Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto.
On Sunday, March 8th—Women’s International Day—I left my house in Athens, Georgia (United States) on my way to Cluj, Romania. Invited by the University Babeş-Bolyai, I was going to deliver the keynote address of a conference titled Communicating Gender. I would also teach a workshop for professors and doctoral students and participate in a TV show. On the evening of Monday, March 9th, I arrived in Cluj after a layover in Frankfurt.
It was the only thing that happened as planned.
I didn’t take the decision to go to Europe lightly. I consulted with as many people as I could, including those I know who have worked in the Center for Disease Control (CDC). They told me to go, that Romania had few cases of coronavirus, that my trip was a short one—six days in total—and to take basic precautions: wash my hands often, bring hand sanitizer and use sanitizing wipes to clean all the surfaces I would touch in airplanes and airports. I did so and I also packed clothes for two extra days, 30 days of the anti allergy medicine I must take daily and a bottle of Tylenol. Meanwhile, the organization of the conference I was to attend proceeded full steam ahead.
On Tuesday, March 10th, Romania was cold, with cloudy skies and 17 confirmed COVID-19 cases, none of them in Cluj. We visited the Rațiu Center for Democracy, where I felt inspired by the beauty and accomplishments of this place that’s focused on fostering critical thinking and democratic principles. We had lunch in front of a glorious fireplace. Before dessert arrived, we heard the news that the Romanian government had prohibited all events. Throughout the country, schools and universities closed immediately.
There won’t be a conference, nor the workshop, not even the television show. What I came for doesn’t exist anymore.
What I came for doesn’t exist anymore.
My mind wandered through the many hours I had spent preparing my keynote address and the workshop and then hovered over the long journey that had brought me here last night. I managed to discipline my thoughts and concentrate on what was really important now: to reassess my return to the United States, scheduled for Saturday, March 14th. My gut told me that I should get out as soon as possible. The conference organizers decided to videotape my keynote the next day. They called the travel agency to change my flights and were informed that they would be able to do that after paying a penalty of 325 euros. We moved my flights for Thursday, the 12th, the exact same flights I would have taken on Saturday: Cluj-Munich, Munich-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-Atlanta.
When I woke up the next day, the sky was still grey and the number of coronavirus cases in Romania had doubled. The television I had in my room had no international channels, only Romanian, but the language is sufficiently similar to Spanish and Italian that I could understand what was important. I felt uneasiness rise like a tide that overflew the screen and started to flood my room. I turned off the television. I dressed up in complete silence.
At the Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences there were only the librarian and the cleaning personnel. I delivered my 45-minute keynote address for only two people: my former student Andreea, who organized the conference, and the man who was recording.
Presenting without an audience. Teaching without students. Speaking alone.
Towards the end of my presentation, I noticed that Andreea wasn’t listening to me anymore. She was concentrating on her cell phone. A shiver ran down my spine along with the certainty that something bad was happening. From an unrepentant optimist I had become, in a few hours, a pessimistic woman.
Presenting without an audience. Teaching without students. Speaking alone.
My flights were cancelled. The travel agency told Andreea and me that we should speak directly with Lufthansa. The airline’s only “office” was at the Cluj Airport. We went to the university hotel where I was staying and I packed, the television pouring out anguish all the while. The number of cases continued to rise and I saw people screaming at closed border posts. They wanted to enter Romania but since they were coming from Italy, they weren’t allowed. I thought that battle was already lost because, since February 23rd, more than 40 thousand people who had previously been to Italy had entered Romania. I started to feel like I was in a disaster movie. I drank some water and left my room, determined to leave Romania as soon as possible.
The Door Begins to Close
At the airport, a Lufthansa employee gave me a card with a phone number that I should call to be placed in other flights. Half the world was making that same call, but at this Lufthansa counter, I was the only person asking for help. I begged the man to do something. He said he couldn’t and insisted I call the number in the card.
I checked the news on my phone. Many flights from Romania to Germany were cancelled. A plane from Munich to Bucharest had been turned back when entering Romanian air space. Angela Merkel had said that up to 70% of Germans could end up infected with the virus. I definitely must leave via a country that’s not Germany. I asked the Lufthansa employee and he replied that maybe I could leave via Krakow, because it has flights to the US.
Angela Merkel had said that up to 70% of Germans could end up infected with the virus. I definitely must leave via a country that’s not Germany.
I felt Europe closing. What if I couldn’t get out? Through which country could I go back? If I couldn’t get home, if I was stranded, where did I want to be? I looked at The New York Times coronavirus outbreak map. The number of cases was increasing before my eyes, especially in Western Europe. I repeated the question: “If I can’t get home, if I’m stranded, where would I rather be?”
Here in Cluj: ❌
Madrid (I have family there): ❌
Western Europe: ❌
What if I go via Tukey? It’s not far away and Turkish Airlines has a daily direct flight Istanbul-Atlanta. More importantly, only the first case of coronavirus had been confirmed in Turkey that day. I know Istanbul, having lived there several weeks while doing my academic research. It’s a city where I always feel fine. If I’m stranded, I rather be in Istanbul.
The Turkish Airlines employee was a contrast to Lufthansa’s. He gave me options and I understood that the earliest I could fly Cluj-Istanbul was the next evening, on Thursday. I would then sleep in Istanbul and continue to the U.S. on Friday, the 13th. I bought the ticket and immediately felt better. I was going home through a back door that wasn’t too crowded, nor too contaminated, one that I know well.
I returned to the university hotel with my luggage and they gave me the same room. My half-empty water bottle was still there. I sent my husband Guillermo a grocery list, we needed to start getting ready for the possibility that we couldn’t go outside.
In some of my WhatsApp group chats I read jokes about the coronavirus. I wasn’t amused. When you feel vulnerable, you don’t laugh. Also, my acquaintances were sharing self-help texts that I didn’t have the patience for. But the good thing about WhatsApp group chats is that I don’t have to say anything, I just don’t read them and no harm is done, no effort required. This contrasted with my silent battle to cover my anxiety so that it wasn’t noticeable to my Romanian hosts. I knew they were also making a big effort. They were also worried and wanted me to be back home.
Tomorrow I’ll leave. This gave me peace of mind and it was also a determination.
Escape Via the Middle East
When I woke up, my cell phone was packed with messages. I felt as if the ground was moving again. Lately, my phone was like Romanian television, a stream of bad news. Trump had imposed a 30-day travel ban for travelers going to the U.S. from Europe. His announcement, pervaded with ethnocentrism and arrogance, was confusing. Nothing was clear. Did it apply to U.S. citizens (I am one) or to noncitizens? Was the deadline tonight at midnight (I wouldn’t arrive in time) or tomorrow at midnight (I would arrive in time if the flight from Istanbul left on time)? Is it from all European countries or only some? Does the President care more about the drop in the stock market than about people’s health?
Trump had imposed a 30-day travel ban for travelers going to the U.S. from Europe. His announcement, pervaded with ethnocentrism and arrogance, was confusing.
My family tried to decode Trump’s words, their anxiety documented in our WhatsApp group chat. On Twitter and Instagram, my youngest daughter had published posts asking for help to clarify the details of the presidential proclamation. It hurts me to read my loved ones’ angst. This isn’t right. Finally, the White House makes it clear that the ban doesn’t apply to those whose flights leave before 23:59 EST on March 13th.
I opened the window and saw a bit of blue sky. The sun was trying to come out in Cluj, it was my last day there and it ended up being memorable. Four feminist scholars—Andreea, Oana, Alexandra and I—walked, drank coffee and talked endlessly about our experiences in a world that has advanced in terms of gender equality, but that’s not anywhere near achieving it. We fleshed out the paradoxes and injustice, we became sisters. Those were truly special hours. I thought about the solidarity of the young Romanian women who had been with me, driving me here and there: Ani, Lorina, Bogdana. I’ll always remember their smiles, intelligence and warmth.
“Every cloud has a silver lining.” It’s true.
There were 73 coronavirus cases in Romania when my flight to Istanbul took off on Thursday night. I remembered that, while I was trying to go home, there were so many people around the world that were ill, some gravely. My relief felt less so. On the plane I had to fill out a questionnaire where I mentioned all the countries I had visited since January 1st. I also had to state if I had any of the following symptoms: fever, cough, upset stomach, body aches. I gave the questionnaire to the immigration officer at Passport Control. Buyurun, he said, come in.
I traversed Istanbul at dawn on my way to the hotel. I was relieved. One more step to go.
On Friday, I woke up knowing exactly what I was going to do in the two hours I had before taking the taxi to the airport. That was the reason I had chosen a hotel in Karaköy; I walked directly to the Bosphorus. I bought a simit with cream cheese and a çay, and I sat in the wooden planks between the Galata Bridge and the Haliç Station. I calmed my soul. I recharged my batteries.
On the way back to the hotel, I bought hand sanitizer because there’s not any left in the U.S.
On the way back to the hotel, I bought hand sanitizer because there’s not any left in the U.S. The gel is blue, like the Bosphorus. In my room, the television announced the second coronavirus case in Turkey.
The Istanbul-Atlanta flight is almost 13 hours long. I thought of Venezuela, where a large part of the population doesn’t have access to water and soap. I thought about my 89-year-old mom. How can we protect her without making her feel even lonelier than she already feels? Surely, I will be asked questions when I arrive in the U.S. What if they don’t allow me to enter the country or quarantine me in Atlanta?
I stopped. If I have learned anything these days it is that, as much as I try to control my destiny, a good part of it is adrift in a situation that’s deteriorating. I learned that this minute is like this, but I don’t know how the next one will be, nor can I control it. I learned to fear my phone, even as I depend on it to be close to my loved ones. I learned that I can be a pessimist and that my sense of humor is not as all-proof as I thought. I learned that the certainty of coming home is the only shelter when you’re in the vast outdoors that distance can be.
I learned all that these days.
We landed in the United States two and a half hours before the travel ban came into effect. At immigration in Atlanta, they didn’t ask me a single question. I finally entered my house at midnight. Guillermo and I greeted each other happily and immensely relieved, but from afar. My 14 days of quarantine had just begun.
Sunday, March 15th, 2020. A week ago I left my house to go to Cluj. Today is the second day of my quarantine. At the moment, the coronavirus has made more than 170 thousand people ill around the world. In Romania, there are 131 cases, in Turkey six, 17 in Venezuela and more than 3,400 in the United States. The media reports that now that the travel ban is in place, there’s chaos in U.S. airports as they receive and check U.S. citizens returning from Europe.
Countries are erecting walls between them, but they already have the enemy inside.
The pandemic is an X-ray of leadership: Only two weeks ago, Donald Trump called the coronavirus a “hoax”. Three days ago, Nicolás Maduro said that he has a drug that can cure it. The emperors are naked and we’re unprotected. It’s better to shelter ourselves at home, go out as little as possible and feel the safety that only our home can give us. The latter is not a small thing.
I also learned that these days.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.