By Raji Khanal, Sydney
17 April 2020
I boarded Malaysian Airlines flight MH122 on March 12, stopping at Kuala Lumpur for nearly two hours. We touched down in Kathmandu the same day 10:30 pm local time.
The Tribhuvan International Airport is usually milling with crowd but this time that colourful liveliness was replaced by an uncomfortable silence. Dead quiet, very unusual for a country like Nepal. I flew to Bhairahawa airport the next day from where I drove to my beloved hometown of Butwal, quarter of an hour drive away.
When I got home, my dear father looked at me with his weary, wide eyes! I did not go near him right away as I had travelled international. I wanted to be sanitised before I touched him. From a distance, I asked him how he was. A feeble response, “I am okay!” We got up and close after I showered and freshened up exchanging the usual father and son niceties. I bowed to my dad and mom in the customary Nepalese way. They both cried. Tears welling up in my eyes could not be checked either!
I said to him, “You will be alright. Now I am here with you!” An hour or so later, I finally begin to see some light in his face. The corners of his mouth begin to hint smiles. Then the medication he would have rather skipped was back on track. Homecooked hot meals soon began to be forced on him, with love!
In the meantime, the Nepalese government announced that all international travelers who arrived on or after March 14 had to be self-quarantined. It did not apply to me because I had arrived two days earlier, on the 12th. Still, I resisted the temptation of going for that carefree stroll to chat with relatives and neighbours. I stayed home with my dad, taking care of him which was of course the main reason of my travel to Nepal!
When I first arrived at home, my heart sank to see my dad suffering from his chronic illness, unable to sit up on his own. We had to put him on a portable toilet 15 times the least in the course of 24 hours. His days and nights were the same because he could not have an unbroken sleep for more than an hour. My mother was all the help he had for the care he badly required!
On March 21, with dad’s permission, I went to visit Gaylang in Syangja district – his birthplace as well as mine. The visit was humbling to say the least!
Two days after I arrived, we took dad to see his doctor. I was anxious to know if he would get better, if he would ever be on his feet again. His doctor did not inspire a great deal of hope in me given he had very weak lungs and suffered from severe asthma. His condition is so bad that he cannot even take his tablets orally; a nurse comes in to inject medication for his lungs every morning and evening. He has been on and off ventilator for the good part of past 6 years. His room literally looks like a hospital! Dad often calls out for help when he experiences shortness of breath. The entire family runs to him rendering help with puffer and what not. Every time that happens the family becomes a team of emergency experts. If his situation worsens then he is rushed to the local hospital. This process has been repeated again and again over the past 6 years.
During my visit this time, I made conscious efforts to bring joy and amusement to my father.
We talked about his life when he was a young man. We even managed to play cards. We also talked about my grandfather and great-grandfather. Most mornings, I would put him in his wheel chair and sunbathe in front of the house. We reflected on our life, and this pandemic.
Then along came the announcement from the Nepal government that no commercial flights would be allowed to land in Kathmandu from March 22 onwards. My friends, Ganesh KC and Mana KC, who I had bumped into aboard my flight to Nepal a week earlier had already flown back on the 20th and 21st. As for me, I was now badly caught up by my desire to spend little bit of extra time with my dad. I was also naively thinking the lockdown might not last too long.
Fortunately, the Australian Embassy in Kathmandu took the initiative of rescuing stranded tourists from Lukla and Pokhara to Kathmandu and from Kathmandu to Brisbane. On March 23, the Australian Embassy called on any permanent residents and citizens of Australia who were in Nepal at the time to contact them immediately should they be willing to fly back home. I expressed my interest to the embassy which was accepted.
Now I had to overcome the first part of the challenge of returning to Sydney – arrive in Kathmandu from Butwal amid the lockdown!
The chartered flight to Brisbane was on April 1 at 5:30 pm.
An “influential” relative managed to get a travel pass for my brother’s car to drop me at Kathmandu. So, with my heart heavy and guilt-ridden, I said goodbye to my beloved parents in the early hours of March 31. On the way, we picked up my friend Binod Poudel from Narayangarh. Lockdown meant the road was empty as if it was constructed only for us. When we reached the Australian Embassy after just four and half hours, we paid for our flight tickets. The Embassy wanted every passenger to be present at its premises by 12 pm the next day –they wanted to brief us on the flight details and the quarantine regime. The next day, the embassy staff escorted the shuttle buses to the Tribhuvan International Airport.
We knew that it was a Nepal Airlines flight but weren’t sure that Captain Bijay Lama was flying us. We realised that only after we saw the celebrity pilot at the airport. Australian pilot James Keep was commandeering the NA flight with Bijay Lama as his co-pilot.
During two-hour long refueling stop-over in Malaysia, Captain Lama paced up and down the aircraft talking to fellow passengers asking how they were. He captured video of people sharing their feelings being on the first NA flight to Australia.
Some passengers may not have been impressed with the fact that alcohol was not served during the course of the flight due to COVID-19 and other health and safety considerations.
An hour later than originally scheduled, our aircraft finally took off from Malaysia to continue its journey towards Brisbane where of course some pretty scary turbulences got the better of us! In fact, the lady sitting next to me was so scared that she grabbed my arm! We calmed down only after we heard Captain Lama made the announcement thanking passengers for trusting Nepal Airlines and being part of the historical first flight to Australia.
As we came out of the aircraft, police officers were there welcoming us back home and handed few forms to us for government records. The paperwork had coronavirus-related questions. Once we cleared Immigration and grabbed our baggage, we got into the waiting buses after passing through the security layers of police and then the Australian Army. All passengers from the RA 4131 were put in 5 buses and brought to The Westin Hotel and Four Points by Sheraton.
I and my close friends Dipak Bhattarai and Binod Poudel were assigned to the 17th floor – next to each other as we requested. However, we could not leave our rooms because the keys were single-entry only. But we often saw each other when we picked up our breakfast, lunch and dinner. We even had quick chats before we grabbed our food and shut the doors behind us.
Unfortunately, the food was no pleasant affair perhaps because they had to cater to 220 plus guests all at the same time.
Most of my time in my hotel room was spent talking to my wife, my boys, exercising and catching up with friends far and wide. I even got surprise calls from friends from 24 years ago, all the way from Canada.
As soon as I got into my hotel room from the airport, I took a deep breath and thought, “A 26-hour-long journey finally ends here!” I then took the longest shower of my life! Ever worried about the condition of my father, I called them to check if dad was okay which he was – a big relief! Called my wife talked to my boys and showed my hotel room via video chat. A lot of time over the next couple of days was spent on returning calls from friends as well as to media friends. There were few articles published on the very first day in which was featured based on our telephone conversations.
On the second day of my quarantine, I got few surprise calls like the one from school friend Kamal Karki. Kamal, a friend from 24 years ago, called from Canada to check on me and so did Roshan Devkota. There were lot of other calls and massages which I could not possibly list here. Talking to my wife and kids at least 5 time a day is normal. Back home to Nepal at least once a day is also a routine.
I spent a great deal of time on video chat rejuvenating my relationships with many friends and families. In the process, I must confess, I ended up chatting with my uni crush as well as few other friends from my school days! If not for the quarantine in a lonely hotel room, I would probably have never reconnected with some of these long-lost friends due to typical busyness of our city life.
On April 6, we celebrated a virtual birthday party of Suchitra, one of our fellow evacuees from Nepal.
Watching and making Tiktok videos, movies, news on television, books, sleeping one or two hours in the sun that came through the glass window – these were the simple pleasures of quarantine! Sick of the hotel food, I once ordered momos and chicken curry from a Nepalese restaurant and enjoyed it thoroughly. Some kind-hearted friends in Brisbane delivered home-cooked Nepalese meals which was devine and am grateful to them.
I must admit quarantine for me became a lifetime experience in that I had never given so much time to myself. I had enough time for soul-searching, to reflect on my life and plans for the future. It was also an opportunity to check my level of determination. I also felt that rough times make you stronger.
As I left Brisbane behind on April 16 and journeyed towards Sydney by bus, I could not wait to reunite with my wife and two sons.
The 14-day quarantine means they will remain all the more precious to me, than my own dear life, for the rest of my life.
Now, I am back to my family. I am back to my good old life although in a different paradigm and definitely with a changed perspective on life and human relationships.
The author is an award-winning hospitality entrepreneur from Sydney. He owns Kingsford-based Niji Sushi Bar.