From school trips to holidays in far-flung corners of Asia, I have always enjoyed the feeling of coming home.
Now, at graduate school in the US, I still look forward to the moments I get to return to London. Despite the grey skies and glistening wet roads that welcome me, I am enveloped by the feeling of home and familiar memories as I disembark and make my way through the bustling capital.
But the journey home I made just days ago was harder than I’d ever imagined.
I had spent the last nine months living in Boston, and studying at Harvard Business School. After it quickly became clear I wouldn’t be able to find a summer internship, I decided I would rather spend my summer – and see out coronavirus – at home in London.
“There were no hugs and no kisses at security; people were instead nervously patting each other goodbye.”
I booked a trip home, which required stopovers in Atlanta and New York City. Any other time, I would have been thrilled at the prospect of spending time in NYC, but this time I was uneasy. New York has been one of the hardest hit places in the US, and the chances of me passing through unscathed felt slim. But this was the only route home which showed promise.
Arriving at the airport the day after finishing my last exam, there were less than ten people at check-in, all in masks. There were no hugs and no kisses at security; people were instead nervously patting each other goodbye. Only then did it hit me just how much this pandemic has changed the way we interact as humans.
Making my way through security in the fastest time I can remember, I carefully considered every part of the airport I made contact with, from surfaces to elevator buttons, in a way I never had before. At my departure gate stood about twenty passengers, each two metres apart, anxious to board. A flight attendant informed us we would be boarding in twos (again, two metres apart) and that it was now compulsory in the US to wear a face mask for protection. Fortunately my aunt and uncle, both doctors, had armed me with masks and plenty of disinfectant wipes for the journey.
The plane itself was surprisingly full. Every other seat was occupied by passengers in an assortment of protective gear from self-made cloth masks to full face masks and hazmat suits.
As well as avoiding physical contact, everyone was avoiding eye contact too. Usually I start a conversation with whoever I was sitting next to, but it felt wrong now. I made sure my mask was tightly secured and my TV screen and remote were wiped down, then stared silently out of the window – the empty runway and departure gates made it feel like we would be the only ones in the air. I tried to nap to pass the time but breathing through a mask on an airplane is acutely uncomfortable and claustrophobic, with the tight fabric and elastic cutting into my face.
After my first stopover in Atlanta – delays meant I had to sprint through the airport, which was surprisingly easy with barely anyone around – I landed in New York. I had travelled through JFK several times in the past few years and grown used to the airport being abuzz with travellers from every corner of the world. But this day, it felt different.
“The constant vigilance was exhausting, and yet I knew the dangers of letting my guard down”
After dragging my two 20kg suitcases up two flights of stairs and a conversation with a kindly airport staffer in her seventies who couldn’t possibly feel safe working in dangerous conditions, I sat down to occupy myself for the seven hours before my flight (Michelle Obama’s Netflix documentary is amazing, by the way).
Each time anyone walked past, I nervously looked up to ensure they were also wearing a mask and didn’t touch the table I sat on. The constant vigilance was exhausting, and yet I knew the dangers of letting my guard down. We hear of more and more otherwise healthy young people succumbing to coronavirus, and I was intent on ensuring I was being as careful as possible.
Seventeen hours after I had left my bed that morning, I made it to the departure gate for my flight home. This flight had few passengers, but a cabin crew member curtly informed us that there would not be any upgrades. I made do, stretching across the three empty seats to sleep.
As I landed in London, the sun was shining and I felt an overwhelming feeling of relief, despite knowing I was not yet out of danger. As I disembarked and made my way to baggage reclaim, it became apparent Heathrow was abandoned. It felt eerie and disheartening – only weeks ago these terminals would have been full of families excited to explore the world. Now they sat despondent, with no guarantee things would ever return to normal.
As for me, after an arduous, anxious journey home I should have been excited to be home and desperate to see my family, but I decided to self-quarantine for the next two weeks. My parents are in their late 50s, and I wanted to make sure I did not pose a risk to them, nor to any of my friends, some of whom suffer from respiratory illnesses. I wanted to do my best to play my part in keeping others safe.
The journey home has made me realise how much I had taken my trouble-free travels and holidays for granted, when I could focus on enjoying the journey without worrying about touching airport surfaces or making contact with other travellers. But despite it all, I am glad to be home and looking forward to making the most of my time with family in lockdown.
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