24 hours to leave Ecuador

I’m sitting at my gate at Guayaquil airport, trying to eat my breakfast. In a state of exhaustion and mindless hunger, I made the unfortunate choice to buy a cinnamon roll. It’s hot and delicious, but also completely drenched in a sticky chocolate sauce. I don’t have any cutlery, and even though the nice man selling it to me recommended that I take some napkins, I wanted to be sustainable and only took one. So now I have no other choice but to rip off parts of the cinnamon roll, and eat it with my bare hands while trying to use my one sacred napkin to make as little of a mess as I can. I notice the bewildered stares of the travelers around me, a mother tells her son who’s curiously trotting in my direction to come back. (“Luis, ven aqui!!”) I understand, we are in the middle of a pandemic and eating with your fingers isn’t the most hygenic thing to do, but I haven’t slept and I haven’t eaten and I will enjoy my breakfast now. 

Only 24 hours earlier, I didn’t even know I would be leaving Ecuador today. For a long time there was a huge uncertainty about the exact date of my departure, I actually had to change my flight three times. And then suddenly, everything happened very quickly. Of course you could say it started with the spread of covid-19 in China, but for me, it started on March 4th, when we received the message that our GCY re-entry training in San Francisco had been cancelled. This came as no big surprise, as a big gathering with people flying in from all over the world didn’t seem like a good idea to most of us. Eventually, it was decided that we would just fly home directly from Ecuador, and I booked a new flight to take me home on 5th April. 

On March 11th, GCY sent us an e-mail, deciding not to end the program early. It was left to the fellows and their families to decide whether they wanted to leave. I decided to stay until the end, since I had made plans to travel with my host family, and I wanted to be there for the 90th birthday of my host grandma at the end of March. A few hours after receiving the email, Trump announced a travel ban for people entering the US from European countries. GCY then decided to end the Senegal program early, since the majority of fellows would be traveling to the US via Europe. 

One day later, on March 12th, the WHO had declared covid-19 a pandemic, and we received an email stating that the program would end early for all GCY countries. Now, the goal was to get fellows out of the country before March 18th. I re-booked my flight for March 17th.

On Saturday, March 14th, I started the day with learning that Ecuador had announced that, in order to combat the health crisis, it would close its borders. From Sunday on, March 15th, foreign citizens would no longer be able to enter the country.

At first, this news didn’t seem too important to our situation, as all of us presumed that this would only concern entries, and we would still be able to leave the country as planned. 

We were wrong.

For the afternoon, I had invited 25 people for a dinner at my host family’s herbs factory. As part of my community project, a GCY requirement targeted to help improve an issue in your host community, I had organised a dinner to raise funds for the sterilization of street dogs in Paute. While waiting for the rest of the guests at around 4:30 pm, I got an email from the German embassy in Quito, with the not so calming title “Suspension of international air traffic”. 

My embassy told me there may be problems with leaving the country, and I should contact my airline ASAP to confirm that my flight will still operate as planned. I immediately called Diana, my amazing Team Leader, to let her know and asked her to call the airline for me. I wanted to stay calm, to believe that the new regulations would only apply to people entering Ecuador, but the fact that my embassy contacted me unnerved me. This email list was for crisis purposes only, and the last time I had heard from them was during the October 2019 protests.

We held the dinner as planned, I served the quinoa pizza my host dad was preparing for our guests, and for a few hours I forgot about the border situation. When I got home around 6:30 pm Diana let me know she had contacted my airline and they said my flight would go as planned, not to worry, they would let me know if anything changes. So far so good. We still decided to try changing the date to monday, to let me leave as soon as possible. As it turned out, it wasn’t possible to change the flight date online. I was still being told not to worry, the measures were only in place for people entering Ecuador. So we decided to stick with the initial flight date on the 17th.

It was now 7:30 pm, I still had a really bad gut feeling about this whole situation, so I decided to take a look at the Ecuador website of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany. Under the section: “Travel and safety information”, they always publish the newest information regarding travel in a certain country. 

I scanned the text and there it was, the confirmation of my worries: “Air traffic to Ecuador will cease on Sunday, March 15th, 2020, 11:59 pm, from Monday, March 16th, 2020, 11:50 pm there will also be no flights to leave the country.” 

This changed everything. We needed to get out ASAP. I called Diana again, and it turned out this information had been published nowhere else, they hadn’t heard about it yet.

I started looking at flights for Monday, without success: Iberia didn’t have flights for that day, neither did Delta or Lufthansa. KLM and United had flights for 2000-3000 USD. Often, only business class seats were still available. Not an option for us. 

I called the German embassy in Quito, no one picked up. They had an emergency number, no one picked up either.  I left the room to give my host dad the news and made myself some tea to calm down. It felt like adrenaline had taken over now, my brain had entered “survival mode”. In the meantime, the emergency number called me back and I got to speak with a lovely lady from the German embassy, who confirmed that foreigners wouldn’t be able to leave the country from Monday night on, but also told me I was a lucky case because I already had a flight. She told me to keep trying to change that flight’s date, and call her again if it doesn’t work. I was a bit relieved to have some sort of emergency contact now, and then had to update my host mom who had just come home. 

She first thought I’m joking, and then she was just as shocked as my host dad.

It was almost 9pm now, so we decided to have dinner. My host mom handed me the menu and smiled: “Choose anything you want. It’s your last dinner”. I ordered my beloved “Camaron al Coco”, but when it actually came, my appetite was not really there. Diana called me again. She had found and booked a flight for me. It’d be leaving at 11 in the morning from Guayaquil, meaning I had to leave from Cuenca at 5am, and from Paute at 3:30 am. So at 9pm  I got to know I have 8 hours left with my host family, 8 hours left of my GCY. 

That was a shock, but in this moment nothing felt real anymore. We finished our dinner, I gave them a photo album I had already made (sometimes being over-prepared pays off!!), and took one last shower. Thanks to me always stressing way too much and doing things way too early, I basically had already packed three days ago, and now only needed to do some little last things. I didn’t sleep that night, I spent it crying in disbelief that my life in Ecuador would actually be over in a few hours, and writing letters. 

At 3:30 am, I closed the door to my room one last time, and dragged my overweight hiking backpack out of the apartment into the cold air of the night. As we started the car, the radio turned on. The song playing was “Volveré”. How fitting. I was leaving Paute with tears in my eyes, but too exhausted to actually break down. We got to Cuenca and eventually found the garage of the minivan-operator that would take me to Guayaquil. It was 4:45 am now. As we were waiting for Diana, my host parents took a seat at the couch in the office. My host dad gestured at the space between them: “Ven aqui, sientate con tus papis” (Come here, sit with your parents). My heart sunk at the thought of having to leave them so soon, these incredibly kind people I had grown so close to over these past few months. 

Eventually, I said my goodbyes to my loved ones and the van drove off into the dark of dawn. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t cry either, just some sobs came out. We were passing through Cajas one last time, my eyes fixed on the silhouettes of the mountains and the clear, starry sky above them. Then I slowly dozed off and after what felt like the quickest 3.5 hours ever, we stopped at the entry of Guayaquil airport. 

After managing the cinnamon roll disaster, I board my 9 hour (or was it 11? time zones had me confused the whole time and I still am) flight to Madrid. The other passengers are a funny mixture of 50% Ecuadorians who live in Spain and are going back, and 50% German/European tourists trying to get home before they’re trapped. Almost all of the Ecuadorians are wearing face masks, almost none of the tourists are. I don’t have one and since I’m not sick, I also don’t need one. As we’re descending into Madrid airport, I brace myself for the stress that is about to begin. I now have 2.5 hours to go through immigration, get my luggage, change the terminal, drop off my luggage and check in for my new flight. It is 3 am as we land, and I haven’t really slept for over 24 hours. The immigration line goes faster than expected, I just get asked about my destination and then I run to the baggage claim. Turns out my hurry was completely unnecessary, because I ended up waiting almost an hour for my luggage to appear. My next problem presented itself quickly: the bus I had to take to the other terminal was completely full and too small to fit my trolley in it, so I had to carry all my luggage myself. And believe me, my hiking backpack was so overweight that it was not made for humans to carry it anymore. But I have no choice, so I somehow survive the busride, and hurry into the new terminal. I am now in a state of complete exhaustion and sleep deprivation, this terminal is very confusing, so I only find the security check. As I’m about to put my heavy backpack on the conveyor belt, I pause – “Wait, I have to check this in before, right?” The security guy nods, probably pitying me. He shows me how to get to the check-in. Regretting my life- and packing choices, I take the backpack again and run up the stairs, now definitely drenched in sweat. The lady is super nice and doesn’t even comment on the fact that my luggage is overweight, and I’m on my way to security again. The officer recognizes me and I get through. When I finally drop into my seat, the sun has risen, and I can’t believe I’m actually on my way to Munich, almost a month earlier than initially planned. 

To my surprise, there are neither pass controls nor any kind of health screenings when we arrive (even though we came from Spain!!), so I just walk through to the luggage claim, and then finally through the wide open doors, into the arms of my parents. 

At this point I want to say a huge thank you to my team leader Diana who handled this emergency situation so well and was actually the one to find me a new flight within hours to get me home! Gracias por todo y ojalá nos vemos en Europa! <3