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Reporter’s Notebook: The long journey home from Spain

Bryndon Madison in an airplane restroom on the flight from London to San Fracnisco.

Getting back to California from Europe during a global pandemic was certainly not the way I thought my trip would end.  In January, I arrived in Cordoba, Spain, for a two-and- a-half-month  university study abroad program and that’s where I had been living up until Saturday, March 14.

After finishing my classes in Spain, which is now the country with the fourth highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world, my sister and my girlfriend had planned to meet me in Barcelona for a week.  But on March 11, they told me they were canceling their trip because the risk of quarantine seemed too high.

I couldn’t blame them.

The number of cases was skyrocketing, information surrounding the virus dominated the news and the stock market was crashing.  I decided to follow their lead: I rebooked my flight to get back to the U.S. sooner rather than later.  It didn’t seem that the need to leave was too urgent, however.  The thought of lockdown felt distant even though the rising number of confirmed cases kept the fear of becoming the next Italy at the front of everyone’s minds.  I decided to call the American consulate in Madrid the next day to see whether I still had time to enjoy my last few days in Spain.

Flights that were as cheap as $400 the night before were now soaring upwards of $3,000.

I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning to the news that President Trump had announced a travel ban on all flights coming from Europe.  Still in bed, I called the consulate to see if this was the case.  They assured me that, as an American citizen, I would be able to reenter the country.

But when I asked if there would be any further border closures that I should be worried about, they only told me that they knew as much as I did.

I packed everything I had brought with me to Spain and set to work looking for a new ticket back to the United States.

Flights that were as cheap as $400 the night before were now soaring upwards of $3,000.

I also had a final exam to take.  I took my laptop with me to class to continue my search and found an affordable flight from Seville, Spain, to Lisbon, Portugal, the following Sunday, and from Lisbon to San Francisco the next morning, March 15.  I bought that ticket, trusting the consulate’s assurance that my American citizenship would get me back home and then took my exam.

The bulk of the outbreak was in Madrid, which allowed us to feel safe spending our night in bars, restaurants and parks.

I was lucky that my academic program concluded in time. Other students with me in Cordoba were scheduled to continue taking classes through June.  Before the day was done, they were informed that their programs were being canceled and that they should aim to get back to the U.S. as quickly as possible.

That afternoon, my group of 20 University of California students said our goodbyes.  Many of us had found flights or trains out of Cordoba that evening.  Those of us who still had a few more days decided to spend one last night celebrating.

We didn’t know what would happen after that — whether we would make it back to California, or get stuck in quarantine somewhere along the way.  Since all the university programs had either ended or been canceled, those of us who hadn’t found flights back yet were left with nowhere to go.  Many of our “homestays” — we were staying with Spanish families — were gracious enough to continue to house us until we figured out what to do next, but things were changing so quickly that as far as we could tell, anything could have happened in the coming days.

At the time, Cordoba only had five confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. The bulk of the outbreak was in Madrid, which allowed us to feel safe spending our night in bars, restaurants and parks.  As of Thursday, March 19, Cordoba had 101 cases of COVID-19 and Madrid has 6,777.

While we were out on the town that night, we noticed that although no government orders affected Cordoba, the atmosphere of fear and social distancing was already beginning to take effect.  Thursday nights in Cordoba were usually lively and bustling. But now the city’s parks were desolate, the restaurants had low attendance and the bars were sparsely populated.

It was like the beginning of a zombie movie — the part where things are starting to get scary but haven’t quite fallen apart yet.

The next day, I was a little nervous about the sore throat and stuffy nose I woke up with, but those symptoms matched up more with the allergies I had been experiencing thanks to the early spring than they did with the pulmonary problems associated with COVID-19.

A deserted cafe in Spain

I went to the tourist district to shop for souvenirs for the people back home that had to cancel their trip.  I was accompanied by two of the remaining UC students as we wandered the old medieval streets of Cordoba.  You could hear that the coronavirus was a subject of conversation on the street, but otherwise things appeared normal.  Shops were open, and the number of English speakers seemed to have increased from the week before as warmer months brought tourist season with them.

But as we wandered into more residential sections of town to go to cafes that we liked and say farewell to our classmates who were boarding trains to take them to their flights home, we learned that Spain had declared a state of emergency and the quiet pervading the city that came with that declaration was eerie.

Streets that were usually full of cars, cyclists and pedestrians now had so few people on them you could count them on one hand.  Occasionally the siren of an ambulance would speed by leading us to wonder if another case of the virus was about to be confirmed.

Had I not spent that evening with them, though, I would have been laying in bed, listening to a podcast through my earbuds with the volume turned up.

We likened the feeling of the day to the beginning of a zombie movie — the part where things are starting to get scary but haven’t quite fallen apart yet.  My two friends and I returned to our respective homestays for a few hours and then met back up again later that night, despite our better judgement.  But part of the reason we wanted to be in each other’s company was to keep ourselves sane.

I kept rubbing alcohol on hand, since hand sanitizer had been cleaned off the store shelves. I did my best not to touch my face or any public surfaces.  I took solace in the fact that Cordoba had very few confirmed cases, but now I see that the right thing to do would have been to stay inside as much as possible.

The spread of cases grows exponentially, meaning that even small numbers can balloon to overwhelming proportions in just a matter of days.

Had I not spent that evening with my friends, though, I would have been laying in bed, with the volume of my earbuds turned up loud enough to distract me from the sad and anxious thoughts swirling in my head about whether I would make it home, if and where I could get stuck and for how long, whether I had the virus or not and who I might infect if I did.

We had wanted to go to our favorite tapas bar one last time, but we arrived only to find that it was closed.  Instead, we found ourselves at the one bar that was open that Friday night.

We sat inside and seemed to be the only customers that didn’t personally know the bartender.  At one point, one of the other patrons sneezed and their companions responded in mock alarm, “It’s the virus!” — a joke that my classmates and I had gotten used to hearing at least once a day in the weeks leading up to that moment.

At the Seville airport at 7:00 that night, there were very few travelers and many of the people that were there were wearing face masks and latex gloves.

Another classmate of mine was already in Seville and had invited me to join them in their Airbnb Saturday night to help cover the cost.

Provincial borders were being closed in Catalonia and I figured the fewer borders between myself and an international airport, the better.  I booked a train to Seville and went to the train station that afternoon.

The station was quiet but not empty.  All of the shops and businesses were closed except for the cafe where people ordered food and sat on couches while they waited for their trains.

As I waited for my train, I received a text from my airline telling me my flight from Lisbon to San Francisco had been canceled, and advising me to call to resolve the issue.

Quickly, I dialed the number but the call was never received.  As frustrating and worrying as that was, I couldn’t quite blame the airline for not being prepared for an unprecedented pandemic.  The only thing to do was to try to find another flight at the airport in Seville, so I went straight there after my nearly empty train ride into the city.

At the airport at 7 p.m., there were very few travelers and many of the people that were there were wearing face masks and latex gloves.  I found the one representative of my airline working that evening and told her about my canceled flight.  She told me that to get a new flight to San Francisco from Lisbon I was going to have to pay a lot of money, but failed to mention exactly how much.

Not realizing that the price had increased by several thousand dollars I told her that that didn’t matter and that I just needed something that would get me to California.  This request was also unfulfilled as she told me that every seat on every flight from Lisbon to San Francisco was filled.

I eventually found a flight from Lisbon to London the next day and from London to San Francisco the following morning.

I got a taxi along Seville’s vacant roads to the Airbnb my classmate had booked, which happened to be a spare room in someone’s apartment.  I never directly saw or interacted with the people living there but I’m sure my regular trips to blow my nose in the bathroom throughout the evening left them feeling uneasy in the same way the frequent coughing fits I could hear through the walls had made me feel.

I stayed up past midnight looking for new flights on my laptop while making repeated failed calls to airlines whose phones were likely overwhelmed by customers looking for clarity.  My mom back in California was doing the same thing, trying to get me home.

It could have been the stress of trying to outrun a pandemic, or a product of the fumes I was running on at that point but the feverish chill I started to feel while searching for a ticket home allowed me to check one of the three boxes of symptoms associated with COVID-19: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath.

I eventually found a flight from Lisbon to London the next day and from London to San Francisco the following morning that I could both afford and get to in time.  And another classmate of mine fleeing Europe was holed up in an Airbnb in London for a few nights meaning I would have a place to stay there while I waited for my flight back to California.

That was my new plan of action.

Upon arrival at the Seville airport that Sunday, another text informed me that my original airline had scheduled me for a new flight from Lisbon to San Francisco.  Having already booked a second escape route I felt comforted at the prospect of options.

I finally arrived in Lisbon. Walking off the plane at the airport, I felt as if I had landed on a different planet.

At the airport many travelers and employees donned face masks and latex gloves and security workers used hand sanitizers on their gloves after checking bags deemed suspicious by the x-ray machine.  All non-essential shops, businesses, and restaurants in the airport had their doors closed, leaving vending machines as hungry travelers’ only choice for food.

My fever had dissipated but I was doing my best to stifle the new cough I had woken up with — another coronavirus symptom — while I used the small bottle of hand sanitizer that was given to me by my friend the previous night.

I finally arrived in Lisbon. Walking off the plane at the airport, I felt as if I had landed on a different planet.  All airport businesses were open and the smell of fresh food filled the air.  Sales clerks beckoned passersby inside, and the number of face masks had noticeably diminished.  In short, things felt normal.

The first thing I needed to do was decide whether I wanted to get on a plane to London now or wait until the morning and fly leisurely back to California.  For some reason I still hadn’t learned that fleeing a country would not be a leisurely activity.  Since the London flight would be departing in three hours I decided to consult with them first to see if they thought the flight would get delayed or canceled, so I took a shuttle to the terminal where they were located.

The representative informed me that everything was going smoothly with that flight and that I could check in and get to my gate immediately.  I told her I needed to talk with my other airline and went to go do that, but as soon as I walked out through the terminal doors another text explained that my flight from Lisbon to California had been postponed by a day.  I spun around and checked into my London flight.

I spent the night on the small couch of my friend’s Airbnb, which was a small, self-contained, guest house in someone’s backyard.

I arrived in London at 10:30 that night at Gatwick airport.  Things felt much more like Spain than Portugal.  The airport was sparsely populated and so was the bus I took to Heathrow airport.  From there I took the one taxi I could find to my friend’s Airbnb.  While driving along the empty streets of London, my taxi driver expressed to me his astonishment at how quiet the United Kingdom’s biggest city had become in response to the pandemic.

I spent the night on the small couch of my friend’s Airbnb, which was a small, self-contained, guest house in someone’s backyard and was able to get about three hours of sleep before getting up to get ready for my flight from Heathrow to SFO.  My friend called me an Uber to the airport and gave me a face mask to wear.

I readily wore the mask which, the World Health Organization explains, helps to prevent the spread of the virus when worn by people exhibiting symptoms but shouldn’t be worn by the healthy who have yet to have been exposed, since they “do not protect people who are not sick.”

Heathrow airport was not empty, but it did not seem like it was operating at max capacity.  Lines were short and things went smoothly.  Shops and restaurants were open but employees were wearing masks and gloves.  At my gate I began to hear mostly American accents.  It seemed that the vast majority of passengers on the flight were Americans trying to get home as soon as possible, worried that in the global confusion they would get stuck on the opposite side of a border from their homes.

Once we landed in San Francisco we were only allowed to exit the plane 10 people at a time.

Getting on the plane to San Francisco was the first time I experienced any kind of mention of COVID-19 from an airport employee.

An announcement over the speakers informed us that the U.S. government was imposing travel restrictions on people coming from mainland China, Iran and the Schengen area — the area of the European Union in which travel across borders is unrestricted.  We were required to disclose if we had been in any of the countries within the previous two weeks while our boarding passes were checked.  This information was presumably collected, although I couldn’t see if anyone was writing anything down or recording our answers, but as far as I could tell, everyone with a boarding pass was allowed on the plane.

Along with our customs forms we had to fill out on the flight, we were given a second form asking questions about travel histories, COVID-19 exposure, and symptoms.  We were told that without this completed form we would not be allowed to exit the airplane upon arrival.

Once we landed in San Francisco we were only allowed to exit the plane 10 people at a time.  Upon disembarking, each passenger was greeted by someone from the CDC dressed in latex gloves and what appeared to be a riot-style, clear, plastic mask suspended from their heads and hanging over their faces. But in this instance, the CDC gear functioned more like a sneeze-guard in a deli or a bakery than it did as a protection against violence.

My dad picked me up at the airport and brought with him a fresh face mask and a duffel bag filled with disinfecting wipes, a change of clothes and a plastic bag to put everything else in.

They asked the same questions that were on the form we filled out and provided us with information pamphlets that described the risks and symptoms of COVID-19, proper hygiene and social distancing practices, and CDC contact information.  We were also instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days and to monitor our temperatures twice daily.  With that, we were sent on our way through customs without further interruptions.

I justified flying by recognizing that my fever had been gone for over a day and my cough was not dry.  My most severe symptom was nasal congestion which is not typical of COVID-19.  But I also had plans to track down a real, definitive test as soon as I was able.

Luckily, my mom, who lives in Redding, California, had the same idea and had already arranged for me to be tested on my way back to my parents house from San Francisco.

My dad picked me up at the airport and brought with him a fresh face mask and a duffel bag filled with disinfecting wipes, a change of clothes and a plastic bag to put everything else in.  I changed clothes, disinfected the contents of my pockets such as my phone and my wallet, and put everything else in the trash bag ,which I then put in the trunk of my dad’s car.

The emergency room in Red Bluff  had already been told I was coming, that I had been in some of the countries the U.S. now considers to be hotbeds of the virus and that I was experiencing symptoms.

He tried to have me check my own temperature so as not to expose himself, and therefore the rest of the hospital, to COVID-19.

I was instructed to call the hospital and inform them of my arrival from my parked car. They would then send a nurse out to retrieve me and bring me through the back of the hospital into a room where they could ask me questions about my travels and my symptoms and conduct a gamut of tests.  We arrived at 8:15 that Monday night for my battery of tests.

The nurse seeing me asked where I had traveled, if I had knowingly come into contact with anyone infected with the novel coronavirus — which I hadn’t — and what symptoms I had been experiencing.  I answered honestly, and he told me that I would likely be approved for the COVID-19 test but that they would need to check some other things first.

The first was the flu.  He tried to have me check my own temperature so as not to expose himself, and therefore the rest of the hospital, to COVID-19.  When I proved unable to correctly place the thermometer under my tongue, though, he did it himself, holding the instrument at the farthest end from my mouth as possible, and standing, more or less, at arm’s length.

He then used his gloved hands to administer the flu test which was a thin cuetip-like device he inserted up my nostril, telling me that it would “touch my brain” as he did so.  He was joking but it felt like he wasn’t.

I was discharged at 11:30 that night and my dad and I returned home.

While waiting nearly an hour for the results, I fell asleep.  When the doctor came in to talk to my dad and me, I must have sat up and seemed attentive before I was fully awake because I had forgotten where I was.  As I began to wake up fully, I tried to piece together the events of the last few days — what country I was in, why I was in a hospital room, what language was being spoken to me, and how I got there.  The doctor, who wore the same clear, plastic face covering as the CDC agents at the airport along with a thin, full-body, hospital-blue, plastic apron, told me that I tested negative for the flu: a bad sign since it didn’t eliminate COVID-19 as the cause of my symptoms.

I was told that I would soon have my blood drawn and my chest x-rayed.

When it was my turn to ask questions I asked if there was any risk of my clothes and belongings I brought back from Spain spreading the virus.  The doctor explained to me that yes, there was a risk so the best thing to do was to leave my stuff untouched for a day, then to put my clothes in the washing machine and, once clean, to leave them untouched for another day while running the washing machine with nothing but bleach in it to kill any potential virus that may be inside.

The x-ray told the doctors that I didn’t have pneumonia, an advanced complication of COVID-19.  After that,  the doctors needed to wait for permission to administer the COVID-19 test.  After some time, the hospital received word that I should be tested and a nurse, dressed in the same protective gear, returned and took another nasal swab.  It would take 24-to-48 hours to learn the results and I was told to home-quarantine until then.  I was discharged at 11:30 that night and my dad and I returned home.  My mom and my younger sister had packed and left to stay at a family friend’s house to avoid exposure.

I went to bed and slept for thirteen hours.

The next day, Tuesday, March 17, I obsessively washed my hands every 30 minutes or so and tried to touch as little as possible throughout the house.

Since I slept so late, I luckily didn’t have to wait too long before Shasta County health officials called me to inform me that my test results came back negative, I did not have COVID-19 and had successfully made it to California.

Editor’s Note: Bryndon Madison, a student at UC Santa Barbara, is a former Capitol Weekly intern.

 


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