COVID-19: Residents faced long flights home
By GWEN OREL
Home is the place where everyone is hunkering down, settling in, and keeping safe.
But for people who were traveling when the stay-at-home mandates began, home was not just far away but a long and difficult trip away.
For Vanguard Theater Company general manager Jessica Sporn, stuck in Guatemala, home seems more dangerous than where she is now.
For Rachael Quinn Egan, recently returned from Cape Town, South Africa, and Natalie Grande, returning early from a Peace Corps assignment in Uganda, getting home was long and sometimes terrifying. Grande is one of more than 7,000 volunteers in about 60 countries who were rushed home, on multiple flights, quickly.
She and Grande are now self-isolating at home.
Egan went to South Africa with her older daughter Francy to see her father, who was sick. She thought it might be the last time she saw him. She is Irish, and grew up all around the world because of her father’s work in telecommunications.
She left on March 10, and had heard about the virus, but the full weight of the danger was not yet clear. When she wiped down the airplane arms and seats on the way out, people smiled and laughed. It could not have been more different on the way back.
“I didn’t for a moment think what would happen, would happen,” Egan said. During the last few days of her visit, Egan became nervous and began calling the airlines. The airlines always told her not to worry. Their tone was almost mocking, Egan said. Her flight home was scheduled for March 20.
“I was starting to panic, actual panic attacks. I haven’t had them since I was a teenager facing exams,” she said.
Grande joined the Peace Corps and went to Uganda in June 2018. The MHS 2013 graduate worked as a “community agribusiness coordinator,” working on many different projects, including economic development, malaria prevention, village savings and loans, and teaching. Grande, 25, thought the Peace Corps would be a good way to learn a new language, meet new people, and do good in the world.
Like Egan, she knew about the virus, but did not know how severe the pandemic would be. “My town had an Ebola outbreak in 2011. Everyone handled it, everyone was okay,” she said.
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Grande received an email on March 16 at 6:45 a.m., telling her she had 24 hours to get to the city of Entebbe, from which she would go to the airport.
After two years, she had less than a day to pack up her house. Neighbors and friends took the five puppies she had been fostering, as well as clothes she could not pack and appliances.
There were forms to fill out, about her malaria prophylaxis, about her description of service in the Peace Corps. “We did have a little ceremony, gonging out, and we all said the Peace Corps pledge,” Grande said. But overall it was a strange way to close her time in service.
“Nobody was expecting to go home abruptly,” she said. She ultimately had to take four flights.
Egan did not even get an email: She found out when she went to the airport. The person at the check-in counter calmly told her, “Your flight to New York is canceled. You’re not going to be able to leave.”
It was so casual, it was like “The Twilight Zone,” Egan said.
She burst into tears: “It was exactly what I had been having nightmares about. She called security. She told me to back away from the desk.” Egan asked what to do, could she get anywhere else, and the woman just became nastier, she said. Her brother in Cape Town managed to get her and her daughter a flight the next day, March 21, to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. From Istanbul there was a flight to JFK.
Egan had a choice: Stay in Cape Town with her parents, or risk going to Istanbul and getting stuck there, where she knew no one, for months.
But her husband and children in Montclair were worried. “It’s a very scary time for little children,” Egan said. So she took the risk.
THE LONG FLIGHTS
It didn’t seem like anybody on Egan’s flight was really planning to go to Istanbul. Other Irish people were on the plane, and she waved at them.
Everyone was wiping down the plane on this flight; nobody laughed at her baby wipes now. Everyone tried to avoid the bathrooms until the last moment. “There were lots of people coughing and sick. Kids were coughing with their mouths open,” Egan said. She thought if she did not get the virus it would be a miracle.
On the 11-hour flight, she found she could not relax. As a heartwarming movie ended she would remember she was in a global pandemic.
“Movies were more painful than not just watching. The escape for an hour was not worth the return,” she said. Christmas movies are ruined for her forever, she said.
Grande too had connecting flights and a long journey, through four international airports. First she went to Rwanda, then Doha, Qatar, with an eight-hour layover. Then she had a long flight to Boston. She missed her connection to Newark.
Overall, it took her 41 hours to get home. Connecting to her flight to JFK was almost the worst part for Egan. “I was watching the notice boards, where the gates were, to see what time flights were boarding,” she said.
“Big orange cancel signs kept appearing. All around the world. The older couples who were flying to Ireland had their flights canceled. I wonder where on earth they are now. I imagine they are stuck in Istanbul.”
But her flight did appear. When she rushed to her gate, she saw there was extra security, managing a line of people trying to board without a ticket.
The bus that drove passengers to the plane was terrifying, too, because it passed a sea of grounded planes.
“So many planes were parked, the bus had to drive half a mile to our plane. People were taking pictures of this eerie landscape of concrete and planes not going anywhere,” she said.
On the plane she found it hard not to cry. Egan’s journey home, including a layover in Istanbul airport, took about 30 hours.
She worried that JFK would not let them in, since it had been closed that morning. Hers was the only plane landing. Some people’s temperatures were taken, but not everyone’s, and not hers, she said.
For Grande, it was the flight home that alerted her to how bad things really were. “I saw people for the first time wearing masks,” she said. “Everybody I met was trying to get home. Seeing everybody escape and try to get back to America really hit me.”
Being back in her childhood home has given Grande “mental whiplash,” she said. But she’s been able to talk to friends on Whatsapp, and on an app called House Party.
“When I left, no one was worried,” she said.
Just this past Tuesday morning Grande learned the entire country of Uganda had gone on a 14-day lock-down.
“My friends and community are facing immediate food insecurity and instability with the drastic measures,” she said. Now she realizes that Uganda had a delay in its COVID-19 reaction.
When Egan’s husband picked her up, “he threw gloves and a mask at us,” she said. Since then, she and her daughter have been trying to maintain distance, isolating in a room upstairs.
She tries not to imagine the worst every time she coughs. “My husband is taking this as quite a challenge. Dishes get put at the bottom of the stairs. We come down and pick them up. He takes them away and washes them. I sit at the top of the stairs and talk to my children,” she said.
Had she known how bad it would be she would never have gone to Cape Town at all, though she feels more optimistic than she did when she was flying home. But her suitcases are in the garage.
She said with a laugh, “I’m running out of clothes!”