March 20th, 2020
After leaving my site on March 12th, I had one more full week to live in Ethiopia.
And it went nothing like I thought it would.
From the moment of arriving in Jimma on Thursday and connecting to wifi, my phone was blowing up with emails and texts.
This coronavirus issue was apparently becoming a bigger outbreak than anyone thought. Being out of decent network for a couple weeks, I wasn’t able to keep updated about the spread of the virus and when I landed in Jimma I felt like I was getting hit in the face with unpleasant news.
Coronavirus overwhelms. Countries closing their borders. Airplanes canceling flights. No more flights from Europe to the states.
My jaw hit the floor.
What. The. Fuck. Is. Happening.
It truly became a whirlwind of a week. I sat down Thursday talking with my friend from Ireland.
“I think it’s best if you postpone” he texts.
My first post service plan out the window. Visit Ireland for 4 days on March 19th…Not going to happen. My family had also been texting me with concern. So we decided to go ahead and buy another direct flight home from Ethiopia instead. New Leave time: March 19th at 10:50 pm. I was happy that my friend Kiya was able to get on this flight with me. I hate flying.
I felt relaxed more having a new ticket in hand during the chaos. I was happy there were a few other volunteers in Jimma to help myself and Kiya enjoy our last couple days in Jimma. I went around to my favorite spots..Took more videos of the town that I didn’t want to forget and probably drank too much beer.
On Saturday Kiya and I were in a small plane with all of our luggage flying to Addis for the last time.
The emails we kept receiving from our country director were daunting. More updates, more news. The newest one? On Saturday morning…all volunteers could take IS (Interrupted Service) if they so choose to do so. Which means…they can go home and still receive all of their peace corps benefits. It was a huge email for all the other volunteers who remained at site. Do they sit around and wait for the virus to reach Ethiopia and/or get worse? Or do they go ahead and leave?
I spent Sunday morning at an Abilities Committee Meeting as I had to pass off being National coordinator to another volunteer. We talked about the success of the committee and future plans. I was excited as I felt like the Committee was going to be in good hands when I left.
Monday rolled around.
I wake up to my roommate answering the phone at 6 am to a panic. “What?”, “What are you talking about”, “Oh my god”. She says.
She hangs up the phone and says “The director of Peace Corps, Dr. Jody Olsen, just said all Peace corps posts are being evacuated.” my heart sunk.
We look at the official Peace Corps website and sure enough…we read:
“I have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend all Peace Corps operations globally and evacuate all of our Volunteers. As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries.”
It felt unbelievable. Even for me, someone who was already planning to leave, but now everyone has to? What about the committee? What about my replacement? Him too??
The remaining days were a whirlwind as I had to go to the office to finish out my close of service duties. Such as getting papers signed off by medical staff, hearing about our health insurance, letting Peace Corps know of my travel plans, finishing my Description of service report, it was one thing after another and each day more and more volunteers were filing into the office as they were being called in as quickly as they could.
As each day passed, the more emails came in letting us know about travel plans. Airlines were closing quickly. Other COSers flights were getting canceled. Our country director then let us know that they were chartering a plane with Ethiopian Airline for Saturday. It was going to be taking all of our volunteers and Madagascars’ volunteers. Kiya and I were the only ones going early on Thursday. Our flight hadn’t canceled yet.
My biggest concern was that I wasn’t going to be able to get home. That I wasn’t going to be able to see my family. That I was going to get quarantined in D.C. I had all these concerns, issues and fears. It felt debilitating. I just wanted to curl up and sleep and magically appear home. It was a chaotic madness swirling around me. People freaking out, people crying because they had to leave early, texts from home “are you going to be able to make it back?” it was overwhelming. I felt my shoulders tighten up all the way to my ears. I felt my stomach turn in constant knots. My sleep was evading me. Stress. Anxiety, both full blown.
This virus had simply taken it all away. All the plans, all the imaginations, everything. I felt bitter and mad and stressed out for my last week of service. I didn’t want to have to deal with any of it. I just wanted it all to go away.
I just wanted to be home.
Then. It was Thursday and before I knew it Kiya and I were riding in a Peace Corps taxi to the airport. The days flew by and now here I am leaving for home.
I recorded some of the city, once again wanting it to be in my memory forever and once in the airport I decided to make a conscious effort to try and stay light hearted. It was going to be intense with the fear of coronavirus, but I wanted to just make it positive.
So I talked goofily with the lady checking us in, stood and danced around, spoke Afanoromo with multiple staff members which made myself and the staff smile, and called the compound family on the phone.
Kiya and I had arrived early, just in case it was going to be a mad house. We ate some snacks and called the people we loved. I was doing a good job at keeping my mind preoccupied. But I was terrified of flying…I was terrified of getting stuck somewhere and the closer we got to leaving, the more it crept into my mind.
We lined up for the final security check to wait by our gate and met a lot of other peace corps volunteers. From Uganda, from Zambia. Some had been at site for a few months, some only in country for 8 days. It was wild to hear about the different experiences.
It was 11:18 pm and I was sitting in the middle, seat 35B in between two people I didn’t know.
Switching to be closer to Kiya proved impossible, but we were able to look at each other from afar, which helped.
My heart started pounding for multiple reasons. My anxiety was at an all new high.
OH my god.
The anxious thoughts kept swirling through my head making me feel dizzy. “What if the plane crashes” “What if I don’t get to see my family one more time” “What if I am getting coronavirus right now, in this jammed pack airplane” “I’m leaving Ethiopia” “This is goodbye”
I felt crazy.
But take off was imminent.
Before I knew it. We were taking off. Flying through the dark sky. Tears welded up in my eyes as I said a silent goodbye to Ethiopia.
I spent the plane ride writing, watching movies, and nodding off every now and then. My nervous thoughts about flying quickly dissipated as I fell into this numb state.
I couldn’t believe all that had happened in the last week.
The flight was long… 17 hours with a one hour stop in Dublin to refuel. But it seemed to pass quick.
Before I knew it, we were gearing up to land in Washington D.C. I kept looking out of the plane like I had never been to America before.
I felt nervous to be coming back. The further away from Ethiopia I became, the more real it became that I really wasn’t going back anytime soon.
“You may now unbuckle your seat belts”
I walked out into the airport and immediately heard a guard yelling at others that they could not stand and wait for people to come. “Excuse me, you need to keep moving!”
We get through customs and I felt weird by all the English I was hearing. I can understand everything?
Kiya and I walked to explore the airport a little bit since we had time to kill. I went into the restroom and did my bisness and instinctively put my tissue paper in the trash can without even thinking about it. Then I stood up and the automatic flusher made me jump. “WHAT IS THAT?”
I then washed my face in hopes to wake me up a little bit and walked out of the bathroom with wet face and hands, which was normal to see in Ethiopia since there were no towels to dry off.
I walked around the airport and looked at Kiya and asked “Wait….this isn’t normal here is it?”
We laughed at the ridiculousness.
We then proceeded to see what kind of food we could get.
Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, it kept going and going… “How do we ever decide what to get??” SO MANY OPTIONS. We decided to just grab a coffee for the meantime until we found Kiya’s gate since she was first to go.
I ordered my normal mocha latte and was disappointed at how sugary it tasted. To the point where I couldn’t even finish it. I sat with Kiya and felt weird.
“Im going to cry” I told her.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the stress. Maybe it was the heartbreak.
But, I felt like a foreigner.
I watched the other people in the airport with such curiosity.
Where am I?
I saw Kiya off and made my way to my own gate. Stopping to fill up my water bottle on the way. Water fountains….clean water at the ready, for free. Huh….I shook my head at the unbelievableness.
I made myself comfortable in a chair and started making phone calls to loved ones. It kept me company but I had wished Kiya was still with me. It felt nice to have her to talk to, to help make me feel comfortable with all my thoughts.
I had wanted there to be another volunteer sitting with me so badly. Someone who would understand me a little bit more than everyone else.
I was exhausted and emotional to say the least.
The airport was pretty empty and I roamed around aimlessly from time to time. I had a layover of 9 hours. A pilot ended up walking next to me for a stretch, making small talk. It was nice to keep my mind preoccupied. Then as I sat waiting a couple hours before boarding and a young gentleman came and sat by me. We mutually laughed at the flight attendant laughing hysterically and shared small talk. He was also heading to Kansas City. He asked where I was coming from and I told him Ethiopia.
His wide eyes and questioning look made me laugh and he said “Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful but what the hell were you doing there?”
I shared a snippet and he looked at me quizzically and asked “Did you like it?”
“I loved it” I responded.
He gave me a look like I was a wild woman. It made me smile.
I appreciated him, this stranger, more than he would probably ever know. He made me hopeful with his kind conversations.
We boarded the small plane around 5:30 pm. There were only about ten of us and I had a row of two to myself. I sat next to the window and laid my head against it. I was so incredibly tired, it truly had been a hell of a week.
The plane took off and maybe since it was the last leg of being home, it opened another round of flood gates. Oh my god…I am going home.
I looked at my phone wallpaper photo of Sara and I and I cried some more.
I wanted to go home, to hibernate and heal. To let the layers of my heart break fall and nourish the scars that remain. I hope to come out with scars that no longer hurt but bring a smile to my face when I talk about them.
I hope that these memories stay ingrained in my mind forever.
I hope that when I’m done grieving I am an even better me than I was.
Transitions take time. Healing takes time. And I, a now Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) am going to take time.
I fell into a sleep and awoke with the flight attendant telling us to buckle up for landing. I looked out of the window at the dark sky and shining lights and smiled with butterflies swirling in my stomach.
We landed and the flight attendant spoke to us about the current weather and such and then said.
“If this is home, Welcome home”
I smiled with tears. Oh my god. I am home.
It felt…. Unreal.
I knew it wasn’t going to be the gathering that I thought it would be. The gathering I had imagined for years, but there was no reason to have everyone come and I possibly exposing them if I had been exposed to the virus. So the family agreed to have just one brother come and pick me up.
I picked up my bags and waited for his car to pull up. He hopped right out and despite all of our wanting to disinfect me first, he gave me his bear hug that I had missed so dearly.
I felt my body relax in that instant.