Parishes, schools and agencies

A lucky escape for travellers as pandemic hits Sri Lanka

By Stephen Cauchi

April 20 2020Bert and Marlene Thurgood, parishioners at St Aidan’s Noble Park, were left stranded in Sri Lanka as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and were lucky to get home. 

The Thurgoods were enjoying a relaxing holiday when their airline, Singapore Airlines, abruptly cancelled all flights out of the island. 

Had it not been for a generous travel agent, they may have been stuck there. 

Mr and Mrs Thurgood and two members of their extended family arrived in Sri Lanka on 26 February and for three weeks enjoyed a problem-free vacation. 

The first hint of trouble came when they at the city of Jaffna in the island’s north. 

Their travel agent, Colombus Tours, rang to say that a curfew had been brought in on the areas in their remaining itinerary due to COVID-19. 

“They said that they would cancel the hotels for us and that we should go straight to (Sri Lankan capital) Colombo for the flight home,” Mr Thurgood, 76, told TMA. “Which we accepted.” 

In Colombo, however, they learned that Singapore Airlines had cancelled all flights out of Sri Lanka. 

“We didn’t get any messages from the airline, which was disappointing.” 

They were faced with the prospect of being stuck in Sri Lanka – which was by now under island-wide curfew. Their travel agent came to the rescue, booking them a ticket home with SriLankan Airlines – but there was a snag.  

The cost of the four tickets was $5000 – money the Thurgoods didn’t have. 

“Of course, I’m over there (Sri Lanka), the bank’s over here (Australia), and how are you going to pay for it,” said Mr Thurgood. 

“Colombus Tours, because I’ve been with them a long time, said don’t worry about it, we will buy your tickets for you – which I thought was a very considerate and kind thing to do.  

“They gave us an invoice and said credit the account when you are ready.” 

Even then, their troubles were still not entirely over as they had to get from the hotel to the airport while the curfew was in place.  

“The travel agent at the hotel we were at had to organise special passes from the police because they had checkpoints on the way to the airport to make sure whoever was on the road had a specific purpose. 

“They’re very strict on it (the curfew) … the police there are ruthless if you get caught breaking it.”  

Mr Thurgood said Sri Lanka had taken “very hard” measures against the pandemic. “It’s very hard. People can’t go to work. Everything is in lockdown. Not like here – at least we’ve got certain things open. 

“I think they’ve got a couple of hours on certain days where you do shopping.” 

Mr Thurgood said the flight home, which arrived in Melbourne on 22 March, was full. He and his wife have been in self-isolation in their Mulgrave home since.  

Family, friends and neighbours have all stepped in to do the shopping while the Thurgoods have been in self-isolation and there’s been a couple of visits from the police “to check we’ve been doing the right thing”. 

“The police were very concerned, asked us how we were doing, were we right for food, medication, whatever,” he said.   

But overall, said Mr Thurgood, the trip to Sri Lanka was “beautiful”. “We had an enjoyable time and God was with us right through and brought us home safely, which we were very thankful for.”