Columban Fr John Boles reflects on the travels of a missionary in times of Covid.
Overseas missionary work brings many surprises, but a 12-day obligatory quarantine period in a secure facility near London Airport was a ‘first’ for me.
Travelling back to Britain during the Covid crisis after many years in Peru was a truly bizarre affair, although I have to admit that in one sense the ‘special’ treatment I was accorded served to boost my self-esteem.
Even before reaching England I’d been tipped into the surreal by a 10-hour stopover in Madrid’s Atocha Airport – enormous, but seemingly deserted apart from myself. I wandered its silent halls like a character in a sci-fi film, the last one left alive after The Bomb has fallen.
Arriving at Heathrow, mention of “South America” prompted a flurry of security activity, with a squad of officials politely but firmly frog-marching me to a waiting minibus, which conveyed me directly to a designated quarantine hotel.
Therein, I achieved instant notoriety when, on being asked for my credit card details and mobile phone number, I informed reception that (in the true spirit of simple Columban lifestyle) I possessed neither of these artefacts. Instead, to cover any incidental expenses I might incur, I offered them a deposit of £60, which was my entire stock of sterling.
This occasioned a hurriedly convoked emergency management meeting, at the end of which I was told that my situation was quite ‘irregular’. Nevertheless, they were prepared to make an exception, given that we were living in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. It was nice to know that, in a way, I was being seen as ‘exceptional’.
My place of confinement was most comfortable, complete with cable, wi-fi and all the necessary furnishings. What was absent was contact with other human beings. Meals were left outside my door. I deposited my rubbish bags in the same location, to be spirited away by an invisible hand.
From what I could gather, most of my fellow residents (and members of staff) were Muslims. This might explain why, for the first four days of my stay, the kitchen personnel confused me with a Ramadan-observing couple. Hence, I was treated to double portions of exotic dishes, delivered at odd hours of the night and nothing at all during daylight hours. Intriguing.
My main difficulty was lack of fresh air and exercise. The solution was to get up early, don my sports kit, shove the bed against the wall and then spend 30 minutes jogging to and fro along the L-shape thus created. Good preparation for any future stint of solitary I might have to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
After twelve days and two negative Covid results I was released into the custody of fellow Columban Fr Pat O’Beirne and sped to the safety of our London house, happy in the knowledge that I’d obeyed my travel orders and done my bit to prevent the spread of the virus.
All I can say by way of conclusion is to repeat the words of my Mum (RIP), “It is all experience, all part of life’s adventure.” Amen.
Fr John Boles has worked in Peru and Chile for 25 years. He has just returned to the UK.