Friday, March 13
“I’ll give it a week,” I had told the friends who reached out to see if the spread of the coronavirus would prompt me to cut short my stay in Seville, Spain.
I had spent the last few days doing some morbid math. Infection rates were skyrocketing. Still, it seemed safer to stay than to share air with hundreds of other passengers on a trans-Atlantic flight.
I booked a flight leaving from Madrid at 9:45 the next morning. I had five hours to shove my belongings into a suitcase and catch the last train from Seville to Madrid.
Over the radio, reporters gave details of the state of emergency declaration in a tone that I’d heard only once before: on 9/11, when my alarm sounded with a voice saying, “the Pentagon has just been hit.”
Saturday, March 14, 12 a.m.
Puerta de Atocha, Madrid’s central train station, was practically empty.
At the taxi stand, a group of nuns in full habits placed masks over their faces and slathered sanitizer on their hands. Cleanliness and godliness, after all.
Nuns outside of Madrid train station
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At Madrid’s international airport terminal, a single line leading to the American Airlines ticket counter extended for hundreds of yards. Dozens of college students donned their Spanish university sweatshirts as they waited two hours to check their bags.
Economy-class tickets were all sold out, so guilt and I would share a seat in first class. I felt ridiculous in that splendor, but I was grateful for the added distance from my sniffling, coughing fellow passengers.
We landed in Dallas. The seatbelt sign turned off and my fellow passengers stood to collect their belongs. Until a flight attendant announced, “They’re not ready. Go back to your seats.”
A few minutes passed. “We’re not sure what’s happening,” the attendant admitted. A few more minutes went by.
Then a group of American Airlines employees marched through the cabin, handing out a sheet of questions asking about our travel history and if we’re experiencing a fever. It looked hastily done, a plain printout devoid of any government seals.
“We were notified just seconds before we landed,” the flight attendant apologized. “We just don’t know what’s waiting for you on top of the jet bridge.”
When we exited, we filed past people from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plastic shields over their faces. Another group from the private company American Medical Response met us at the gate. A man took my questionnaire, scanned my answers, and placed a red check mark on my form. He waved me through. No thermometer check. The whole thing took less than 30 seconds.
An endless line at passport control. Travelers piled up on one another; so much for social distancing.
Ten minutes passed. Then 30. Then 40, as my chance to catch my connecting flight ticked away. Some passengers, I’d later learn, would spend up to eight hours in a botched rollout of the new protocol.
A group of officers congregated around a single screen, trying to figure out the new system.
Finally a customs officer motioned me over. “This is going to take a little bit,” he warned me.
He thumbed through my passport. “I’m going to ask you questions three times,” he said. Once for the customs office, a second time for the CDC, and a third for American Medical Response. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
He shook his head no, as if to answer for me.
I missed my connection but caught a later flight to New Mexico.
Along the way I thought of the story I’d spent the last several months reporting, about refugees seeking safety in a new country.
I was fleeing the danger of a virus — one I had a good chance of surviving. So many of the families I’d interviewed had fled dangers that were much more imminent. Bullets fired into homes. Death threats sent to their phones. Family members killed.
If I felt stressed knowing I was fleeing a hotel and heading to a plane, how must it feel to leave the only home you’ve ever known and be smuggled across a border by a stranger?
As I waited for my bags, I checked messages from friends. “Are you glad to be back?” one asked.
I thought of my life in Spain. Long runs along the river. Of the full string quartet busking in the street. The scent of the orange blossoms. And then of the virus, the lockdowns there, and the seemingly scattered response here.
Am I glad to be back?
I'll give it a week.