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  • Writer's pictureCheryl

Escape From Spain-Yes, I'm a Boomer and Yes, My Kids Were Right-I Should Have Come Home Sooner

It doesn’t sink in until we see that our fellow travellers are wearing Tyvek suits, gloves, masks and face shields—we have waited too long to leave Spain.

Now, the departures area of the Madrid–Barajas Airport looks more like the set of Contagion than an international travel hub. But we’re lucky to be here at all. With border closings spreading as fast as COVID-19, getting a flight to Canada wasn’t easy.

Some travellers take the threat much more seriously than others.
Taking no chances.

But the biggest hurtle to getting home? Disbelief.

It began when we were still in Cuba. Or rather it didn’t begin. Even when another student at the language school I was studying at in Havana brought a news report explaining that a new virus ravaging Wuhan, China was now spreading in Italy, it all seemed a long ways away from sunny, laidback Cuba.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t something that was going to stop my husband and I from continuing onwards to Spain as planned.

Quintessential Spain

Arriving in Madrid, everything seemed normal. The city was alive; crowds of locals and tourists engulfed bars and restaurants, while outdoor cafes boomed. Museums were packed. And according to the manager of our Airbnb, this new coronavirus was only causing Italians to cancel their reservations.

No sense of impending danger at all

We watched as thousands of soccer fans filled stadiums in Madrid and thousands more people poured into the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day. Feeling confident that all was well in Spain, we continued onto Toledo, where we were swept up in crowded celebrations trying to get to our hotel.

No warnings regarding crowds

Crowds fill the streets for Women's Day

But just as people we’re filling the streets in Spain, dire warnings were filling my inbox. Stories of hospitals being overwhelmed in Italy, lockdowns in China and quarantine in South Korea.

“You're old,” our eldest daughter calls to tell us. I am not impressed and I tell her in no uncertain terms that I’m not that old. She disagrees and tells me I’m in the demographic most likely to succumb to this new disease and that Spain will eventually close its border and impose quarantine.

To me, it seems like a dire prediction, an over-reaction. She tells me to Google #goodbyeboomer. I’m not impressed by this either, but I’m not worried because everything seems so normal.

Truthfully, our kids had started asking us to cancel our plans weeks earlier and we did scratch Italy off the list early on. The trip was supposed to recreate a portion of one taken 45 years earlier, in honour of my husband’s seventieth birthday—maybe we are old?

It wasn’t that we didn't take their concerns seriously, it was what we were reading and what we were seeing just didn’t add up. Schools had been closed in Spain, but other than that people were still going about their daily lives. Only the rare person was wearing a mask and people were lining up for museums and galleries. There was no panic buying and there were no empty shelves.

Activities continue on as normal in the plazas

We bought advance train tickets for Segovia and our children hit the roof. The messages were fast and furious; Aren't you reading the news? COVID-19 cases are exploding! Don’t you understand how dangerous it is? You have to flatten the curve, you’re putting yourself at risk—you need to come home now.

Indication of a problem begins

More signs appear, this one at metro stations

We called them and promised to keep monitoring the situation. If there was anything ominous we’d come home. They said if we waited any longer it might be too late to leave and began sending us a dozens of messages, my phone was buzzing so much the battery was running low.

That ominous sign came to us at the Prado Museum the next day. The museum grounds were empty, no tour buses were waiting for tourists and there was no ticket lineup. Instead, there was a heavy police presence and satellite trucks. It’s then that I see the sign—a literal sign.

This is as close as we get to the art in the Prado Museum

“In accordance with the competent authorities to contain the coronavirus, (COVID-19), all the museum venues will be closed to the public from the 12th of March until further notice.”

I'm approached by a local radio station wanting to get visitor reaction to the spreading of COVID-19 and subsequent closures. I agree to an interview, but don’t know what to say, because I don’t really know what to think of the closures. We’d travelled in Spain while Francisco Franco was dying and chaos reigned, how could a mere virus bring this country to its knees?

Local radio station interview

That evening it's announced all parks will also close. Well, we thought, perhaps those measures will suffice and life will carry on. We still couldn’t believe what was happening. Looking at all the traffic and crowded streets, neither could anyone else.

Ritiro Park, Madrid

We awake the next morning to a suddenly eerie, too quiet city. The papers say restaurants and bars will close at day’s end. We read that flights are being cancelled and that borders may close. In the space of one week, Spain had gone from carefree and unrestricted to a national lockdown. For the first time, I feel panic gurgling up as normalcy crumbles away. Our brains just aren’t equipped for this, how can they be?

We need to get home, but already the remaining flights disappear before we can finish our bookings. Other flights are thousands of dollars more than they were a couple days earlier and the only affordable option remaining includes an iffy connection through the Dominican Republic. We book it.

It’s during my last, sleepless night in Spain that I begin to delve into why we, along with thousands of others, didn’t see the storm on the horizon. Still, it doesn’t really feel real, not even as we make our way to the airport through a shuttered and empty city the next day.

Obviously, it wasn’t real for many Spaniards either. Airport masks and Tyvek suits aside, the flight to Punta Cana is about 70 percent full. So much for the Spanish government’s directive to avoid all non-essential travel.

At the airport in Punta Cana, a man in a hazmat suit checks the temperature of each passenger. But I can’t think about it too much, we just need to make it out of the chaos and catch our next flight. Staff are confused by our lack of hotel bookings on the island and we explain we are en route to Canada as the minutes tick by.

After what seems like a lifetime, we make it past customs. Several wrong lines later, we arrive at the Air Transat counter. Wrong again. It’s then we hear the announcement, our plan is boarding. We set off running and hit a slow-moving security line, or maybe it just seems slow. We make it to our gate with seconds to spare.

When we touch down in Toronto, I mentally prepare for more hazmat suits and enhanced screening, but we’re shocked to find it’s business as usual at Pearson International. The automated system only asks if we've travelled to China, Iran, or Italy.

Pearson International-customs agents are wearing no protective equipment

It turns out Spain closed its borders and imposed quarantine a few hours after we left, as COVID-19 cases exploded. But in Canada, we’re not asked about travel to Spain.

We volunteer that we'd just flown-in from Madrid. The CBSA officer was surprised, because the flight was from Punta Cana, but he seemed unconcerned saying only that he hoped we didn't have to pay too much to get the flight home. We’re handed an info-sheet on the Coronavirus and sent on our way.

Back at home, there’s no denial now, no disbelief. The world is in the grip of a pandemic and every one of us will have to change how we live and work.

Now we’re out of self-isolation, having escaped without being touched by the virus, the most painful part having to tell our children they were right.

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