We made it.
After weeks of waiting in Morocco with hopes that airports would open, an embassy-arranged repatriation flight back to the U.S. when they did not, and two weeks of additional waiting in a Northern Virginia hotel room while trying to arrange the last leg of our transition, we finally got approval from the Panamanian government to join another repatriation flight from Dulles Airport to Tucomen Airport in Panamá. Late last Wednesday night, after landing and clearing the COVID-19 checkpoints set up in the airport by MINSA (Ministerio de Salud, or Ministry of Health), we arrived at our house across the street from the International School of Panamá. It felt good to come home for the first time.
While still exhausting, our experience flying to Panamá compared favorably to our trip across the Atlantic two weeks prior. We checked out of our Homestead Suites hotel room at 1:30 pm, hopped on the shuttle to the airport, and arrived at Dulles by 1:45 pm for the special flight scheduled to depart at 4:15 pm, and had about 100 people ahead of us in the check-in line. In line we had a “flat world” reunion with people we had never met face-to-face. First an ISP parent who is a friend of another ISP parent who is a college friend of two longtime friends of Brian’s grabbed us in the check-in line to introduce himself after trading WhatsApp texts with Brian for days about how to get a seat on the repatriation flight. Two men further along in line watched while we talked with him. Then, as we snaked through the line and crossed with them, they introduced themselves as ISP teachers (one whom we actually had met in our Costa del Este hotel restaurant last November during our interview trip to Panamá). Then ISP’s new Elementary Principal, who had flown to Dulles the previous day from the Pacific Northwest to join our flight to Panamá hopped into line for our first non-virtual greetings with her.
The line moved fairly quickly, with five staff from the Panamanian Embassy overseeing the queue to ensure everyone heading to the four Copa Airlines check-in counters appeared on the flight’s approved manifest. We filled out forms identifying ourselves; where we would quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Panamá; and how MINSA could contact us to check on our health status during our quarantine. Then onward we went through an eerily empty Dulles Airport – corridors, escalators, trains, etc. Even Security would have gone quickly had Audrey not insisted that Brian stick a bottle of Morton Nature’s Seasoning in a bag of travel food he brought for us to eat on the flight. So after Brian passed through the body scanner without incident, the TSA folks sidelined him while they unpacked the bag in search of the offensive bottle to test its contents and make sure the salt/pepper/spices mix was not combustible…all while Audrey rolled her eyes wondering why Brian always took so long to clear Security. Despite the Great Gourmet Delay, by 3:15 pm we had arrived at the gate…where we met more ISP family folks. Then we had to wait for the looooong boarding process. We did not board our 4:15 flight until 5:15 – with a temperature check of each passenger at the gate just before boarding – and did not take off until 5:35. But we were so happy to be on board for the final leg of our transition from Morocco to Panamá.
En route we were not surrounded this time by screaming children, and it was a regular Copa Airlines plane instead of the Titan Airways plane with non-reclining bus seats that took us from Casablanca to Dulles. As a prelude to what we would find upon arrival in Panamá, the flight attendants sported pseudo-HAZMAT gear, with paper hair covers and body coats in addition to the expected face masks, face shields, and gloves. Other than a bit of turbulence here and there, we had a rather uneventful journey south.
When we landed, Audrey deftly cast Brian’s attention to the woman sitting across the aisle from us, whom she described as “ensconced in plastic” with a clear plastic disposable parka covering her torso, plastic shield covering her face over her face mask, disposable gloves, plus a large clear-plastic garbage bag to hold and protect all her carry on items. Brian, whom Audrey calls a germaphobe, responded saying, “I’m jealous.” That proved just the start of a far more intense COVID-19 scrutiny than what we faced on the first leg of our journey in mid-July (that is to say, NOTHING either departing from Morocco or arriving in the U.S.). As we emerged from the jetway, the gate looked like a Trauma I triage staging ground with a long-distance thermal sensor taking the temperatures of passengers as we deplaned, and ropes channeling us like stockyard cattle over to banks of chairs arranged as a socially-distanced holding area (“Do not sit in seats with the X!”). We again filled out ID and contact information forms (this time for MINSA; apparently the Embassy got to keep the ones we completed in Dulles) plus two other forms and waited for HAZMAT-dressed officials with thermometers to scan our foreheads. Upon confirming we had normal temperatures, the officials released us to continue along the stockyard cattle route to Passport Control. The serious social distancing continued in line there, with floor stickers designating socially-distanced places to stand. Then we progressed to baggage claim to pick up our three checked bags. Two came quickly.
Then we waited.
At least two or three dozen people from our flight waited as well.
In a classic “You had ONE JOB!” circumstance, we all continued waiting for at least another half hour as the baggage crew sought to bring the remaining bags from the one airplane that had landed at the airport to the one baggage carousel receiving bags. (Okay, to be perfectly honest, they ran our flight’s bags out on two adjacent carousels – presumably, but unsuccessfully, to speed up the process – so people kept flitting back and forth between them to see if their missing bags had emerged from either yet…which, of course, they had not because of the shortfall in the “ONE JOB” realm.) After waiting a very long time without new bags, finally the belts restarted and our remaining bag helped lead the parade of luggage marching out from the luggage cave to the joy of those waiting. So we pushed our bags through the exit scanner and headed out to meet the driver ISP had arranged for us to carry us to La Montañesa, our neighborhood San Miguelito, a suburb in the hills northeast of downtown Panamá City. Twenty minutes later, we were home.
To anyone who calls the two of us moving into a house with six bedrooms preposterous, we say, “We agree.” That said, Audrey’s two firm priorities for finding a place limited our options considerably. First, Audrey requires that Brian be able to grill for her, which means having a house instead of an apartment (where grilling on a balcony is illegal). Second, with the horrendous traffic of Panamá she wanted to live close to school. Throwing in Brian’s desires to be outside urban hustle and bustle and to have more than containers on a balcony for gardening, we found a perfect spot right across the street from ISP. And having six bedrooms means upstairs we have one for sleeping, Brian uses another for his home office, and we have another for a relaxation and exercise room; and the three downstairs bedrooms that we hope will host visitors regularly all branch off from a hall with doors we can close to shut down that wing and save on air conditioning costs. So we have generous space for the house to feel quite roomy, especially with a large kitchen and sizable pantry; but closing off the downstairs bedroom hall makes it easier to forget just how big the house is.
On our first day here, as we listened to sounds from the sliver of rainforest that abuts our back fence, Audrey said, “It’s nice to have the quiet. The younger people coming in will want to be downtown where the action is.” Brian tossed back to her immediately, “We old people want to be where the action is not.”
On our first day in Casablanca, we woke to the sounds of donkeys and sheep and horses and dogs and roosters and turkeys. On our first day here, we enjoyed the sounds of chirping birds, buzzing insects, and other inhabitants of the rainforest; and, since we are in the middle months of the Rainy Season, we also like the sound of thunder and rain pelting our windows as storms roll through at least a couple times a day. Likewise, we enjoy the deep, lush Rainforest green everywhere. It feels renewing, and knowing that it will stay with us year-round makes us happy. It stands in contrast to Morocco’s annual cycle of greening and browning. We loved the “circle of life” reminder that Morocco’s cycle brought as green starts to re-emerge each December/January; but we look forward to the vivacious celebration of life that constant green will infuse into our days here. “I keep thinking about the Rainforest Cafe,” said Audrey, referring to a campy chain of restaurants in the U.S. that serves basic food at preposterous prices while piping sounds of thunderstorms and myriad animal noises through speakers into the dining room adorned with fake greenery and fiberglass animals to create a surreal aura of American dissonance. “Well, don’t,” responded Brian adamantly.
While Audrey focused on ISP for most of Day One, Brian spent it attacking boxes throughout the day, motivated primarily by the search for our pillows. Naturally, he finally found them in the final box of the day that he opened at 9:00 pm. Then, after at last accomplishing our chief task of the day, like Frog and Toad in “The List,” we went to sleep.
Unpacking has continued through our first week, mixed with ISP work and other “settling in” tasks. Key to the unpacking task was first getting cleaning supplies. Fancy-pants grocery chain Riba Smith delivers online orders, which makes mandatory quarantining much easier, but the process of finding everything on our list online to order takes a while; then we have to wait for Riba Smith to contact us by WhatsApp to tell us all the things we ordered that are out of stock; then we have to wait for the delivery to come sometime between that day and a couple days later. Brian disinfected the kitchen and pantry once we got cleaning supplies on Saturday, and on Sunday we unpacked about 10 moving boxes of kitchen supplies, dishes, china, our good knives, pots and pans, and Audrey’s beloved vegetable peeler that she has mourned living without since movers packed it in Casablanca on June 1. Through the last week Riba Smith has made a couple more deliveries to stock us sufficiently with food and beverages until our quarantine period expires and we can go out to shop (which Brian hopes will reduce drastically the time it takes for online shopping). With the kitchen set for action, on Monday Brian made a “batch” of sauce for pasta, which in Brian’s concept of cooking means we have enough to eat nothing but spaghetti until a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed, tested, and promulgated worldwide. Meanwhile, we still have a number of boxes left to unpack (primarily our clothes…still living out of suitcases), and have a mountain of packing paper in our living room stacked as high as socially-distanced people should stand apart. More recently, as Audrey continues full-time virtual meetings for ISP to prepare for what promises to be the most unusual school year any of us have ever seen, today Brian has set up shop in his home office space and now can start working on his various projects and priorities from there.
We also learned of other supplying we can do without leaving our neighborhood. Apparently every two weeks a chicken truck and a bread truck come through. They do not blare ding-a-ling bells and pre-school music as they roll through the streets. Word goes out through the neighborhood WhatsApp thread (to which we already have been added!) as the trucks approach and people go out to buy fresh rolls and buns and loaves or packs of fresh-cut chicken.
We learned of these, and so many other things, from our wonderful neighbor Priyanka, who has lived in La Montañesa and worked at ISP for more than two decades. Brian has dubbed her the Mayor of our neighborhood because she knows all and everyone, and has provided better “constituent service” helping us settle in than Brian ever encountered during his years working in politics and government. Meeting her in a socially-distanced and masked face-to-face on our first day continued our reunion of people we had never met. She was the kind soul who received our first Riba Smith order before we landed last week and stashed everything in our kitchen and our fridge before we came home for the first time. She welcomed us from two meters away as we stood in our doorway on Day One, giving us the scoop on the neighborhood. She picked up cleaning supplies and other things we could not get at Riba Smith last weekend when she went to PriceSmart (the Costco of Panamá). She brought us curry and paneer that she made for her family to ensure that we had home-cooked food before we claimed our kitchen. She told us about how garbage pickup works; how dedicated the guards at the gate are to the neighborhood families (as deeply as the neighborhood parking guardians and residence building concierges are in Casablanca); and who in the neighborhood owns a farm from which we can get beef and pork. And she has been a warm and welcoming face willing to answer any and every question we have as we get oriented. Such is the case with other key people at ISP as well, but because we remain quarantined we have not been able to meet most of them face-to-face yet.
One caveat of moving into new digs: Often you do not know what you do not know about your new home’s potential pitfalls until you experience them directly. We hope we will make it to a full 24 years of marriage in a few days, but we will have to take it one day at a time to see if Brian encounters anything else like getting locked in the utility room without his phone and with Audrey not responding to his pounding on the kitchen door trying to catch her attention. On Saturday afternoon Audrey asked him to take a moving box of crumpled packing paper to the utility room to get it out of the living room, and he did not know the locked kitchen door would close behind him on its own. While the room has access to outside through a screened gate-type door, one cannot open it without a key if it is locked…which, of course, it was. Seeing his phone through the kitchen door did not help him call Audrey and bring her to his rescue. His only “last hope” desperation way out would be to break a pane in the kitchen door to get back inside. Not wanting to start out living in our Panamanian residence by breaking and entering, he opted instead to pound on the door as loudly as he could for 10 minutes, then stopped because his hand hurt. Melting in the Panamanian afternoon of 31° C (89° F) – which, with high humidity, Weather.com said felt more like a moist 37° C (98° F) – he resigned himself to the possibility that he would melt there for several hours longer until Audrey got hungry enough to get food from the kitchen and (perhaps) see Brian slumped in a puddle on the utility room floor. Enter Priyanka, again our local superhero, who walked up our driveway after Brian had melted for just five more minutes. Brian called out to her from his utility room prison cell, explained what had happened, and suggested she call Audrey to ask if she knew where Brian was. She did, and to the amusement of both Brian and Priyanka, Audrey said she knew. Then Pri told her what she found coming up our driveway and Audrey said, “Oh, I wondered what he was doing to make all that noise!” She figured that her husband, whom she has long alleged is ADD, took the box to the utility room and got distracted by something else that led to something else that led ultimately to him hammering loudly to hang something somewhere. She came quickly to let him out of jail, and all seems well for now. She promised that if she hears loud banging unexpectedly she will check to make sure Brian did not lock himself in a cell again. When daughter Margaret learned about the incident, she laughed hysterically and predicted that her mother would presume what she presumed. When daughter Charlotte heard, she belly-laughed for at least a full minute. Then she asked if we would give her Priyanka’s phone number so that she could call to have her check on her parents that worried her living by themselves.
One more prevalent feature of our first week has been daily calls from MINSA to check on our health situation. They call Audrey’s ISP phone because Brian does not yet have a Panamanian number. Since Brian’s bad Spanish is far less bad than Audrey’s, when they call she hops up from her computer and its virtual ISP meetings and runs to hand Brian her phone to answer. The tables have turned for us from Morocco, where Audrey had a French advantage over Brian, and Brian relishes now the ability first to determine that the call comes not from Riba Smith about a grocery order; then to confirm at what address we are staying (to match against the address in San Miguelito we gave on our forms) and the email address at which MINSA can reach us, and to work through telephone greetings and basic questions about whether either of us has any of a list of COVID-19 symptoms. Only rarely do the MINSA callers switch to English to help him (because most of them say they do not speak English when he apologizes for his bad Spanish). We believe all of MINSA will celebrate when the next week passes and they no longer have to call and deal with the lady without Spanish and the gentleman who tries to speak more Spanish than he knows. Oh, and of course, for both of us bad French keeps coming out when we try to speak bad Spanish. Désolés…er, uh…Lo sentimos.
Before we left Morocco, Brian predicted that the behavior of the masses as the country opened up slowly foretold bad things for the COVID-19 infection rate there, and such has unfortunately come to pass as it has skyrocketed since we left, and the government has reinstituted measures to start tightening up again. We feel like we got out just in time. On the flipside, since arriving in Panamá last week the numbers here are flirting with the start of a downward trend while rates in the U.S. and elsewhere continue to soar. Today the government announced new curbs on people entering Panamá on repatriation flights, restrictions that quite likely would have kept us from entering on our flight last Wednesday. We feel like we got in just in time. Our transition from Morocco to Panamá lasted much longer and proved much more complex than we could ever have envisioned when we decided on making Panamá our new home.
But we made it.
Halfway through our mandatory quarantine, already we have had an adventure. Who knows what lies ahead, but we embrace it with all the comfort with ambiguity required of 21st century educators.
On your mark, get set, here we go!