TRAVELLING right now is like stubbing your toe, it hurts like hell, but what can you do.
It is a big decision to travel. You have to weigh the health risks and financial burden, along with your sanity, tolerance for germs, paperwork, bureaucracy, and the risk that something might go wrong when you try to get back after your trip. Then, for some countries, you additionally need to decide if a 14-day, $2,500+ hotel quarantine is worth it, on top of the rest of your expenses.
When my husband suggested that I fly home to the US in August to visit my 91-year-old grandmother, I wasn’t convinced. He is usually cautious and I am free-spirited, however, I found myself fearful and hesitant. I had been in the comfortable Singapore bubble for more than 18 months where it felt safe, albeit sometimes suffocating.
As an expatriate for more than a decade, and someone who loves travelling, I used to jump at the chance to explore new places monthly and visit home every summer. After some deliberation, I decided it had been too long to be away from family, especially grandparents and young nephews. I did not want any regrets. It was time to head home to see everyone.
Once we were fully vaccinated, my husband (and travel agent) booked me a changeable Singapore Airlines premium economy return flight. To simplify travel, I opted for the 19-hour direct flight to New York City, the longest flight in the world. In the past, I couldn’t justify spending $6,000 return, but due to the pandemic it was less than half that price and felt like a treat. Plus, one long flight was preferred to a connection, and if I was lucky, I could sleep for a good chunk of the flight, depending on how much red wine they gave me.
The lead-up to the trip felt surreal. I did not want to get too excited in case there were changes, but it was the short window before the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus took off, just when the world seemed to be opening up again. It was time to dust off the suitcases and make space for my “once-a-year” shopping spree in the US. It would also be the first time I would be travelling with a small, cow-shaped wooden stool from Lim’s that I bought for my grandma, which fit perfectly in my empty carry-on. I was finally packed, and ready to fly!
N95 masks were too tight around my ears for such a long airport/airplane experience, so I settled for two comfortable Korean K95s. Double-masked, face-shielded, and armed with hand sanitizer and wet wipes in every pocket, I headed to Changi Airport. After such a long hiatus, the airport felt strange and empty. For a 12:40am flight, I arrived by 10:40pm, anticipating extra checks, but as with most things at Changi, it was very convenient and easy.
I immediately forgot the script my husband told me to repeat at check-in, “May I check I am not sitting next to any transit passengers?” and went straight through check-in to the point of no return at the COVID testing station.
Next stop, hours to kill at the gate where I remembered to ask if anyone was seated next to me. I explained I was worried about my grandma and they graciously moved me to the first row with no neighbours! Winning! The flight itself was surprisingly busy. It seemed many Singaporeans were excited to get to NYC after nearly two years.
I was neurotic and as careful as possible. It felt like I should avoid touching everything, but in reality, we had wet wipes to sanitize our area, so the space was probably much cleaner than usual!
Flight attendants were pleasant and provided food and beverages, which was a relief. Eventually, you get hungry and take off your mask to eat and drink in between watching movies, listening to music, reading books, and sleeping. I did try to sip water through my shield once. Comical. Also, here’s a tip — bring new masks just in case yours gets dirty or lost!
Before COVID, I loved talking to fellow travellers, learning their stories, where they were going, what they did for a living, but this trip was different. We all kept to ourselves. And when someone forgot to put their mask back on after eating, they were swiftly reminded of their collective duty.
After 19 hours, four movies, and the thrill of seeing Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty from above, I was ready to embrace my mom and sister at JFK for a 2.5-hour drive home. (The flight normally lands at Newark but changed airports a few weeks prior.)
Home And Its Peculiarities
After long-awaited hugs and hours of catching up on the latest gossip around town, we passed a truck obnoxiously waving Trump flags. I knew then that I was in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
I am from rural farm country, where everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. This visit was different though. You could tell folks had been through a tough time. Most interesting were the Trump signs still proudly displayed in yards. One neighbour even dedicated his shed to a giant “Q” painted on the side. The country was divided on many issues, including getting vaccinated and going back to work and school.
My unvaccinated cousin unashamedly said, “Since when is it my problem to care about the general public’s health.” That was a real shocker to hear. Family vibes were much more distant than usual with people tiptoeing around issues, except for my smartass uncle who insisted on taking Joe Biden jabs at me—the family liberal.
During the trip, I had the opportunity to visit several states on the east coast as well as California and Texas. Each part of the country dealt with COVID slightly differently. Pennsylvania seemed to be in the middle, Texas was a free-for-all, and in California, people wore masks indoors and outdoors.
One big distinction from Singapore was that generally the whole United States seemed to be over COVID.
They were back to their normal routines, casually noting there were fewer birds this summer. Some wore masks, some did not. Some were vaccinated, some were not. There was something a little nerve-wracking about it all, but it was also refreshing to experience the resilience and optimism. Nothing, not even a global pandemic, was going to stop them from putting one foot in front of the other and moving on. The freedom was apparent, for better or worse. And for the first time in over a decade, I didn’t want to leave.
Throughout this trip, I had to communicate with HR regularly to sort out my return. At first, my re-entry was rejected twice, so I planned to work remotely for a while. I then learned that my re-entry was approved.
The moral of the story is you must stay flexible and book changeable/refundable everything.
After five weeks away, returning to Singapore was not as easy physically or mentally. Getting from Houston to Los Angeles with United for my Singapore flight was a nightmare.
Firstly, getting a COVID test was almost impossible, as it seemed everyone in Houston had the Delta variant, including about 1,000 students at my cousin’s high school who needed tests. Appointments were fully booked, but luckily, a friend found me a free drive-through testing centre, so I rolled the window down, got a nasal swab, and was promised the emailed results in 48-hours.
Flight day arrived, and I still didn’t have the results, so I scrambled to find an emergency clinic, booked a 1-hour test for US$275, and rushed off to the airport, panicking to find that Singapore required a thermometer before boarding. So I then had to drive to a pharmacy to buy one.
Then the real fun began. The United check-in counter was chaos and the staff wouldn’t check my baggage all the way through to my final destination. Once I did get through, the flight was delayed because there was no crew! So I had to wait in line for 1.5 hours in another attempt to get my bags sorted, since there would be no time to recheck them in at Los Angeles. Eventually, a manager helped me.
Once I got on the plane, it was further delayed due to unruly passengers. Travelling during a pandemic seems to bring out the worst in some people. This delay caused me to miss my connecting Singapore Airlines flight in Los Angeles and required an overnight stay in an airport hotel.
If you have ever tried to navigate the different levels of Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles, with its narrow halls and poor signage, you know my pain. I finally found the Singapore Airlines check-in desk, presented my pre-flight COVID test to find out it wasn’t valid because it said “SARS-COVID,” without the letters “PCR.” Luckily, the free COVID test results arrived in my email just in time to be accepted. Talk about a stressful situation! The woman checking in next to me presented three COVID tests and suggested they take their pick.
Travelling now is much more complicated, expensive, inconvenient, and confusing than ever before.
I was finally on the mostly-empty Singapore Airlines flight, which felt luxurious, especially compared to my traumatic experience with United Airlines. I was relieved and daunted to be on my way to hotel quarantine. Fingers crossed for a good hotel with good food!
Before COVID, my husband and I took for granted how easy it was to travel to far-off places, where medical care was not so easy to find. I wonder how it will affect our choices going forward. What will travel look like next year, in five years, or in 10?
In the end, the big decision to see my family was worth it. I spent about S$10,000, a lot of time, energy, tears, and effort, but I would do it again to enjoy ice-cream sandwiches on Gram’s porch, train rides with my nephews, and spot wild animals daily. Being in a place that felt a bit more free again, was priceless. There is no place like home!
Photos by Amber Mizerak.
Amber participated as a panellist in the WED WEB CHAT — Taking Off Again! Read what she had to say HERE.