Well, we are in America on home assignment and one question which keeps coming up is, “What was it like traveling during Covid?” Well let me tell you:
So, way back in January, we purchased our tickets to come home. Our intention was to fly back in June and we were going to stop in Fiji on the way home for a little South Pacific fun. Late in February our internet went out (not too uncommon in Kovol) and life for us went on (almost) like normal. A few weeks later cell service returned and with it the news that the world was in a bit of a panic. I preferred not having internet!
Still, Covid had yet to come to PNG; so we weren’t too concerned. As the weeks progressed, I occasionally checked in with the airline’s website to make sure our flights were still scheduled. It assured me they were still good to go. Spoiler alert: Our flights were really cancelled in March; the website was not updated to reflect this though.
By late-April, about a month before our planned departure, Covid looked like it was about to take a foothold in PNG (thankfully it didn’t, but it sure looked like it would). As such, talk about shutting down airports began to spread and we realized we had better start looking into moving our plans ahead for our home assignment. As it turned out, the only route open to us was through Australia who had just announced they wouldn’t be flying to the States again after the next week (It turned out they would, but it didn’t look like it at the time). If we wanted to make the last available flight, we would have to get all our forms sorted out and connections made within 5 days. If any one of them didn’t go through, we would be stuck.
I’ll spare you the details of filling out the many forms, but it took a long time and a lot of typing on the phone.
Most everything went through except for the permission for the helicopter to come pick us up from Kovol. Initially we had planned to go to the base a few days early to sort out our storage and grab some stuff we planned on taking home. Day after day we sat around waiting for the chopper, while the chopper sat around waiting for permission to fly. Finally, on the last possible day, we got news that the reason we hadn’t gotten permission was because the need for permission had expired. The chopper could have flown the whole time but nobody, not even the authorities, knew since the rules were constantly changing.
Given the last minute departure from the bush, the chopper took us directly to the airport in order for us to make our first connection to the capital. After days of waiting we finally got some action! We rushed to the check in counter to find…
Nothing! It turns out, our flight to the capital had been rescheduled to be an hour earlier. We got there just in time to see them finish boarding and take off. Even if we knew of the rescheduling, we couldn’t have made it there in time. Fortunately, our aviation program has been around for some time and has seen this sort of thing happen before. They already had a mission plane on stand by just in case.
The next morning we needed to fly out to Australia; so we got to the airport as it opened, just in case. It was a good thing we did too because there was an issue in changing our tickets over from our original flight (which I thought I had taken care of on the phone already but I guess not). A few hours later the plane was boarded, but we were still at the customer service counter. Mercifully, the airline held the plane for us so we could have time to straighten out the issue (our family did account for about 1/3 of the passengers on the flight).
A few minutes after the scheduled takeoff time we were given our boarding passes. We ran through the empty airport, children and carry-ons in tow. Two attendants were at the gate cheering us on like we were in some corny 90’s family comedy. We were on our way to Australia.
We arrived in Brisbane, Australia and it was like arriving in another world! There were more airport staff and law enforcement than there were passengers on our plane, and they all seemed bored to tears as though they had been there all day just waiting for us to arrive. All those forms I had dutifully filled out were now obsolete and so there were more forms to complete. Luckily, the bored airport staff took over and filled out the paperwork for me!
Now, we had to stay overnight in Brisbane. Our plan was to simply sleep in the airport because, in case you don’t know, Brisbane has some of the most comfortable airport couches out there (plus, there was additional paperwork to fill out if we wanted to leave). That plan may have worked under normal circumstances; however, the police made it clear that we were to proceed immediately to a designated hotel via the bus they provided.
I wasn’t especially happy about having to pay for a hotel, and it was a fancy hotel as well! What’s more, as we were at the check in counter the lady insisted that we get two adjoining rooms to accommodate all the kids. Thankfully, our cost concerns were put to rest upon learning that the government was paying. People really should lead with that kind of information!
The rest of that day ended up being much more comfortable than even the best airport couches, with wifi and movies as well! Thanks Australia!
The next day we set off for Los Angeles, a 13 hour flight. While I was booking this flight a week previously I remember being surprised that the cost of this flight was on par with normal prices, despite being booked last minute and during crazy demand times. I found out the reason for this is that Australia had purchased the flight and resold the seats (every other seat for social distancing) at a rate fixed at the average cost under normal circumstances.
Unfortunately, this also meant that to save money the entertainment systems were shut off (back to the stone age days of not watching moves on an airplane) and there was only one meal option…and it was vegan!
Arriving in LA was a bit surreal– back in our home country! They made us get rid of the bio hazard bags, pointing out that we didn’t actually have bio hazard material.
The domestic legs of travel were pretty standard. Masks were required still but there wasn’t near the strictness as before.
Soon enough we had arrived! Spring in Wisconsin is a bit chillier than Kovol and there are no mountains to be seen, but Kovol and Wisconsin both have that free feeling of home!