When the fear of the new coronavirus was already hovering over Western countries, I was with other friends, Humphrey fellows, in New York City. We had a schedule of meetings with members of the United Nations and other organizations. We participated in a press conference in which the adviser to the UN secretary-general announced measures on the great crisis that would explode a week later. At that time, our dreams drove us to celebrate while we did not know that our lives would change dramatically and suddenly in a few days. At dinner with everyone present, I delighted that moment as if it were our last, not knowing it would be. Fortunately, I also watched the musical The Lion King with my Korean friend Seungwan. The Circle of Life song has never touched me so profoundly.
A tough decision
On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus as a global pandemic, establishing guidelines for countries around the world to fight against that threat. A few days later, border closings began. Incredulous, I felt my family worried that I was out of Brazil. At the same time, I could not believe how the entire world infrastructure could be disconnected as you pull the cable out of an outlet. Some fellows decided to return home amid the restriction measures being imposed. Ieva from Latvia tried but said there were no flights. In an attempt to help her, I sent a list of Skyscanner flights, claiming that things were normal, unaware that it was the system cache. Those flights were no longer in operation. She is still in the United States, trying to get home.
Living in another country means it will be necessary to be away from the family for a while. In my case, I spent a few months away from Chris, my wife, while she eventually stayed sparsed seasons with me. Although it is difficult, thinking that you are in an interconnected world makes the distance less painful. Both Chris and I knew that if we missed each other and WhatsApp calls were not enough, we could get on the first plane to get closer.
Remembering the Manuel Castells best seller, Network Society, the social and economic transformations caused by the globalization were only possible due to two indivisible structural elements: the internet, and the improvement of transportation. The lower cost of commercial flights, the more and more people can meet. With the internet, these connections can last even if in different places on the planet. The breaking of one of these pillars has suddenly created a feeble globalized world. If there is something good about this, it is that our connections have never been so valuable. Having someone to talk to has never been so important.
The flight shortage to Brazil made disappear the embracement feeling that I use to had. The distance from my family became a feeling of profound isolation, even higher than that imposed by the quarantine. The deprivation of meeting friends from the same city further aggravated this feeling. The drama of being in a town that is not yours, far from home, and depending on an exclusive health system freaked me out. Despite wanting to complete the program as I had planned, I realized the world would not be the same from that moment on. Along with my grief for the plans that would never be achieved, I started to fight for getting back home.
The journey back home
I had been monitoring the frequency of flights to Brazil. On March 28th, I realized that Delta, the most reliable company at that point, made its last flight to Rio de Janeiro. Flights departing from Atlanta to Rio were suspended indefinitely. All other companies had already stopped transporting people to Rio and the sensation that I could not return home whenever I wanted hit me like a bomb. After that, I discovered that Delta would make its last flight to Brazil on April 1st, bound to Sao Paulo.
Even with so many commitments in the United States, including housing and bank accounts, I decided to go back. By insistently monitoring the condition of flights to Brazil, I managed to get a ticket for the latter one to Sao Paulo. From that time, I had three days to pack and set everything up. My rational side prevailed, and I started to pack everything, make all the calls I needed, and prepare for a journey of thousands of kilometers in the middle of a pandemic.
The cold rationality was only broken when the dear friends of the program came one by one to my house to say goodbye. Without being able to embrace each one of them, they came with a gesture of affection, a card, a souvenir from their countries, or something practical to protect me on the journey, like N95 masks. It was the most strange farewell of my life. The gulf between social distance and social affection we had on that delightful dinner in New York City demonstrates how much our lives had changed in less than a month.
On my last day in Syracuse, I went to the bank and took the opportunity to say goodbye to the university. The setting was that of a ghost town. With Syracuse University classes suspended, there was no one on the streets or on campus. Typically, 20 thousand students should have been circulating where I passed. Close to the university, I entered a small grocery store and felt like I was in the Walking Dead movie. The store was deserted, while a newscast on TV was talking about the COVID tragedy in New York City. A man behind the counter answers me while his german shepherd dog looks at me intently. He had set up a barricade on his desk, and the dog was his partner in defending the store. I would not be surprised if I saw a rifle, which should certainly be under the counter.
On April 1st, my flight left at 1 pm. After struggling to fit everything in two large suitcases, plus a lot of things hanging on my body, my friend Seungwan took me to Syracuse airport. He parked the car and went with me to the check-in. The only time the isolation protocol was broken, we hugged at the farewell, which brought me to tears. It is not common to receive a hug from a Korean, much less in a pandemic. Still, it was impossible not to return the affection of a friend with whom I shared so many good things in the last few months.
To adjust the weight of my luggage, I had to take my helmet out of the suitcase. If all the strangeness of wearing a protective mask was not enough, now I was also traveling with a helmet. Extra protection for the world that collapsed over my head. I went to the departure gate at a deserted airport. Fortunately, my flight was not canceled. I left Syracuse on a sunny, warm day, rare for this time of year. That time reminded me of the day I got there, also bright and warm. The cycle closed as it started.
My stop in Atlanta brought me another shock. One of the largest airports in the world was deserted. I waited there for five hours. As I did not know the restaurants were open, I prepared a lunch box to accompany me on the trip. In Atlanta, most restaurants were closed. Asking for information, I found that some were open in one of the seven concourses areas that the airport has. I managed to have lunch while a lonely pianist was playing for an empty food court.
My flight to Sao Paulo was delayed an hour. It was one of the longest waits of my life. I was nervous about the flight being canceled, and there were no more options the next day. During the flight, my neighbor in the row, nor I went to the toilet. We seemed the most concerned with the risk of contamination. I wore the mask I got from my friends during the entire flight, only quickly taking it off for meals. At 8 am on April 2nd, I was touching the Brazilian soil again.
When I arrived in Sao Paulo, I was disturbed due to the lack of detailed assessment of my health and official recordings where I had been. The passenger verification procedure was a simple temperature monitoring. Passengers were not registered for future follow-up, and no recommendation was made to them. It made me even more paranoid.
I was supposed to fly to Rio de Janeiro that night. The busiest air route in Brazil, on that day, had only two flights, so I had a 13 hours layover. Afraid to wait all day at the airport, exposing myself to possible contamination, likely to have my flight canceled, I decided to rent a car and drive home. Rio de Janeiro is 400 km far from Sao Paulo. With my wife’s help – she booked the car, checked the condition of the roads, and whether the state border was open – I picked up the car and hit the road. When the rental attendant checked my New York State driver’s license, I could hear her whispering, “My Lord Jesus, protect me!”
The trip between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro was also strange. I developed a proper procedure to handle the money on tolls (which, in my opinion, should have the gates open and the employees at home). I took the money and opened the window with one hand. The change went to a compartment in the car that was no longer touched. I sanitized my hands after every contact.
Five hours further, I got home. When I opened the door, I could not hug Chris, and I did not for the following ten days while I did a self-quarantine to protect her. All my baggage fulfilled a 72-hour quarantine. Only then I organized things in their places, whether there is anything that can return to their place after this pandemic.