Journal

Flying Home during a Pandemic

Disclaimer: This post was originally written in February 2021.

You’d think things would be easier since the last flight out 3 months ago. But the pandemic is raging harder than ever. Governments are enforcing new and stricter restrictions. The lack of global coordination is becoming more evident.

The only light in the tunnel is the beginning of vaccination programmes in several countries. I suppose this was one of the motivations, besides depleting savings, that made me desire a return to Singapore. I have a permanent residency here, which makes me eligible for a vaccine when my turn comes. Not to mention that Singapore is potentially one of the safest countries in the world with their rigorous containment of the virus, so one would believe that it is one of the best places to be right now in terms of freedom.

But I am inclined to tell the story of how difficult my journey to return home has been, and how glad I am to be staying put for the moment.

Pre-departure

It started with a simple regulation: a permanent resident does not require a pre-departure PCR test to return to Singapore. It is all over the official website, clear as crisp. I had wondered if I should obtain one for a piece of mind, but eventually decided to forgo it. I wasn’t looking forward to spending anymore money than I already had these past months, or looking up a certified lab that needs an appointment made days prior.

Next, I did not have my resident card on me. I noticed early in my trip upon my arrival in France that my card was missing. At that point of time, I could not recall if I had simply not brought it with me or that I had somehow lost it in London. I decided that I didn’t need it anyway, as I had with me my re-entry permit, a 5-year document issued to permanent residents of Singapore to enter the country. So with confidence, I booked a Paris-Frankfurt-Singapore flight with Lufthansa, and then headed to the Paris CDG airport a day after returning from Belgium.

That was when the ordeal began.

They refused to let me check in. The claim was that “you need a PCR test because it is COVID times.” I argued that it was not a requirement as I am resident of my destination country. They validated the claim, and next claimed that I needed to show my resident card. An hour passed without fruits, and I called the Singapore Embassy in Paris for help. They confirmed that the permit would have been enough for my entry, and spoke with the check-in officer on my behalf. However, they wished for a proof from the local Singaporean immigration. The embassy helped me to obtain it. However, by the time the email arrived in my inbox, the gate closed and I did not make it.

Second try

I had been fortunate to be hosted by a Singaporean during my last stay in Paris. I contacted him out of desperation, and he provided the embassy’s numbers and then allowed me to crash at his place for the night. Once at the comfort of his home, I ordered in food, booked the next cheapest flight for the next day, did some work, and then I was off once more to the airport.

This time, it was Paris-Istanbul-Singapore by Turkish Airlines. I thought perhaps they would be a little more lenient than Lufthansa. In fact, I called their customer service the evening before to confirm that I did not require a PCR test to fly to Singapore. It seemed that everything would be well with them.

I was wrong. Once again, they denied me from boarding for the same reasons – no PCR test, no resident card. Even the email proof from the day prior did not help me. After an hour of helpless argument and another call to the embassy however, I hit a stroke of luck. The check-in officer called a colleague from Singapore Airlines, and confirmed that I could fly with my re-entry permit. I checked in at the last minute. By then, I had missed my chance to collect a customs stamp for my VAT refund. But I couldn’t care. I just wanted to board the flight and get home.

But the universe would not allow it.

Transit horror

I spent my 2 hours in transit believing that all would be well. But when I got to the gate for boarding, once again the dreaded question came up: do you have a PCR test? No, I’m a resident, here’s my re-entry permit, I said. But the border police of Singapore said that I needed the resident card to board.

What?

Time was not in my favour – I did not have an hour to argue with them like I did at check-in. When I couldn’t convince them in ten minutes, they closed the gate and led me away. I was angry and disappointed, as it did not make sense that I should be allowed to board at departure country but not during transit. I missed the flight from Istanbul to Singapore, I could not leave the airport without a test, and the next flight on Turkish Airlines was not in a few days.

It was worse than getting stuck at check-in.

I had not a choice. Turkish Airlines refused to believe me, so I decided to go with the next most reliable option – Singapore Airlines herself. Surely they would recognize my permit and let me board. The only problem was that it was 12 hours until the flight, and the transfer desk wasn’t opening till at most 3 hours before. I spent the night in fear that I would never be able to get home, or anywhere for that matter. I didn’t have my luggage that had been checked in, and I was all alone in limbo between countries.

If I had any travel nightmare to experience, this was definitely the worst so far.

Finally, a light

The transfer counter opened. Then my worst fear came true: once again, they refused to check me in for the same reasons. I blurted every argument I had and my entire experience from Paris to Istanbul. They could not possibly leave me stranded here. I was determined with every tear that I would not allow them to put me down.

Perhaps they sensed my desperation. They told me they were checking with Singapore – the immigration authority, I assumed. Then they were walking to the Turkish Airlines counter, and back, and forth, and back again. I was standing in place for more than 30 minutes, without any update given. Every minute was agonizing.

Eventually, the officer stood behind the counter, and gave me my boarding pass along with a new supposed receipt for the transfer of my luggage from Turkish Airlines to Singapore Airlines.

Needless to say, I broke down with gratitude after walking just thirty metres from the counter to the gate. Of course, I was still anxious about being denied at boarding, but that happened without a problem. Soon, I was on the flight home, finally at ease that it was all over.

The spontaneous trip in European lockdown was over.

Lesson learnt

I share this story with a reminder to myself that I should not take my residency for granted. While my patriotism is with my birth country, I should be grateful for the privilege granted to be counted as a resident of another.

The experience also gave me much to be grateful for. After all, I have always believed that we come out the strongest after the hardest ordeal, and this certainly qualified as one. Perhaps this will show that, we are already on the path to recovery while we work through the worst of the pandemic. All we need to do now is to persevere while doing the right things.

And most of all, do it with the most trusted person you have in your life. If it wasn’t for a friend’s accompaniment throughout my trial in Istanbul airport, I don’t think I could survive with my sanity in tact today. That is what unity is – weak alone, but stronger together.

Behind the trip

I’m Angie, a traveller, web developer and blogger behind A Head Full of Travel. I’m here to document my adventures through words and photography, kindling a love for life. You can trust that all content and advice shared here is genuine and from my own experiences.

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