It had been a delightful Springtime, that is the month of February in Andalucia , Southern Spain. We had been staying there to evade the dreadful weather the UK was experiencing, feeling not smug but grateful as we watched the BBC Look East and Channel 4 News, realising that our friends and family were suffering under the gloom. In fact the only glitch in this brilliant weather was the sad demise of our 17 year old Volvo whose automatic gearbox decided to break; a replacement in Southern Spain, not noted for Volvo dealerships was going to take weeks and would be more costly than the value of the car. We bought a cheap and cheerful Opel Zafira which actually proved to be more practical in accommodating my electric scooter than the venerable Volvo.
News had been breaking for several weeks about the situation in Wuhan and that it had spread rapidly to South Korea and Singapore and over parts of China. I wondered what happened or was happening to North Korea? Would the enforced prohibition or international travel play to their advantage? We watched with increasing concern what was happening to Northern Italy. But we thought Italy is a relatively wealthy country with a functioning healthcare system, separated from the rest of Europe by the Alps and Spain is by the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. But we all forget about the ubiquitous airline travel and how border controls that have been abandoned since the EU was instituted, enabled unlimited cross border travel. We felt safely safe tucked away in Southern Spain hundreds of miles away from the centres of the Covid 19 action. Doreen celebrated her 75th birthday on the 11th March and we had a deliciously long lunch and a walk by the sea before spending a quiet evening watching TV. The next day the weather broke and rumours were circulating that the dreaded virus had been rapidly spreading in Madrid. The local Spanish were furious with the Madrilenos as the wealthy ones were escaping the city to stay at their second homes down on the Mediterranean coast, bringing the virus with them, whether they knew it or not. Our son Rupert decided that he would ride his Triumph triple Sport motorbike crossing to Santander, across Spain to rescue us. Then he would drive us back up through Spain and France in our Opel but that plan was soon wrecked by France and then Spain closing their borders.
As the days ticked by it was becoming clear that the Spanish were going to be taking no chances and, on the 13th March, an effectual martial law was instigated. All the beaches were roped off, no-one was allowed out unless going shopping, to the doctors or pharmacies. Going for casual walking exercise or cycling was banned, being enforced by the local police force. It was prohibited for more than one person to ride in a car, i.e. the driver. The police were stationed at the big supermarkets fining people who were going food shopping as a couple, the fine being a Draconian €6oo. The streets were patrolled by loudspeaker vans warning people to stay indoors and maintain the 2 metre separation, which is anathema to most Spanish who like the Italians are very tactile in their personal behaviour. We had previously booked our return flight on the 5th April , but as we watched the TV news we realised that airports around the World were being closed, Mr. Trump decided he didn’t like Chinese exports after all, and we started checking out Ryanair for an earlier flight. Eventually we got a booking on Friday 20th March at quite a reasonable rate. Breathing little sighs of relief, it suddenly dawned on us that our British friend, who is resident in Spain, would not be able to take us to the airport as usual, risking a €600 fine. Doreen called the local town hall to ask if there were any taxis in the vicinity that could take wheelchair passengers. We had never ever seen one and as a disabled person one is automatically on the lookout for such things, so we had little hope. The lady at the town hall was brilliant. Although she did not know herself about a suitable taxi, within a couple of hours she called us back with the number of a local taxi service designed to take wheelchairs and still maintain a 2 metre separation from each other. She warned us that we could not be 3 people in a car as there was heavy police patrol on the roads. She even wondered if Murcia airport may have closed by then! We were filled with trepidation the whole week worrying whether Ryanair like easyJet were to ground all their aircraft. Then Doreen in her best Spanish called the taxi service and wonder upon wonder they were very accommodating and promised to collect us at 4.00 pm on that Friday. Giving people directions to places over the phone is a business fraught with misunderstanding as the postcode for our place covers about 10 square kilometres, so one has to resort to; “do you know where the Riding School is on the seafront opposite Thomas’s little supermarket well, we are in the street behind that up the Parata hill and left into calle Alegria”. We spent the week packing and cooking for ourselves as there were no cafes or restaurants open. The weather had turned dismal and we were in a pretty dark place mentally. Although the guy on the phone seemed to understand where we were, when the day came, I went down into the street on my electric scooter and watched for any sort of taxi. Spot on at 4.00 pm a large white Ford Transit type people carrier appeared from the opposite direction sporting a large green TAXI sign on the roof. I waved to the driver who rushed up did a u-turn in the middle of the road and out jumped a rather “chunky lady” fully PPE-ed except for the eye protectors. She opened the rear doors of the van and unfolded a large ramp up which I had to drive myself on the scooter. Clearly, I was to ride the whole way on my scooter anchored to the van with an additional seat belt for me. Doreen was in a normal seat just in front of me, which meant that we and the driver were separated by at least 2 metres. This was fine until we went over the first of many speed bumps in the road when my head made painful contact with the roof of the van. We passed unheeded through the village as we could see the police busy interrogating a group of people. Our driver was very competent particularly when negotiating roundabouts which she took at speed such that I, seated rather high on my scooter, had to lean into each corner as if riding in the Isle of Man TT. We arrived in good time at the airport in exchange for €200 and made our way into the Departure Hall to contact the Assistance Desk. We were so relieved to learn that there would be an Ambi-lift available as I was not relishing the climb up the steps into the rear of the aircraft. The place was almost deserted as all the shops except for those selling bottled water at extortionate prices, so we ate our sandwiches and read our books. Time now passed slowly, the sky darkened and at last we could see the lights of our approaching aircraft. The only one on the Departures Board. We were ushered to our seats and donned our face masks and our slightly modified snorkel masks covering our eyes. What a pair we looked.
The flight was pleasantly uneventful and really was the very last flight out of Murcia. Upon arrival Stansted there was an Ambi-lift to take us off the aircraft and my scooter had also made the trip although for some strange reason the ground crew couldn’t find it in the hold. We knew it went in so why wasn’t it coming out? Even the Ambi-lift driver went over to assist and eventually it appeared. How one can mislay an electric scooter in the hold of a medium sized aircraft is quite beyond me.
Doreen had managed to order a Tesco delivery on-line from Spain but 3 days after our return to Norfolk, the government instigated our own UK lock-down. To start with we had no fears of this as we had endured a week’s worth of military lock-down in Spain. We have lovely neighbours who have helped us collecting our medications and food supplies. We are making use of “Norfolk in a Box” and Goddards of Downham and have come back to sparkling Spring sunshine and flowers.
However, the sad news every day of so many people dying and the hospitals and care staff not being able to get the correct protective equipment is terrible when they are putting their lives at risk for the people of this country. The dilemma of when and how to come out of this lockdown remains a problem for us and Europe too. It seems that those of us with underlying health issues will have another 9 weeks at least to survive like this.
It is sad that there are no concerts or shows to see or holidays to plan, but we will just hunker down and wait patiently for the worst to pass. It will never completely pass as the virus will be around now for millennia. So, we will just urge the biochemists to come up will a vaccine as we trust that they will and we shall sleep easier in our beds.