APRIL 4, 2020 : Arrived home yesterday morning. Home Sweet Home.
Our flights went according to plan, but the virus created new ways of doing things for almost every step along the way.
In Perth, the airport had only our flight to Melbourne and another flight to Sydney. Check-in lines had big Xs taped on the floor to indicate the 1.5 meter required social distance. The terminal was eerily empty. All the stores were closed. When sitting at the gate, two out of three chairs in the waiting area were taped over, to ensure that people could sit on only every third seat. At the airport, was a group of policemen who greet every flight. They question each and every person arriving about where they will be staying for self-isolation. The group includes nurses that take your temperature. Our plane was arriving from somewhere else, and they stood at our gate waiting for the disembarking passengers. I was wondering what would happen when we reached Melbourne – if this is how Western Australia is dealing with arrivals, what would be in Melbourne when we arrived? How would Melbourne, where the virus is much more prevalent than Perth, handle airport transfers? Would they isolate us in a room until the next flight? Once on board, the plane was mostly empty – thank you Qantas for not cancelling.
After a smooth, uneventful flight, we arrived in Melbourne and proceeded to baggage claim. No one greeted the plane. No talk of self-isolation. Nothing out of the ordinary. This was good for us, but maybe not so good for Melbourne. Out baggage arrived quickly, and first thing we did, is sit down to do check-in for the El Al flight. Check-in for me was important – it was the affirmation that the flight would really happen. We checked in successfully and then proceeded to the international terminal. On the flight schedule board, for this large airport in Melbourne, were only four departing international flights for the whole day – two flights to Doha, the capital city of Qatar, one to Kuala Lumpar in Malaysia and ours to Tel Aviv. That’s it. Only those three international destinations were available from Melbourne all day Thursday. It reinforced how stranded we really were and how the El Al flight was an only chance to get home. Once again it was an eerily empty terminal – with one important difference – one of the coffee stands was open. I got my morning cappuccino and then we noticed – they were selling fresh apples! After several days without any fruit, this was finding the pot of gold.
There were maybe a dozen other people spread out across the terminal waiting for flights. We found a place with benches and created our own corner to spend the next 14 hours. The benches allowed us to even lay down and rest a bit. As the day went on, more and more people arrived for the flights. Almost all the Israelis were young backpackers. They gathered in small groups exchanging stories and playing cards. Several times the airport policeman needed to reprimand them to keep social distancing. It did not help. They were happy, they were excited. We all were. Much of the conversations at the airport had to do with self-isolation. Netanyahu had announced that all travelers from overseas from now on would be taken to hotels for self-isolation. Would this include us? Would we land in Israel and instead of going home, go to a hotel? I always talked about going to a hotel for Passover, but not like this.
I greatly preferred killing time in the airport than being stuck in the apartment in Perth. The airport in Melbourne has several terminals, and they are all connected. Our corner was in the middle, and I could walk to the far end of the terminal on the right and swing around and go to the far end of the terminal on our left and return to our place in the middle. This walk was almost a kilometer and I did it several times – I had over 18000 steps by the time we boarded the plane. I was so happy to be walking after being a coach potato in Perth. The last apartment we were in was too small to pace, and once when I tried doing an exercise tape, the neighbors below taped on the ceiling that I was disturbing them – so I became a couch potato. I so enjoyed the walking back and forth in the airport. While walking, I would watch the airport fill up with people waiting for our flight, and as I heard more and more Hebrew, it started to feel like we really were going home.
In walking I also noticed that on the arrivals board, the El Al flight was arriving from Tel Aviv at 6:00pm – the plane was really on its way!
We knew that we would have a long wait at the Melbourne airport, and were not sure that there would be vegan food on the flight, so we prepared in Perth by making a large order of vegan hamburgers from Lord of the Fries in Perth – a chain of vegan restaurants serving many different types of vegan burgers and fries. We left Perth with five vegan burgers in my hand luggage. That was our food for the day – plus the unexpected apples. There was also an open pharmacy at the airport and they even had anti-bacterial wipes – which had been impossible to get anywhere else. We got those to wipe down the area where we were sitting both in the airport and on the plane. I also got Vitamin C pills – as recommended by my daughter to fight the virus. We also bought band-aids because Mark broke his glasses on the Perth flight. The metal frame on one side of the glasses broke in two. We thought that we would try to stick the pieces together with a band-aid. The band-aid worked as a temporary measure – but Mark needed to replace the band-aid several times during the flight. Once we got home, he fixed the glasses by wrapping wire around the frame. He now has a big ball of white wire on the side of his head keeping his glasses together – but we are in isolation, who cares! Who knows when he will be able to go to the optometrist to get a new pair? At least he can see.
The time in the airport passed quickly – reading, walking, more reading, more walking, hamburger and then start all over again.
At one point, it was the middle of the night in Israel, I get a WhatsApp message from my 89-year old Mom. She wanted to let me know that she was listening to the radio and they said that if you have a place to do self-isolation (we do) than you do not need to go to the hotel. She had never sent a WhatsApp message before and I was vey proud that she figured out how to do it to send me this important news. Things looked even rosier after that.
At about 7:00 in the evening, they announced that check-in is beginning for our 10 pm flight. Check in took very long because there was no computerization to handle this flight – this was the first commercial flight between Melbourne and Tel Aviv – actually a historic flight, because of the distance. Flight time would be over 17 hours. Seeing how everything was being done by hand – writing out the boarding passes and luggage receipts – made me realize how much work needs to be done for such a flight to take place – and how they managed to deal with so much and improvised all along the way to get us home. Once checked in – we were told we belong to group three and to proceed directly to the gate. At the gate, they called each group, one group at a time, then we were directed to go downstairs and outside near the waiting plane. The El Al crew had set up tables, and on one side was all the luggage of group three. Mark and I were introduced to Tal, who was going to do our security check. We had to identify our luggage, and then bring over each piece one by one to the tables. There we had to open the suitcase, go through everything – anything that was packed in a bag needed to be shown to Tal what was in the bag – and only then did someone from El Al take the suitcase to the plane. There were no machines to check suitcases with, and all the security was done manually like this. This took a very long time, and our take-off was delayed almost two hours.
Once all our pieces of luggage were approved for flying – we were told to board the plane. At the top of the stairs to the plane we were greeted by the stewardesses – all dressed in white from head to toe like the doctors in the hospitals and all wore face masks. They had just flown some Australians back to Australia from Israel, and now were going to fly the Israelis back home. They were not allowed to leave the plane in Australia. For them, working both flights together was working a 43-hour shift.
At the entrance of the plane, they took each person’s temperature. Anyone with a fever would not be allowed to fly. Mark and I had normal temperature and we headed to our seat. Unlike normal times – no pillow, no blankets and no headphones were distributed. For food, on everyone’s seat was a package with two sandwiches. We received one package when we got on the plane and another before landing. No heated food – just containers with sandwiches. No special meals. All understandable in these crazy times.
The flight was full – 90% was young travelers. The luggage was mostly large backpacks, and the overhead bins were full of smaller backpacks and guitars. Mine was one of the few trolley suitcases on board. When you put together so many young people with stories to tell – there is lots of energy and lots of noise. That was the flight – no real quiet sleeping time. But we were so tired, it did not make a difference – we managed to doze off for several hours. It was weird that you had the passengers on one hand – all very affectionate with one another, gathering in small intimate circles to exchange experiences, and then there is the crew – all covered and not getting close to anyone. Nothing made any sense. The time passed quickly – some sleeping, some movies and finally the Israeli landscape appeared below. Everything looked very green and clean from above.
When we first tracked the plane on the flight monitor, it showed us flying over Saudia Arabia – that would probably be the shortest route – but after crossing the Indian ocean, we turned and flew over Ethiopia and the Red Sea instead, past Eilat and then north the rest of the way to Ben Gurion.
Upon landing, there was much clapping and shouts of joy. We were a happy bunch. They then had someone from the health ministry board the plane and explain about self-isolation. They handed out a flyer and it included a link to a form online that we needed to fill out. The form asked questions about where we will be self-isolating – the address, the number of people who will be there, how many rooms does the place have, etc. Anyone without a place to self-isolate, would be taken to a hotel. They also said that we will be leaving the plane in groups of 20, and they will measure our temperature. Anyone with a fever will be handed over to MDA for isolation.
We were sitting towards the back of the plane, so it took a long time until our group of 20 was allowed to disembark. While waiting, one of the crew shared with me a video that a friend had sent her showing the landing of the El Al plane in Melbourne. The voice on the video was very emotional to see an El Al plane touch down there. It reinforced the historic nature of the flight we were on.
Once off the plane, we walked into an empty airport. The only signs of life were the different stations that had been set up specifically to deal with us as we came in. First stop was making sure we filled out the self-isolation form (we needed to show a copy of the form we filled out on our phone), next came the temperature reading, then passport control done with a few automated machines set up in the corridor, and then we were met by someone from Pikud Haoref – he wanted to know in detail where we were going and how we would self-isolate. Finally, we could go get our luggage, which was already out on the only carousel working in the large hall. We were only allowed to leave the hall after being questioned how we were arriving to our destination. If you did not have a taxi pre-ordered (we did) they accompanied you to the taxi stand. We were also told that only one passenger per taxi is allowed. I would take the taxi home, Mark would stay in the airport for morning prayers, and then the taxi would return to pick up Mark.
I therefore arrived home about an hour before Mark, and enjoyed the feeling of sitting in the quiet of my own living room. When he arrived, our neighbors came out, each on the sidewalk of their own house, to greet us and let us know if we need anything, they can help. A very nice homecoming.
Our house was well stocked by my daughters, with everything we need for the next two weeks – including all the Passover supplies. I thought we could get away kashering a small campervan kitchen instead of our large kitchen for Passover this year – but that was not meant to be. Passover cleaning and kashering will begin after Shabbat.
It’s very good to be home. I am glad and proud that home is in a country where the government is making the extraordinary effort to bring its people home. We are very grateful for all the hard work by so many that it took to get us here – the Israeli consulate in Australia, for putting together the list of people who want to return and being in touch with us every step of the way. For El Al, for the enormous effort needed to carry out such a long distance flight to a destination that does not have the infrastructure to deal with them yet, and to all our friends and family who were in touch with us throughout and wished us well – THANK YOU.
And maybe for us it will be Next Year in Australia. Who knows.