By George Braine –
At my age, two years is a long time to be away from the people, locations, food and the things I love. I had not seen or spent time with my sister; my favorite cousin, her husband, their son and his family; a 95-year old aunt, her children and grandchildren; my late wife’s sister, her children, and grandchild; the few close friends I still have, some quite elderly, others unwell, some both elderly and unwell.
I missed “Pondside”, my ancestral cottage, the greenery I had carefully cultivated around it; the shrill cries of the birds, squirrels, and crickets; the croaking of frogs from the pond; the taste of mangoes, avocadoes, plantains, fresh cashew, and katu anoda from my garden; delicious meals loaded with coconut curry prepared by the caretaker Indra. I missed sitting on my verandah and watching the world go by, the con chats with distant relative Ignatius. I missed travels with Gamini, my part-time driver, chatting with him for hours as he drove. I missed the rain on the roof, the fresh water from the well.
So, I planned a visit to Sri Lanka, initially in August, which had to be postponed due to severe outbreak of covid in Sri Lanka. I knew it could be the most difficult of my travels; countries were changing covid regulations frequently, and I could be delayed or even stalled somewhere en route. I had read enough horror stories, about hellish quarantine regulations, for instance. At my age, carrying a supply of insulin on ice for my diabetes, air travel was always a challenge to begin with.
So, after the covid situation in Sri Lanka stabilized, I set off on October 19, having undergone a rip off (Yen30,000/Rs. 60,000) PCR test at Tokyo’s Narita airport. The immigration officer affixed an “Out of the country on special re-entry permission” stamp to my passport. At that time, I didn’t realize how critical this would become.
The SriLankan Airlines A320 had only 15 passengers, and the flight attendants, bizarrely, wore protective suits, like healthcare workers. I had received both vaccinations (Pfizer), and, upon arriving at Colombo airport, a public health inspector (PHI) checked my vaccination certificates and the negative PCR report, and, within 30 minutes, I had cleared immigration, done hurried duty free shopping, collected my bags, and caught a ride home with my nephew Charlie.
From Sri Lanka, I diligently tracked the covid situation in Japan. The infection numbers fell dramatically, to about 125 per day for a population of 125 million. (In September, the daily infection rate had risen to 25,000.) But, Japan has a new prime minister, who was acting tough on covid regulations, mainly to look better than his predecessor. He had failed miserably during the pandemic.) So, when the Omicron variant appeared, I knew it was time to return to Japan before stricter regulations made travel impossible.
Because of high covid numbers, travelers from Sri Lanka are banned from entering Japan. But, that “special re-entry permission” stamp on my passport would allow me to get in. What a relief!
SriLankan Airlines charged me Rs. 100,000 for a change of travel dates (another rip off, considering I had paid about Rs. 300,000 for the fare initially), and I took a PCR test. On December 10, I played safe by going to the airport 4 hours in advance, expecting resistance from the sometimes know-all check-in personnel, who may not accept the re-entry permission applicable to me. I may not even be allowed to board the flight.
However, that resistance did not materialize. Instead, out of the blue, Japan required travelers to access an app, respond to a pre-departure questionnaire, and obtain a QR code prior to boarding. Despite the slow Wi-Fi at the terminal, I managed to get the code.
This time, the flight to Narita had about 60 passengers. The flight attendants no longer wore protective suits. For an expensive fare, the two meals were abysmal.
Tired, bleary eyed, and bedraggled 13 hours after leaving home (4 hours at the airport, 9 hours on the flight), Narita airport looked deserted. In July and August, thousands of athletes and officials had gone through Narita for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games. We were shepherded like kindergarten children through various checkpoints (at least 7, if I recall correctly), for another health questionnaire, scrutiny of pre-boarding PCR test results, a PCR test and a wait for the results, installation of an app on our phones, etc. Japan drowns in bureaucracy, and the assumption is that everyone other than bureaucrats are children or perhaps idiots, who need to be held by the hand and guided at every step.
After clearing immigration and customs, I came to the stop for the quarantine bus. I live in Sapporo, on Hokkaido island, 900 km from Tokyo. I would have to fly out of Narita/Tokyo to Sapporo taking a domestic flight, forcing me to take public transport. In Japan, during covid, this is a big NO, so I was prepared for the required 14-day quarantine. The bus brought me to my hotel, not far from the airport, where I would spend the next 15 nights. From Sri Lanka to the hotel, the time spent was 18 hours. I was exhausted.
I paid the equivalent of Rs. 400,000, without meals, for my stay. This is a transit hotel, affiliated with a major Japanese carrier. Guests, including air crews, were checking in and out. During the weekend, the restaurants were packed. Yesterday, I saw a wedding reception. How could this also be a quarantine hotel? Is this a charade.
I was free to wander within the hotel, use the restaurants, and go out and walk around, as long as I didn’t use public transport. The hotel is not in an urban area, so there was no chance of walking anywhere. But, the convenience store at the hotel was well stocked, with food and other essentials. Compared to Hong Kong, where the quarantine is for 21 days and the harsh rules are prison-like (travelers must stay in their rooms, and food is left for them at the room entrance), I had little to complain about.
An app, “My SOS”, managed by the health monitoring center for overseas entrants in Japan, was installed on my phone, to monitor me. Every day, I am being asked to report my location with the “I’m here” button, my health condition with the next button, and respond to a 30-second video call to confirm my location. Considering I am at a transit hotel, the monitoring seems ridiculous. Time hangs heavy, but I’ll have to be here till the 26th morning. Only two more days to go.
During the seven weeks in Sri Lanka, I managed to visit everyone on my list, and distributed cash liberally to those in need, because many are facing severe hardships. My caretaker Indra’s husband had passed away from covid four months ago, so my presence and support lowered the family’s grief somewhat. About ten of my distant relatives in the village had been infected with covid, and they were grateful for my visit and support. I spent time with my sister, and also walked down to visit my cousin and her family. I sat on the verandah and watched the world go by. I had simple but delicious home cooked meals. With Gamini, I did many trips to Colombo to visit friends and family, chatting freely as usual. I attended his daughter’s wedding.
Despite the travel hardships, the trip was fully worth it. I am rejuvenated, and I may have cheered-up at least some people in these miserable times. All I can say is, if there is a will, there is a way.
A week ago, a friend of my late parents, who I have known for 60 years, passed away. I visited her with my sister three weeks ago, and we shared old stories and jokes. We made her happy that day.
How many will be there when I next visit? And when will that be?
And to all my readers, be kind, be generous, and take care of each other. In Sri Lanka, perhaps the worst is yet to come.