Vlogmas 2021: Wheels Up

For now, I’m sitting out COVID-19 in Alaska. I’ve been very lucky. March 2020, as the world shutdown, I was clueless at my site in Ethiopia. The talk at the time was about a possible consolidation, before the upcoming election. We were all debating on where in the region Peace Corps would send us, if we were asked to consolidate. Most volunteers believed we’d be kept in Ethiopia and sent to Addis Ababa, with fast and easy access to the embassy and airport. Others believed we’d be sent to a nearby island, Seychelles, Maldives, Madagascar, or maybe Zanzibar. The current situation in Tigray was not on our radar. We arrived in Ethiopia on the 17th of June. After a few day of orientation, in Addis Ababa, we traveled to the Southern Nations region, to begin our 12 weeks of training. The 2019 Amhara Region coup ‘d état attempt, killing two officials, happen the day after we arrived. A worldwide pandemic was the furthest thing from our minds.

Keeping Calm and Getting Thing Done

Now that the world is coming up on the two year anniversary of COVID-19, I’ve been looking back on my travels. I’m currently volunteering with Americorps for a second year, in Alaska. When most Americans think AmeriCorps, they immediately imagine a recent high school or college graduate, looking to find themselves, while serving the greater good. And to be fair, I’m the only senior citizen serving in my cohort. When I applied, I didn’t know there was a separate program for seniors. As it turns out, AmeriCorps Seniors is the nation’s largest volunteer network for those 55 and older. I simply signed up for the regular program, following a friend from Peace Corps Ethiopia.

From Los Angeles to Dayton (Ohio) to Durham (North Carolina) and then back to Alaska.

With Las Vegas set to fully reopen last June 1, I decided to fly there, once my first year of Americorps service ended, last May. For $400.00, I could fly from Sitka to Las Vegas, one-way, in first class. Unsure about flying via coach, I thought it was my best option. California was also set to reopen in June. The plan was to fly from Vegas to LAX and stay with a friend who had been under California’s Stay-at-Home Order since March 2020. She worked from home via Zoom. From Los Angeles, I would head to Ohio. There, in the basement of my godson’s home, was the suitcase I left, in 2017, before leaving for Peace Corps Armenia. The final stop was Duke Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Having turned sixty-five, over the summer, I needed to have my Welcome to Medicare physical exam. After serving in Armenia and Ethiopia, I just wanted to do the exam at Duke. I worked there from 2002 until 2017. If I picked up anything, while overseas, Duke would find it and cure it.

Americorps Year One August 2020 – May 2021

When I arrived in Sitka, August 2020, Public Health Officials listed 40 resident COVID-19 cases, 17 non-resident cases, and 1 hospitalization. There was a mask mandate and some of the restaurants and shops were closed. My volunteer site was at the Kindergarten and 1st grade school. It never closed. There was a week or so when the school went remote and teachers taught from their classrooms to our students at home. The dorm I lived in with fellow Americorps members was next to a national park. I was allowed to hike anywhere. I had a friend with a boat. Fitted out with masks and life jackets, we’d go looking for whales. When winter arrived, so did the darkness. It was dark when I walked to work and it was dark by the time I returned home. I would just stay in my room and avoid everyone.

Ninety days in a COVID-19 bubble

Prior to Alaska, I spend three months in Hawaii. I flew there from Ethiopia. Hawaii was my Home of Record. So, that’s where Peace Corps sent me, after the March 2020 worldwide evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers. A friend in Honolulu put me up in her two bedroom condo. I was given the room with its own bathroom. My friend has graduate degrees in Public Policy and Public Health. She worked in Northern California during the A.I.D.S. crisis. So, although I had no idea of what I was flying home to, I knew she’d have a plan once I got there. Being in Hawaii while the COVID-19 numbers were low, I could walk for exercise. The beach was open for swimming or surfing. We cooked at home and wiped down everything we brought into the condo. My COVID-19 bubble began then and there.

Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, lounge and business class

My evacuation call came early on a Monday. I was to tell no one at my site. I was told to not go to my teaching assignment, but to travel to my Hub Town and close my bank account. I should also notify the Post Office. Then, on Tuesday, make my way to Addis Ababa. In addition, I was not to tell other Peace Corps volunteers. I arrived in Addis Ababa the following day. By then, the plan to get seniors and volunteers with certain medical conditions back to the USA had failed, too many other Peace Corps countries without a direct route home needed to fly out of Addis Ababa. I would spend four nights in Addis Ababa, waiting for volunteers in Ethiopia and five or six other countries to arrive. I was on the first of three chartered planes.

Clueless and on vacation in Zanzibar

During the school break, early in February, (one month before COVID-19 hit the USA) I traveled to Stone Town, Zanzibar. After five months at my permanent site, I needed a vacation. Zanzibar would be my first. The following April, I planned to fly to Istanbul with two of my Peace Corps friends. Maybe later that summer, if the June election went well, I would finally make my way to The Seychelles. In 1986, I met someone from there, while I was vacationing in Key West. The July birthday trip was my pre Peace Corps get away. I would leave for Kenya in October. And so it was there, in Key West, that I promised to go to The Seychelles, at some point during my two years of service. I never did. I barely had the funds to go to Malindi and Lamu. Once on the Kenya coast, I would dream of taking a dhow to Zanzibar or The Seychelles. It would take more than thirty years to make my way to Zanzibar. The Seychelles are still a promise. The ticket to Istanbul wasn’t refunded. I received a credit, on Ethiopian Airlines, good until April 2021.

Addis Ababa near Peace Corps HQ

It took me months to figure out how to get from the Peace Corps hotel to Peace Corps Headquarters. First off, unlike Armenia, I wasn’t allowed to leave site as often and needed an official reason to travel to Addis Ababa. The Peace Corps Armenia staff was all about “Get out and see Armenia!” Each Friday, at 2:00 pm, volunteers were free to leave site. We needed to return by sundown on Sunday. That was it! In Ethiopia, volunteers “could” only leave site twice a month. I was allowed to travel from Kotu to my Hub Town in Debrre Birhan (an hour by bus) to shop, fetch mail at the post office, and go to the bank. I would often stay overnight and get a shower. By evacuation, I knew my Hub Town very well and I knew how to walk, in Addis Ababa, from the Peace Corps hotel (the local hotel we stayed on official business) to headquarters. It took me all of 30 minutes. I also figured out how to get there by bus. I had it all down, then my service was cut short, by eighteen months.

Arriving in Ethiopia, June 2019

I can still remember leaving Armenia, May 15th, 2019. I needed a certain test for malaria countries that I couldn’t get there. The plan was to fly to the U.S. and do the exam at Duke Medical. I did the test, but Duke had to send it to the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota. I needed to clear medical for Ethiopia, by June 7th and then report to staging, in Arlington, Virginia, by June 15th. I’d been trying to serve in Peace Corps Ethiopia since watching the Live Aid concert, July 1985. Now, I was so close and yet quickly running out of time. I think I cleared on the 5th. I arrived in Virginia a few days early. I got myself into the new Smithsonian African American Museum without a reservation and then walked over to the National Archives to have a short chat with AOTUS (Archivist of the United States).

Then, a month after leaving Armenia, it was wheels up and time to head to Ethiopia. Nine months later, I was under a 21 day self quarantine, in Honolulu. What were the odds? —GGT

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