The New Normal

Returning to the Philippines

First try, target October 28

Re-booked my return flight on Qatar airways through our travel agent Marsman. Qatar Airways charges US$ 300 for rebooking the flight, initially I wanted to return in June, but due to regulations of my employer I had to stay in Germany for 5.5 months on extended home leave.

The Philippine Government immigration guidelines at the time require that every inbound traveler has to get a COVID test at the airport in Manila (NAIA) and then quarantine in an accredited hotel for the days until the results are out. Document required at arrival are: Passport with visa, a filled-out form of the Philippine Red Cross with a QR code for the COVID testing, and the hotel booking in a certified quarantine hotel.

The HR department of my employer gets a verbal note saying that with the type of visa I have I am exempted from the COVID testing at the airport in Manila, and also from the quarantine in one of the accredited hotels, I can go straight home to the residence but will have to quarantine for 2 weeks at home. This does not make so much sense to me, as if Diplomats are less likely to get infected.

The guidelines of my employer are not clear and seem to keep changing, so I decide to play safe and do the test at NAIA and then move to the Crimson Hotel in Alabang, where Miriam also staid during her quarantine a few weeks earlier. I fill out the Philippine Red Cross online form thus booking the CORONA test NAIA for October 29 and, also based on Miriam’s experience, book two nights at Crimson hotel. I print both confirmations and pay the Crimson hotel with PayPal. I also book a rental car at SIXT for the drive from Beutelsbach to Frankfurt Airport.

On Wednesday, October 21, I get informed by our travel agent that there is a new regulation of the Philippine Government for diplomats. I am not a diplomat but I have a semi diplomatic visa, so this applies to me. From now on diplomats need to do a COVID PCR test in the country of origin within 72h before leaving the country. Damn. There is no way to get a COVID test with results out in time for October 29, next week. It takes 3-4 days until test results are available, there is no testing on weekends, and when taking the test on Monday, the results will not arrive in time. When taking the test tomorrow (Thursday), it will also not work out because it will exceed the 72 hours.

On Friday morning, October 23, I go to the doctor again to ask what options I have for a test to be done in time. He gives me the phone numbers of some other doctors, so called COVID centers, and of the COVID section of the fever department of the hospital in Schorndorf. I call them all, none of the doctors can help and the hospital does not test for flights, only people with symptoms.

Marsman checks with the Department of Foreign Affairs whether the verbal note is still valid and whether I can take the test in Manila instead of in Germany. They response is yes, but only given verbally on the phone. I ask our travel agent to get either an update of the Verbal Note or something else in written that I can show at the immigration officer. The agent follows up but a written document never arrives.

I call the doctor for timing of a test and then ask the travel agent to change the flight again, to Saturday, October 31, at the end of the week, which should give ample time for testing and allowing for the 3-4 days lab work. Qatar quotes ridiculous prices for changing the flight, between US$ 600 for a rebooking to in a week’s time and US$ 1,200 for re-booking to Saturday, October 31. I check the internet, they offer new one-way tickets for US$ 650 for the same flight when booked online in Germany. On Monday, October 26 our travel agent suggests that I should book a new ticket myself in Germany since different pricing policies seem to apply in different countries.

Second try, target October 31

At this stage I am a bit confused and don’t know how to proceed best. Hoping that an updated Verbal Note will still arrive before the next day’s flight I visit the doctor on Tuesday morning, to take a quick test in case I need something to show that I tried in addition to the updated Verbal Note. The results are there within 15 minutes. Negative. But quick test results are actually not accepted by the Philippine immigration. While taking the sample for the quick test, the doctor also takes a sample for the PCV test in case I decide to re-book the flight to a date later in the week. The results should be out either Thursday or Friday, in time for a flight on Saturday.

A few days ago there was the scandal in Doha where several women were forced to strip naked and their private parts were inspected for signs of recent birth giving after a newborn baby was found in a trashcan at the airport. Give the outrageous prices and this medieval behaviour of people in Katar, I have no appetite to ever fly Qatar Airways again (or watch the Fooball World Championship in Katar) and instruct our travel agent to refund my ticket. On Tuesday, October 27, after checking the airline regulations for boarding the flights and there does not seem to be any obstacle there, I therefore book a one-way ticket with Singapore Airlines from Frankfurt via Singapore to Manila for Saturday, October 31, arrival on November 1. Flying with Singapore Airlines has several hours shorter travel time, provides me with 5kg more luggage and in theory access to the Kris Lounge if that is open, because of my Golden Miles and More card, so this seems to make a lot of sense to me besides giving me peace of mind for not supporting medieval culture. I also cancel the rental car at SIXT (no cost). I write an email to Crimson Hotel and cancel the hotel booking, they confirm immediately, but don’t tell me how to refund the PayPal payment.

In the afternoon of Wednesday, October 28, the doctor calls up and says the test results are already out, it took only one day for the lab to process it. Darn. Too early to be valid for a flight on Saturday. Another 160 Euro wasted. An I need to get a new test. I call the doctor again and ask for another test on Thursday morning, hoping that the processing would also only take two days and results would be available on Friday, just in time for the flight on Saturday. The assistants say “no guarantee”. The whole doctors office also goes on autumn holiday on Friday afternoon.

In the meantime two more typhoons are developing in the Pacific with tracks predicted to go across the Philippines, pretty much the same path as the last one. One is predicted to have landfall on Saturday.

First thing on Thursday, October 29, in the morning I am at the doctor again for another PVC test. He gives me a prescription, which looks kind of official, and has a barcode and information on how to log into the information system of the laboratory, so I can check the results myself when they come late. I also book another rental car from SIXT.

On Friday I check the online lab page several times in the afternoon. After lunch I decide to be optimistic and ask Helmut to drive me to Waiblingen to pick up the rental car from SIXT. I get a Golf Plus. Just before end of office hours I check the lab web site again and there is a test result: Negative. The web site only says “Negative” after I inputted my data and hit the Check button. Pretty useless since the screen with the result does not have my name, the date or anything else, so I can not print it. I try to contact the doctor, but he is already on vacation. Darn. Then I find a way to print it with my name on it, the date and the lab reference. If somebody questions it, I can always show them the results on the web site. In the evening I have farewell dinner with my parents at my favourite restaurant in Beutelsbach, the Vinothek, and also return the apartment I had rented for 5.5 months to the landlord. Then I loaded the luggage in the rental car. Then I filled out another Philippine Red Cross Form for the for the COVID test at NAIA and printed all other required documents on my dad’s printer.

The Typhoon intensified. Will I have to cancel the flight again and do it all over?

Third try, target November 1-3

I wake up at 6:00 on Saturday, October 31, and get ready. There is an SMS from Singapore Airlines, saying that the flight from Singapore to Manila will be advanced and will leave at 6:15 on Sunday to beat the Typhoon. I will arrive in Singapore at 6:30, so no way I can catch that flight. I check hotels and book a room at the Transit Hotel of the Singapore Airport at a whopping 320 Singapore Dollars. It is one of the last two rooms, and is not refundable. But I don’t want to hang out 24 hours in the Kris Lounge.

After a coffee and goodbye to my parents where I stayed the night, I started driving to Frankfurt, 200km, usually a 2-hour drive. Around 30 km before Frankfurt, Singapore Airlines calls me up and says they need to rebook me because of the typhoon. They offer me a flight from Singapore to Manila on November 3, the first flight after the typhoon will have passed, and want to put me on the Frankfurt to Singapore flight on November 2. By then the COVID Test would not be valid anymore. So that is not possible. I would hae to go back to Beutelsbach, get new tests, rebook all hotels, rent a new car etc. This would also cost me another week. So I ask whether I can stay on the flight today, but this is not allowed since I would have to stay in the transit area of Singapore for more than the allowed 48 hours. So, we compromise on me flying to Singapore tomorrow, November 1. Singapore Airlines sends a confirmation email with the new flight data.

What to do, drive back to Beutelsbach? Extend the rental car by a day and drive to Frankfurt tomorrow morning? That would be expensive and involve a lot of driving. Or go to Frankfurt and stay in a hotel?

I drive to the next rest station along the Autobahn, take my IPhone and sit down with a coffee to re-plan. First the known: Try to rebook the Transit Hotel in Singapore for one day later, I send an email. Re-book Crimson Hotel in Alabang, they confirm the rebooking quickly. Then look for a hotel in in the Frankfurt area. There is the Hilton directly at the airport offering rooms for 101 Euro. That’s great, I can go there straight and return the rental car in time without having to extend it by one day (Euro 120 saved). So that decision is quickly made. I book a room in the Hilton, I can check in at 14:00. What to do in the meantime? Sightseeing? Return time of the car is 11:00. So I decide to drive straight to the airport, return the car and hang around in a restaurant until check-in time.

I return the car i time. When I check the Hilton first, they have a room available already at 11:00, so can leave the luggage in the room and then go for breakfast. Follow-up of the Transit Hotel change in date, they asked me to do the change in Agoda, but it does not work in the Agoda app.

Get a new Philippine Red Cross form, this time no print. I make a screenshot on the phone. Inform my employer HR, the clinic, security office and motorpool about the changes.

The first flight, November 1

Luckily I check out early from the hotel after a quick breakfast at a bakeshop outlet in the shopping mall. Because the check in takes a lot time. They want to see all documents. The COVID test results are not in English, do I have an Englisch version? No, I don’t. The Verbal Note looks different than the one in their huge Leitz folder, where they have samples of all official documents. Do I have the email? I open the laptop and look in my messy inbox for the email, when was the verbal note sent? That was many weeks ago. By whom? Travel agent? HR? Safety office? Finally I find it. I show the email to the check in lady. “Can you open the attachment?”. I open it, it is the document I showed her as a printout. “It looks the same.” Surprise, surprise. Finally she accepts it. Hotel bookings, the Singapore one is OK since I have a screenshot of the AGODA confirmation, which I still got yesterday night after one hour lasting phone calls to AGODA Support. The Crimson Hotel in the Philippines, I don’t find the email confirming that the booking was moved from November 1 to November 3 (turns out later that it was in my inbox on the laptop but for some technical reason it did not download into the inbox of the IPhone). Finally we agree that I get the confirmation for the Crimson Hotel in Singapore before the next flight. The Red Cross barcode. Where was that? The printout is for November 1. Oh yes, I took a screenshot. So that was OK. So finally, after 30 minutes discussion, she checks me in. Poor people waiting behind me.

The flight was OK. Besides me there was only one more person on the other side of the plane in the rear section. Nevertheless we had to keep our masks on during the whole flight. I managed to lay down and sleep for a few hours, and watch 3 movies (Harley Quinn and two German ones).

Landing in Singapore. The two of us in the back have to stay until everybody else left the plane. There is a welcoming committee waiting for transit passengers. Aussies, Kiwis and people from some Asian countries are let into the shopping area, the rest of us, potentially highly infectious Europeans, Americans etc., are herded in a group with several airport assistants serving as our guards to the other end of the airport into a “holding area”. Since I have a hotel booking at the Aerotel transit hotel, I am separated out together with another guy from the Philippines and two other passengers and then driven to Aerotel hotel. Every step we do is meticulously documented. Everybody seems to have a form with my name on it.

At around 9:00 I am at the Aerotel, where I find out that my booking is only for 12 hours. To extend it would cost another 360 Singapore Dollars, so I let them drive me back to the holding area, adding lots of entries about my movements to their notes. I work on a project report for 2 hours, finish the draft main report, then have some lunch (fish fingers) from a vending machine (yuck-yuck-yuck). There are some couches at the holding area, so I sleep for around 2 hours, why did I book the bloody expensive hotel? Then ordering a pretty good hamburger ordered for afternoon snacks.

I have them fill up more paper forms and have them ferry me back to the Aerotel around 18:00 and check in. They give me the key card and send me to the room after telling me that I am not allowed to leave it until 6:30 tomorrow morning. Lunch and Breakfast are included and can be ordered by telephone, the room service then puts the food on a table outside the room, from where I can pick it up. I finish a local consultant’s project report and then get depressed by watching a bit of US election coverage on TV.

The Typhoon in the Philippines had weakened and done lots of damage in Bicol, but supposedly Los Baños was not too bad. Still waiting for news from Magayon II. There is a thunderstorm outside, the runways are very wet.

Second flight, to Manila, November 3

I check out of the Aerotel after 12 hours, one hour too early since somebody is going to pick me up to do some more cattle herding with me. I use the time to send off the two reports from the lobby, the Wifi did not work in the room yesterday night (in Singapore?). At 7:15 I get picked up with 4 other people and driven back to the holding area, again leaving data tracks at every stage. I am being checked again for the necessary papers by the Singapore Airlines folks. I buy a cappuccino and line up in the line. A Singapore Airlines staff sends lots of passengers to buy face shields, which are required on the plane.

On the plane I am sitting in the middle section with people sitting in all seats around me. That’s why the airline is requiring face shields and masks to be on all the time during the flight, so that they can load the plane to full capacity. I start not liking Singapore Airlines anymore. Later I find also out that the back of the plane is only half full and many double seats are empty. This needs a serious complaint to SQ.

Arrival at NAIA. First the health check, we are asked to take the face shield off for the temperature check. There is a huge waiting area for the COVID testing. I ask a medical attendant what I need to do with a 9E visa and mention the verbal note that says I am exempted, and that I have the test from Germany. She says I have to do the test anyway and gives me a big form to fill out. I am in a line with at least 200 people. I grab the next army guy who passes me and ask him for clarification, giving him the verbal note and the COVID test results. He calls his boss. The boss says I can go straight to the diplomatic immigration counter, and then accompanies me there. The Immigration officer looks at the verbal note and asks for the exception document from the Department of Foreign Affairs. I say “It is there..” and point at the paper in his hands. He looks at it again, then disappears with my passport and the verbal note for around 10 minutes. After he comes back, he just stamps my passport and walks around to open the gate for me. “Good to be back” I say, he smiles and says “Have a nice stay.”

I did not have to show any supporting document.

The Crimson Hotel car picks me up and drives me to my 7 day prison, the Crimson hotel. On the way I am getting a text from Kareem offering to give me a lift to the All Souls Regatta this weekend. The Yacht Club decided to push through with it. I am going to miss it since I am not allowed to leave the hotel until I have the second CORONA test results after 5 days of quarantine. Bugger.