Traveling Home in a Pandemic

As most of you know, we decided to leave Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina until it is deemed safe to return. We only have 3 months left of school, so we don’t know if that will happen or not, but of course we are hoping it does. It was a tough decision, as one cannot predict the future, but only make educated decisions for one’s own situation. We had many reasons to ultimately fly back to America, and I am content in our decision to do so.

It was a lot of back and forth, but the day I decided to purchase the tickets was Wednesday. The flight was for the next night. Within a few hours of purchasing the tickets that had us going from Sarajevo–>Istanbul–>San Francisco—>Boise, the SJJ to IST was canceled. I tried calling Turkish Airlines but every automated response had me redirected to the suggestion I call the booking agent. So, I call Orbitz, but after finally getting someone on the phone, they would hang up on me, “transfer” me to a response that said their systems were down, promise me they would call me back and not, or the person would say their computer wasn’t working. Finally, with this last person that was saying the same thing about her system update and nothing working, it was pretty obvious she just didn’t want to deal with the umpteenth customer trying to get their canceled flights sorted. It sounded like chaos in the background and she sounded rather defeated in a broad, “I’ve given up on this whole thing, but it’s my job so I’m going to sit on the phone and listen to people suffer,” kind of way. I ended up begging. Full-on begging. I said, my house is half packed, I have two kids, I need to get home. There may have been some borderline tears fighting themselves to the surface. She paused for a long time. I thought she hung up. Then she was like, “Uh, just a minute.” Then another long pause, maybe a minute or more, where I thought she had hung up again. This kind of went on for a while. She ended up saying that she could get me on a morning flight but it would put us in Istanbul for 22 hours. Without hesitating, I took it.

I kept packing. Frantically going through my things, my son’s things, my daughter’s things. I didn’t stop moving until around 11pm and had gotten rid of literally half of our things and packed what I could. I left some things that have meaning, like Christmas ornaments and children’s books that I have read hundreds of times to the kids. Toys, clothes, shoes. But, I filled eight bags, got the important documents that we needed, and our passports. Good enough. We may be coming back, we may not be. No matter. It wasn’t worth thinking too much about, to be honest. Stuff is stuff.

News was coming through of all the airlines canceling and suspending flights. More borders closing. More bans. More regulations. It was constant. But, we got ourselves to the Sarajevo Airport. There were maybe 50 people there to travel. I met a bunch of American basketball players flying out. I hung out with a family from the team. They had a little girl the same age as our daughter and they were insta-friends. We just kept telling them to stop touching the ground, to take their fingers out of their mouths, and shared enormous amounts of antibacterial hand wipes. So, I guess you could say the parents bonded, too. We boarded. More hand wipes for the trays. It felt pretty good to know that we were moving in the right direction once the plane took off. One leg of the journey was down.

When we landed in Istanbul, we saw this. All that yellow are canceled flights. Every time we looked, it was like this. Our flight remained on time. People were wearing masks, gloves, keeping their distance. We saw people crying, breaking down that they were stuck for an indefinite time in Istanbul. My husband went and asked the desk at least three times if our flight was still scheduled. They assured us it was, as long as our president didn’t change any laws overnight, which was a distinct possibility as we had already seen the 30-day ban enacted overnight that week.

Getting his math test done from the Istanbul airport hotel.
This girl is obsessed with washing her hands now.
Getting the next days assignments ready for class.

We found Yotel, Istanbul Airport’s hotel that is inside the airport. What a lifesaver that was. Showers, beds, wifi to do our online teaching. It was also far safer to stay away from others. All that distancing is real, you guys. After checking in, we got to work setting up assignments, correcting tests, and my husband live-streamed with his students. A friend of mine that I have been in contact about various concerns about getting home and flight options, asked what our flight number was for Istanbul to San Francisco. He had a great idea to track it and saw that it was en route to Istanbul so it was all moving along as it should. That helped for peace-of-mind. We got a full nights sleep; woke rested and nothing had changed with our flights.

They had sectioned off a space for people that were elderly or otherwise high risk for COVID-19. They wanted the rest of us to crowd in pretty tightly together in another section, so we set up camp on the side, far from others. We read and tried to get ourselves into a different world for a bit. I’m not going to lie, I considered putting some running shoes on and to take a lap or two around the airport. I decided to make this my rest day, instead.

Then, they moved us to another section. A few extra precautions were taken, but nothing major. We sat and waited, like you do in airports. We talked with some people–an American missionary coming home early from Russia, an elderly couple that weren’t taking any chances, a group of Indian women getting back to the US. They herded us all onto a bus, cramped and full of little kids with constant reminders from the nervous adults around them to take their fingers out of their mouth and that, no they couldn’t eat the snack they dropped on the floor. The bus stopped in front of the plane and then just didn’t open the doors for a long time. They left us on that bus for a painfully long time, everyone was looking at each other like, uh, do they know about the coronavirus?

We boarded and buckled up for a thirteen hour flight. We ended up being seated next to this early 20-something kid and his intoxicated father. Turns out they were cutting their trip to visit family in Bosnia short because of this whole thing. They had been through the exact same cancellations as we had and they were flying all the way to Boise with us. They were quite the comical pair. The kid was full of energy and awe, the dad equally energetic but with less surprise about what life was dishing out.

I got my tea and book. The kids got their much anticipated multiple movie showing. It kind of felt like every other flight we had been on but with more hand washing. We were going to make it to the US, without too much hassle at that.

We landed in SFO, rechecked our bags, heard people around us getting news of canceled domestic flights, and then got this notification:

It felt like we were just making it into the US by the skin of our teeth. Which, I suppose we were.

Not only this message, but news was coming in about stricter shelter-in-place requirements happening in San Francisco. Then there was the greater lock-down of all of California. Our flight to Boise was still on. It is kind of hard to explain the relief we felt that somehow we had been spared too many cancellations.

We flew over the now so familiar Boise landscape. We landed with a “Welcome to Boise. Please remember to get your luggage from the overhead bin.” And just like that, we were home.

Published by TaraRunsTheWorld

Launched in 2018 for people who love running and traveling. If you have a passion to explore while kicking it in your running shoes, this is the blog for you. You will learn about amazing races around the world, a little culture that goes along with traveling, and some everyday running advice. I've been running and traveling for over 12 years, and I would like to think I learned a few things along the way. When I moved overseas to teach in international schools, I not only fell in love with living abroad, but I also fell in love with discovering the world on foot. Enjoy and subscribe!

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