A Change of Perspective
As the plane takes off from the tarmac at Malaga airport and soars above the Mediterranean, I fiddle with my Greek worry beads - my constant companion on flights - and try to adjust the ear straps of my new mask. I’ve had it on for just over an hour, and already my ears are aching. A change from my normal attire of light, surgical-style masks that I’m obliged to wear while out and about in Andalusia (or face a 100 Euro on-the-spot fine), it’s a state-of-the-art particulate respirator mask, British military grade technology.
I believe in mitigating manageable risk factors. When I was researching destinations such as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, all places with dodgy, overcrowded boats and not enough safety equipment, I carried my own life jacket. My editors gently mocked me, but I never drowned, not once! And when I wasn’t wearing it, my life jacket served variously as a seat cushion and pillow for my weary head. So it makes sense to invest in the best particulate respirator mask on the market. While wearing it, I feel just about safe enough to fly.
Things have changed since those weird, frightening months of March to June, when my entire world consisted of my flat and the tumultuous landscape inside my own head, and when any minute scratchiness in my throat was interpreted as a sign of imminent demise. Well, they have, and they haven’t. As a chubby asthmatic with high blood pressure, I’m no less likely to die now if I catch Covid-19, but my sense of my own vulnerability has altered dramatically.
Driving all the way to the UK, spending a month working in Wales, seeing friends and family, and then taking an overnight car ferry from Portsmouth to Santander, not getting sick all the while, emboldened me somewhat. Granted, I took every available precaution, wiping down my cabin maniacally with Dettol disinfectant, living off takeaways, always masking up in the UK, even if those around me were not, but still.
Then a shorter road trip - a leisurely traverse of the Spanish and Portuguese countryside, a week in Porto, again for work, and I found myself eating out every day. I ate out in Wales one time this summer, slurping raw oysters at an al fresco, trellis-hung pop-up restaurant on the Isle of Anglesey, sitting in an isolated nook, but all the while conscious of the couple eating some 2m away, and of the fact that not all servers wore masks. Imagining a red trail of airborne contagion particles wafting their way through the air from their nostrils to my own unprotected face.
In Porto, the plan was to cook for myself as much as possible, but I found the lure of the outdoor terraces irresistible. I’ve missed the buzz, the happy hubbub of nearby diners, the pleasure of streamlined good service, the taste of dishes not cooked by my own hands. I’m still cautious, of course, and I opt for eating early (when there are few other diners), and for eating outside, picking the most peripheral table possible. When I sit outside Cantina 32 on the Rua de las Flores, nursing my glass of local red from the Douro valley, tucking into the local version of morcilla (black pudding), or when I linger on the south bank of the river, in Vila Nova da Gaia and drink port...
...while listening to a phenomenal street band play up a cumbia storm, I am completely and utterly content.
And so, here I am, on an unreasonably early flight to Menorca, having got up at 5am but awake since 3am, because my body doesn’t trust my alarm clock and endeavours to wake me up the natural way whenever it knows I have to be up before dawn. Then hairpin bends in the dark, driving down from the mountains. An eerily quiet airport, with everyone masked up and keeping their distance. There are a few ‘nose willies’...
...but not many, especially since announcements are made over the loudspeaker to cover both nose and mouth. A holdup at the x-ray machines right in front of me; a father and two young men, his sons (both ‘nose willies’) delay everyone by 15 minutes as each bit of their hand-luggage is re-screened, until offending items are found - a full-size bottle of cologne and a large aerosol bottle of aftershave (it’s almost as if they’ve never travelled before). They’re told to leave them behind. One of the ‘nose willies’ sprays himself liberally with the aerosol; if anyone lights a match near him, he'll be flambeed like a Christmas pudding. He catches the security guard as well; the security guard yells at him for potentially spreading contagion on a wave of Lynx particles.
The plane is mostly full, to my surprise; wouldn’t have thought that Malaga-Mahon would be the most popular route; surely most holidaymakers fly directly from abroad. But the pandemic is changing existing travel patterns, as I’ve learned in Porto, with domestic tourism and neighbouring country tourism largely replacing visitors from overseas. I wipe down everything with antiseptic wipes. My neighbour is wearing one of those ill-fitting masks...
...that leaves a gap above her nose. In spite of the fact that my valved mask is deemed ‘antisocial’, since the mask protects me from others while allowing me to potentially expel a viral load, its close fit and my cautiousness mean that it’s better protection for those around me than the lady’s cheap FFP2 jobbie.
Since we are supposed to stay masked up for the duration of the flight, hydrating oneself and eating is very tricky. At one point, I turn away from my neighbour and quickly stuff a cookie in a gap between the mask and my face. The mask wobbles as I eat and I’m briefly reminded of a long-haul stopover somewhere in the Gulf, with a lady in full niqab stuff a cheeseburger beneath her veil.
And just like that, we leave the arid mountains of southern Spain behind...
...and are soon landing on Menorca - the most pancake-flat of the Balearics.