Back in February when we were touring Vietnam, I debated with my wife as to when we would feel safe to travel home to Switzerland. Things were getting very heated in Europe – Italy was a mess, and Switzerland had decided to keep the borders open. I felt that to be a huge mistake. Vietnam had closed its border with China before the end of January and by mid February was restricting travellers from many other countries. We were lucky to get to Vietnam and tour as we did. Now the time to go home was approaching – but as Europe was looking dicey, thoughts turned to New Zealand. I figured that New Zealand, due to isolation and the natural immunity conferred by the waning summer sunshine (never underestimate the power of Vitamin D) would be a great place to hang out until things blew over in Switzerland.
I was not wrong about New Zealand. It turned out to be one of the better places to be during the pandemic. Not as perfect as Vietnam or Taiwan, but not bad. I’d expressed my view to my wife that we’d be stuck in New Zealand until late northern summer at least, perhaps around July or August. Later, the New Zealand government seemed to express that view too, when it extended all tourist visas automatically to September 2020. My wife was adamant that we’d be home before the end of May, and by June or July the pandemic would be over. As she is a physician, I certainly had to respect her view but my scepticism remained.
Ultimately I lost the debate. By late April, it was clear that New Zealand was doing a great job and that the lockdown would soon end. Europe remained a problem, but encouragingly the Swiss case numbers were in sharp decline. With some difficulty we found a set of mid-May flights home via Expedia (flights kept getting cancelled or rescheduled) and after many phone calls to verify that these were not phantom flights, we booked it. It involved three airlines on three legs with two USA stopovers, but as they say, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’.
We got the last two seats.
My wife emailed the taxi service to pick us up in Zurich on our return. A couple weeks later, she still did not have a confirmation email, so figuring that they were not operating during the lockdown, I went online and booked a different service and got an immediate confirmation.
I returned the rental car the day before our flight, gave away all our remaining food to a neighbour of ours, turned off the heat and hot water, and booked a van to the airport for us, our daughter and our 5 pieces of at-the-limit luggage. We took a final stroll on the waterfront, absorbing the beautiful marina district for the last time. The weather had been unseasonably warm and sunny, with crystal blue skies. Despite the mild hardships of the Level 4 lockdown, it would be missed.
Auckland had been kind to us during these many weeks of lockdown. I know that many suffered greatly, with businesses and relationships and health all on the line. We had no such worries. We were afforded, as were all residents, the opportunity to go outside for walks, jogging and cycling as much as desired within a 5km radius of home. Supermarkets were open with social distancing enforced and most customers wearing masks. Police made the rare enforcement action, and their presence was felt, but never in a threatening or demanding way. They were civil – and helpful – to a fault.
In our final weeks in Auckland, some restaurants re-opened for takeout food which made for a few memorable meals. In general the food supply was never under threat; New Zealand is self-sufficient in all things edible, and some of the world’s finest produce comes from the volcanic soils of this fabled land. I remarked to a friend, ‘Best damn lockdown of my entire life! Should there be another pandemic in my lifetime, God forbid, you can bet I’ll be running back to Auckland!’
We ate the last piece of cheese in the fridge, grabbed the remaining bananas and boiled eggs, and walked out the door.
We figured the airports would be empty, and we were not wrong. At Auckland International, there were only three flights on the board: One bound for Australia and another for Hong Kong, and ours, a New Zealand Air flight bound for LA. The first two quickly disappeared from the boards, leaving ours as the only, lonely departure. The airport was as silent as a tomb. Not a single shop was open, other than a poorly stocked airside juice bar staffed by a sole and very confused clerk. His POS machine was not working, so he had no way to know the price of anything. I bargained with him for a bag of cookies.
Nobody made a big deal out of wearing masks in the airport or on the plane. I wore a mask, my wife not. Our 18 month old daughter was not having it. I tried to keep mine on as long as possible but on the airplane, it simply was not practical. Rebreathing your own air and restricting oxygen flow in a cabin pressurized at 8,000 ft exacerbates hypoxia, not exactly what you want for good health and brain function. Besides, everyone on that flight had just been on lockdown since March, and new cases in New Zealand had diminished to zero. What were the odds that anyone on that flight had the Wuhan flu, including me? After an hour or so, off came my mask, as did the masks of most people.
The plane was about 60% full. A lot of seats were kept open for ‘social distancing’, an unnecessary construct post-COVID lockdown from Auckland. But it did make for a more comfortable flight. The 12 ½ hours were, thankfully, uneventful. The attendants were pleasant, and the alcohol flowed as freely as ever.
We landed at a deserted LAX in the early afternoon. We quickly cleared US immigration but the Customs dog had a sniff at our bags and found a contraband banana. All bags were X-rayed and out came a few more pieces of fruit. Thankfully there were no fines, like the $400 fine New Zealand had once imposed on us for the same infraction. We carted our bags outside, and waited for the hotel shuttle. Our connecting flight would be in 19 hours, the next morning, to Newark.
The hotel we booked was the Marriott Airport Hotel, a modernist skyscraper with a sports bar next to the lobby. We arrived to find the hotel as empty as the airport. It was honestly a surprise that the hotel was even open – there seemed to be no guests but us! Our room was small and poorly ventilated. The windows were sealed shut. Well, it was just one night.
We decided to head to the nearest beach to check it out and maybe take a walk. We used an Uber to get to Dockweiler Beach, a huge long strip of sand along Vista del Mar, a few miles from the airport. At the entrance was a manned pay booth station, but no cars. Yellow traffic cones blocked the entrance. We walked up to the young man in the booth and inquired as to the status of the beach. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘The beach is open and you can walk here, but the parking lot is closed and you can’t park here. So please leave.’ But as we came with Uber, there was no reason to leave. I guess very few people take an Uber to the beach.
Dockweiler was empty but for one couple near the entrance sitting on sand near the surf and a woman alone a few dozen meters north. A cold wind was blowing hard from the ocean, penetrating our clothes despite the bright late afternoon sunshine. A few cyclists pedaled on the bike path nearby, passing the occasional lone jogger. It was a bleak, depressing scene. What made no sense to me at all, is why they would keep the beach open yet prevent cars from parking. Effectively they closed the beach without having to admit that it was closed. I heard that the LA mayor Garcetti even decreed that sitting in chairs on the beach would be illegal (why?) but you could sit on the sand. And not just any sand – it had to be wet sand. Apparently dry sand could get you infected. Must be some new infection control theory. Did that mean that walking across dry sand to get to the wet sand was a criminal offense? If I bent over and touched the dry sand, would I need to disinfect myself? Interesting.
Back at the hotel, we started looking for food. It was dinner time, and we were hungry. No restaurants were open, only takeout was possible. The area near the airport is anyway a desert for food choices unless you were willing to settle for McDonalds, and we’d rather starve than settle for McDonalds. However the sports bar in the hotel opened up, and we ordered some food and beer there. The bar was actually quite large, with a huge dining area full of empty tables. I asked the bartender if we could eat there, and the answer was ‘No, you are not allowed due to the Mayor’s rules, but you can eat on the tables just outside the bar in the hotel lobby.’ Those tables were identical to the ones inside the bar, and were spaced just as closely together. We made ourselves comfortable at a table right next to one occupied by another family. None of this made any logical sense, but we went with the flow.
The next morning we paid up our hotel bill and climbed aboard the hotel’s airport shuttle with our 5 huge suitcases and 6 assorted carry-on items for the ride back to LAX. At our next destination, Newark airport near New York, we would transfer to a Swiss Air flight bound for Zurich. Thankfully our bags would be checked through from LAX. Once again LAX was completely empty but for our flight and a couple of others. It was a surreal feeling. Security and boarding were uneventful, but this time the airplane was full.
The 6 hour flight went by uneventfully and finally we arrived at Newark, where we had to exit the secure zone; we made our way upstairs to the departures hall. Only a Starbucks was open so we grabbed some coffees and a couple soggy sandwiches and settled in for the 5 hour wait for the next flight. We and a handful of other Swiss-bound passengers congregated at tables and benches around the Starbucks and remained there long after it closed, the atmosphere punctuated occasionally by public service announcements echoing down the cavernous hall. All that remained for sustenance was a lone vending machine that proclaimed ‘Farm Fresh Food’, now only half-stocked with past sell-by-date salads. Our daughter became quite antsy, so we took turns walking her around the empty terminal, inside and out.
Here as in LA, the skies were remarkably blue, just as I’d imagined they would be.
No air traffic means no jet contrails, which means dramatically reduced stratospheric moisture and haze. I’d seen this after 9/11 in the USA too, back in 2001. The formerly hazy skies cleared up within a couple days and remained that way until a week later, when flights resumed. There are few populated places like this left in the world; one is New Zealand, where virtually no planes cross high in the stratosphere, resulting in crystal blue, contrail-free skies. The southern half of South America is very similar, as is southern Africa, all for the same reasons – minimal to no stratospheric jet travel.
We don’t think about it much, but contrails cause a general upper atmospheric haze. If the moisture content of the stratosphere is enough to begin with (or becomes enough due to enough jets crossing overhead), then contrails become persistent, lasting for many hours. Upper atmospheric air currents then distribute the moisture in the contrails laterally, creating broad ‘lanes’ of overlapping haze, until the entire sky becomes a canopy of white and the sun becomes diffused. At this point it is difficult to understand that the original cause of the haze was a series of discrete jet aircraft contrails.
I remember that post-9/11 a study came out that looked at daily temperature swings in North America during the 1-week commercial aviation shutdown and found that daytime temperatures became markedly warmer, and nighttime temperatures colder. This effect is so dramatic, we can all experience this ourselves without needing a study. It’s what happens in desert regions too, where the air is generally too dry to support upper atmospheric haze. In these places, we find enormous day-night temperature swings not found over more temperate, civilized jet-crossing regions of the earth even at the same latitude.
Here in Switzerland as I write this, we’ve had to turn on the heat in the evenings (it’s June!) because of the nighttime cold. Even noon temperatures are colder than usual, although by late afternoon things seem to be normal again. That is, until a recent rain front came and settled in; now, it feels like it’s about to snow.
But I digress.
Sunset was approaching; being antsy myself I hauled out a film camera and took a few shots of the receding ‘golden hour’ light inside the terminal and a few outside along the departures traffic lane. Again, a very eerie feeling, as though civilization had come to a halt. But that is exactly what happened – a true science fiction period in history, an Andromeda Strain nightmarish chapter of history hopefully never to be repeated.
The Newark departures board was now empty but for one flight – ours. On the departures level before security, where many passengers remained (due to lack of food and space airside), now only Swiss German voices could be heard – because only Swiss (and legally permitted foreign residents holding residence passes) were allowed back into the country. While we are not Swiss, we do fall into the latter category. Without that, we’d never have been able to even start this trip home.
We made our way through security and to the gate area, which was remarkably crowded. So many Swiss going home! Amazing. The flight was pretty full. Most wore masks, which were soon removed as the flight wore on. Most passengers, us included, slept through the night. Little Aleksa was as good as gold.
Thankfully the flight and arrival into Zurich were all fairly uneventful, however, someone made off with one of our suitcases, so I went to a counter to make a lost luggage claim. 40 minutes into that process, the bag showed up – the family that took it figured out the problem and came back with it. I wonder how far they got with it! Finally we exited the baggage hall only to be accosted by a team of 6 bored Swiss customs officers who decided that we made for a good practice search, inconveniencing us further by X-raying and dissecting our luggage. This is the first time in 10 years of living here, having made countless flights over the decade, that I’ve been pulled aside.
Another 20 minutes of picking over dirty laundry and too many questions, and we finally exited into the arrivals hall. A fitting end to a very tedious journey.
But no, it wasn’t over yet! We still had to meet the van driver I had booked online. As our eyes scanned the few people in the narrow hall, we spotted a name board with ”Philipp’. We greeted and headed outside to the curb. Just as we were nearly out the door, another name board with ‘Philipp’ caught my eye. It was the taxi company that my wife had contacted first, but not gotten an email reply from! Ouch, was that an embarrassing moment. We could hardly take both services, so after a rather animated phone call with the angry owner of the first taxi service, we continued to the second van and piled in.
The skies were clear blue and contrail-free, the weather fresh and breezy. We were exhausted, but happy to finally be home. Sorting out the taxi company mess would have to come later.