This time last year, my then husband and I set off on a trip to Japan. It was March 13th, 2020, and there was talk of shutting down the Grand Prix. In a city where sport is sacrosanct, this seemed outrageous, but we were soon to see many of the freedoms we took for granted slowly stripped away. The story I wrote about this experience was published in the Warrandyte Diary in April 2020 under the title "The Holiday is Over But The Journey Has Just Begun." My original version is below.
On Holiday with the Virus - March 2020
The man in the airport gives me a hard stare over the top of his gauzy mask. He puts his hands on his little boy’s shoulders and ushers him to the next bank of seats in the transit lounge. I had just had a bit of a sniffle and wiped my nose with a tissue, now I feel like a criminal.
There were people who questioned our decision to go on our overseas holiday, and we had our doubts ourselves. But everything was booked and paid for. With no definitive travel bans, we would not get a refund on flights or accommodation and would miss out on the trip we had planned for so long.
With hardly anyone at Tullamarine Airport, we get through check in, customs and immigration very quickly. I tell myself that people are only travelling if they really must and that the media have been making too much of COVID19. They would close all the boarders if it was really that bad.
But my skin is cold and tingly and there is a lump in the pit of my stomach.
We make a stop in Singapore and Penang before we land in Fukuoka, Japan, for the main part of our holiday. All the airport staff are wearing masks and we are filmed by thermal imaging cameras in Changi Airport and have infrared thermometers pointed at us in Penang. Large bottles of hand sanitiser sit prominently at hotel receptions and the staff take our temperature whenever we come and go.
The streets of Penang are deserted, with rows of empty rickshaws lining the pavements. I don’t feel like sightseeing and I avoid the hotel pool.
I am relieved to leave the oppressive heat of Penang for the cooler weather of Japan. Our hotel in Fukuoka is a short walk to the city center, and we choose a restaurant with a menu written in English. We order from a set menu and the waitress brings us colorful and aromatic dishes that make my mouth water. Coming in from the cold night air, the miso soup is warm and comforting and the succulent, spicy dishes dissolve on my tongue.
With full bellies, we stroll hand in hand through the night, looking out for the bright neon sign we had picked out for a landmark. Back at the hotel, I flop on the bed, satisfied and ready for sleep.
On the bedside table where I had left it, my phone starts to beep. I reach over to see a message from my sister with a link to a newspaper article:
DFAT says Australian travelers who want to return home should do so ASAP
Shocked, I put the phone back on the table.
I didn’t want to return home, I wasn’t ready. The best part of the trip hadn’t even started, the part when we got out of the city and explored the natural beauty of Japan.
I had only seen the coastline from the window of the train, I had not walked along it. I had not breathed the mountain air, only seen the peaks in the distance. I had not eased my weary body into the reviving waters of the onsen. And most of all, I had not seen the blossoms. The blossoms that were coming out early, just in time for our trip.
Willfully ignoring the message, I close my eyes and go to sleep.
The next morning, my husband is at the computer, rebooking our flights to return home. Not able to get onto the airline, we must buy new tickets. With no direct route available, we have a six-leg journey over the next two days.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, I had heard an interview with a woman who had been holidaying in Wuhan. Caught out by the COVID19 outbreak, she and her young children had been quarantined to their room for an indefinite period.
The woman spoke about how difficult it was for her, to be holed up in the hotel room with three preschool children and the difficulties of keeping them all in good spirits while dealing with the logistical and financial difficulties of meeting all their needs.
“Too bad,” I had thought at the time, ‘it’s for the greater good, so just put up with it.” But I was not the one holed up in a hotel room with three preschoolers. I was not the one who didn’t know how or when I could get back home. I was not the one worried about how long the money would hold out.
The news from Australia talks about shortages, unemployment and impending recession. The mood is fearful and interspersed by outbreaks of aggression. Screaming matches erupt over toilet paper and a man pulled a knife on someone at my local supermarket.
It seems so different to the attitude here in Japan, where people put on their masks, wash their hands and carry on.
I let out a sigh of relief when we arrive at Cairns Airport. The airport staff are kind and friendly and we don’t have to show our passports all the time. We board a plane full of people with suntans in breezy summer clothes, who all look as though they have had a good holiday.
I wonder if they realise that it’s colder in Melbourne, and if they thought to bring something warm to wear when they get off the plane.
But it looks like they are all still in holiday mode, and don’t realise that the holiday is over.
We arrive home to 14 days of government mandated quarantine, which provides me with an excuse to retreat from the chaos of the outside world. Like the musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic, I shut myself away and work on my novel, ignoring the disease-ridden wolf lurking at the door.