Our COVID-19 Evacuation

After nearly 3 years of traveling internationally, 35 countries and 54,000 miles later (that’s the equivalent of flying all the way around the world twice), we are back in the United States (for now). Our plans were cut short due to COVID-19, but these are strange days for all of us. This pandemic has impacted everyone everywhere, and this is our story.

The Pandemic Declaration

When the pandemic declaration hit, we were in Albania. Each day, we were eagerly reading updates on the news doing our best to keep informed. At first, things didn’t seem so bad. I remember travel bloggers talking about great deals on flights and how they were planning their next trip. Back in those days, we were eyeing the Greek islands for Collie’s spring break (you know … before all the borders started slamming shut).

Albania was one of the first countries to lockdown in Europe, trying to flatten the curve. If you don’t know where Albania is, it’s just above Greece and just to the right of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. With this, we had a front-row seat to the situation in Italy and how quickly things escalated and changed for the worse.

From Bad to Worse

We knew it was serious when we heard reports that Italy had 600+ deaths per day, and with that volume, they were unable to cremate the bodies quickly enough to keep up. This forced them to use military vehicles to transport the bodies of the dead from the north of the country to the south in order to cremate them fast enough.

To add to this, they cut off medical services to anyone over 80, and they were considering lowering the age to 75. Our hearts were so heavy as we grieved for this beautiful country, a place that we had loved visiting and roamed freely throughout less than 1 year ago. It’s hard to believe that things change so quickly.

Often overlooked, Albania is just above Greece and just to the right of Italy.

Lockdown in Albania

When this happened, Albania took swift action. They are a transitioning economy (hoping to one day join the European Union), but their healthcare system is weak. We knew that if it broke out badly in Albania, it would be a terrible situation, but thankfully they took swift action.

Albania initiated curfews, social distancing rules, closed all business, and did their best to shut down life in Albania while we did our best to decipher Google’s shoddy translation of the Prime Minister’s announcements on Facebook. We did not want to miss an announcement and get fined 1,000€ for breaking the ever-changing rules!

It was entertaining to watch the restrictions evolve daily, trying to enforce social distancing. At first, they closed the schools, but then the students all went to hang out at the coffee bars. Then they closed the coffee bars, which drew people to the public parks and squares. Next, they shut down the parks, and so we’d see groups of elderly men with sack lunches hanging out by their cars in the street. Finally, they just forbade anyone being outside for any reason (except for a small period of time when the curfew would lift).

Most of the flights in Istanbul were canceled. There were 7 screens filled with canceled flights.

The Evacuation

We had planned to ride out COVID-19 in Albania, but as the world spun more and more out of control, Daniel’s work asked us to return home. We are so thankful for the flexibility that we have enjoyed to work from anywhere in the world and to travel. It’s been so good for us, for our marriage, and for our professional development. We didn’t want to push our luck, and so we gladly complied with their request.

Our evacuation was a whirlwind. Things were changing so quickly, we booked our tickets late Friday night and were on the plane by Sunday 8AM. We packed up our lives in less than 36 hours. We were used to living out of a few suitcases, but with more than 6 months in Albania, we had accumulated a few things. Plus, we were planning to stay in Albania, so we had 2 weeks of food and water stockpiled in case either of us became ill to limit the spread.

We were on one of the last planes out of Albania loaded down with 200 pounds of luggage (thank you, Turkish Airlines for the generous free baggage allowance!). Luckily, on both legs of our journey, we had an entire row on the plane to ourselves. With all the chaos, it was nice being able to stretch out and to enjoy some movies (you should see “Ford vs Ferrari” … it’s great!).

Arriving in America

Our first US meal: Chipotle.

When we arrived in the states, we were shocked (and dismayed) at the lack of screening for COVID-19. We landed in Atlanta, Georgia, and many travel restrictions were already in place. On the plane, we filled in a form that asked lots of questions about if you were having any symptoms, where you’re sitting on the plane, where you have been, etc.

Nobody collected that form.

Nobody was screening for temperature. Nothing. All they asked was, “where are you flying from.” We said, “Albania.” “Welcome home.” That was it.

After being so near the devastation in Italy, we weren’t taking any chances. We choose to self-isolate and quarantine for 14 days (partially convinced we were going to get sick from the airport and plane). Thankfully though, both of us have been completely healthy.

Gratitude for the past

Throughout our travels, we always knew that this was a unique, privileged time. As US citizens, we have powerful passports that allow us to simply show up and walk into nearly any country on the planet (well, for at least 3 months at a time).

As many of Daniel’s coworkers know, for many countries, things are substantially more complicated with extensive visa requirements, screenings at the embassy, and even sometimes having to prove to the embassy that you really did return to your home country after the trip is over.

We journeyed through lands that had been war-torn less than 30 years ago with buildings that still bear the scars of bullets. These are parts of the world that our parents and grandparents never imagined that they would be able to visit. We freely roamed as welcomed guests with warm hospitality. It gives me fresh hope for parts of the world today that are torn apart by conflict.

What’s next?

We have no idea what the future holds. I mean, our ability to know the future is always limited, but now we are all oh so painfully aware of this reality.

We’ve landed in Missouri for now, and we’re looking forward to visiting with Collie’s family once the quarantine lifts and making our way around the US to reconnect with our friends and family.

The future of travel and tourism is quite uncertain at the moment. It’s insane to think that this has devastated the airline and travel industries more than 9/11.

Like all of us, there are things we are grieving. We had some beautiful plans this summer. Dreams of road trips through Eastern Europe: North Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Romania. There were sites to be seen, friends to be made, and all of that isn’t meant to be now.

This is not how we pictured returning to the states. We had visions of grand plans, road trips, and homecomings with friends and family. Social distancing was definitely not a part of the plan. Still, we are safe, we are well, and we are so grateful for each day and every gift we receive from God.

Stay tuned for what crazy ideas we think of next.