I don't know why I was expecting that I would not be fazed at embarking on a journey across the Atlantic at a time when just stepping out of my bedroom had the potential to kill me. It could be irrational bravado or the complete blocking out of reality as a poor coping mechanism. Or perhaps, it was just the thrilling prospect of actually getting to see my child after many anxious months, thousands of miles away, which threw all caution to the wind.
Whatever it was, I was not prepared at all for the strange, dystopian reality show I was about to become a part of.
By now, a mask is an essential accessory and part of one's regular wardrobe, like shoes or eyeglasses or a belt that keeps it all together. So it wasn't really weird that everyone was wearing masks and that nobody asked me at Dhaka airport to remove them. But then I started to muse: how could they know if it was indeed me checking in my luggage and going through the gate to immigration? I couldn't help thinking of all the unsavoury possibilities. It could be, after all, my evil twin trying to escape the law, my kidnapper who was stealing my identity while I lay, gagged and bounded in some ditch in Gazipur; it could be a member of a drug network or a terrorist organisation... sometimes I wish my brain would just shut up.
So I was practically euphoric when the immigration officer told me to take off the mask for a picture. Finally, someone with some guts to follow regular security protocol. I must have grimaced badly at the tiny camera as he almost instantly "sign-languaged" me to put it back on.
In the lounge where I went mainly because the bathrooms are cleaner, waiters in masks walked silently like ghosts to serve nonexistent passengers, save for one young lady who had the full PPE on as well as the head gear (like a blue shower cap) and surgical gloves. She might have had shoe covers too but I forget. I was going to ask for tea but the thought of all the hands that had touched the teacups and spoons made me quickly decline, while bathing the little water bottle they gave me with hand sanitiser.
I realised these two items, masks and hand sanitiser, have become the most crucial and precious items one can have at all times these days—more precious than the diamond ring that apparently guarantees faithful monogamy forever. Next Feb, instead of chocolates and flowers or silly stuffed animals, be a real man and show her a basket full of hand sanitiser, Dettol soap, disinfectant spray and a PPE—they come in pink too.
But it was at the boarding gate that I realised I was now part of the new normal of travel, the parallel reality that lay beyond my cocoon, my bedroom from where, for the last four months, I had been working, socialising virtually, binging on Netflix, and spending more time with my better half than all our 27 years together. The reason for this epiphany? Well, the airlines I was flying was giving protective visors to each and every passenger and telling us that we had to wear it throughout the flight. Were they serious? Did they expect us to wear this futuristic face shield for the next five hours and then another 14 hours in the connecting flight? How were we supposed to eat our much-anticipated plane breakfasts at dinner time and lunches at bedtime—considered the best perks of air travel?
Oh well, how bad could it be, I thought, and so like a good sport I put on the Darth Vader head gear only to realise that everything was hazy even with my glasses on.
The man who had distributed them kept mumbling and pointing to it, but for some reason, this new ensemble had impaired my hearing. So he just asked for it back and I watched embarrassingly as he peeled off the protective paper lining the shield on both sides. Vision was markedly improved, though I was not amused by the fact that he had touched the contraption, hence nullifying the reason for wearing it. I sneered inwardly and tried to wipe it with sanitiser. I looked through the swarm of fellow soldiers in their masks and shields trying to locate a relative who was supposed to be on the same flight, but how could I figure out from the sea of masked, shielded masses?
I called her and finally realised that the person whose face was covered by a mask and shield and hair with a protective cap, frantically waving at me, was her. We made muffled conversation before proceeding to our seats.
Inside the plane another surprise awaited us. Instead of the good-looking stewards and stewardesses in impeccable uniforms were these ethereal figures in full protective armour—masks, gloves, hair cap, flowing PPE—all in pearly white. Like a team getting ready for open heart surgery, they ushered us into our seats.
The flight itself was uneventful apart from the fact that it was long and lonely enough to drive me crazy thinking of all the ways I could have caught the virus while just sitting in my seat. I vigorously wiped everything with sanitising gel—the hand rest, the tray table, screen, buttons on the screen, remote. Then I put my seat belt on only to realise that I had left out that crucial piece of metal from the disinfecting ritual.
Even while watching reruns of Friends (easiest way to escape any kind of unpleasant reality), I managed to work myself into semi-paralysis with anxiety over the impossible task of avoiding exposure on a plane.
Going to the restroom in a plane is always semi-traumatic, but during a pandemic, it is like being the protagonist of a psychological horror movie where "it" is that dreadful, invisible, diabolical "thing" that is just waiting to get you. This is because there are so many points of contact that you must be cautious of. You must push the door open, nimbly get inside, sanitise your hand, place the toilet seat cover before using the toilet, wash your hands and use the hand tissue to press the flush button, and then throw the tissue into the bin which is of course stuffed to the brim and requires some shoving resulting in contact with the surface of the disposal shoot, and demands sanitising your hand again and pushing the door with a tissue in one quick movement so as to avoid your body touching the walls or door. The problem is, when you come out sweating and panting with a small tissue in your hand, which may be a disturbing sight for other passengers, how do you get rid of it? This is why you need some forethought and should have a plastic bag in your seat to use as a trash bag.
The good news is that by the 9th time of this ritual you will have mastered the whole process, managing to get into your seat apparently unscathed. Until, of course, you realise the soles of your shoes have walked to all sorts of nasty corners including the sticky floor of the restroom.
Sleep, therefore, was quite redundant amidst such disturbing realisations.
Finally, as I reached Logan airport, Boston, my final destination, I wondered what lay ahead. In the plane they had announced that we needed to fill out a travel form online and also show our Covid-19 negative results.
At the airport, it seemed we were the only passengers and we almost immediately found our respective immigration officer, who didn't even ask if I had a test result or whether I would be self-quarantining. After asking me some basic questions, I was done. Unbelievable. I tried to smile through my mask but I don't think he noticed.
I was almost sprinting towards the greeting area when a security officer stopped me and scanned my luggage to see if I had brought any "meat"! It was a struggle getting the two suitcases with unnecessary clothes onto the scanner and then offloading them onto my trolley. I felt like a failed weight lifter as I tried to lift the second suitcase and heave it on the first. After three attempts and with a giant leap, I got it on top of the first one and I walked away, sweating and panting, but feeling like Xena the warrior princess.
To say my journey had been unusual would be the grossest understatement. It was not just surreal but also extraordinarily stressful. But at the greeting area, all I felt was intense joy and gratitude at the sight of a lanky girl in a mask calling out "Ma", making me forget all those bizarre hours of panic and unease.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.