Well, as I promised in my last blog post, I have come home from South Africa. If this is news to you, you can read all about why and how I came to that decision in my post about it here. The tl;dr of it is that I had stayed in South Africa hoping that I could wait out COVID-19 but over time, it became clear that I simply couldn’t wait for COVID to pass and the isolation was becoming unsustainable for me.
However this post is the story of what it took for me to be repatriated home in our changed world of COVID. I expected the journey home to be difficult, and I expected surprises, but I never expected it to be so challenging.
Some base information to know for this story: very few international flights right now are commercial flights. Almost all international flights are chartered by embassies for repatriation. The US is not chartering any repatriation flights from South Africa at this point. Other countries that are chartering repatriation flights from South Africa will sometimes inform the US embassy in South Africa, and allow American citizens on those flights to be repatriated.
My flight was originally scheduled to leave on May 28th. I was flying Qatar Airways and my itinerary was to fly from Johannesburg to Doha (~9 hour flight), then from Doha to Dallas (~16 hour flight), spend the night at a hotel in Dallas, then fly to Dayton the following day (~2.5 hour flight). A long itinerary, and I assure you, an even steeper price tag. For a chartered flight under COVID, Father Clayton and I agreed to go to the airport very early (almost 4 hours before the flight was set to depart) to account for unforeseen circumstances. Before we could reach the terminal we were stopped by police who were blocking the road. The police officer told us that we must wait by the side of the road while he called the airport to confirm that there was a flight and that I was a passenger. We waited by the side of the road for about 45 minutes, before asking the officer again why we were not permitted through. About 10 minutes after that, representatives from Qatar Airways walked down to us to inform us that we were supposed to have gone to the Qatari Embassy for screening, then be shuttled to the airport on special buses. They told me I was supposed to have gotten this notice from my embassy, and in that notice it said that you would not be permitted entry via the airport. By the time the Qatar Airways people came to talk to us, we could not make it to the Qatari Embassy in time, but if we had been informed when we arrived at the airport, we could have made the adjustment.
So, I was turned away from the airport after entirely cleaning out my apartment. I was so blessed to have Father Clayton take me to the airport, and he took me to his home to stay for the time being. I was so grateful that I didn’t have to be alone while facing this particular challenge. I had already pushed myself to my breaking point of solitude by the time my flight was scheduled. The YASC office quickly bought me another ticket for the next flight we could find, an Ethiopian Airlines flight leaving on June 2nd. Desperate to avoid the same mistakes, I contacted the US Embassy, who commiserated that I had not been able to take my flight, but claimed that they had no information about assembly points, and that I needed to contact the airline. YASC’s travel agency called the airline, who said that I didn’t need to do anything special, just show up to the airport with a mask. Not trusting this, I also called the airline, and was told that they know nothing about it, that the embassies have all the information. Our attempts to contact the Ethiopian Embassy constituted an email that never received a reply and multiple attempts to call the only number I could find, which was disconnected. After contacting the American Embassy again, I received an assembly point location, which was the Ethiopian Airlines office in Johannesburg.
The night before my flight, a miracle occurred. Through various connections, I was put in touch with the Ethiopian deputy ambassador, who informed me that there were two documents due that night in order to get on the flight, and that I should report to the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria the following day before my flight.
Now, the two locations I was given were Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria and the Ethiopian Airlines offices in Johannesburg which are about an hour to an hour and a half away from each other. In the morning, we drove down to Johannesburg, and the security guards at the office complex told us that the offices had been closed for days and that there was no one there. So, Father Clayton drove me to Pretoria, where the employees at the Embassy seemed surprised to see us, and had no information about the upcoming flight. At this point I was beginning to panic, as the flight was scheduled to depart in just over an hour, and we were at least 30 minutes from the airport. The deputy ambassador was in a meeting, and therefore unable to talk, but he did text to say that the flight had been delayed for about 6 hours. Father Clayton and I drove back to his house to wait. Later in the afternoon, we were informed that the meet up time at the airport would be 8pm. Then, at about 5:30, we were told that that information was wrong and that we were to meet up at 6:30. We hopped in the car and sped to the airport, not entirely sure that we’d make it on time.
We made it however, and after a brief panic because I still somehow “wasn’t on the list” all those things were sorted out and I was checking my bag, getting my temperature checked and going through security at the Johannesburg airport. Being at the airport was a surreal experience. It was incredibly quiet. Every single store was closed, and only a handful of employees were in the sprawling halls. It sort of felt like an overnight school trip to an airport. You can’t go anywhere without your chaparones. It was eerily quiet in a space that is normally bustling. Most of the lights were off, as if to remind us that it was night time and that the airport wasn’t fully functioning.
In our entire jumbo-jet to Addis Ababa (the capitol of Ethiopia), there were only about 10 passengers. We all got upgraded to business class seats. The luxury of the seat fully reclining into a bed is truly incredible. I slept most of the flight. I did get a peek at the economy section, and all of the seats were shrink wrapped in plastic.
Because the flight was so delayed, I missed my connecting flight, and had to wait for the flight into the US that was scheduled to leave the following day. Wonderfully, Ethiopian Airlines paid for my hotel room and food for my 18 hour layover. I got to have a shower, rest in a real bed, charge my phone and eat some non-airplane food. I was shuttled back to the airport, and escorted by a police officer through the first level of security, then personally escorted by an employee through my first passport checkpoint. I think that this was to make sure that I was keeping to my promise of only being in Ethiopia for a layover. I had no visa to be in the country, so I had to be escorted to and from the hotel to confirm that I would keep to my layover agreement. At the airport I had my temperature taken, went through 3 different security checkpoints and 2 different passport checks.
I got on my flight from Addis Ababa to Washington DC (about 16 hours). We were well spaced out, and every party had 3 seats to themselves. On this 16 hour flight, they didn’t turn on the entertainment systems, citing stopping the spread of COVID as the reason. So, for my 16 hour flight, I had very limited diversions, and had almost no sense of how close we were to our destination, except for the halfway-point stop in Dublin to refuel. I spent much of the flight sleeping or dozing, listened to the entire Hamilton soundtrack and did some sodokus.
Landing in Washington DC Dulles, I went through customs to find that my bag was not there. I still don’t know where my bag is and I am still in the process of trying to find it and get it back. After the bag snafu, I spent about 7 hours waiting for my flight to Dayton. The Dulles airport was also very quiet, but still much more active than either of the other airports. Finally, I had one last quick hour long flight to get to Dayton.
So, I made it home, safe and sound. It took about 55 hours in transit and in that time I only took my mask off in my hotel room and while I was eating. It just became part of my face. I didn’t actually find it to be too uncomfortable. The biggest problem I faced was that the mask began to smell like the worst morning breath I had ever experienced. Luckily, I had a few masks so I could get a fresh one when I needed it.
At home I’ll be in quarantine for a few weeks. However, there are already things that I’m so grateful to have again in my life. I get to play my guitar again, I get to have dinners with my parents even though we sit very far apart, and I get to spend time with our cat again.
That’s my saga of what it takes to fly half-way around the globe in our COVID affected world. Everything about the international travel process is different, and no one really knows how it works. It took immense amount of work and help from not only me, but also the YASC office, Father Clayton and his family and the Ethiopian deputy ambassador. I’m so grateful for all of the help and support they gave me and all of the labor and stress it took to get me on a plane. I very literally could not have gotten home without all of their help. Being home will not be easy, but I know that it was the right decision and I’m relieved that travel part of my homecoming has come to a close.