So….when we last wrote about Covid-19, we thought we were going to hunker down in Ecuador to ride out the Covid-19 storm. We had a large, safe and comfortable apartment and the rent was affordable. We had figured out how to order groceries and have them delivered (maybe…our delivery was initially scheduled for March 24 but got pushed to April 2 so we will never know). Ecuador was taking the virus seriously. They had locked down the country. They weren’t even letting their own citizens return (the first known case of Covid-19 was brought in by a citizen who had returned from Europe). The mayor of Guayaquil had actually ordered vehicles out onto a runway to prevent planes from landing (not the wisest decision, as the planes were supposed to evacuate foreigners back to Europe). Everyone was under a curfew (4 pm to 5 am in Guayaquil,, which has now changed to 2 pm to 5 am everywhere in the country). Nobody was allowed to leave their homes except to get groceries and go to the pharmacy and bank. Even then, only one person per family could leave at a time, and cars could only be driven every other day depending on which number your plate ended in (even the taxis were bound by this rule). Groceries were limiting the number of people allowed to enter at any one time (and moving to a system that only allowed each person to enter two particular days a week depending on the last number of their identity document). Mobile internet providers had been ordered to increase speed (yes, increase). Visa requirements had been waived (both for people inside the country and those outside of it) until 30 days after the crisis ended so tourists would not be overstaying their visas and those trying to get residency wouldn’t have to start from scratch. Food was being delivered to at least some poor people. The government had assured the populace that certain services like electricity and internet would not be disconnected and nobody would be evicted even if bills were not paid during the emergency. The military was getting involved to ensure compliance with the various lock down rules. And, the word was that health care workers would actually come to your home to evaluate you if you thought you had the virus. (No, I’m not joking.) We watched how little was being done to flatten the curve in the US, how many Americans were “preparing” by buying guns and ammo, and thought “hmm…we are safer in Ecuador.”
But….as we read more and more about the virus, we got more and more concerned about how long the travel restrictions were going to last. While I am a notorious pessimist, I don’t think things are going to get back to anywhere close to normal any time soon — I’m guessing it will be months, not weeks (and certainly not by Easter as a certain orange politician seems to think ….). And, we got more and more concerned about what would happen in Ecuador over the long haul. Our travel health insurance would expire in June and it seemed unlikely that the next policy would cover Covid-19. Could we afford to get sick in a country where we had absolutely no insurance? Would the locals blame foreigners? Anecdotal reports on various Facebook groups suggested foreigners were already being targeted for robberies and were being told to stay out of sight in some of the smaller communities. Would the overwhelmed hospitals decide citizens were more deserving of limited resources? Would the food supply hold up? Would there be a military coup at some point? We just didn’t know. And, it really didn’t help that the US Embassy in Ecuador didn’t seem to be helping US citizens at all. We contacted them and the only response was a form email telling us to sign up for the STEP program (yeah, did that months ago before we left for Ecuador). And, the STEP emails just basically said “you are on your own, contact the airlines, see if you can find a flight or prepare to stay indefinitely.” In fact, we were getting better information from an Ecuador expats Facebook group and a stranded in Ecuador Facebook group than we were from the Embassy. (Full disclosure: the Embassy is now arranging for charter flights. Of course, they won’t tell anyone what they are going to cost and are requiring people to sign a promissory note promising to pay the government back for the flight. And, no pets allowed. And, only 30 pounds of checked luggage. And, if you don’t live in a town with an international airport, you are on your own to find a driver and navigate the various check points.)
So, when we read that Eastern Airlines was scheduling charter flights to Miami (and once the Ecuadorian government promised those planes would be allowed to land), we decided we needed to fly back to the US, even though it put us and (if we were already infected and didn’t know it) those around us at risk. We made the journey to Miami on March 23, spent the night at a Miami airport hotel (which thankfully was open even though Miami=Dade county had ordered all hotels to close), flew to Minneapolis and then drove to my parents’ summer home in Northwestern Wisconsin (they are sheltering in place in their winter home so thankfully we aren’t risking infecting them).
The trip back was all a bit surreal. The airport in Guayaquil was limiting the number of passengers allowed into the airport at any one time and asking people to stand 2 meters apart (most people unfortunately did not follow that rule). Almost everyone was wearing face masks. Some people were wearing gloves. (Note: I’m pretty sure gloves aren’t going to help if you and your family are all reaching into a bag of chips with your dirty gloved hands and then licking your gloved fingers… or if you are using your gloved fingers to rub your eyes….) Oddly, there was no health screening — I’m sure at that point Ecuador just wanted us all gone.
Upon arrival in Miami, there was no indication that the world was in the midst of a pandemic other than the lack of people. Nobody took our temperature. Nobody asked us where we had been. Nobody was providing information on the need to self-isolate. We waltzed through immigration and were on our way.
The next day, the Miami airport was nearly empty. Very few people were wearing masks. Even fewer were wearing gloves. (Note: I’m pretty sure covering your suitcase and backpack with kitchen garbage bags isn’t going to help if you then nervously caress your backpack with dirty gloves hands….) Thankfully, the plane was quite empty and the flight attendants were encouraging everyone to spread out and stay as far apart from strangers as possible.
Upon arrival in Minneapolis, we had no choice but to stop at a couple of stores and stock up (there is no grocery delivery or food delivery in the rural community where we are staying). We were pleasantly surprised to find the stores largely empty of people. There were no lines and it was easy to steer clear of other people. The shelves were pretty full. Produce and meat was plentiful. Frozen food was plentiful. Pasta, eggs, butter, milk, and carrots were available but were being rationed. Pasta sauce was non-existent. Soup was in short supply (unless you like clam chowder), but there was some left. Flour was surprisingly hard to find, as was basil of all things, and one grocery was completely out of vegetable oil. Toilet paper was gone, but there was plenty of Kleenex (come on people…everyone knows Kleenex will do in a pinch). Liquid soap was long gone, but bar soap was still available. Thermometers were impossible to find. Cleaning supplies were almost non-existent, but thankfully my parents had left quite a few cleaning products in their house.
So, now that we have stocked the house, we are completely isolating for at least 14 days (Wisconsin is under a shelter in place order until April 24). Fingers crossed we aren’t infected and didn’t infect anyone else on the way back. Stay safe everyone.