About one year ago we went from the isolated safety of Kovol to a Covid-confused world as our return to the States happened to fall on the most inconvenient year to travel in our lifetime. But, as a high tide must return to the sea, so we must return to PNG. Unfortunately, this Covid craze has yet to fade and we were destined again to face one of the most far-reaching symptoms of the pandemic: the ever-changing rules and regulations of, in our case, four nations and three airlines!
Our story starts where few do: a drive-through self-testing clinic.
“Shut off your engine,” says the voice through the intercom, “You’ll be here for a while.” He was not wrong. The little metal door on the wall opened to present a platter full of pre-packaged sterile testing kits. The kids looked on with a naive eagerness as I unwrapped the first swab. The first child would come willingly; the following children would learn from his mistake! It is difficult to convey what happened next. There were tears and sneezes, pleadings which fell on deaf ears, heads pinned into place, and a steely resolve in Stacie and me as we mercilessly proceeded from one nostril to the next. We would not be delayed by an unclear test! Besides, these “voluntary” tests cost over $200 a pop! At the time I thought this little routine would be of no significance, and while the event itself was insignificant, the effects still linger with us. As it turns out, while scraping one’s nasal cavity is a great way to test for a respiratory infection, it is also a great way to get a respiratory infection. The chorus of sniffling continued through our post-swab ice cream bribe, through the days of final packing and cleaning, and even carried on as we stood in line to check our bags. It did not diminish. In fact, it seemed to increase! By the time our flights were underway, while passengers and staff alike were on high alert, the cold-symptom concert developed into a crescendo, as though it were perfectly orchestrated to draw the suspicion of those around us. And with this backdrop our trip commenced.
Word on the street is that Qatar Airways has been keeping the world moving through the whole pandemic. I don’t know how true that is, but it was true in our situation. Normally we fly the “short” way around the world across the p Pacific but this time we’d have to go the long way around.
When we were checking in at LA, the international terminal seemed simultaneously busy and dead. Our line to check in was long, tightly packed, and extremely slow. Yet the terminal overall was empty as we were the only flight queuing up to check in, despite it being the middle of the day.
“I’m sorry, your covid tests are expired. You can’t board.” Not what I was hoping to hear after almost two hours in line. “They’re only four days old.” “They expire after three.” “No, they expire after seven, and here I have an exemption to allow up to 14 days.” Now I know why the line has been moving so slowly. The ticket agent shrugs; this is not the first time she’s had a conversation like this. “I’ll have to check with my manager.” She nods toward a frantic, yet controlled man. He is juggling many cases similar to ours. Eventually, things are sorted out. Different countries, different rules, inevitable confusion. By the time we finish checking our luggage in we are ten minutes away from the scheduled take-off time. The knee-jerk reaction in that situation is panic! What if the plane leaves without us? But looking around it’s clear that we’re not the only ones who will be late; more cases are yet to be sorted out. Still, passing through security and the long walk to the gate seemed hopelessly urgent. It wasn’t though. The staff were calm and carrying on as though we had all the time in the world. It seems that these days, schedules are more a suggestion than a rule.
The 15 hour flight to Qatar was packed but comfortable. The airline treated us well by providing lots of food and snacks. There were even those little blankets and pillows that I thought had become a thing of the past! The boys, of course, only had eyes for one amenity: the individual screens loaded with new shows and games! We are a truly privileged generation of missionaries in that the longer a flight is, the more excited the kids get.
Arriving at Qatar, I was a little worried that our delayed takeoff would cut deeply into our short layover. My worries were misplaced however since our next flight was also delayed. Our one hour layover, for which we were late, ended up being an hour and a half long. It was a good amount of time to stretch out before our next flight, which would be 8 hours long.
Boarding our flight to Singapore took no time at all; there were only 25 people on the entire flight! This flight had all the same amenities (food, blankets, screens that don’t have to be shared with siblings) but it had the added benefit in that each person was able to occupy a 4 seat row all to themselves! Sometimes, traveling during Covid can be nice! This was by far the easiest leg of the trip!
Arrival in Singapore was an interesting experience. We were greeted by airport workers dressed in face shields and full body disposable clothing. Temperatures were taken and wristbands were given. Then we were ushered single file down segregated corridors to the transit lounge, where all passengers passing through are set aside from the local population.
The lounge was comfortable. It was large enough to accommodate the transiting population and had plenty of bench couches to relax on. Food could be ordered and delivered from the airport’s restaurants and there were these cool vending machines from which you could order ramen noodles and then cook them in their noodle station. What’s more, with all that coughing and sniffling I had mentioned earlier, people gave us a wide berth.
The only problem with our stay in Singapore was that we had to spend 12 hours there!
We tried to keep the boys awake the whole time but, by California time, our next flight would be taking off at 4am (by local time it was just getting dark out). Just a few minutes after our finally giving in and letting the boys sleep, the paper-clad airport workers came in to gather the people from our flight. Again we were lined up and marched to our gate, however this time our boys were not up to the challenge of a brisk walk. Poor sleepy Lincoln started falling behind but with our hands full of carry-ons and no one else allowed to touch him, all anyone could do was watch with pity as he cried, coughed, and plodded along as fast as he could.
The next flight, 6 hours long, was also somewhat empty. As it was a smaller plane, however, we were only able to get 2 or 3 seats apiece (still pretty cool in my opinion). There weren’t any amenities on this flight but we honestly didn’t need them; this flight was for sleeping.
Arriving in PNG the next morning we were expected to produce a tome of paperwork and exemptions so we could continue to the mission’s center. We’re grateful to the folks in the mission who told us which papers to have ready, and also that they were able to secure exemptions to allow us to quarantine at the supply center rather than a hotel.
From here we proceeded to the SIL hangar to get picked up by an NTMA plane. With all the restrictions for domestic travel these days, it is easier to travel on mission planes.
The other families who arrived at the same time as we did had little children so they got to take the first “shuttle” to the center. That gave us four hours to sit in the hangar and relax, knowing that we were almost finished.
The flight to Goroka was short, about an hour and a half in the Kodiak. We all slept for most of it.
Quarantine, for now anyways, is a nice opportunity for recovering from jetlag. It’s not as isolated as you may think since we are situated next to the office and we have a roped-off yard in which the kids can play and we can talk to the outside world. Stacie even got sunburned the first day from standing outside chatting so long (socially distanced, of course).
The boys are a little disappointed they can’t play with their friends or go to the playground, but they still have plenty of room to roam in our area. We even have two guava trees in the yard which provide both entertainment and snacks!
Owen discovered that the underside of the house is made of clay, so he set to work building some little villages …
…and making ammunition for his slingshot…
…which he uses to destroy the villages. An endless cycle of fun!
We’re still two weeks out from our destination, but it has been an eventful journey so far!