Almanac Books: ‘The One That Got Away: Travelling in the Time of Covid’







Ken Haley is a wonderful observer of life as he has shown in his writings over the years.  ‘The One That Got Away: Travelling In The Time Of Covid’ is his third travel book. Enjoy this extract:



To set the scene: it’s March 23, 2020. The world is shutting down, and all foreigners in Cuba have been given 48 hours to leave the country.


I go to Havana Airport first thing in the morning, not knowing if I will be able to get a flight out – and, if I do, where I will lay my head down to sleep that night.


Late in the day, when it looked as if all hope was lost, I manage to get the last seat on one of the last two flights out – a Delta flight (there was no variant!) to Florida, of all places.


Flying in, I have every reason to expect Immigration will refuse me entry, forcing me to take an onward flight to the West Coast and back home without further ado, whereas if only I can stay and lie low for a few weeks, who knows?


Perhaps some of the Caribbean islands I had hoped to visit will reopen? It’s a gamble.



Read on to see what
happened …


[pp. 34-35]


With the rest of the world homeward bound, how could I – and, more to the point, why should I – be an exception?


I was in for a pleasant surprise. The Immigration officer who greeted me was in a chatty, even gregarious, mood. The moment he saw my Australian passport, he broke into a grin. Like so many Americans who don’t wear a uniform at work, Richard was keen to share fond memories from the newsreel of his life story and, as he was in his mid-fifties with fewer ‘clients’ by the day, I got more of his time than I was entitled to.


‘As a young guy I was in the US Navy, and I had a great time with you Aussies when we had shore leave in Fremantle back in 1987,’ he intoned. (I was particularly chuffed by the ‘you Aussies’, given that in 1987 I had been on the other side of the Indian Ocean from my home country, editing copy on a newspaper in the Sultanate of Oman.) Not for the first time, I learnt the value of accepting an undeserved compliment, one that benefited me simply because I happened to be born 3000 kilometres east of the location for this seminal moment in a stranger’s life. ‘It was you Aussies who gave me my first taste of alcohol.’ I got the impression that Australian naval ratings had also arranged his first sexual experience in the fleshpots of Freo, but instinct held me back from seeking confirmation of this suspicion. I just let my newfound friend – who it seems was unaware of just how critical his verdict was going to be to what sort of 2020 I was in for – escort me down memory lane, while I did my best to represent the Australian Everyman.


After three minutes of this nostalgic ramble, Richard came to the end of his recollections and, gripping the seal of formal approval in his right fist, brought it down on the open page of my lottery-winning passport. Here was I in America’s own Sunshine State, stamped in for six months.



[pp. 38-41]


My third day in Florida, 25 March, proved critical to my future plans, though that morning, as I set out to push the five kilometres downtown from my ‘home suburb’ of Edgewood to the Atlantic shore, I couldn’t have guessed how. The game-changer wouldn’t come my way till evening, but first I had an encounter that could have been as decisive but in a way I definitely didn’t want. Not knowing the local bus schedule, which would later shorten my downtown trips by a good hour and a half, I was happily propelling myself along in bright sunshine, protecting myself with a wide-brimmed Mexican hat I had bought in Havana for US$10 and not yet managed to lose. Just over halfway to town, and coming as no particular surprise, I needed to find a bathroom. On the next corner ahead of me, brightly signposted, was the Broward Health Medical Center. Outside the main entrance a security guard directed me to head around the corner to the ER entrance, second door on the right. When I got there, another guard blocked my way and urged me to use a prefab portaloo, a super bowl on wheels that was housed in a sizeable ensuite at the far end of a ramp. Public restrooms are scarce commodities in the heartland of private enterprise, and I made a mental note to revisit this one on my return journey later in the day.


My main purpose in heading downtown via 17th Street was to obtain a useable American phone number at a shop fit for purpose that I’d identified on a Google Maps survey of Fort Lauderdale from the convenient computer at Candlewood Suites. With this and a fast-food take-out dinner constituting the sum total of my day’s achievements, I noticed something missing as I turned my steed for home.


Where was my hat? My mood turned from sunny to, er, sombrero. I realised I must have left it in the prefab toilet cubicle. Oh well, I assured myself, they didn’t seem to have many ‘visitors’: perhaps I would find it undisturbed on the sink where I’d left it.


Confident I knew my way around the hospital grounds, I wheeled right and prepared to power up the ramp when a nurse sitting nearby called out, ‘You can’t go in there!’


‘I went in there this afternoon,’ I replied defensively. ‘Why not?’


Sister Rochelle, as she now introduced herself, hesitated just a second while indicating the large ancillary hospital building behind her. ‘That’s the restroom reserved exclusively for Covid patients in here!’


Numbness set in even as I spluttered out my raison d’être. A mislaid sunhat seemed rather unimportant as I contemplated just how many Covid-positive patients must have touched the same surfaces in the same space as I had. But Sister Rochelle, clad in full PPE gear, had the kindness to enter the restroom in quest of my Mexican (or Cuban) headgear. As it turned out, luck had deserted me, and I continued on my westward way, hatless.


Anxious days would show, though, that where it really counted, my luck was in: my natural fear that if I didn’t develop a cough on Friday, I would most certainly suffer from shortness of breath on Sunday and, who knew, be back at Howard Medical Center by Monday, perhaps on a ventilator, proved groundless.


Once in, my luck stayed there, though I didn’t see just how till nearly midnight. Venturing out to the [hotel] foyer, I drew my seat up to the mainframe, navigated the familiar route to my inbox and opened the email that would remove almost all of the risk from the gamble I’d taken in resisting the distant siren call to return home.


The beckoning message was from a couple of Canadian seniors I had met on a Lake Huron cruise during a long-haul journey across Canada in 2016. Hamish Kerr, originally from Scotland, and his wife Leslie had kept in intermittent touch with me ever since. Now – having mentioned that they owned a condominium in Florida on an offshore island named Longboat Key, opposite the city of Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico coast, which they had quit for the relative safety of Ontario around the time I was flying north from Cuba – they casually made the most generous offer I have ever received.


    Here is a thought, Ken, if push comes to shove our condo is now empty and you are welcome to use it … The condo is halfway up the island (key) behind a golf course and looks over the bay of Sarasota. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the one and only grocery store is a 3.2-mile (5.1km) round trip. We are so sorry that we are unable to get together but we wish you well and want you to keep in touch as and when you can. Stay away from people.


From my dumbstruck perspective, this email contained nothing but good news. I’d decided to hold out until June for one or more Caribbean countries to reopen, and I couldn’t imagine a better home in which to experience domestic confinement for weeks on end. Not only, as I would soon learn on phoning them, was this a condo, it was a penthouse (on top of a five-storey tower) in America’s fourth wealthiest neighbourhood, as I would later learn on reading a local magazine. Certainly, my arrival as a new kind on the block might put that ranking in grave jeopardy – but, as Hamish added, I was unlikely to run into any of their neighbours, most of them elderly Floridians who scarcely ventured outdoors at the time, so terrified were they of the virus.



Ken Haley’s book can be purchased from his publisher Transit Lounge HERE, and is available through Booktopia and in bookshops.

RRP $32.99

ISBN 978-1-925760-85-9



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