Almost everything went wrong

It’s been a week since I arrived in Brazil and I’m still struggling to find enough time to write. It still seems surreal that a week ago I was on the other side of the world living a nightmare to be able to leave the country and today I write to the sound of the ocean waves. 

I would never have imagined that a week ago I would be on the point of giving up, sitting at the train station in Zhuhai – China, routing the internet from my cell phone, looking for a solution to be able to cross the border in less than 24 hours and get my flight to Brazil at Hong Kong airport. 

The Decision

You may not know that China still follows a 0-tolerance protocol against the virus. In September of this year (2022), the city I lived in went into lockdown. I was still lucky enough to live in a central region and have neighbors who were also foreigners in the same community. It wasn’t easy, but we were lucky to have delivery services suspended for a few days, other areas weren’t so lucky. Despite the little information we managed to spend this entire period with the essentials, the residents organized buying groups and everyone followed the recommendations of the local government. 

Maybe you don’t know that the use of masks in public places is still mandatory, and quarantine is not only when you arrive in the country, but when traveling within the country. All inhabitants must have a health code and each region has a different code. Tests must be carried out frequently, otherwise, it is not possible to enter any public or commercial establishment. 

The feeling of insecurity about what is going to happen and the lack of information is a constant complaint not only from foreigners but Chinese as well. It’s impossible to have any long-term planning because everything may change in the coming months.

In short, even following all the preventive measures, doing tests regularly, wearing a mask, and scanning the health code everywhere, you don’t know if tomorrow a case will arise in your city and they will start closing everything, or even worse if you are considered to be in close contact and you will have to leave your home and go to a quarantine center and be isolated indefinitely.

I was in China for five years without returning home. My son left Brazil at the age of 10, at the height of my shoulders and today at 15 I have to look up every time I want to talk to him. One of the reasons why I went to China, in addition to all the cultural experience, was the possibility of growth, opportunities that we would never have, and safety. Unfortunately, in the past two years, the reality has been very different and with so many uncertainties we decided it was time to go back.

The Plan

Although Hong Kong is part of China, it applies a different policy than the mainland and has been working to reopen the region. There is no quarantine for those arriving from mainland China, those coming from other countries have to stay 3 days in a hotel quarantine and 3 days of monitoring, there are many flights, the tickets are cheaper and the cancellation rate is low. 

I would be able to buy another ticket with the savings I had made going through Hong Kong, including the expenses I would have to get there. As I had some luggage, 5 years without returning home, my plan was to take a train to a border town, cross on the day of the trip and go straight to the airport. Domestic flights normally only accept one suitcase and the flights from my city to Hong Kong had a stopover and the trip that should take 2 hours was much longer.

A friend who had just returned from Hong Kong recommended that I should go through Zhuhai, among the cities, it was the one that had the least problems with lockdowns, and the Zhuhai – Macau – Hong Kong bridge was opened and the crossing was smooth. Later I found out that there are few people leaving China every day, mainly due to the difficulties of returning.

I bought the tickets a month before the flight, but I couldn’t celebrate because I was afraid of what could happen. Three weeks before the flight I booked the hotel, and my feelings remained. Two weeks before I bought the train tickets to Zhuhai, my anxiety was growing. It wasn’t that pleasant butterflies in the stomach, it was a feeling that nothing could go wrong and that I had to be absolutely sure that I was doing everything right. 

A week before the trip I bought bus tickets to cross the border. Every day I checked the health status of the city I was living in and Zhuhai. I checked the documents I needed if there had been any changes. I would check the online application I had to fill out to enter Hong Kong which can only be filled out 48 hours before the trip. When the day was over and I was exhausted.

It is time!

Saturday afternoon we started our trip, our flight was on Tuesday, but I wanted to go beforehand to make sure that everything would go well, that I would have time to find the nearest hospital to take the test, make sure that I would know where the port was and how far from the hotel it was, if I had time to cross the border on the same day and catch the flight or if I would have to go the day before. I knew international travel could be stressful, but I’ve never been through anything like this.

We took the train as scheduled, it took eight hours to arrive. We had time to read, talk, play cards, try to accept that the trip was starting and that we would soon be in Brazil. Get stressed, calm down, want to cry, and still be on the way. I didn’t want to create expectations, I didn’t want to dream so much, and when everything went wrong regret having dreamt too much.

One of the reasons why very few people knew about my return is that I didn’t want people to keep texting me, I had my own expectations to deal with. I had to focus on the present, on getting on board, and not on answering others about the trip.

When you go to another province (state), as I said, you need to have the health code there. The recommendation is that you download the code on your cell phone and enter your information before arriving because it helps your entry into the city. With the help of a Brazilian who lives in Zhuhai, I managed to do my code while still in Guiyang, my son didn´t have the same luck. Our theory is that his name is too big for the Chinese standard and that gets in the way of any form to be filled out in China. The fact is, we couldn`t make it work.

We arrived at the Zhuhai train station, the first thing you have to do to leave the station is showing the code. I showed mine, and we showed them that Andre’s code wasn’t working, they didn’t know what to do. André wisely opened another code, which is a travel code, they accepted it and let him through.

Before leaving the station completely, there is a temporary structure for testing, no one leaves without making one. Another code to scan, once again we give our personal information to the local laboratory, this time André managed to register. We took the test and were cleared to enter the city.

The hotel was 10 minutes away from the train station and 10 minutes from the port (at least that was the information on the website). 

When we arrived, we had to show the city code again, the receptionist tried to help us with André’s code, but nothing worked. He was satisfied with the code of the city we were living in and the travel code. It was after 11 pm when we got to the room and despite being hungry, we were tired. Our only meal that day was at 12:30 pm.

Day 2

I knew I started my trip too early, but my experience in China taught me to expect the unexpected. We ordered breakfast in the room, the idea was to avoid going out and focus on getting organized so we wouldn’t have any problems. I spent the entire morning trying to find a way for André to get a health code from there. I managed to register him on my health code. 

Of course, I would have been able to do this yesterday if I could read Chinese, but the language barrier was also one of the reasons I wanted to live somewhere I could understand 90% of things. I was tired of not being able to do things because of the language.

The first difficulty was successfully resolved. We needed to be sure about the port’s location and how busy it was there. André and I left the hotel before lunchtime, and we walked following my map. I took a picture of the entrance, there were few people there, we didn’t see anyone with a lot of luggage and the flow of people made us believe that we wouldn’t have trouble crossing the border.

We returned to the hotel and I contacted the bus company to confirm the information about the port. I sent the photo and found out that it was the wrong port, that one was the one going to Macau and not Hong Kong. I got the correct address, it was 30 minutes from the hotel. I confirmed the time for the crossing, and once again they confirmed that I would have enough time. 

While I was talking to them, I saw on their website that each passenger could only have one suitcase, I had three. I asked and they confirmed but they said they would charge per bag and I could take extra luggage. I wasn’t happy, because the website said that the company had the right to refuse extra luggage. There was no other option but to cross with them through Zhuhai and I had to accept their answer. 

Ferries, other buses, and private vehicles could not cross the border freely. As much as there was no quarantine to enter Hong Kong, you still have to quarantine when you come back from Hong Kong.

We decided that the next day we would reorganize our bags and try to keep at least one less, we had six in total. At night, we went for the test, we wanted to know how long it takes for the result to be available in the system and thus organize ourselves for the trip. Ideally, we needed to have a PCR test done 24 hours before our boarding time (the plane). 

There was a test point less than five minutes away, we got there at 20:00, at the closing time of the tests. They were still letting some people take the test and we did ours. The process was so fast that André and I didn’t know what to do with the extra time. We walked around the city a bit, rented two bikes, and cycled close to the sea, but we didn’t go far. We returned to the hotel. At least that day we had all our meals, despite the fact that dinner was very spicy.

Day 3 

We wake up. We had fun seeing our delivery robot at our door again. We had breakfast and it was time to go back to work. Fill in the health codes to go to Hong Kong. Search for a nearby hospital because it was better to have a test printed and preferably in English too, reorganize the bags, and have lunch. Not necessarily in that order.

The day was calm, I was almost allowing myself to believe that I had just exaggerated my precautions and that the trip, despite some setbacks, would be smooth. I hired a shuttle from the Hong Kong side of the bridge to take us to the airport. 

We were almost ready to go to the hospital to do the PCR test when the room phone rang, the receptionist asked us to go downstairs so he could better explain the situation. My Chinese isn’t good and his English was even worse, therefore I wasn´t surprised by his request.

We went to the hotel lobby. The receptionist greeted us with a worried face and said: “If you want to go to Hong Kong you better go now or you will be quarantined here for three days”. I felt my entire body tingle at that moment. I had to act and I had to be quick, I had just over 24 hours to go before my flight and I didn’t have time to make mistakes. 

I am not able to describe exactly what was the most difficult part if was having to decide what to do or being able to assimilate the information. 

I looked at André, we had to leave the hotel quickly. The receptionist recommended buying a bus ticket to cross the bridge, we had an hour to get there. He said there would be time enough, I bought the ticket, we needed a taxi to get there, the queue was over 60 people. I wouldn’t have time. We give up on Hong Kong. 

I asked about other districts in the city, and he said it would be a risk, they could close the bridge. We had to get out of town. 

I asked about another city that bordered Hong Kong, the receptionist said it was possible. I checked if there were still trains available. There was one more. 

We went back to our room. We closed our bags in three minutes, went downstairs, and handed the key to the receptionist who said everything was cleared and we could go. We needed a taxi. 

The train station wasn’t far, but we couldn’t walk with all the luggage we had. The receptionist told us to go to the intersection not far from the hotel, maybe we would have better luck. I don’t know if we ended up cutting the line or what, but we took a cab. 

I sat in the front seat, still trying to buy the train tickets on my phone, but I was having problems buying Andre´s ticket. André was all crammed into the back seat with the bags he loaded the car as quickly as possible. 

I barely noticed the ride, I was trying to buy the tickets, but I could see the panic stamped on André’s face, who despite the scare was responsible for keeping our bags because I had already forgotten about them when I got in the taxi. I wanted to comfort him, I wanted to say that everything would be all right, but I would be lying that I believed I could get on the plane at that moment. 

We arrived at the station and I hadn’t been able to buy the tickets using my phone. I went to the counter, André waited outside so we wouldn’t have to waste time explaining that his health code was on my code. I bought the tickets, but it meant very little at the time.

We entered the train station and looked for a place to sit. We saw where the boarding gate was. We buy water. I was focused, I had to be able to reverse that situation. I was going to Shenzhen and I needed to find a way across the border.

I remembered I met a foreigner in Guiyang and even though we weren’t never closed, she was always very nice to me. She was living in Shenzhen with her fiance. I sent a message, I needed help and if she didn’t know she could help me by asking around people that also live there, someone had to know.

She answered quickly, she told me about a ferry that goes straight to the airport but we had to confirm if the airline I had purchased my flight ticket from was part of it. She put her fiancé to help me. I gave her all my flight information. Yes, it does. 

She shared the official contact for the ferry to buy the tickets. After some difficulties, it worked. It was the beginning of hope, but nothing could make me lose focus.

It was necessary to change the health code of Hong Kong, I needed to inform of where I was going to enter the region, and it was necessary to book a hotel to spend the night. We would arrive around 10:30 pm and the port only opens at 7:00 am. We had to take a test because in the rush to leave Zhuhai we didn’t go to the hospital.

I managed to change the Hong Kong code before getting on the train. It was a two-hour trip, and some friends who knew about the trip, including  Sharona (the foreigner in Shenzhen), kept in touch to make sure that everything was going well, that I wasn’t losing focus and that despite being a big setback everything would end well. I don’t even know how to thank them for that. 

We arrived in Shenzhen, the hotel was less than 1km from the port. One more health code to show, one more test to do. This time they asked us to fill out another form for the test, I can’t explain why our test would be different, later I would understand.

The car we ordered by app took forever, the hotel was almost an hour from the train station, and the ride was horrible. The driver seemed lost, constantly doubting his own GPS, which did nothing to our already shaken state of spirit.

We arrived at the hotel, and once again show the code. Check-in, show passports, copy passports, take photos, get key and find room. 

I had to call my mother who wanted news. We spoke briefly. I explained what had happened and that until that moment we were doing our best to leave. 

André, who until then remained silent most of the time, looked at the T.V. and said: “We need to play FIFA, our minds deserve a break”. He didn’t give up until he made the PS5 work. We were exhausted, physically and emotionally, so a distraction would be more than welcome. 

Of course, we completely forgot that we needed to eat, and we didn’t have dinner. Honestly, I had no appetite.

We played, and he was right. You must have breaks, but it was difficult. It was bedtime, and even though our ferry was at 10:00 am I wanted to be in the port as soon as it was opened, I needed the guarantee that we were leaving the country. 

We had just over five hours to sleep and I prayed that André could get some rest because I knew I wouldn’t.

Day 4

I spent the night trying to sleep, praying, and checking the app to see if the test result was ready. We wouldn’t be able to travel until our code displayed 24 hours (it was 48 hrs). It was one of the longest and most harrowing nights of my life. Every time the negative thoughts started to get too intense I started to pray to distract myself, I focused on being able to remember Our Father, that night I noticed I was skipping some parts or repeating others sometimes.

At 4:00 am the test result came out, and our code showed 24 hrs again. One hour left to wake up. André who asked to be woken up an hour before we left the hotel. I must have slept 30 minutes that night.

We left the hotel and went to the port, it was really close. We entered along with the employees, we were probably the first passengers. It was possible to print the ticket on one of the machines over there. Done. We found our airline’s departure window, but it was empty. 

We went looking for a place to sit while we waited. The port had some convenience stores opened and I suggested André find something to eat. 

He wasn’t hungry either. Water and some crackers that I brought on the trip were our breakfast.

My mother asked for news, but there was very little to update her. I told her there were no changes, we were waiting for the check-in to open.

We start our check-in process around 7:40, soon after the guy asked about our vaccines. I handed over the printed document I had. He didn’t want to accept it, he said it had to be in English. He asked for my phone and looked for a mini-program within WeChat and included my data, found the information on the vaccines I had taken, and helped me generate an international health certificate in English. It was André’s time, he took his phone and did the same, but the vaccines he took did not appear. It was the name again, I asked them to help me and call the contact I had at the health center where he took the vaccine. The employee at the health center hung up the phone as soon as they asked about André’s situation.

He refused to let André on board, I explained that we were going to our country and that we would not be prevented from entering. I showed him the health code and that we had taken the test in less than 24 hours, but he wanted something printed and in English. We had another major problem to solve. 

I asked about the last ferry and changed my ticket to 2:00 pm (my flight was at 18:50 pm), I had to be back before 1:30 pm. I asked where I could leave my luggage (it would be much easier if I didn’t have to worry about suitcases) and the address of the nearest hospital. 

I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have time, but I had to try. We left the port shortly after 8:00 am. It was necessary to take a taxi, find the hospital, explain the situation in Chinese and find an angel willing to help us, get the printed result and go back to the port. 

As we left the port, two Chinese approached us. One said “Taxi”, and the other one made a gesture that simulated the PCR. I stopped and gave my attention to the second one. He repeated the gesture, he said he could help me with the test. I said I didn’t have time, he said he could get the result quickly. I didn’t have time to think, I didn’t have time to waste. I saw that André didn’t like the idea, but I couldn’t think of another way out. 

We got into the Chinese man’s car and he asked for André’s passport, while he was driving he was informing a third person about the test. I called a Chinese friend, I needed to make sure he would give me the result before 1:00 pm. 

My friend wasn’t happy either, but I knew there was no other option. I was in a city I didn’t know, my Chinese is not good and I had a very short deadline. How would I be able to get to a hospital, explain what I needed, make them understand that it was urgent, and make sure I had the printed report in time? It was cheaper to pay someone to help me with the test than to lose my plane tickets.

The Chinese took us to a hospital testing point where other people were also being tested. André registered like everyone else, paid for the test, and took the test like everyone else who was there. It was a little reassuring to realize that I was actually paying to have the test released earlier. Not that I was happy, but I wanted to believe it was going to work out.

We went back to the port, he asked us to stay in the waiting area on the third floor. He told us to wait there and that he would be back around 10:00 with the result printed. We got our luggage back and all we had to do was wait. 

My mother asked if we were on the ferry and the only thing I could answer was that we would take the ferry at 14:00. I would explain better later.

There was nothing we could do to make the time go fast. We kept trying to find André’s vaccines in the system, I wanted to make sure we would be allowed to board.

I wanted to remain optimistic, but I confess that, at that moment, tiredness and lack of proper meals were not helping. I prayed a little more and kept in touch with some people who were following our adventure.

He came back at the agreed time and asked us to wait an hour before returning to check in, after all, we couldn’t get the document so quickly through normal means. I accepted his request, and we were faced with another torturous hour of waiting. Looking at the document closely I noticed that the test date was the day before, around 22:00. Later I would understand that this was the test that we had taken at the exit of the train station and that I had actually paid dearly for the printout of the test that André had actually taken.

We waited, there was no reason why it wouldn’t work, but after so many setbacks it was impossible to believe it would be easy. We went to do the check-in, there was a line and we waited another half hour. The same person who denied Andre´s documents would do our check-in again. 

He started with André’s documents, saw the test, congratulated us for getting the test, and while looking at the document, he opened a slight smile. He knew the kind of test I had, but he didn’t do anything. I could try to explain that he had done the test the day before, we just didn’t know how to print it, but I was happy with the acceptance of the document. The check-in continued, he finished André’s and did mine. He handed us the boarding passes and told us to fill out an online form to leave the country.

One more step was completed. We returned to the waiting area near the convenience store, but we still couldn’t find anything to whet our appetite. 

We started filling out the online form. We had to report all the places we were in the last 15 days. I didn’t want to include Zhuhai, but with all the tests, health codes, and phone that indicates its location it was impossible to hide, I was hoping it wasn’t the whole city that was in lockdown and that it would still take time for other cities to start sending people coming from Zhuhai to quarantine.

We had to wait to board, and after some time my body started to allow itself to feel really tired, there was so little left to finish, but it felt like we were living that moment for an eternity. 

Boarding started an hour before, we were in line 30 minutes previously to that. Before boarding, we went through immigration and our passports were stamped. We were out of China. Another step closer to our destination, but it still wasn’t enough for me to feel comfortable.

We walked to yet another waiting room. It seemed like every minute the tension increased as if someone was going to show up and say there was a mistake and we would have to go back. We boarded, but the ferry did not leave on time (which is not common in China). While we were waiting my and André’s phone started to receive a series of notifications. Most of them were from our telephone operator to communicate that we had left the country and that we should purchase an international package.

The notifications kept coming when I noticed a slightly different one. I translated the message, and it said something like: “You were in a high and medium-risk area. Please contact the authorities in your region to follow the appropriate preventive measures”. In other words, I should communicate that I was in a risk area and they would probably take us to a quarantine center or suggest staying at home and since I was not in the city where I lived they would take us to a hotel or quarantine center.

I asked André if he had also just received an SMS. He confirmed. I asked him to delete the message and I said I would explain better when we were on the plane. He looked at me very confused, but he granted my request. I did the same with the message I had just translated, if anyone asked me in Hong Kong I would deny having knowledge that I needed to declare anything.

The ferry was still docked, and there were people boarding. it was the last ferry and apparently, they are more flexible about delays. I started to feel really bad, I had a headache, body aches, dizziness, nausea, and everything I said on the online form that I filled out a few hours ago that I wasn’t feeling. At that moment, I felt it all.

I prayed, it was a distraction from negative thoughts and the fear of getting so close and being sent back, I still had a hard time focusing, and I got lost in my prayer a few times. I avoided looking at André, I didn’t want him more worried than I knew he already was. 

We arrived, we walked to an area where Chinese and foreigners were separated (not out of prejudice, but because Chinese have to present fewer documents), we looked for our airline’s counter, and one more queue. I noticed that they were checking the documents again, but so far nobody had had any problems. 

It was our turn, I handed over the passports, and after a few minutes he asked for proof of vaccination, I handed over the ones I had, the same ones I had presented at 7:30 in the morning. He checked the papers and continued his work, handed us new boarding passes, and wished us a good trip.

I wanted to jump for joy, I saw the expression of relief finally appear on André’s face. Victory, but I couldn’t celebrate. The message I had received on the ferry was still bothering me, I was afraid that at any moment they would come for us. It was time to head to the boarding area. Metal detector, tax refund, take a train between the port and the airport (one station), walk to an isolated area for passengers coming from China.

That was it. We were in the departure area, just over two hours before our flight, we didn’t have access to the entire airport, and we didn’t enter Hong Kong (our passports weren’t stamped). Finally, we could try to get something to eat.

I confess that even while I told some friends and my family that we were in the boarding area I couldn´t feel happy or safe. I couldn’t relax, it was like it wasn’t over.

André and I had an agreement that we could only fully celebrate on the plane after it was in the air. The airport had internet, but I didn’t want to watch anything, I even reminded André that he could watch Youtube without having to worry about the Chinese firewall. 

He got distracted while I prayed and texted some friends. More than one person asked me what it felt like to be leaving and my answer was the same for everyone: “I will only feel that I am leaving when the plane is in the air, I am still afraid that something could happen”.

The plane took off on time, we were one of the first to board. I wasn’t running from a war, I wasn’t running from hunger or poverty. I was going back to my country, but at that moment I felt like I was running. Fleeing from a country that I learned to love and that I was leaving with a bitter taste. It was as if all the happy moments I had, all the opportunities, and the best years of my life so far were overshadowed by not feeling welcome in a country that once welcomed me so well. 

I was saying goodbye with the tired body of someone who in the last 24 hours had not slept, ate little and my mental state completely destroyed for not being sure if I would be able to board the flight back home. 

I said goodbye to the country where I saw my son grow up and love all the freedom he had to come and go, participate in activities and events that we would never have the chance to in Brazil, meet people from all over the world and understand the culture of a country. Although, in recent months he felt completely unmotivated to do anything, easily irritated and with no expectations of being able to do what he loves most, playing basketball.

The plane took off and we hugged, we cried for all the anxiety, for all the setbacks, for all the moments we wanted to give up, for all the times we had to pretend everything was fine, for all the moments we showed ourselves stronger so that the other could have their moment of weakness. We cried for being together because we were on our way to see our family and nothing else could go wrong.

The flight to our stopover was smooth, and the meal was wonderful (even in economy). I had trouble sleeping, but the tiredness no longer bothered me. I watched movies, I allowed myself to create expectations when I arrived in Brazil and I prayed a lot, but this time to say thank you.

In Doha, we had nine hours of layover, neither the pizza that was awful nor the fact that we took turns when the other one couldn’t take it anymore and needed to sleep while we waited in the boarding area affected us as much as the leg of the trip in China. This time there was no anxiety about being sent to a quarantine center or being stopped from entering somewhere. It was nine long hours, but much quicker than the hours we spent in the port, or the ferry time.

We arrived in Brazil. Showed our passports. No extra documents were requested. That is it, I paid for a test that I never had to present, only for the employee who told me that the documents I had would not be accepted.

With a clear head, I can see that I could have acted differently in certain situations. I had no way of guessing that the city would close, but I confess that after I arrived and didn’t bother to update myself about the number of cases in the city. Maybe I could have gone to Hong Kong earlier and out of laziness having to understand how their health code worked and wanting to save money (HK everything is much more expensive) I preferred to stay in mainland China. Mainly, when the guy refused André’s vaccine saying that he would not enter Hong Kong without a PCR or vaccine I could have said that in Hong Kong everyone can read Chinese and they would not contest the document I had and that in Brazil I would take responsibility for not submitting any documents in English. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for so much in such a short period of time and with all the stress I couldn’t think clearly. 

This story has a happy ending, although it doesn’t look like it. We arrived, we are in Brazil and ready for new challenges that have already started, but with much less emotion and in a positive way.

Published by Tassia Kespers

Escritora, professora, tradutora, revisora, mãe e exploradora nas horas vagas.

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