“Please Come Home Now”
CCS student Lorrie Lowes was one of the “Canadians abroad” that the Prime Minister was talking about last week. As borders closed and international travel was banned in many parts of the world, “getting home” became an issue for many people, Lorrie included.
Lorrie is a Diaconal Ministries student in her final year, preparing to graduate next month. Last year, as part of her Global Perspective Experience, she went to Zambia. This month she was back as part of a group connecting with the United Church of Zambia Chipembi Mission, when the worldwide pandemic response moved into full swing.
Lorrie was able to fly back, and arrived home to Ottawa last weekend. We thought it would be interesting to hear what her traveling was like, so we asked her. (She’s self-isolating at the moment, so she had time to tell us.)
Our whole trip was flavoured by the COVID-19 situation.
We were uncertain whether we would actually be going to Zambia at all but things didn’t seem as serious when we left as when we came home. The whole world changed in the 10 days we were away!
Our biggest worry going was that we might be seen as a threat, not that we were in any danger. There were only a couple of cases confirmed in Ottawa, and none reported in Zambia. We were, however, concerned about the planes and the airports while in transit. So, we left armed with a container of Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, and some immune boosting and antibacterial essential oils – all bases covered!
There was no indication at either Ottawa or Toronto airport that there was anything to worry about – no questions, no warnings. Our 13 hour leg from Toronto to Addis Ababa was less than half full. We were each able to have a row of 3 seats to ourselves. The crew was taking things seriously – gloves, I can’t remember if they were wearing masks but some of the passengers were for sure. They talked about the extra cleaning that had been done to the aircraft. It was serious but pretty low-key.
Once we got to Addis, however, we were met with people in lab coats, masks and safety goggles who took our temperature and had us fill out detailed health forms. The same thing happened on arrival in Lusaka. At that point there were no suspected or confirmed cases in Ethiopia or Zambia but they were taking care to head anyone off at the pass. We had a short stop and change of some passengers in Harare. We were told to cover our faces while the plane was sprayed with some kind of disinfectant.
In Zambia, people had heard about the virus but didn’t have a lot of information – at least at first. On our second day there, it became obvious that things had taken a turn in the world. We were all receiving messages from family and friends saying “Please come home now!” We joked that we were probably safer in this little remote village in Zambia than at home but soon realized that the big issue was the imminent closing of borders.
We were in close touch with our travel agent who was monitoring the situation and said she would let us know if things started to change. At one point, she told us that she had tried to get an earlier flight home from Africa for someone and the only seat available was going to cost $7000. We were advised to keep our confirmed reservations but keep checking email when we could.
The whole atmosphere around this pandemic certainly affected our time there. Hugs and handshakes were replaced by elbow and foot bumps, but for the most part, life carried on as usual in the village – 200 or so folks in a small church for a service over 2 hours… crowded classrooms with kids sitting four to a desk in the schools…
Then on Wednesday night we heard that all schools in Zambia were closing down indefinitely as of Friday. We rearranged a couple of meetings so that we could leave the village and head back to Lusaka on Thursday instead of Saturday. That way we would be closer to the airport in case something opened up to get us home early.
In the city, many people were now wearing masks. Every store or building we entered had someone spraying everyone’s hands when they entered or exited. But business carried on as usual otherwise – no closures, no reduced services, all shops and restaurants were open.
At the airports in Lusaka and Addis Ababa we were once again asked to fill out health forms and had our temperature taken. This time the planes were quite crowded. There were groups of American Peace Corps young folks and Canadian foreign service families who had been called home immediately, as well as many other North Americans who had cut trips short to get home before the borders closed. We kept up the Lysol wipes and antibacterial routine on the way home. The crew was definitely all wearing masks and gloves and avoiding touching things. The man behind me coughed the whole way on the 16 hour leg of our trip from Addis to a refuelling stop in Dublin, and then Toronto.
When we got to Toronto, the airport was eerily empty. We had to pick up our bags and go through customs there. No health forms, no temperature check, just a quick question from the customs agent about if we were feeling ill at all. We were handed a sheet of instructions about self-isolating when we got home. On the short trip from Toronto to Ottawa, we were given a bottle of water as we boarded and told there would be no drink or snack service.
Ottawa airport was also quiet. No one asked us any questions or did any other checks there. We had left our car with a friend and the plan was that she would pick us up at the airport but a new arrangement was made so she could drop the car in the airport short-term parking lot. We were able to get our luggage and head directly home.
It’s really strange to come home and not be able to see our kids and grandkids! Neil is not able to go to work and his work isn’t something he can do without being on site. I have been busy with online meetings, email, and phone calls right from the start. Like everyone, we are trying to find new ways of being a faith family and staying connected in this strange time. My son has done some grocery pick up and drop off for us – ring the doorbell and stand back routine. At least Neil and I don’t have to avoid each other. Two of the folks that traveled with us went home to their families and are now being kept in a separate part of the house from them. It’s all very surreal! But what a tale we have to tell our great grandchildren!