Despite (or perhaps because of) the number of years I’ve spent living outside the USA, a visit back ‘home’ is always a shock to the senses. Though I consciously know better, being away causes me to lapse into a false sense that systems work more efficiently, companies are more consumer friendly and that science and technology are more advanced in the USA than elsewhere. It’s also jarring simply being surrounded by so many people – how can I say this politely – of such enormous girth.
Without exception, I go through a reverse period of culture shock while my mind and body glitch and sputter as they slowly adapt to the realities of daily life in this familiar, yet so very foreign, place. My recent 2020 visit was no exception, although, as expected, it introduced additional challenges and anxieties.
After a great deal of back and forth with my pandemic-tortured mind, I made the decision to fly from Colombia to the USA in September. With a host of constantly changing guidelines and rules to consider in our brave new world, travel must be carefully considered and meticulously planned. And, yes no matter how much planning one does, there will still be surprises along the way, even for the most seasoned travelers.
The first hurdle, of course, is making the not-so-simple decision to fly internationally during such an unsettled time. As many of my friends in Colombia pointed out, by leaving a country whose the borders were indefinitely locked down, I was running the risk of not being allowed back in. After many sessions of mental merry-go-round, I calculated (as only one’s monkey-mind can do) that my reasons for travel outweighed the risks.
When all my thoughts were distilled, my principal reasons for risking travel were to obtain medication I needed which couldn’t be purchased in Colombia, spend time with my wonderful Sisters – who I hadn’t seen in more than a year – and to assure that my vote in the 2020 election would be counted.
The following are my thoughts on traveling during the pandemic, as well as my observations on the 2020 election and its outcome.
While many of the habits we’ve become used to in our daily lives – wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, washing our hands often and social distancing – are the primary concerns for travel as well, other details were far more complicated to arrange.
On my day of outbound travel, I was surprised to find myself on a Spirit Airlines humanitarian flight even though I had booked online as usual, and without any indication that this was a special flight. It seems the information I read in the local English-language media concerning the reopening of flights to and from Colombia was incorrect and my flight ended up being the only one departing from the almost deserted international terminal of Medellín’s José María Córdova International Airport that day.
The lack of crowding in the terminal made it easy to social distance prior to boarding the plane, but once that process began such a fantasy vanished. Basically, there is no way to social distance on an airplane, especially one that is almost fully loaded with passengers.
I had read a great deal about the air circulation and filtering systems on airliners and felt fairly comfortable that the air quality onboard would likely be safer to breath than what I regularly experienced in a local supermarket. Note: due to the difficulty of tracking and tracing air passengers, very little data exists on coronavirus transmission among airline passengers.
Well in advance of my departure, I had carefully chosen a window seat in an exit row which I considered the best choice for air circulation. I was also lucky not to have anyone sitting in the seat beside me, although a very gregarious flight attendant did build a nest and spent much of her flight time in my row. Still, I felt much safer on the airplane than while waiting on stuffy jet bridges or in the packed lines at immigration upon arrival in the US.
Since Spirit was the only airline flying the Colombia to USA route at the time and its terminus was the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida, I had to arrange overnight accommodation before continuing on to North Carolina on Delta Airlines the following day.
I must say that even in the best of times I’m not a fan of modern hermetically sealed concrete hotels with windows that don’t open. Such claustrophobic anxieties are surely magnified during a pandemic where the pathogen is primarily spread via airborne aerosols!
My room in the hotel I’d chosen reeked of disinfectant so it was necessary to have the AC blasting the whole time I was in the room. Also be aware that many restaurants both within and outside hotels have been closed so finding food can be a challenge, especially when staying near an airport away from the city center.
As a long-time vegetarian, I always travel with an arsenal of snacks for such times, but I did manage to find a Subway within walking distance of my hotel. When I retraced my routes during my return to Colombia last week, I found the same Subway shop closed and the exterior blocked off with yellow warning tape. I assume someone working there had tested positive for the virus. Even more than in the past, current travel demands that we expect the unexpected and plan accordingly.
My flights the next day on Delta were fine due to the fact that Delta was still blocking middle seats at that time and changing planes in the spacious Atlanta airport was a breeze with minimal crowding. The Charlotte airport, however, was shockingly packed when I arrived and there seemed to be very little thought put into the concept of social distancing.
I had arranged to stay in Charlotte for a 2-week quarantine period before then going to stay with my two older sisters. Protecting their health was my primary concern. Quarantining and staying overnight in hotels means, however, that the cost of a trip increases exponentially. Again, the practicality of such travel costs must be weighed along with one’s own risk of contracting and surviving Covid-19.
American Culture Shock and Voting in 2020
Just as I had expected, adherence to mask-wearing protocols in the USA was taken far less seriously than in Colombia where there seems to be a stronger sense of getting through the pandemic as a community. There were also vast differences in safety measures when entering public businesses such as supermarkets. In Colombia, the practice of taking each person’s temperature before allowing them inside had been standard practice since the beginning of the pandemic. I never experienced this in the USA. Businesses in some states – such as Florida – also failed to provide hand sanitizer at the entrance.
Considering four l-o-n-g years with an incompetent presidential administration, I never quite adjusted to seeing the Trump flags flying from the back of pickup trucks in rural areas of North Carolina. As mind boggling as it may be for many of us (including most political pollsters), it appears the cult of Trump will be sticking around long after he’s out of the oval office.
At such an important moment in our nation’s history, I took all the steps necessary to change my voter registration from my previous ‘home’ state of Washington – where my vote almost assuredly wouldn’t have made a difference – to North Carolina, a state with rapidly changing demographics and one I hoped would break blue in this general election. And no, I didn’t vote twice, even though our current commander in thief had encouraged such illegal behavior.
Unfortunately, and against the polling projections, Trump ended up winning the vote in North Carolina by 1%. I feel this was mainly due to an egregious judgement call on the part of the Democratic candidate for US Senate, Cal Cunningham. Cunningham had been leading his Republican rival, incumbent Senator Tom Tillis, by a comfortable margin until an on-going extramarital affair hit the local headlines. I’m sure the heavily invested DNC was just as pissed off with him as I was, because I believe all the press surrounding his admitted affair helped the Republicans dominate the airwaves with negative attack ads. Why can’t male politicians (and movie producers and on and on) think beyond their penises?
In the end, Georgia became the Southern surprise, turning blue thanks in great measure to rapidly rising Democratic star Stacy Adams and her well-organized legions of caring Georgians. Adams set an example of how the Democrats should mobilize in 2022 in order to maintain control of the House and make inroads in the Senate.
Despite the challenges, I have already taken further advantage of being an official North Carolina voter and have written letters to both of the state’s Republican senators. You can bet I’m going to be a thorn in their flesh if they continue to place party over the well-being of the people of the USA.
I have no regrets about my time back in the USA. The Biden/Harris victory brings a degree of hope and Trump’s refusal to accept the fact that he lost the election was fully anticipated. And, yes, among all the attack ads and negative media coverage, there were signs of humor and good will.
This post wasn’t written in an effort to encourage others to travel. Perhaps I was lucky to be able to choose a time when coronavirus transmission was taking a downward turn. Still, it’s important for anyone thinking about travel to consider their personal risks and plan accordingly.
peace and good health~henry