Past the international baggage claim, an unused security area in Houston’s George Bush International airport looked outrageously big — its gaping confines made larger by an impossibly tall ceiling that felt as though clouds could form inside.
I’d been through this airport many times, and now I wondered: had it always been so cavernous?
Without foot traffic to create its normal humming soundtrack, each step seemed to resonate as I walked through this bizarre expanse. The voices of a single employee and a single other traveler bounced off the lofty metal beams and echoed throughout the chamber.
As I walked in their direction, I didn’t bother to get closer than 50 feet away.
“Am I going out this way for connecting flights?” I asked in a normal speaking voice, yelling being completely unnecessary, as I pointed toward automatic doors. My instincts had been dumbed by the lack of the typical stream of moving bodies.
The airport worker answered in the affirmative, and as she did, the only other passenger in this yawning space breezed past me.
“We’re going to terminal C,” she said. “Let’s go.”
We were two commuting strangers, suddenly linked together as human explorers in a dystopian future not unlike scenes from movies about the end-of-the-world.
Two days earlier, I had woken up without any concrete plans to leave El Salvador, where I’ve lived and worked for the last nine months writing and creating a new docu-series episode.
Since El Salvador, struggling like every country to contain the spread of Coronavirus, closed its only international airport and instigated a national quarantine, enforced by the military and police, I’ve kept my eye on the “evacuation” flights executed by the U.S. State Dept. and a handful of private airlines, most at a wildly elevated cost per seat.
For over a month, I mulled — wondering if it was smart to leave or if I even wanted to. El Salvador is as close as I have to a home at the moment. It’s the only place where I have what feels like my own space — a cozy apartment with a petite balcony overlooking an Antiguo Cuscatlán valley. I had work — most recently trekking to the hills surrounding Santiago Nonualco, and I felt useful, fortunate to have the opportunity to volunteer with distributing food and writing about the residents I met there. What’s more, the number of infection cases in El Salvador remain relatively low at just 237 as of Wednesday.
But there were other considerations, too. Cases, of course, are only one measure of feeling safe, and with near martial law in effect, movement even with the proper paperwork and passes was difficult and nerve-wracking at points. (Since I’ve returned, restrictions have only mounted. On Saturday, the city of La Libertad was completely shut down, 100 percent of businesses closed and president Nayib Bukele announced that no one could leave their homes, even with good reason.) I worried about the rising number of arrests and quarantine center inhabitants, and more sharply, about what would happen if the mandates extended months, with so many in the country unable to feed themselves or their families, and what not having any rights or status would look like in that scenario. I wondered if the U.S. would always allow citizens to repatriate or if at some point, in some possible future outcome, the borders might close entirely. I wondered what I’d do if someone in my close group of family and friends got sick.
Hardest to express were the feelings of isolation and distance. In the midst of a global pandemic that I’ll be the first to admit has shaken me in ways I couldn’t have predicted, I had that certain instinct to retreat to my nucleus — to be in my own country, around my closest people, navigating this great unknown amidst my native culture and language.
So on Monday, when it appeared that the trickle of evacuation flights had slowed and I realized the last scheduled trip was on Wednesday, I sat and thought for an hour and then booked it — a whopping $800 ticket for a one-way to Los Angeles. (Representatives at United Airlines and Eastern Airlines, the companies scheduling repatriation flights from El Salvador, and at the U.S. embassy told me they couldn’t say for sure if any more flights would follow; however since then, more have indeed been scheduled.)
The next forty hours were a blur of rapidly cleaning out my apartment, packing, printing commute documents and giving away all my food to my friend Alejandro, bumping elbows with only one of so many friends whom I don’t know when I’ll see again. I walked, tearfully, through my neighborhood, saying goodbye to shop owners that I’ve come to know, buying one last Beduino from Oasis juice shop, one last to-go bag of pupusas for my final meal in town.
Then, by 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, I was at the closed San Salvador airport, existing in a state of deviance.
By all appearances, our flight to Houston was the only aircraft leaving from San Salvador at that hour, but officials still allowed us entry into the airport only a few at a time, checking our temperature and guaranteeing space in the check-in lines.
We had been warned, ahead of time, to bring any food and water we might need as not even a vending machine was still functioning. We walked through indiscernible corridors featuring one closed metal grate after another, herded straight into the gate area, which felt odd, but, I supposed, there was literally nothing else to do before we piled onto the surprisingly full plane.
Having distanced our way through the airport experience, we were suddenly all smashed together in an enclosed metal tube; when we deplaned, the idea of spacing was disregarded completely, elbows and hands everywhere, faces too close as we erupted into IAH, chasmal customs lines with a woman at the entrance defeatedly informing us that we could just throw away our customs forms, we wouldn’t need them anymore.
I had the feeling of being trapped in a museum after dark, of being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. The concourse shuttles whizzed past but didn’t stop, their empty glass vestibules without destination.
Once in the proper terminal, I found one of a handful of fast food pods that remained open; a bagel shop, a taco stand and a Wendy’s, where I ordered a singles with cheese and settled into a conversation from across a long table with a older flight attendant named Emerson, who just so happened to grow up in Corozal, the Belizean town where I’d stayed a couple of months at the beginning of 2019.
“It’s bizarre,” Emerson said. “I worked a flight last week that had only one passenger.
“It’s hard to even imagine when it will go back to normal.”
Wandering closer to my gate, I found another another open pod, this time where I could buy a beer and sit in a food court, the fullest place I’d yet seen, watching other travelers and wondering what reason they had to be partaking in this strange shared experience.
I’d traveled only 1,700 miles, but it felt like I’d done so within another dimension, a post-modern world in which humanity was endangered and with daylight streaming through the windows, it was still the dead of night.
As soon as I’d thought it I realized: well, it’s kind of true.
In LA, it really was late at night when I arrived, and my friend whom I’m staying with picked me up and drove us, in record time, down empty highways, through pointless stoplights, to Santa Monica — my new, unexpected home, at least for the moment.
A nomad abroad for almost two years, I knew that now my travel had abruptly stopped, my journey and plans, like those of so many others, dismantled and dangling at the whim of a global pandemic no one saw coming.
But I saw, simultaneously, that I was at the start of another journey, a plot twist of a chapter I had no idea how to write the ending for, but I knew would be full of transformation and change.
The next morning, I took a walk, noting familiar palm trees rising above a setting that had drastically changed. My new reality.
I adjusted my mask, and headed toward the ocean.