Busan, South Korea

By Ahalya Arulnayagam

It’s 9 am in the morning. I’m on my bed, lying still, hands by my side.

 I hear the phone buzzing. It’s my lab manager informing me that she is shutting down the lab for one week until we hear from our supervisor. Since last week, Covid in Busan has hit a peak, so the city has raised its restrictions to the highest possible level. The lab manager mentions all the safety protocols, text by text, and ends the conversation with a Kakao emoticon. I wait for her to finish texting because I know she has to Google translate everything for me while texting.  Then I text back: “Thank you. Stay safe” — of course with another emoticon. I ask myself, so what now?

I don’t feel like working today but I would have to if I was in the lab. Now the idea of working from my dormitory has unleashed the lazy devil inside me.

I get up, plug my phone into the charger and make my own cup of coffee – a black Americano – and sit by my laptop to watch the news. South Korea is crazy these days. People have gone insane; they’re tired of being isolated for more than 10 months. The infection numbers per day are crazy. No wonder my lab is shut down. Working from home (dorm) isn’t that easy for researchers like me. I make a couple of calls to my home in Sri Lanka for a regular check-in. I think about cooking something new and make vegetable biryani, which has been on my wish list for longtime. I always feel good about myself after cooking sessions.

I am sure he’s never going to call me, yet I am peeping at my phone in between my chores. I feel lonely, like a widowed old man who waits all week for the post. I realise there is a subtle pain in not being checked-on constantly, not being asked mundane questions about how your day was.

I walk down by the breakwater intending to streamline my messy thoughts. Face masks have become a crucial body part, though they’re messing with my skin. Yet, I don’t want to be legally punished.  I look around me at the deserted street and feel remorseful about not being able to fly back home during such a crisis.

Suddenly, I am startled by the crescent moon.

I take my phone out of the jacket and start typing words, tons of words; with edits and backspaces. Then I delete all of them and send “I miss you, a lot” with a sad smiley.  A minute later I receive a voice note saying “I miss you too”. I stare at the phone screen and smile. 

28 November, Los Angeles, California, USA

By Ruth McKee

Typically, my neighbors give respect to each holiday, and wait to start decorating for the next one until the last one has passed. But this year, with us all still stuck in our homes, it seems no one could wait for Thanksgiving to pass before decorating for Christmas. Many people started hanging their lights weeks ago. In our house we waited, but this weekend, the minute Thanksgiving was over, we pulled out all the trimmings, including the extra things I bought last year when we hosted my husband’s whole family from Ohio. Lights, trees, stockings, all went up over the course of an afternoon, bedazzling our home in anticipation of the next break from routine.

The days are getting shorter. This evening, when I walk the dog before dinner, it is already pitch black outside. The streets are empty again, the way they were in April, but it’s not entirely clear whether people are starting to heed the new restrictions, or if it’s just the lull of the holiday weekend. This week we’ve seen a series of new measures come down in the city, as the virus surges out of control. First, restaurants were told to close their outdoor dining areas and move to take-out only. Then yesterday, they reduced capacity in retail businesses, and banned all social gatherings of people outside of their own households, starting Monday. But today was a beautiful sunny day and people were still milling about, picking up coffee and shopping with their friends, perhaps getting in one last visit. For my family, the only change will be the social one. No more masked meet-ups with the kids’ friends for hikes and bike rides, at least for the moment. But otherwise it seems we never really left the first lockdown.

I walk the dog up the street that leads to the hill by our house, so I can take in the view of the valley this evening. It’s quiet now, but somewhere out there the virus rages at levels we’ve never seen before. I have little hope that this shutdown will make a difference, we’re all entrenched in our behavior at this point, and people will keep doing what they’re doing until the virus comes to their door. The weeks ahead will be dark. The days are getting shorter. So many more people will die before this year is over.

A few years ago, my family spent a gray December in Indiana and I came to appreciate the necessity of celebrating the winter solstice. As the sun hid from sight a little more each day, I felt deeply the need to hang lights and mark the time until the sun would return, the way as a child we lit candles to mark the weeks of Advent. It’s dark now, getting darker still, but the light will return. In a few weeks, our health care workers will start receiving a vaccine. A few weeks after that, we’ll have a new government. I turn the corner towards my own home and can see from a distance all the lights I’ve hung, glowing in the night.

9 November, London, UK

By Ivana MacKinnon

Everything feels different this time. Our lives are already quite small so this lockdown doesn’t feel it will make an enormous amount of difference. We were already avoiding our elders because the government saying it was safe didn’t mean it was. The kids are at school and in a childcare bubble. We have been inside two restaurants since March. One pub. But the difference is more that this time everyone is visibly experiencing different things at different times and reacting in different ways. I don’t think anyone believes this is only four weeks; I don’t think anyone can quite face the idea of how long it will be; I think everyone will cheat in some way, a small way or a big way, as a result. So the lockdown will be longer. At least the US election has offered some chink of light, and, as my sister says, is playing out like an omnibus edition of Sunset Beach to distract us all. 

At “work” (preparation for when work can happen again) we learn what we can do remotely and what we need to be in a room to do, and have started to understand what gets lost in translation when everyone is a disembodied head and shoulders with a perfectly symmetrical zoom background. Everyone except me: I still have mattresses and kids toys and hastily blu tacked pictures behind me at all times. I haven’t managed the Zoom grammar at all. My company set up means I haven’t had furlough (the UK government scheme to support businesses and workers facing suspension on account of the COVID crisis). This is really starting to bite, and the arts are just fucked, so fucked. Everyone still is taking little steps, one in front of the other, in hope, but how long for? How long before we all have to do the government’s retrain quiz online and decide to become ….. (What?) 

The kids are holding things on their shoulders which come out in strange ways — in tics and hyper-fears of things going wrong — but given everything they still seem to be coping well. Those who can are trying to swaddle the kids, I suppose, to just get through this moment, into whatever happens next, which seems less and less likely to look like what was before. Anyway in the service of child mental health and in order to have an excuse for the chaos of our Zoom backgrounds, we have 100% embraced the middle class cliché and have a new puppy. The week we decided, two other friends did the same; since then another has. By the time we get out of lockdown there will be more dogs than people. 

So now the puppy sleeps on the sofa and pees on the floor and learns little things and then forgets them and eats sticks outside and tries to dig up old fox poo and I chase after it while on the phone to someone I would otherwise have emailed. And that’s all. That’s the whole day, every day. And once a day I go out, into a world that doesn’t look much like it’s in lockdown at all. The walls get more and more filled with pictures and people make half plans for the future but not for Christmas, Christmas has already been written off. And we all hope to find our Norwegian spirit as the weather gets colder. Maybe we will start smoking again, to keep warm.  A couple of times a day, we see our great leaders on the news, and despair.

7 November, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

By Katie Y

The AP called the US presidential election just before noon in Philadelphia. Our Saturday morning had started with a puzzle. After getting dressed, we dumped 100 pieces of cardboard on the living room floor. Then we sat in the fall sunshine and slowly pieced together the outline of a Tyrannosaurus rex. A stuffed Tyrannosaurus sat nearby and pointed out likely looking pieces in a surprisingly squeaky voice.  

When the news came, we were still sitting on the floor by the big windows that face the street. Car horns and jubilant voices sounded in the distance. We grabbed our facemasks and slipped on our shoes. Then we slipped them off again to dash to the kitchen for a whisk and a metal pot lid.

Our garden was shockingly quiet. But when we rounded the corner, we saw our neighbors dancing. Someone waved a full-sized American flag while others banged on pots and pans. We took pictures and moved to the next alleyway, where a group of families with young children cheered everyone walking by. We banged on our lid and whooped in return. 

On the main road, people had gathered on every corner. Wearing facemasks and brandishing cowbells, they hollered at passing cars. The drivers honked their horns, while passengers waved and recorded cellphone videos. A few played music that echoed between the houses. We found an unoccupied corner and joined in, waving at strangers and banging our pot lid until the Tyrannosaurus and her friend asked for lunch. After walking home, we ate bowls of rice in the garden. 

The sky has been bright blue all week. Flowers are blooming. This is not supposed to happen in November in Pennsylvania. I worry that it’s a sign of problems to come. But right now, it feels like spring.