The pilot’s voice boomed, crackling over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, can’t believe what I’m hearing. We’re going back to the terminal.”
I looked up startled. My Rome to London flight stood on the Fiumicino runway. Through the cabin window, I saw the deep green canopy of Mediterranean pines beyond the tarmac, blue sea glinting.
The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökul was belching a plume of fine ash into the polar jet stream, to a height of nine kilometers – the cruising altitude of large aircraft. The ash, sucked into jet turbines, fused to liquid glass that ground moving blades, blocked valves, choked engines. Air traffic around Europe screeched to a halt.
So. Trip cancelled. I was lucky, I could go home. Other passengers? Not so lucky.
Internet fed us news. Air routes closed and opened unpredictably as the ash cloud drifted, dissipated, reemerged. No-fly zones shifted day to day, week to week – amorphous black blobs on maps, tentacles streaming over the Northern Hemisphere. The ash bled west past Prince Edward Island in Canada, and east over Siberia almost to Lake Baikal.
Amidst panic, rental cars evaporated. Trains booked out for weeks ahead. Taxi drivers earned thousands of euro for rides to Brussels, Paris, Berlin.
Air traffic was interrupted for ten weeks. Twenty countries closed their airspace. A hundred thousand flights were cancelled. Ten million passengers were stranded, in Europe and around the world – the largest air shutdown since WWII. Until now.
Ten years later, I left Rome.
The plane approached Bangkok – a whited-out sky, dingy pink mist. As we floated lower, small spots of water glistened below, just visible through the haze.
“Perché vai in Thailandia?” my friends had asked me. “Sei matto?” Are you mad?
The news was coming from China. A mysterious illness. People collapsing in the streets, gasping like fish. Wuhan built two hospitals overnight. Chinese New Year was cancelled.
No sooner had I left Italy, Lombardia and Veneto declared quarantine zones. The irony.
Then all of Italy was in quarantine. All of Europe. The Philippines, India, Vietnam. California, New York, and where next? Don’t go to work. Don’t go to school. Don’t leave home.
In Bergamo, in Brescia, in Detroit, there was nowhere to put the bodies. They went into refrigerator trucks.
I sit in Bangkok, glued to internet news. New words and phrases flung about. Coronavirus. Lockdown. Social distancing. Shelter in place. Self-quarantine. Auto-declaration. Covid. Pandemic.
Or should that be pandemonium?
International borders close. Australia, Canada, New Zealand call citizens home. Flights are scrubbed, as during the volcano ten years earlier.
Stranded foreigners mob immigration offices, until blanket visas are granted. Thais watch their livelihoods vanish, oblique desperation in their eyes, eloquent over face masks that everyone now wears.
We wash our hands till chapped skin splits our knuckles. Our temperatures are taken in public, infrared thermometers aimed at our foreheads like revolvers. What will happen if we measure over 37.5 degrees C? We don’t ask.
The alcohol ban comes next.
No news of my return flight, scheduled the following Monday. The airline office is closed. No one answers the phones. I fill web forms, receive polite emails promising reply in four to six weeks. I track down Twitter accounts, write DMs. More careful, noncommittal messages.
Desperate for news, I brave the airport train, eerily deserted, to Suvarnabhumi Airport. On the screen of scheduled departures, for every ten flights, eight are cancelled. Check-in is open for London, Nanning, Ko Samui, and two flights to Shanghai.
Is my carrier flying? No.
A squad of doctors sits in the departure hall. White hazmat coveralls, black goggles, blue latex gloves. They sit in lounge chairs, trolley suitcases standing around them. With a shock I realize – these are not doctors. These are passengers. Early for their flight, waiting to check in.
My airline’s ticket office bears a sign – “Temporarily closed for Covid 19.”
“Super Spreader,” the latest luk thung pop song, is the hot new comeback for Thai singing stars Jane, Noon and Bow. They’ve revived their 2010 hit “Super Valentine” for the Covid era. Decked in black high heels, black jeans, clear plastic face visors, they bop and sway one meter apart. Social distancing.
“Co-vid, co-vid, supah sa-pread-euh!”
Each word split in syllables, perfect cadence of Thai tones, female emphatic “ka.” A bouncy beat belies Grim Reaper lyrics.
“Covid, ka. Covid, ka. My name’s Co, I come with Fever and Cough.
“Cough cough cough! Sneeze sneeze sneeze! If you can’t recover, you could die!
“People had to be carted away. If we all want to live, stay your homes.”*
Thai people love to have fun. Yet here it is – a pop anthem for the Great Plague. The unreal becoming everyday. Our lives are changing.
It’s springtime. Rome’s a riot of wisteria in spring – thick masses of purple flowers swaying from monuments, sweet perfume drifting. This year I won’t see it. I may never see it again. What’s the future of air travel? In the new era, will we still buy tickets online, hop on planes wherever we want? Will it be so easy?
In Bangkok, gritty concrete blocks pile the horizon, blurred in smoggy air. Golden temples glint where sun strikes them. In Lumphini Park, rain trees with hemispherical crowns, studded with pink brush blooms, line the walkways. Flame trees with fiery orange sprays, cascading in sheaves. Frangipane trees thick with fleshy white flowers, fragrant as gardenias.
* Read full lyrics at KhaosodEnglish.com
Born near Seattle, Washington and raised in Berkeley, California, Refael Paul Arenson lived in Rome for 15 years, and in Los Angeles for 18 years before that. He holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MLIS from the University of California, Los Angeles. He learned wine tasting and description with WSET Levels 2 and 3, passing with distinction.His writing has appeared in North American Review, Utne Reader Online, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rattling Wall, and other venues. He has a lot of fun on Instagram - @refaelpaulo