Coming Home in the Time of COVID-19

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I’m starting this post with just under a week to go before our flight home, but my plan is to wait and post once we’ve arrived safely (fingers crossed). Already, the journey home has been an odyssey. 

You might recall from my last two posts in my COVID chronicles (Uncertainty and Thriving) that back in May, we booked a flight home for July 15. At that time, the May and June repatriation flights were just too expensive, we dreaded the idea of going to San Jose, and things at home really did not look good and we didn’t see a lot of positives in going there too early. So we committed to another 7 weeks in Costa Rica and leaned into our life here. It turned out to be a great decision, freeing up our move into Coco and setting up a mostly great June for us.

As July approached, cases of COVID-19 in Costa Rica were on the rise, and cases in the U.S. were pretty much exploding. We knew the border wouldn’t reopen, but the government here was dragging its heels on an announcement. I started feeling very nervous about whether our July 15 flight would happen. After all, with the continued closed border, United could choose to cease or lessen its 3x-a-week repatriation flights. I just wanted the government to make a decision so United could make a decision and cancel the flights they wouldn’t fly. 

As June turned to July, those things happened VERY slowly. The government extended the border closure with just days to spare and United adapted its schedule equally slowly and in a very unclear way, with all of its Monday-Friday midday flights out of San Jose intact. At the same time, there was word that flights to Costa Rica would only happen on Mondays. What did that mean for our Wednesday flight? 

Part of my urgency to know our flight details was because our possibilities for renting short-term housing in Columbia were growing ever more limited, and we feel that staying with family could put them at greater risk for contracting the virus. On June 30, I finally booked a Columbia Airbnb on faith. The apartment is cute and in a great location and the host seemed nice. That was proven right away when unprompted she messaged me to say that if we couldn’t get home, she would allow us to cancel the reservation at no charge (which she doesn’t have to do, because the length of reservation). That was a huge weight off of my shoulders, though I deeply hope we don’t have to take her up on it! 

But even after that, I was a wreck of nerves and anxiety all through the week and the flights remained unclear. Would our flight be a repatriation flight or not? How would we get to San Jose and when? We couldn’t plan these things without knowing our flight wouldn’t be cancelled. And, I really had my heart set on going home for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that until we go home, we can’t start traveling again. And I am so sick of not traveling (I realize that sounds very selfish, but it is also very honest). Plus I miss my family and best friends madly (almost as much as I miss traveling!).

On the Fourth of July, someone posted on a local Facebook group a promo for repatriation flights on Fridays in July out of the airport near here in Liberia. Sure enough these flights were available on United’s website for just a little more money than our San Jose tickets. After conferring with Chad and confirming with our Airbnb host here we could stay a few more days, I changed our flight from July 15 out of SJO to July 17 out LIR, less than 30 minutes away from us. Then, the skeptics started speaking up with word that there was no way Liberia Airport would have flights before August. And the U.S. Embassy’s daily emails continued to report the same Monday-Wednesday-Friday flights out of San Jose (even though United was selling Tuesday and Thursday flights too).

So, on Sunday, still a wreck of nerves, I reached out to EVERYONE I could think of to try to get some answers. I emailed the embassy, called United Airlines, and emailed the local United Airlines office who appeared to have created the promo. The local United office emailed back that afternoon (which impressed the heck out of me) a very hopeful response: “The information you saw is actualized and verified. United is allowed to flight out of Costa Rica from Liberia airport. We will have flights every Friday of July. These are flights approved by the gubernamental authorities.”

Monday morning I received a less positive response from the U.S. Embassy: “We don’t have any information about flights departing from the Liberia airport.  United and Spirit repatriation flights are departing from the Juan Santamaria Airport. We’ll check with the airlines and if there’s any changes we’ll alert via email to all US Citizens registered with STEP.” I wrote back and shared the response and contact info of the local office, and the Embassy replied right away: “Thank you!  We’ll check with United immediately.” 

Sure enough, that same day, the Embassy’s daily email highlighted the four Friday flights out of Liberia! I was giddy with relief. For the first time in about a week, I felt confident we’d be going home. And I felt super-chuffed that my little emails got the embassy and the airline talking to one another. As a result, Americans on the Embassy’s STEP list would get word of these flights, hopefully saving people on the west coast from having to go to San Jose (which is much more heavily hit with the virus).

In the week that has followed, my confidence has not waned, and was bolstered yesterday by the first of these Liberia flights departing 45 minutes early (I guess there’s no lines at the airport when there’s only one flight a week!). Conditions have also continued worsening here in Costa Rica and yesterday our canton (like a county) was placed under Orange Alert, meaning driving restrictions and restaurants limited to delivery only and the possibility of beaches closing (they didn’t) and a lot of negative chatter on the local Facebook groups. There aren’t actually a lot of cases here (10 county-wide and none that I know of in our town), but it is part of a trend. There’s even been talk at the federal level about imposing the dry law again, but it looks unlikely. Either way, the important thing is that we’re going home.

10 Days Later…

We’re home! We arrived four days ago, but it feels like at least a week (anytime we move, time slows down). Friday was the smoothest travel day in the history of all our travel days. The taxi I’d hired picked us up right on time, with the driver masked and requiring us to be masked for the 30-minute journey. We arrived at the airport about two hours before our flight and there was no line at the check-in counter or security. The advantage of having only one flight a week! We were able to find a place to sit in the waiting area at least six feet away from everyone else. All were required to wear masks at all times in the airport, but we took ours off long enough to scarf down the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I’d packed. 

Boarding our plane to USA
A mostly empty plane, especially our section.

Two days before our flight, I’d decided to upgrade our seats on the flight to Houston to Economy Plus because those rows were completely empty and would give extra legroom too. So we were among the last to board the plane since airlines are boarding from back to front, and had absolutely no one around us on that flight. In Houston, we used Global Entry, which we’d finally had finalized last fall after nearly a year of waiting for the interview. It was great – no line and the machines used facial recognition to find us right away without having to touch any buttons. We had no trouble physical distancing throughout our time at the airport, including stopping to split a plate of barbecue (smoked turkey, yum) at the restaurant near our departure gate. Our flight to St. Louis was nearly as empty as the flight out of Costa Rica, though there was one person seated directly behind me. Everyone else was at least six feet away, and again, everyone was really good about wearing masks the whole time. 

Just arrived at our Airbnb apartment, very tired from 13 hours of travel.

We picked up our rental car with relative ease and then stopped by Chad’s folks’ to pick up our car, our apartment keys, and some goodies – homemade carrot cake, a veggie tray with dill dip, and fresh fruit. We managed to be stealthy enough not to wake them or Hodge. Earlier in the day, they’d met our Airbnb host to pick up the keys to our apartment and drop off some groceries I ordered and a few other things, including a very nice welcome basket Chad’s mom put together with 20 masks (seriously), hand sanitizer, cleaner, soap, and snacks. It made all the difference at 1 a.m. to be able to go straight to the apartment and settle right in. I am so appreciative of Chad’s thoughtful and generous parents.

Welcome basket from Chad’s mom
Carrot cake! My favorite.

Our Airbnb is adorable and in a great location near downtown (just north of the library, for anyone local). The host has been wonderful, even replacing the double bed in the apartment with a queen before we arrived, and making sure we had all the small appliances we’d want (though I will miss having a slow cooker – I really grew to appreciate crockpot cooking in Costa Rica). We’ve settled right into the apartment, picking up five more grocery orders in the last three days (I love the online ordering with contactless pickup) and slowly getting back into work. We’ve already enjoyed a few favorite American meals and snacks that we can’t really get abroad, plus that amazing carrot cake from Chad’s mom.

Though we’re officially self-isolating for two weeks because of the international travel, we’ve been doing lots of walks and spent a little time with Chad’s parents (and Hodge!) in their backyard. So far, we’re three-for-three with seeing people I know during walks: a friend from Rotary on Sunday at Bonnie View park, a friend from Woodhaven on Monday at Stephens Lake park, and this morning a friend from church on our neighborhood walk. Very different from our walks in Costa Rica! 

Coming Up Next

Less than 48 hours after arriving in Missouri, we booked our first Airbnb for fall. We’ll be headed to Libby, Montana, in the Cabinet Mountains near Glacier National Park. We plan to stop at Glacier for a couple days on the way in and will follow our month in Libby with a few days at Yellowstone National Park before heading westward (we think) to Washington and Oregon. We’re looking at making it a 12-week road trip, getting us home by Thanksgiving. 

In the meantime, we’re looking forward to a wonderful six weeks at home, especially being able to see more family and friends after our quarantine period is up. Though we really don’t feel we had much risk of exposure on our travel day (and absolutely no exposure in Coco), we want to exercise an abundance of caution to keep everyone safe, especially our families.

I’m glad we chose to stay in Costa Rica for as long as we did. We were very comfortable there and I think much safer and with more to do than here. The beachtown of Coco and the whole country will always have a place in our hearts. But it was definitely time to come home.

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