When Brian served a decade ago as the Head of two schools in Baton Rouge (Louisiana) affiliated with the Redemptorist order of priests and brothers, now and then Brother Clem walked a few blocks from the St. Gerard’s Parish rectory to visit Brian in his office in the high school building. On one such occasion, they talked about their favorite prayers. Brother Clem made an impression on Brian with what he shared: “Lord, thank you for letting me be where I need to be when I need to be there.” Since then Brian has applied it to find purpose in whatever challenges he undertakes as he follows his “Go where God calls you!” personal mission. But since we landed back in the U.S. on July 15, our relative self-quarantine time has allowed a different appreciation for Brother Clem’s prayer. We did not look forward to spending two weeks in self-quarantine 10 minutes from Dulles International Airport. Unexpectedly, though, we found the change in scenery and setting from this purgatory stage between Morocco and Panamá where we needed to be when we needed to be here.
Following our repatriation flight from Casablanca, we checked into a residential hotel suite reserved on Bookings.com and settled in to see as few people as possible until we could continue on to Panamá. We chose the location carefully: a quick shuttle ride from/to the airport, friends in the area upon whom we could call for help if we need it, and an easy 15-minute walk to a Giant grocery story that let us satisfy any cravings for things on which to snack or things to cook in our “kitchen” of a stovetop, a frying pan, and a microwave.
We actually have done quite well preparing meals, marked most notably by the grand total of 25 ears of steamed corn we have eaten together since arriving two weeks ago. Morocco’s list of heavenly produce does not include good corn, ergo we have missed it and wanted to maximize its consumption while here. When we do not cook, we take advantage of a delivery service that brings food from area restaurants. Between near-daily walks to Giant and restaurant deliveries, our gluttony satisfied “back in the USA” cravings for fried chicken, ribs, cheeseburgers, pork chops, ham steak, kielbasa, pizza with “real” pepperoni, tortilla chips and “cheese crack” (our family name for Tostitos Salsa Con Queso), mint Oreos, Claussen dill pickles, pita chips and hummus, celery and peanut butter, and more. One sad thing about arriving in Panamá: we will unpack our scale and have to get on it. If we planned to remain here longer, we would have conducted our culinary activity differently; but with the hope of staying in purgatory only briefly, we opted for temporary decadence.
Despite plans to see as few people as possible in order to minimize exposure that might keep us from continuing on to Panamá, Brian’s longtime friend Doug Gray invited us to visit a couple hours away in Richmond. We hoped to take him up on his offer, but the combination of Audrey’s work schedule and the need to be proximate to Dulles in case we suddenly got approved for a flight to Panamá kept us in our small world between hotel room and grocery store. So instead of catching up with friends, we fascinated ourselves with things we rediscovered in suburban Northern Virginia like shopping carts with fixed-direction back wheels (making them easy to turn without counter-shifting full body weight), American toilets, sidewalks along grassy greenscapes, people conscientious about social distancing and wearing masks when passing or being around others (a lesson many elsewhere throughout the U.S. need to learn as well), a relative absence of litter, large multi-lane intersections with pedestrian buttons at crosswalks, green trees clumped closely together (i.e., “woods”), reliable internet, the ground floor of buildings as Floor #1 instead of Floor #0, and air conditioning.
On our first day here we celebrated Audrey’s birthday by ordering dinner from P.F. Chang’s (and discovered from their fortune cookie messages that the restaurant we used to enjoy in Scottsdale was their original one). As we dined on our hotel table, the beautiful sunset we saw through our room’s windows gave us comfort with a view different from what we enjoyed from our Casablanca balcony for four years but still under the same sky that connects us to the people we know and love back in Morocco.
It also was Audrey’s first day of full-time work at ISP, something much easier to fulfill just one hour ahead of Panamanian time instead of the six hour time difference in Casablanca that governed the hundreds of transition meetings and interactions she has had over the last several months. She has thrown herself completely into her new role as School Director of the International School of Panamá, leading the school’s reconception of online learning as they prepare for classes to start online on August 20. Despite very long hours already, even in this virtual atmosphere, she feels in heaven with her new school. In her first board meeting yesterday, she marveled at how they had a clear agenda, stuck to it, stuck to the prescribed times, and accomplished a tremendous amount in just 2 ½ hours. Like school administrators around the world right now, she has an incredible amount to do leading up to classes starting; but she could not be more pleased to have joined the ISP community.
Even though we have yet to arrive physically, Brian also has enjoyed the ISP community already, glimpsing what lies ahead from our current place in purgatory. In addition to faculty and administrators reaching out to welcome him and starting to get to know each other through Facebook posts and messages, the “small world” factor has kicked in as old friends scattered around the world let him know that they have friends with children at ISP, leading to more outreach and useful information as we seek to set up life there remotely for when we arrive. One big help was ISP sending someone to our soon-to-be house across the street from the school to receive our container shipment that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and cleared customs before we have been able to arrive ourselves. We brimmed with excitement on Friday when Audrey’s phone pinged with pics sent to show everything boxed and ready for us to enjoy Christmas in July when we get there, opening up all the packages and putting things in their new spots in our Panamanian home. Another help has been an ISP neighbor offering to receive a grocery delivery for us and take it to our house. So over the weekend Brian built a grocery order at Riba Smith, a top Panamanian grocery chain, to be delivered just before we arrive. He discovered, not surprisingly, the superiority of searching for items in Spanish rather than using Google’s auto-translate function, because the first item that came up for “soap” was Brillo Pads, and the label for a picture of fresh mint in the produce department translated as “good grass.” But our kitchen will have food in it as we begin the mandatory two week home quarantine that Panamá requires once we arrive.
Thankfully, that will start tomorrow! We decided to leave Morocco without knowing when we could finish our journey to Panamá after weighing a number of factors. First, while Morocco had done relatively well containing COVID-19, we worried that large numbers of people ignored social distancing and other prudent (and considerate) public health protocols and, consequently, that the number of novo coronavirus cases would start to go up. (Indeed, since we left that exact thing has happened, prompting the government to begin tightening controls again.) Second, we hoped that our connections in the powers that be could help us get to Panamá from the U.S., whereas they could do nothing to help us get there from Morocco. Indeed, that ended up being the case as a team of lawyers, ISP-connected people, and other advocates began working to get us the permission we needed from the Panamanian government to allow us onto a repatriation flight from Dulles to Panamá City. As days passed, we learned that Copa Airlines had seats reserved for us on the July 29 flight, but we could not actually buy those seats until we had permission from the Panamanian government in hand. That finally came this weekend, so right away we called Copa to buy our seats and shift our purgatory thinking from “someday” to “next Wednesday” for when we finally could go home for the first time.
So today, while Audrey had meetings all day, Brian has worked to reshuffle how bags are packed in order to fit the different weight limits than we had for our Casablanca-to-Dulles flight two weeks ago. The luggage scale we bought a couple years ago has proven one of our most practical purchases ever to load bags down to the last ounces or grams.
Purgatory has been unexpectedly good to us, with very hospitable circumstances for just the right amount of time. We have been where we needed to be when we needed to be here. Tomorrow we will bid adieu to our purgatory home and shuttle back over to Dulles, prepared for another exceedingly long process of checking in and boarding. If all goes well, we will take off around 4:00 pm East Coast time and land around 8:15 pm Panamá time. But expectations are everything in such travel, so we will be happy just to get to Panamá at some point, work our way through Passport Control, get our bags, connect with our ride, and get home at whatever time we get there.
Meanwhile, it is good to know that we can experience sunsets even in purgatory, and we look forward to experiencing them in Panamá as well.
On your mark, get set, here we go!