On 3/17/2020, I was scheduled to travel with Christ UMC Venice, Fl for a medical mission trip. They were to arrive 3/19/2020 and set up clinics in 3-4 communities around Santiago where we serve. Their last trip (and mine) was in October 2019 and we left supplies with plans to return in March. I remember being at work on 3/6/2020 and calling UMVIM and the Florida UM Conference and asking them about this new virus and if it would impact our travels the next week. At the time, they could not answer any of my questions. They knew as much as the rest of us did at the time.
As information spread around this new virus called COVID-19, the team leader made the decision to cancel the trip. I, hesitant but cautious, followed their lead and canceled my flights. As we now know, on 3/16/2020 (at least for Illinois), our worlds changed forever.
Over the next two and a half years, I watched COVID-19 cases rise and fall. Each time they fell in the US, they rose in the Dominican Republic (DR). In 2020, we learned of two church members, Iluminada and Alberto, who lived part time in the DR and part time in New York, both contracted Covid and both passed. I was heart broken as they had been church members, neighbors of Sairy, and a couple I adored being in their presence. Of course the cases didn’t stop there. Sairy, Francisco, Felix, Frank and Luis all contracted it at some point. Feeling helpless in the states, we provided money for Sairy to get food to the communities in need. Safely dropping the food at church members doors, who could then disburse it to their community.
As access to vaccines started to increase in the US and the DR, I talked numerous times with Sairy around the safety of travel. I was immobilized by fear of carrying Covid into the country and in my time here, unknowingly passing it to communities without access to the vaccine (like Cuesta Arena). As 2021 came to a close, the numbers spiked again, making even a trip in 2022 feel out of the question. As the omicron variant spread in the US, it spread simultaneously in the DR. In a time that felt hopeless for many, the simultaneous spread gave me hope of a window of opportunity to travel.
As February 2021 came to a close, it appeared to seem possible to travel again. My tickets from March 2020 were set to expire April 21, 2022. It was now or never. I book my flights and nervously packed my bags, including a mask (or two) for every day of the trip.
I have to say the hardest part of the day of travel was wearing the mask from 10am to 10pm. I can’t complain because I know doctors wear them extensive periods of time and many people in Covid wore them longer, but for me as a “work at homer”, this was a lengthy period of time. Other than the mask, some of the other travel experiences that were new for me were filling out the customs paperwork to enter the DR, electronically and before I checked into my flight in Chicago. Frustrated at first, that I was not informed ahead of time, I later came to appreciate the lack of hassle it was entering the country. The app provided a QR code that was easily scanned in country upon exit. I’m told leaving the country uses the same app and process, hopefully making exiting as easy as entry. (Www.Eticket.migracion.gob.do)
Lastly, our one free bag (which we used for mission supplies) now costs $30/checked bag. I can’t say I’m surprised as DR was one of the last countries to maintain the free checked back in the Caribbean. It was good while it lasted. Other than those few changes, most of the travel was the same as pre-Covid.
A week before arrival, Sairy informed me the country had dropped the mask mandate. Cautious, I told her I would still wear one, fearful I would not be able to enter the US if I had a positive test. Upon arrival on Friday night, Sairy, poppi, and Henry picked me up and we traveled to Sairy’s new house in Gurabo, a suburb of Santiago, close to La Islita. Her new house is beautiful with a patio and gardens. It is located within a guarded entry, making it safe to go for walks in the morning (with numerous other neighbors).
On Saturday we got up and walked the neighborhood and Sairy talked with me about what it was like for them during Covid. Like the US, Covid changed many things about the DR and they are experiencing many of the same increased mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse, etc. In the afternoon, we traveled to Los Cocos where we met up with some of the youth in the community for a volleyball game and bible study. There are lots of new faces but so many familiar faces. I traveled with mask in hand but even my over protected self, never felt crowded or unsafe. Being outside and socially distant, I did not feel the need to be masked. Even the Dominican greeting of a kiss on each cheek was reduced to a fist bump.
Sunday was, of course, worship and the gathering of all the communities under one roof. Some members had their masks on but everyone continued to respect social distancing and fist bumps were available for everyone. I joined Kendys upstairs for Sunday school with the little ones and returned for worship, sitting next to Juan(citó) for worship. It felt so good to be back at home and for an instant, it felt like no time had passed. Then I opened my eyes and saw how big the littles had gotten.
Monday we traveled to Cuesta Arena and again, with mask in hand, I never felt the need to use it. Everything in Cuesta Arena is outside, even the school with open windows and doors. Parents naturally spaced themselves apart for the parent meeting. Cognizant that it had been two and a half years (almost the age of the kids in the school) since I had returned, outside a few of my babies (who are now teenagers and/or married), I knew many of the kids did not know who I was. Some kept their distance with “stranger danger” awareness and some eagerly greeted me with a ball or other toy to play with, excited to have the attention of some foreigner.
Though I am only half way through my trip, I felt it was important to blog around the safety I have felt post Covid traveling. I am anxious about Covid testing 24 hours before my flight, but outside of that, I have had little anxiety, uneasiness or safety concerns. Sairy and I continue to brainstorm around the once simple things such as sleep arrangements, travel, and community events with groups. Church members regularly pull me aside to ask about past missionaries by name, where they live, what they are up to, and always when they are returning for a visit. They have truly missed us missionaries. Not for the monetary work that we have done but for the friendships, laughs, and love that has been shared and enjoyed by each individual.
I remember in 2009 when I first traveled with Al and Nancy and the groups from Pennsylvania and Ohio. They shared stories with me of the youth in the community and how much they had changed and grown. I now share those same stories with their children. In many cases, a generation restarts every 15-20 years. In Cuesta Arena, we are beginning to see a different generation. One that started in our school and now adore going to school, reading, and have dreams of a career. The fruit of the labor is evident but that is just one generation. I can’t wait to see what this next generation has in store and how the generations ahead of them are going to lead them to be.
For reference, in January 2022, the US embassy travel advisory was still a level 4 for danger. In March 2022, it dropped to a level 3 and in April 2022, it dropped to a level 2. The lowest it had been in two years.