I WOKE up with fear, but with a brave heart.
It was 7:30 a.m. of March 15, 2020 in Israel. I prepared myself to visit the Royal Jordanian Airline Office in Tel Aviv as I need to rebook my cancelled flight back to Manila. I was worried, but I need to be brave enough so I can fly back to my home country. It is located 20 minutes by foot from my hotel.
Walking along the Tel Aviv Beach facing the Mediterranean Sea was a feast of the eye seeing people jogging, some with their dogs. I saw different faces of enthusiasm as they start the day, no one’s wearing a face mask. At that time, I wonder how these people can be so brave of not wearing one as the rest of the world is facing one of the biggest challenges in the history of mankind.
I reached their office with a light of hope around 9:20 a.m., praying I could have a flight back home the soonest, and misfortunes started to happen.
March 15, 9:20 a.m.: Tel Aviv
The airline staff greeted me and ask me my mobile number. Face-to-face transaction was not allowed due to the coronavirus issues. So I gave my mobile number. He called after 15 minutes. I was outside his office while we were talking over the phone, I facing his desk 10 meters far from me, with a glass door closed. I explained that I received two cancellations from them, and I needed to get back to the Philippines the soonest. He told me to just refund. But I was persistent. I asked him if I can be re-accommodated to other airlines.
I waited for another 30 minutes. That time, airline staff started to debate. I saw how some staff wanted to help the passengers to rebook, but the head insisted that the passengers need to pay. Everyone in the office was yelling to each other. They were speaking in Hebrew but somehow I understand.
The airline staff finally offered me a flight diversion to Dubai and told me the only schedule available was the 5:55 p.m. that day. So I agreed. I got my new ticket via email and booked my flight from Dubai to Manila for March 17, 5:55 p.m. schedule with my own expense.
March 15, 4 p.m.: Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
Arriving on time at the airport was a relief. I was told by the guards on duty that there was a screening before check-in. An airport sticker tag was needed before check-in. There were five screening officers catering one long queue of about 200 foreigners who were required to leave Israel.
That day, Israel already announced that all foreign visitors must leave the country the soonest. The screening procedure was so strict, it’s not even the immigration stage. I endorsed my passport and the officer started to ask a lot of questions about my recent travel in Malaysia. I wonder why.
I was denied to board. The counter personnel wanted a transit visa. I told the counter staff it was not needed as I will just stay at the airport. But they insisted. I tried to speak to their duty manager but they said he was busy. It has been so frustrating, until the check-in counter was closed. I asked help from my partner operator in Israel, who happened to meet me at the airport before I fly. I told him the scenario. He spoke with the counter personnel to take chance, but the check-in system was already down. We were told to rebook my flight at the airline’s airport office. Luckily, I got another flight to Dubai, leaving Tel Aviv at 7:30 a.m. the next day connecting Amman, Jordan with seven hours lay-over. I went back to my hotel to rest.
March 16, 4:30 a.m.: Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
I woke up around 3:30 a.m. as my taxi will be picking me up around 4:30 a.m. Imagine the only rest time I had. I arrived at the airport doing the same screening process before check in. I was able to board. The flight was almost full.
March 16, 8:30 a.m.: Queen Alia International Airport, Amman
I arrived at Amman, Jordan at 8:30 a.m., with seven long hours of waiting before the next flight. I was welcomed with a long queue at the transfer desk to check on the meal voucher. I took my chance. The one hour waiting game was wasted, no meal was offered.
The security was so tight as well. All our carry-on bags were requested to open and inspected. The captured my sardines in can. I started to feel exhausted. So I thought of calling my sisters in the Philippines to check them. Somehow, I was relieved seeing my sisters safe and sound.
March 16, 11 a.m.: Queen Alia International Airport, Amman
Royal Jordanian Aircraft at Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan. (James Joseph Galvez)
Shops started to pack their items in their boxes as the airport shuts down in a few hours. I decided to visit the duty manager of Royal Jordanian to ask for a notice of cancellation or certification, as I need it for my travel insurance. I was told to go back after an hour. So I did. When I got back, the duty manager was there, speaking over the phone.
Inside the Queen Alia International Airport boarding gates hall. The Amman Duty Free on the right started to pack up their items as the airport shuts down in a few hours. (James Joseph Galvez)
The assistant told me they cannot provide me any document at all and just send an email request to the head office. I told to myself WTF, I was already in their hub, facing the duty manager and yet my simple request cannot be granted.
I insisted, telling them all other airlines do give actual certification as requested by the passenger. They started to shout at me, telling me they were so busy as the airport shuts down in a few hours. I insisted more, but they ignored me, so I gave up. This added to my burden. That was the worst customer service I experienced by far.
March 16, 2:30 p.m.: Queen Alia International Airport, Amman
Passengers started to panic before boarding (taken on March 16, 2020 2:55 p.m.) (James Joseph Galvez)
My eyes started to close, my body almost giving up. Passengers started to fall in line before the boarding time. The airline crew boarded first. After 15 minutes, they went back. The passengers started to panic. Some speculated that the flight has been cancelled. After another 15 minutes of waiting game, the crew went back, and after another 20 minutes, the airline finally started to board the aircraft. I was told that there has been a data failure earlier, and that our flight was the last flight to Dubai before the airport closes that day. The flight was full.
March 16, 8:30 p.m.: Dubai International Airport
Actual consent form given to us at the arrival hall. (James Joseph Galvez)
I set foot in Dubai minutes before the ETA. It was a pleasant flight. Airport personnel gave us a consent form, and was told that the screening would take 15 minutes, but the passengers have to queue in. I waited for two hours before my turn. It was my first time seeing doctors wearing complete protective gears. All passengers undergone the process.
The airport greeted us with some passengers on queue.(James Joseph Galvez)
Passengers are filling up the consent forms mandated by Dubai International Airport. (James Joseph Galvez)
There were two stations. First was the passport screening. The officer gave me a kit and endorsed it to the next station. The doctor was waiting at the next station. I gave the kit. The doctor got some specimen from my nose. I told to myself, United Arab Emirates is prepared.
The first screening stage at Dubai International Airport. (James Joseph Galvez)
My turn for the screening. The doctor is preparing for the specimen kit. (James Joseph Galvez)
I was thinking what to do as my final flight segment is 5:55 p.m., almost 20 hours more. So I tried to queue in at the connections counter to try my luck, and request for a re-accommodation to an earlier flight back to Manila.
March 16, 11 p.m.: Dubai International Airport
Upon arrival at the connections counter, long lines were not surprising. Almost all races from different nations and religions were on queue, taking their luck for the next available flights to take them home. A number of flights were cancelled. Some passengers on are already complaining, some were literally shouting.
Emirates’ check-in counter at Dubai International Airport. Passengers are on queue as only 2 personnel were present that hour. (James Joseph Galvez)
After one hour, I was able to check in. I asked the counter if I can be re-accommodated to an earlier flight. The check-in counter personnel told me she cannot check on my behalf as it was not the counter for requests. She told me to queue in to the other side.
When I went back to the reservations counter, another long line greeted me. I endured another one hour. During my turn, I heard the lady with a baby requested for a business class upgrade. The reservations agent told her the upgrade costs 2000USD for Dubai-Sydney flight. The lady walked out. I could see the frustration in her face.
Reservations counter at Emirates’ Connection Desk at Dubai International Airport. Transaction time takes about 10 minutes per passenger.(James Joseph Galvez)
Fifteen minutes later, the reservations agent gave me my passport and boarding pass. He said it was done. I checked my boarding pass. And to my surprise, it was for the 3:30 a.m. flight to Manila. Viola! It was such a blessing. I wanted for be considered on the 9:30 a.m. flight, but I was given an earlier time more than what I was expecting. God is so good!
March 17, 3:30 p.m.: Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila
I woke up with the turbulence of landing. Thank God, I have finally landed in my home country. I haven’t even gone out from the airport and another problem came up.
Two of my suitcases were damaged! One of the wheels were lost. Even worse, my camera battery was gone along with my laptop charger, belt and shoes! I asked for an irregularity report from the airline representative as I need it for my travel insurance. Unlucky enough, I wasn’t able to get one. The airline representative told me it should be asked from the port of origin -- Tel Aviv Airport Authority. I was then very frustrated.
March 17, 5 p.m.: Arrival Hall, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila
No public desk assistance, no Grab, no P2P. I need to gave in and pay. I tried calling my friends with cars, but no one can drive me out of Manila, as they fear they cannot go back to Manila after the curfew hours. Some van drivers were present, offering P1500 (30USD) per person for a one way NAIA to Clark route. I also heard one driver offering P800 (16USD) to a passenger going to Sampaloc, Manila, which is just around 14 kilometers far.
There were airport police and three bus units of Philippine Coast Guard. I overheard the coast guard bus may ferry people to a destination if more than 20 people are going on the same route. There was a group of people going to Clark. So I joined them. There was a tension happened where the airport police told us to just go to the bus as it will finally ferry us to Clark. So, all of us 20 hurried to the bus, only to find out we have to wait for another two hours as there was a queue. The airport personnel explained us that it was not sure yet. I almost gave up, again.
With all the exhaustion I experienced, I decided to just perhaps stay in Manila. I am a travel agent and I have a cloud of connections in the city.
I asked my friend who owns a hotel in Makati City, but all their hotel rooms are fully booked. I called my van operator to seek help. However, all of their units were under contract that night by a call center in Manila to ferry their employees, so he referred me to his friend. I called the number.
The driver was hesitant at first, but we were able to dealt with PHP5000 (100USD) NAIA-Clark one-way route. When we were dealing over the phone, he then requested if I can convince other passengers to join us, perhaps we can do it to his advantage of earning money.
I was able to convince three other passengers whose route are also to Pampanga. Four of us were charged PHP2,000 (40USD) per person. No one complained. I thought to myself it was too much as originally I just need to pay 100 USD. I wanted to complain, but my mind end up giving up due to exhaustion. I wanted to go home safe, that’s the main goal.
At 9:30 p.m., he picked us up at NAIA Terminal 3 Arrivals Bay 11 wearing a mask. There were four of us. Driving along Edsa was too fast, as very limited cars were there. We reached North Luzon Expressway Balintawak in less than 30 minutes. We were all expecting for a checkpoint traffic and made our boarding passes ready, as this will allow us to pass through. But no check point was present.
I arrived home roughly 11 p.m., took a quick shower, and slept.
It has been the most challenging travel I have ever experienced in my career in the travel industry. I see and feel faces of fear, others with determination, and love of almost all races. My 36-hour journey to these countries back to my city was a though ride as I have to battle with the fears from other races, culture and religion. Indeed, God was so great, I was able to fly a day before Israel locks down its doors, got the last flight minutes before Jordan closes its kingdom, left United Arab Emirates hours before it closes its borders, arrived Manila days before international arrivals stop, and gone home without public commute nearly an hour before the expressways bar the general public.