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The Last Plane To Rio De Janeiro: A Coronavirus Love Story

This is a coronavirus love story specifically about the effect of COVID-19 on a cross continent marriage. I grew up in Sydney, spending a lot of time sailing on Sydney Harbour, which today still dominates my time. Managing the demands of marital commitments and fulfilling a pathway, in this case to Brazil, has its challenges and is exacerbated right now during the ongoing crisis.

Part 1

We rode in on horse and cart, ‘Betty’, the humble steed had transported my mates Steve and Harls safely from NYC to Rio de Janeiro over seventeen months. I was there to celebrate their victory. At a Carnival street ‘bloco’ in Rio De Janeiro 2009, partying amongst thousands of hot, sweaty bodies – my eyes locked with the girl in green.

Carnival 2009 (Dai is in the green, bottom left)

Two deers stranded in headlights, the connection between us was instant. When I left a few weeks later to continue my travels, Harls said to me, “she’ll get over it mate” while I thought to myself… “I won’t”.

An impossible romance ensued, upending life as I knew it to move to Brazil having only known Dai for three weeks. I spent a year zig zagging up and down Ipanema beach, buying veggies at the grower markets (no other ‘mamao’ papaya comes close to the ones you get in Brazil) and sharing caipirinhas with the love of my life.

Our journey has been peppered with multiple visas and bureaucratic hurdles. Cross continent relationships accelerate the need to lay down your fears and be decisive. The birth of our son ‘Rio’ further crystallised our journey together.

In 2020, we saw the need for Dai to have an extended trip home to re-engage with her culture, spend time with family & friends, and give our son Rio the opportunity to spend some time in his other homeland. Off they went, leaving me to guard the fort in Sydney eight weeks ago.

The cyclonic energy of Rio and Dai gone left me in a vortex of self-doubt, I was lost. I do a lot of international sailing and am accustomed to being away, but this was particularly hard and I’ve experienced real dark days.

Any thoughts to reunite earlier were delayed because of me competing in the 18 Foot Skiff World Championship; a privileged distraction flying around on Sydney Harbour avoiding the real issue.

tech2 18 foot skiff

A timely conversation with a dear friend shot 10,000 volts through my core when he thought that “those who have taken decisive action and are taking Coronavirus seriously, are way ahead of the game”. I realised I hadn’t been dealing with the impending crisis but had instead been misled by my typically optimistic Australian mindset.

This left me with two options – get them home or get over there now.

I investigated travel options and put down some waypoints on the grounded airline map. At first, I had a couple of weeks and multiple options either across the Pacific or via Dubai. Then the drawbridges started lifting and lines were abruptly thrown.

On Saturday the 21st, with flight options disappearing literally by the minute, I urgently booked a flight from Sydney to Rio via Santiago for Sunday the 22nd, knowing the Brazilian border was closing to non-residents like me on Monday the 23rd.

Tick-tock.

PART 2

The Qantas check-in woman laughed when I asked if people were being temperature screened before boarding the plane. “People are still being let into the country from all over the world without any screening, it’s a complete joke.”

As the water rose on complete border closures it was clear there were leaks springing up everywhere, this Corona ship was in strife.

“Your bags are checked all the way through, but I can’t issue you a boarding pass for the LATAM connecting flight, you’ll have to do that in transit… oh, and you only have an hour to connect, I hope you packed your running shoes”.

Sound the klaxon horn, I was sure my ship was going down.

“Welcome aboard Mr Macartney, across the aisle and down that side please”, the flight attendant said with no face mask, no alcohol gel in hand, no gloves and seemingly no sense of caution at all.

“Is anyone on-board a carrier?” I thought to myself. “Do masks make a difference? Can I hold onto my bladder for the next thirteen hours? I wonder if the ventilation system really works?”

There was palpable fear in many a passenger’s eyes. Gloves, face masks and even one person wearing a red poncho couldn’t conceal their trepidation. I had a flashback to Machu Picchu and the gross impact of thousands of colourful ponchos strangling the beautiful landscape. What the hell is a poncho going to do on the plane?

Inevitably the toilet called my name. Ninja like, I used my foot to open the door, slid in without touching a wall, washed the tap and sink area with soap first, left my shoes on (all flight) and used paper towel to open the door to get out. I noticed the lady before me didn’t have the seat down, clearly fearful she had maintained her toilet-distancing-technique and had simply squatted. Who am I kidding, if the virus is onboard then there ain’t no mask, soap or colourful poncho that’s going to stop it slithering around this plane and injecting venom. Where is Samuel L. Jackson when you need him?

A brief moment of peace watching Ford Vs Ferrari. Ahhh what crisis? Bring me more red with some cheese and crackers good sir. Yes yes the Shiraz, thank you. Again, no gloves on the flight attendant – she’ll be right mate.

“Hope you enjoyed your flight sir, enjoy the rest of your trip”. What?

Santiago airport had descended into chaos. 95% of flights cancelled. I can’t leave the airport and I don’t know if I’ll get a flight, let alone get through the Brazilian border as an Australian citizen. I wondered when the last flight back to Sydney will be.

Anxiety swept across the transit floor, no staff providing updates or information of any kind. Hundreds of us scrambling, arguing, crying and shouting . People were glued to their phones, urgently searching for more flights while pacing back & forth, all the while doing their best to keep appropriate distance! When I jumped the cue to approach the LATAM help desk I was sneered at and approached by multiple people saying don’t push in. Amigo tranquiladade.

The stress was oozing out of the young help desk woman’s face. I forced my way in, “my connecting flight is in fifty minutes can you check me in please or I won’t make it”.

“Your flight is cancelled, get back in line” she sneered.

Any attempt for further information was ignored and her eyes remained glued to her screen, hiding from any explanation. We just wanted someone to tell us “you’ll get on another flight, just be patient’, but instead there was nothing.

Families with infants were not fast tracked. The majority of people were lined-up to jump in the first available life raft.

Santiago Airport
Santiago Airport

Thankfully, I was able to share my anxiety with Gabrielle and Paul whom I met in the cue, forming an instant bond and mini-support group. We shared hand-sanitiser, conjured flight options, waited for each other at each milestone, and discussed the collapse of the world – all three of us agreeing that this was a time of survival. Pure survival.

I jagged one of two flights left into Rio De Janeiro departing Monday morning at 05:30. I knew that put me on the wrong side of the border closure but I had to press on, while accepting that there was a real chance I wouldn’t make it into Brazil.

My new friend Gabrielle and I spent the night on a couple of cold bench seats dozing in and out of consciousness with the bright lights and airport music there help us rest. “Am I on an operating table?” I thought.

My flight was then delayed another three hours, a second gulp of anxiety tightened in my throat. I finally boarded the plane to Rio De Janeiro, a full 24 hours after arriving in Santiago. I felt lucky at that point, Gab still had another 7 hrs to wait. Another wave survived, but a monster was approaching.

Having waited all that time to get on the plane it was almost empty. Rows and rows of unfilled seats. Bizarre given the number of people still stuck in the airport.

Should I have stayed in Sydney? Am I going to get through? I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. I needed to be with my family and couldn’t imagine being stuck apart.

PART 3

Armed with a few documents of persuasion, and a whole lot of gumption I walked into an eerily quiet Customs hall.

“Boa Tarde”, I smiled.

Glancing at my passport, he frowned and brought up the rules of entry for Australian citizens on his mobile phone. With a double-take at his mobile he turned and said “connection”?

“Nah mate, staying here!” I replied.

“No, the border is closed, not allowed in” he said with a confused look and called over a few of his off-siders to join the show.

My heart skipped a few beats, “I’m married to a Brazilian, here is our marriage certificate. We have a son with a Brazilian passport, here are copies.”

“It doesn’t matter, the border closed today and you are not a Brazilian resident. Go and wait over there.”

I’ve been in ‘the room’ many times before, mostly in the US but that’s a whole other story. Persistence and remaining calm is key. With me are five Germans and one Brit. One of the young Germans is terrified and is dominating the agents attention with a ramble of “please let me through to my connecting flight, I’ve been in Chile for a month”. The British woman snarls – Chihuahua like – at the customs officers each time they asked her a question.

They all get processed and marched by security through to their connecting flights, leaving me patiently stranded on the gangplank and still holding onto my ammunition.

“Where is your visa”?

“I don’t need one, our governments changed that rule six months ago”.

“This is the first day of border closure, we are not sure what to do yet” The officer says, trying to make sense of me.

“Ok, well I’m staying in Brazil because my wife and son are here and they are Brazilian. You do not want to feel the wrath of my wife if you don’t let me through” A dry martini would be good right now.

Dai & Rio

“I’ll have to check with someone else, wait here”

Minutes passed, the airport dead empty, except for me. It’s surreal. I’m worried, but still feel I have the momentum late in the final quarter. Buddy was looping around behind me calling for the ball 60m from goal on his favoured left hand flank. We might have them here.

I suddenly realised they didn’t taken our marriage certificate as evidence, only Rio’s translated birth certificate. Surely he’ll be back with more questions.

Here’s your passport, you’re free to go through.”

Bang, I could hear the unmistakable thud of the boot and through she went. You beauty! In the end I think he sensed my determination and thought it was easier to let me slide through.

When I leave the airport I can hear birds chirping. The usual chaotic noise of heavy traffic and overcrowded footpaths silenced. I half expect to see a couple of deers bounce by, with Will Smith and his dog in chase in scenes reminiscent of I Am Legend.

After a car ride into the hills of Petropolis I now sit patiently in self isolation, bizarrely only a few kilometres away from Dai and Rio. Another step closer to being re-united, I grab my oar and keep paddling.

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