This is a true story, though I may have embellished things a bit, or maybe more – you never know for sure.
Only a few weeks ago, my wife Lindsey and I were enjoying a two-week holiday in Cyprus. We were, of course, aware of growing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak but considered it still safe enough to travel to that lovely Mediterranean island, where, from our base in the tourist resort of Paphos, we went on some excellent day walks. The first one took us along the coast from Agios Georgios to Coral Bay. The next day we walked in the Akamas Peninsula, in the far west of the country, taking pleasure from the wonderful views to the east, beyond the quaint town of Polis. These were carefree days in the warm, spring sun.
The weather forecast for the following day was considerable rain, so we booked a Jeep safari excursion with a local company up to Kykkos Monastery and the Troödos Mountains. When the Jeep turned up at our hotel and I stuck out my elbow in place of shaking hands, our guide for the day Iannio said, “Ah! Cyprus is still safe” and stuck out his hand, which I declined to shake, with a smile. It was all very reassuring. That day we drove from the coast, where people were sunbathing, up to the ski slope on Mount Olympus, where the last of the winter snow was rapidly melting.
The next day was spent walking in the Ezouza valley, from Episkopi Rock up past the deserted and ruined village of Moronero and back down the east side of the valley. What friendly people we met. An older couple came out of their house to greet us with a “Kaliméra” and gave us a handful of oranges from their garden. At the end of the afternoon, a longstanding expat in a cafe in Episkopi kept us amused with his stories and banter with the old, local men enjoying their strong Cyprus coffees before returning home to be fed.
Our final peaceful day, before things turned decidedly hectic, was spent in and around Kouklia, a village recommended by the expat in Episkopi. We’d been hoping to look around the Sanctuary of Aphrodite and other archaeological sites at Palaipafos, but they were closed, not because of the coronavirus, but because it was too early in the season. Instead, we walked over towards Asprokremmos dam, once again being stopped by a local who gave us some oranges, and then down to the coast, which is not particularly attractive at this point, but which was once where boats landed, dropping off visitors and traders in ancient Greek times, before they headed up the road to the Dionysian orgies at the Sanctuary.
There were still enough tourists around to give us a false sense of security, but that evening back in our hotel in Paphos town we heard that, due to the coronavirus, all restaurants, cafes and non-essential shops were to close at midnight the following day.
As this sounded as though we might soon be stuck in Paphos for the time remaining until the end of our holiday, we set out the next morning for Pano Panagia, the birthplace of Archbishop Makarios III, and the starting point for a walk up Vouni Panagias. This was the best walk so far, and afforded awesome views over the village, the Kannaviou manmade lake, and down to the coast. On the drive up to Pano Panagia our hired car started to chug and lose a bit of power, but we thought little of it, being more concerned about finding the start of the Vouni trail, which turned out to be close to Katarina’s Cafe, where we were served some strong coffee and cake by a very welcoming, though slightly frail, Katarina before setting off up the mountain.
It was near the top, when I took out my phone to take a photo, that I noticed a text message from my sister-in-law back in Scotland, asking, “Are your flights home OK?” What, I thought, why shouldn’t our flights be OK? We hadn’t heard anything, but I had a signal on my phone and so checked my email inbox, where there was nothing from our travel company about a flight update or change. I replied to the message, saying, “Flights are fine. No problems here at all” and attached a photo of the stunning view from Vouni.
When we finished the circular route, got into our car and drove off, it became obvious that the vehicle was deteriorating quite quickly. I was having to change down to second gear to get up even slight gradients, but fortunately we were high up in the hills, and it was mostly downhill to the coast. As Paphos International Airport, where we’d hired the car, was not far off the route back to our hotel, we decided to go directly there and see what the car hire company said. It was late afternoon, but we reckoned the car hire office should still be open.
Well, things were very quiet at the airport, but there was someone at the car hire place. We explained our situation to the attendant and he gave us an upgrade to a new car, then said it was fortunate we’d caught him just in time, as he was closing the office that evening until further notice because most flights had been cancelled. Gulp! As soon as we got back to our hotel, I checked my email inbox again – nothing about our flight being cancelled – but when I then checked the airline website, there it was – our flight on the 21st March had been cancelled.
We were staying at the Paphiessa Hotel in Paphos. The Paphiessa is fairly near the bottom of the Tripadvisor list. I’d deliberately booked it because we were merely using it as a base for walking, and if truth be told, also because it was cheap and I’m a bit of skinflint.
The Paphiessa…Paphiesso…Paphiesserra…Paphiosa. You didn’t actually have to accurately remember the name of the hotel. It was quite large, probably the largest hotel in town at the time it was built, in almost certainly the middle-to-late seventies, and fairly untouched, structurally, interior-decoratingly, and menu-wise ever since. The dinner menu consisted mostly of: lamb chop; pork chop; roast chicken; steak Diane; gammon steak; all served with chips and two boiled veg. For someone like my friend Fat Mac, who is mentally stuck in the 1970s, it would have been heaven, but it also suited us fine as well. In any case, most evenings we’d been eating out at the local restaurants. At all times, the hotel staff were, without exception, friendly and helpful.
You get what you pay for. Our room was perfectly adequate. Lindsey and I briefly discussed whether it was worth making a list of things which didn’t work or were obviously unsafe, electrically and otherwise, such as the leak when it rained outside into the clothes cupboard, the bare visible wires where the cable to the microwave had been burnt by the nearby hob, and the leaks from both the shower and the sink resulting in a lethal slippy bathroom floor, and report them to reception, but reckoned that this was too much bother for limited advantage.
On our second day at the hotel, as I was sitting near reception in order to connect to the wifi, I couldn’t help but overhear a tearful, ever-so-self-important-posh-lady up at the desk, holding up exactly the sort of list that Lindsey and I had mentally already previously discarded, saying, “Ay have this list of intolerable fawlts in may room, and Ay DEMAND that you move may husband and Ay to your best room.”
As I said, the Paphiessa…Paphiesso…Paphiesserra…Paphiosa – you didn’t have to remember the full name, and everyone knew where it was when you said, “The Paphysomething.” This immediately conjured up in my imagination epic taxi-hails of past decades from the bars around Paphos harbour, about a mile away.
“Thank yoos Yanny. Erm, weez is staayin up at, erm…Paphi…Paphi…Paphifeckin…Aw feck…Hazil, whit’s ra name o’ ra feckin hotel? Yanny, Ah’z nae idea, but it’s definitely Paphyfeckinsumhin.”
“Yes, sir, kalispera sir, I know it well, the Paphisomething Hotel sir, no bother. Top hotel. Very good choice. For you, sir, special taxi price of only three euros, plus maybe tip.”
“Yanny – see yous – that’s barry. Is this a Merc taxi, by the way? Dyez ken if ra Gers wan ranight?”
Scenes like that, or similar, must have been common over the past three or four decades, or possibly five.
We hadn’t spent much time actually in the hotel during our holiday, preferring to go on day trips, as I’ve already described. But as soon as we realised that our flight had been cancelled, we headed for the bar to find out if anyone knew anything concrete about the situation. The bar was next to the pool, and for most of the people staying in the hotel it was the centre of activity for their holiday, or in some cases, extended winter stays. Over the next couple of days, we were to spend quite a bit of time in and near that bar.
Entertainment each alternating evening in the bar consisted of bingo, karaoke, and a quiz night. The characters among the residents, and they were obviously characters, included old single men who had lost their wives and were looking for a bit of company, retired ex-squaddies who had previously spent time on one of the British Army bases on the island, aging sisters, several with visible tattoos, folk approaching the end of the line, a few people who appeared to be suffering the onset of mild dementia, and a few younger folk who just liked to party and were full of energy and good cheer. It was a surprisingly lively bar, given the average age of the drinkers. I couldn’t help noticing that the friendly, helpful and responsive barman, who also organised the karaoke, developed more and more facial tics as each evening wore on. Much of the talk around the bar was about the various medications that everyone seemed to be on. Even the younger ones appeared to have certain medical conditions, including Mr P, who was on prescription methadone for a degenerative bone disorder. He was accompanied by Mr N, his carer-minder helper, who was possibly the only person not on any medication.
The thing about many of the folk who frequent bars like that of the Paphiessa, especially the older ones after they’ve taken their pills, is that they often find it difficult to tell you anything at all which doesn’t take at least 10 minutes to relate, especially after they’ve had a few beers. Over the next couple of days we heard long, long stories such as about how, a couple of years ago, on holiday in Weymouth, one of them had bought a T-shirt. I think that was the complete substance of the story, though I may have missed some relevant bits. I also found out from the old cockney geezer without a smartphone all about kabab shops in the east end which had closed since the mid-1990s. The Welshman was probably the worst for length of completely plotless stories. I think this was being accentuated by the stress he was experiencing from the possibility of becoming stranded, after he found out that his flight home to Cardiff had also been cancelled.
Tony the non-talker just sat there at the bar and smiled all the time. I don’t know how it was possible, but everyone else seemed to know Tony’s situation, even though he never said a word. For example, the conversation went something like, “Tony’s flight has been cancelled, and he can’t even get booked onto a scheduled flight that obviously won’t be flying anyway, isn’t that right, Tony?” Tony smiles. Someone else says, “And Tony is getting his daughter back home in Plymouth to contact his MP.” Tony smiles. “Your other daughter lives in Reading, doesn’t she, Tony?” Tony smiles. “We went to Reading three years ago. Lovely place. I remember the Baynes bakers near the high street served a particularly good chicken bake. But not as good as my local bakers in Milton, mind you. It’s just down the road from the main junction. You turn left at The Crown, though you can if you want take a shortcut through Tescos if that’s where you’re parked, as long as you don’t leave your car for too long. You know, our Ethil got a ticket there once, and she was only away from the car for barely half an hour………”
After getting as much relevant information, which wasn’t a great deal, from various people in the bar, we headed to the reception area, for the wifi, and checked easyJet’s website once again. There was no change to the flight home on the 21st March which was still cancelled, but by managing my booking I successfully re-booked for the next/only future flight from Paphos to Edinburgh, on the 1st of April, some ten days after the original departure date. Feeling relieved, we went to bed, missing the bingo which was taking place in the bar.
The following morning, after a brief walk down to the harbour, which was eerily quiet, we felt we should spend the rest of the day at the pool and bar and try to glean more information. In the afternoon, the Cyprus government announced that they were closing Cypriot airspace on 21st March. Now things were becoming serious because the 21st was 11 days before our new, re-scheduled flight. Not only that, but they were also going to close all hotels on the same day, so if we couldn’t get out of the country before the 21st, we’d need to leave the Paphiessa and find somewhere else to stay.
I spent more time near reception, using wifi, but couldn’t change our flight for any other one going anywhere. Neither the easyJet website or app would let us book onto other flights. This was because our flight on the 1st hadn’t been officially cancelled by easyJet, despite the fact that it obviously wasn’t going to happen. It was impossible to rebook, if you hadn’t been cancelled. We thought about this for a while, and considered cancelling the flight on the 1st ourselves. But if we did this, we reckoned, we would drop off from being an easyJet responsibility, and goodness knows how we would then get home. So, we couldn’t do anything online. We also couldn’t get through to easyJet on the phone, even after being placed on hold for hours. The British Embassy were also not answering the phone. It was becoming almost a perfect catch-22 situation.
Talk in the bar that night included one old chap who, after a few beers, said he was going to register with the British Embassy and wanted to be ‘repatronised’. I felt like saying, “That is a very, very, very sensible thing to do. Yes, it is very, very sensible of you,” but then I realised that what he’d actually said was, “…re…re…repatronised” and that it would take far, far, too long to satisfy his request.
Some folk said they had booked Ryanair flights to elsewhere in Europe, as there were none to the UK before the 21st. Others said there were still flights to Greece, but if you landed there, you got quarantined for 14 days.
The longer the evening wore on, the more rumours there were. Someone had got to Poland. Someone hadn’t got to Budapest despite having a ticket, because Budapest wasn’t allowing anyone from the UK to get on their flights. One flight had left for somewhere with three people on it, and another with 87 extra people. Someone else hadn’t got to Poland. Maybe it was the same chap who had previously been rumoured to have got to Poland – I couldn’t keep up. Brits were not allowed to land anywhere in Europe. Only Moscow was accepting stranded Brits.
We went to bed after the karaoke concluded, worried, concerned, and worst of all, with the song ‘Sweet Caroline’ running through our brains.
The next day was also spent by the pool and the bar. Three of the dwindling number of strandees left for the airport after breakfast, and didn’t return. Good for them.
Then we heard that some folk who’s easyJet flight had been cancelled, who had not rebooked for a later flight like ourselves, had managed to get booked on another flight.
The only time it got a bit annoying was when, after three hours on hold, Lindsey finally got through on her phone to an actual person at easyJet on their emergency line and could barely hear a word of what the easyJet person was saying because none of the old folk around the poolside, who spoke quite loudly at the best of times due to their hearing aids and other ailments, could keep their chatter about various brands of sausage rolls down a bit.
There were a lot of folk in worse situations than ourselves – old folk needing prescriptions, semi-demented folk, etc. The supermarkets were still open, and staying open, and there was no panic buying by anyone of anything, except hand gel. At the supermarkets, the guards stopped too many people getting in at a time, though there were seldom any queues anyway, and to get in you had your temperature taken, were given gloves and access to hand gel, which you put on your hands before putting the gloves on, and then on the gloves as well.
So, when a relative back home suggested Lindsey and I contact our MP to see what he could do to get us home, I told them, rather overly-flippantly, as it turned out, “What am I supposed to say to him? That due to there being hardly any tourists and therefore a buyer’s market, we may be forced to rent a three-bedroom villa with sea-view for less than Euro 18 a night, that it only has one pool and one jacuzzi, and the supermarket next door sells best-quality wine for Euro 4 a bottle and has abundant fresh food and whole stacks of toilet roll, and all of this is completely intolerable! We demand a private jet back home to whinging Blighty and the panic-buying, and we are obviously far more urgent than disabled tourists and those who can’t get their insulin, etc.”
Despite the background noise around the pool, Lindsey had managed to hear on the phone that the following morning easyJet would change their website and that there would be options for booking on some rescue flights they had scheduled, even for those with uncancelled flights in the future, like ourselves. As things appeared to be sorted, we went to bed that evening with a little confidence that we could get home.
We woke up very early the next day, which was the 19th March, and checked the easyJet website. It was no longer showing a flight for the 1st of April, however our booking for the 1st had not been cancelled. Brief details of three rescue flights had appeared on the website, going to Manchester, Luton and Edinburgh, but we couldn’t book onto them, or any other flight. Departure times for the rescue flights were not available, either.
easyJet were now cutting phones off before you were even placed on hold. The British Embassy were not answering their phone. All of the remaining guests in the hotel were frantically tapping at their phones, to no avail.
Then a rumour went around the hotel that the shutdown could last for months and months. Then another rumour went around that the rescue flights were fully booked. The final rumour was that there were some Jet2 flights leaving that day, but that these were fully booked as well.
So we reluctantly packed our bags and made our way to the airport. We gave Mr P (the methadone man), and his minder Mr N a lift to the airport, in our upgraded car. Their rumour was that the lockdown would continue until at least July. They were also stranded. They’d been booked with BA for a flight after the lockdown date, but hadn’t been able to get through to BA on the phone. Talk about extended stays enabled me, while driving to the airport, to start singing, “I’ll be home for Christmas”. Not a lot of people know that Brian Wilson covered this song particularly well, on the first Christmas Beach Boys album, and I felt that I kept to his version in an excellent manner. I think that Mr P had overdone his dose that morning. He didn’t seem fussed about anything at all, and sang along with me, but his carer beside him was looking increasingly worried.
At the airport, who is the first person we bump into, but the Welshman from our hotel. He was looking even more stressed than usual, was holding up a small piece of paper with some numbers on it, and he indicated that he had some important information to share. News, facts, flights – that’s what you need to hear about, in a concise and clear manner, in times of crisis. Perhaps he had a vital phone number on that bit of paper that actually worked, so we eagerly listened to what he said. Anyway, the Welshman launches into a particularly long spiel, “I’m very glad to see you here at the airport. You know, this morning I had to phone my friend back in Cardiff to email the hotel to say that he would pay for my room tonight if I can’t get on the rescue flight, as I have no money left, you see, and I may have to do the same for the night after, and the hotel management said fine, that will do, and I can definitely have my room tonight, or possibly another room, and while I was doing this I nearly missed the bus out to the airport, but fortunately I managed to run down the road and get onto it in time, just before it turned the corner after the petrol pump station, and it cost me four euros for the bus, so what is your opinion on whether I’ll be able to claim my four euros back on my insurance if I ever get back to the UK, because look here,” he continued, pointing with his right hand to the piece of paper in his left hand, “you can see that the ticket they gave me is not in English, is it?” Without wishing to be rude, I told him that I didn’t have a clue. I suspected that the Welshman was destined to become excess baggage. He’s probably still at Paphos airport.
We turned towards the airport building where there were security guards, with gloves and masks, on the door, who were only allowing two or three people inside at a time.
As soon as I saw this, I went into what I call my ‘Malawi mode’. In Malawi, where we lived for two years, ages ago, nothing ever worked properly. Virtually nothing at all. For example, it could take all day to make a local phone-call. You could make an appointment for something, take a day getting to the appointment, and then find that it had been cancelled. It was termed, by the expats, the ‘Malawi buggeration factor’. For the first month or two, you got frustrated, and probably annoyed by all of this. After that, you realised that there was absolutely no point in getting frustrated or annoyed, as this just made things worse every time. The best thing, in all cases, at borders, at shops, in offices, was to be calm, and smile a lot. Yes, smiling a lot helped more than anything else, and sometimes got things working.
I remember this kept me in good stead years later, when we tried to leave Botswana after my contract there ended. To leave Botswana you had to get various things signed – by the water company to say that you’d paid your water bill, by the electricity company to say that you had paid your electricity bill, by your employer to say that you didn’t owe them anything, and that they considered you free to leave. This process took several days, and at each stage, they would stamp papers with a rubber stamp. The final thing was that you needed a stamped bit of paper from the bank (which you couldn’t get until you had all of the other bits of stamped papers) to say that you were clear to leave, and had closed your account, etc. By the time it came to this stage, of me going to the bank for the last bit of paper, it was the morning of our flight departure, and time was getting short.
There was a problem at the bank. They couldn’t find my file. They couldn’t find my file anywhere, and they could not, therefore, stamp my bit of paper. The bank was a decent, Barclays, bank, but it wasn’t as well organised as banks in the UK. They had bits of paper, files, rubber stamps, forms, piled everywhere (like most offices in Africa at that time). I was in my ‘Malawi mode’ each time the bank teller came back to the counter to tell me he couldn’t find my file, and just smiled and asked him pleasantly if he could look again, and that my flight was leaving in three hours. While he was away, I noticed that lots of files and papers had fallen onto the floor on the other side of the counter, and idly glanced at their covers, etc. The teller eventually came back a final time to his side of the counter, with a frown on his face, and said, apologetically, “I’m very sorry, Mr MacLeod, but I simply can’t find your file.” I looked at him, smiled, and politely said, “I think you’ll find that you are standing on it, right now”.
So, I’d gone into this ‘Malawi mode’ as soon as we’d arrived at Paphos Airport. Smiling at everyone, and making friends with the guard while we were waiting to get into the airport,
It was a wise move to stop lots of people getting into the airport because when we eventually got in, things started to turn a bit shouty shouty quite quickly as some of the other tourists were getting exasperated with being told that no-one worked for easyJet, no-one was in charge, there were no other flights and even if there were other flights they were all full, and the only thing they were able to do was to give out phone numbers that everyone had already tried and knew that they didn’t work, and advise going to websites that didn’t work. Then some kids and infants started to scream. One masked girl in uniform pointed out that anyone who might be doing stuff for easyJet in an official capacity was not employed by easyJet, and they were only local reps, so there was no point in getting upset with them.
The girl on the Swissair counter kept announcing, “We know nothing at all, either” as her security started to put up barriers around their counter.
Mr P and Mr N took all of this in, saw that there was no-one from BA at the airport, then decided to give up for the day and caught the bus back into town.
Some stranded Brits formed a queue, not at any counter or anything, but just along the middle of the foyer.
The man on the Information desk put a disabled sign on his desk and told everyone that he could only give out information to disabled people. I smiled at him with my best smile, went up to him, and very calmly and with another smile asked him if he was the Information man. “Yes” he responded, after a brief hesitation, “But I can only give out information to disabled people, as I’ve just explained.” I smiled at him again, and said, “Ah yes. I fully understand. By the way, if we are here at the airport for days, are there any plugs where we can recharge our phones so that we can try to phone more of the non-working phone numbers that we are being advised to phone?” He took a breath, looked at me, as I smiled, looked down nervously at the disabled sign on his desk, and was about to say something when he checked himself, and then continued, “Are you disabled?” “No” I had to answer, in all honesty. “Then, I’m very sorry, but I can’t tell you,” he replied. I smiled once again. “Thank you,” I said, with as much sincerity as is humanly possible.
In my ‘Malawi mode’ I wandered about the building, smiling at the Swissair person, the information for disabled people person, the person who gave us the bit of paper with two useless phone-numbers on it, the person who said we had to use the website which wouldn’t allow us to get onto the rescue flights, the person who had said there was absolutely no-one from easyJet in the airport, and so on.
Jet2 had several uniformed staff there. They were well organised, and were ushering their clients into the airport, and to the check-in counters, for their fully-booked flights.
Those people with easyJet cancelled tickets, and others with BA flights for after the closure of airspace, those with no tickets whatsoever, and others who didn’t trust that Ryanair would turn up the next day, started to look increasingly worried. We could all see that the easyJet rescue flights were now scheduled on the Departures board, and that their departure times were rapidly approaching. While some folk started storming around the airport looking for ‘the person in charge’, etc, I just sat by the window, smiling, and trying to get through to easyJet on the phone.
Then, after half an hour or so, the girl with a mask who had previously given out the useless phone numbers to everyone, and at whom I had smiled, at the time, instead of getting annoyed that the numbers didn’t work, like some other tourists had done, came up to me and whispered, “Try Desk 2 right now”.
We went over to Check-in Desk 2, where there wasn’t even a queue, explained our Catch-22 situation, they went tap tap tap on their computer, and gave us boarding passes for the rescue flight to Edinburgh!
The result was that we got onto the rescue flight. I don’t know what happened to all the other people in the airport, including the Welshman, because as you can see from the photo below, our rescue flight was 3/4 empty.