As I sit down to write this post, it’s really cold outside.  My clothes are in a dryer, I’m sipping a LaCroix bubbly water out of a can, and my breakfast fruit came from a plastic tub shipped from thousands of miles away.  And, I can’t seem to remember where to put the toilet paper! My life is suddenly so different.  How did I get here?  And how to even begin telling this sad story; the abrupt ending to my Peace Corps experience?  Let’s start at the point when Covid-19 made my life crazy.

Sunday, March 15, 8:00 am
Jose knocked on my door early in the morning to offer my friend and I a ride to Otavalo’s Indigenous Market.
“She’s already gone.” I replied.
“Qué paso?!”  “What happened?”

I stood in the hallway recounting for him a crazy night with my friend Katie.  Seven days prior, she had flown to Ecuador from Anchorage, Alaska to spend 10 days with me.  I really tried to show her around, but just the day before, as we had attempted to enjoy the sights of my city, Ibarra, everything started to close around us and the streets, parks and plazas were empty.  The fear of the Coronavirus was starting to finger its way into my life.  That evening in my room, I read in several news bulletins that the airport would be closing to any inbound tourists as of Monday night.  The presumption was that if flights weren’t allowed to enter with passengers, they weren’t going to continue to take passengers out of the country either.
“Katie,” I said, “we’ve got to get you out of this country now!”

So, after two hours of middle-of-the-night searching through airline websites and having flights sold out from under her, she was able to buy a plane ticket.  I convinced a friend of mine to drive her to the airport at 5:30am.  By the time Jose knocked at my door the next morning, she was long gone.

“Chuta,” which is more or less the equivalent of “Shit.”

Sunday, March 15, Noon
Later in the day, my site-mates, Kendall and Alex, texted our group of local volunteers to say that since they were only two weeks from officially ending their service, they had asked Peace Corps permission to leave the country early in light of the potential shut-downs.  Peace Corps finally found them a flight and they needed to be in Quito in about 7 hours.  They were frantically packing their apartment and were offering the rest of their belongings to other volunteers… since we were staying.  Jose and Margarita agreed to drive me to their apartment so I could pick up a chair, and they scored some shelves, a table, and a mattress, too.  On our way home, I was appreciating the fact that I wouldn’t need to pack and leave in such a frenzied state.  After all, Peace Corps had already declared a “Stand Fast” which means I wasn’t allowed to leave my city and strongly encouraged to stay in my home.  All schools had already been closed for several days.  There were only a few cases of the virus in Ecuador at this time.  Precautions were being taken.  It was going to be easy for me to ride out this craziness in my Ecuadorian home.

Sunday, March 15, 10:30 pm
I had just settled into my bed and thought I’d check my phone messages.  As I scrolled, messages started to explode from the screen.  “Start packing”, “We’re going home”.

Wait… I’m not going “home”.  I’m extending for a third year, I get to stay!

My phone rang.  It was my supervisor from Peace Corps.
Pack everything.  You’re allowed two checked bags.  Be ready to leave by the morning.

“Noooooooo!”  I sobbed, I begged, I tried to reason.  “Don’t make me go!”
“I’m sorry, Becky.  Pack everything.  All volunteers are evacuating Ecuador immediately.”

I threw the phone down and dashed upstairs.  I could still hear the TV in Margarita and Jose’s room so I knew they were still awake.  I banged on the door.  Margarita came running.
“Que pasó?”

“I have to return to the United States I have to pack my bags I have to go to Quito tomorrow I don’t want to go I’m so sorry I don’t want to go….” it all came out in gushing sobs on her shoulder.  The three of us stood in the doorway, holding each other, crying and shaking our heads together.

White privilege is such a mixed blessing.  I’m lucky I have a country and a government organization who are standing by their contract to take care of me at all costs.  But plucking me from this family and this country because it might not be safe enough for me during this pandemic is so unfair.  My life and health isn’t more important than theirs.  My country definitely is not safer than theirs.  But if I choose to stay, my passport and my visa are revoked immediately.  I don’t have a choice.  I have to go.  And it’s up to me to explain to them why.  I’m so sorry.  I don’t want to leave.

“Ay Becky”, Margarita gasped.
“Chuta”.  It’s all Jose could say.

Sunday, March 15, 11:00 pm
I returned to my room and screamed.  How do I start dismantling my life?  After two years, what should I take?  What can I carry?  What should I leave for them?  What should I leave for others?  Margarita suggested I leave things behind, in case I can return.  But no, that’s not fair to them.  It’s their guest room to use or rent to others.  I needed to deal with it all.  So, knowing that I was first going to the cold climate of Chicago, but that I would reasonably be there into the warmth of summer, I packed a variety of my favorite clothes and left the others for Margarita and my cousins to sort through.  I boxed up all my toiletries, hair dryer, sleeping bag, and yoga mat for any of my family to use.  I made a box of gifts for Jose- mostly my newly imported Cliff Protein Bars for when his soccer games start up again.  Margarita’s box included all my markers and teacher art supplies, a special book, some jewelry, and my old I-Phone.  For Pablo, I collected all of our games that we loved playing: Uno, Sorry, Checkers, Dominoes and the puzzles and books that I hadn’t even gifted to him yet.  Oh Pablo!

Monday Morning, March 16
At 5:30 am, I laid down to power nap for 90 minutes.  When I awoke, Jose came in my room to tell me that whenever I had to report to Quito, he wanted to drive me.  I continued packing and waited for a call from Peace Corps.

I had a large packet of maps that had been brought from the US for me so that I could gift them to my small school.  I texted the Principal, and asked her to come by my house to pick them up and share my goodbyes with the teachers and students at the school.  We stood in the street and cried.

Margarita put out the word with the family and all morning long my extended family called or came by to tell me that I would always be apart of their family… their doors were always open… and they would wait for my return, hopefully soon.  It was so hard.

I Skyped my brother, explained in sobs that Peace Corps was flying me to Chicago and I had nowhere else to go.  Please?  Ofcourse, he said.

Then Faby came by.  She brought me a momento she had hurried to sew.  Margarita brought me other beautiful keepsakes to add to my suitcase.  They helped me take all my photos and whatnot from my wall and sorted through what memories they wanted to keep.  And then, in the middle of this packing frenzy and explosion of stuff all over my room, Pablo walked in.

“Qué pasó, Becky?”
Chuta.  Pablo.  I have something to tell you.

And then, for twenty minutes, his little body quivered and convulsed in sobs with mine.
“No te vayas, Becky!  No te vayas!”
Don’t go!

“I’m so sorry, Pablo.  I don’t want to go.  But I have to.  I’ll be back again as soon as I can.”

Peace Corps called to say I had to be at a hotel in Quito by that afternoon at 6:00 pm.  More people called and stopped by.  Faby got my luggage zipped.  I was able to go to the Tienda to say one last goodbye to Carmen and her husband, Wilo.

Then, Margarita made a lovely soup for lunch and we sat down for a last meal together.  I was prepared for this.  From my first week with this family, I had been taking notes – literally.  For every fun event I wanted to remember, I wrote a note about it and stored these notes in a container.  During our lunch, I dumped my notes across the dining room table and one by one, we read from them aloud, laughing and remembering all of our good times together.  It was a very bittersweet moment, followed by traditional speeches of appreciation from Jose, Margarita and my other brother, Alex.  Then it was my turn.  I wasn’t very articulate.  I wanted to thank them all for taking a chance on me.  For opening their home and heart to me, for including me in their lives, for trusting me with their children and their extended family, for being patient with me and helping me practice my Spanish while learning about them, their country, their culture and myself.  They gave me such a wonderful space to heal, grow, learn, laugh and be, and for that, I will always be grateful.  And I made sure to tell them, that this wasn’t the last time they were going to see me.  With or without Peace Corps, I’d be back to Ecuador and someday, I want to show them my home country, too.  I promised, we will have many adventures ahead of us in our future.

After another round of hugs and tears, we were off to Quito and a quick good-bye in front of the hotel.  They had encouraged Pablo to stay home with Faby.  It was probably best.  It was so hard to turn away.

Monday Night, March 16
In the hotel conference room, about 80 of us volunteers were briefed on the bigger situation; over 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers from around the world were in the process of being evacuated out of their host countries due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.  Our service was officially being terminated.  I was eighteen days shy of completing my two years.  The reality was so overwhelming, but there was no time to dwell.  Because the Ecuadorian borders were now closed, tomorrow, us volunteers in the north were going to take a commercial flight from Quito to the city of Guayaquil, in the south.  There, it was planned that we would meet up with all other Volunteers from the south of the country to board a privately contracted charter flight to Miami.  We left the meeting at 10:00 pm ready to meet in the lobby by 7:00 am and board a bus to the airport.

Tuesday, March 17, 2:36 am
A bell-boy knocked on my hotel door to tell me that the bus was leaving in 10 minutes.  The city of Quito had declared a “Toque de Queda”, which means that it was going to be illegal to drive on the streets after 5 am.  Peace Corps had to get us to the airport immediately for our mid-day flights.

Dreary eyed, we entered the airport and waited.  It took three different flights to get us all from Quito to Guayaquil and upon arriving to that airport, we entered a contagion movie.  Every airport employee receiving us on the gangplank, and in baggage, was fully suited, masked and gloved.  They took our temperature with a laser beam from 12 feet away.  They squirted gel into our hands and watched us as we covered our hands and arms with it.  Once we passed this test, we were allowed to retrieve our bags and enter the airport where we waited another 5+ hours for our charter flight.  It was supposed to leave by 4pm, but the flight crew was having troubles getting to the airport because of the Toque de Queda in Guayaquil.  Finally, about 170 Peace Corps volunteers boarded the flight with other evacuees from Fulbright, study-abroad students, and US citizens connected to the US Ecuadorian Embassy.  Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers had only just arrived in Ecuador eight weeks prior for their training.  Others, only had a few days remaining.  The rest of us were looking forward to at least another year.  We all shared stories of difficult packing decisions and tearful goodbyes.  This wasn’t the way we wanted to end our service.  It was so heartbreaking for us all.

When we arrived in Miami, we headed to customs.  No employees in masks.  No gloves.  No gel stations.  We were all put into the customs room in a large group together.  As I stepped up to the official, I expected to answer questions regarding where I had traveled from, or where I was going.  But no.  He only wanted to know if I was carrying any agricultural products.  Their script was a little out of date.  It’s obvious the US was a little behind on their reaction to Covid-19.

Then, after 2 hours of waiting for mis-placed luggage, we finally shuttled to a nearby hotel at 2:00 am and sat on the curb waiting for the one employee to process each of us into a room.  After almost an hour of waiting and the line creeping slowly, one of our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders stepped up to the front desk and basically said that she wanted all the room keys; we were going to do this the Peace Corps way.  She walked outside, hollered to all of us to get in groups of four and to come get a key.  Almost all of us were in our rooms in the next 10 minutes.  Thank goodness.  I got 5 more hours of sleep to add to the five hours I had already gotten in the previous two nights.

Wednesday, March 18
I boarded a plane in Miami on my way to my brother and sister-in-law’s home.  I tried to concentrate on the fact that I had a loving and spacious place to go for my self-quarantine.  Many of my friends were headed to hotels to quarantine alone for the next fourteen days.

72 hours after receiving that fateful phone call to evacuate my Ecuadorian home, my plane touched down in my childhood home.

“Welcome to Chicago”, the pilot said.
A tear dropped in my lap.
“Ay Becky.”
“No te vayas!”