January 28, 2020 | LIFE | By Josh Kalenga | Illustration by Sydney Morris

The pandemic has torn the world apart in more ways than one. Personally, I have felt its effects mostly in the complications it has caused for travel and the isolation that can entail when you live 9,173 miles away from home.

I missed my brother’s wedding and I missed additions to the family — cute little baby cousins, I missed birthdays and more birthdays, I lost precious time with many of my favorite people on the planet.

In Dec. 2021, as I prepared to travel back to my hometown — Lusaka, Zambia — for the first time in two and a half years, I decided to try to capture in real-time the anxiety, frustration, and (sometimes) relief that comes with international travel at this stage of the pandemic.

9:30 p.m. Dec. 29, 2021 (Downtown Denver)

I am panicking because I’m still awaiting my PCR COVID-19 test result from over a day ago. Without it, I won’t be able to board the plane.  

A rapid PCR test at a nearby clinic in Denver costs $185. It’s pricey but getting back home feels priceless. They promise to deliver the results within 30 minutes, so I have set up an appointment for 9:45 a.m. tomorrow. Since there’s still a chance that results from the PCR test I took a day ago will filter in before check-in time tomorrow, I wonder if $185 is the price of unnecessary comfort.

I called the airline, Lufthansa, a few hours ago. Since I’m flying through South Africa, they said, I need to have a PCR test result ready by the time I board the plane in Denver (even though it’ll be about 22 hours later when I arrive in Johannesburg).

Despite my anxiety, the best I can do right now is go to bed and wait to re-assess the situation tomorrow. If the last two-and-a-half years have taught me anything, it’s that the world has a life, a plan of its own …

10:36 a.m. Dec. 30, 2021 (Downtown Denver)

“Your results are ready!” The email pops up just as I open my computer to anxiously write an update.

I click to view results. In my panic to get a test, I had forgotten that the content of the result matters too. Deep breath.

“Negative.”

The 30-minute PCR test didn’t exactly live up to its promise, but the hour turnaround time has done plenty to alleviate my stress. As I was taking the test an hour ago, the clinic staff warned that results could no longer be guaranteed within 30 minutes due to a shipping delay.

My panic was compounded by the fact that I still haven’t received my test result from the other test that I took nearly two days ago.

But now that I have a negative test result, I can take a little more comfort. Still, somehow, I anticipate more challenges on the journey home …

4:53 p.m. Dec. 30, 2021 (Denver International Airport)

5 seconds. That’s how long the Lufthansa staff looked at my COVID test as I checked in. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of it all. The result of the other test that I took (the one from two days ago) still hasn’t been entered. Oh, how glad I am that I spent extra money on the rapid PCR test.

The $185 test was the price of making it home (on top of the regular costs of travelling). I guess the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated inequality extend to travel too.

For now, all that’s left is to board the plane for the 10-hour flight to my first stop — Frankfurt, Germany.

2:15 p.m. Dec. 31, 2021 (Frankfurt Airport)

It’s the last day of the year. I had no idea. This trip can be disorienting like that.

Time sped by — since Frankfurt is 8 hours ahead of Denver, my 10-hour flight has moved me 18 hours forward.

But time also takes its time, particularly during my 10-hour layover. There’re some fun things to do in the Frankfurt airport — movies to watch, Xbox to play, etc. — but I barely have enough energy to walk. I opt instead to sit in a relatively comfortable section called the “Leisure Zone” and write.

The clock says 2 p.m. but my body feels like 6 a.m.

For the most part, people in the airport and on the flight observed mask rules. As stressful as my travel experience has been so far, I take some comfort in knowing that most other people are taking the pandemic seriously too.

A positive outlook as I try to drift to sleep. Next stop: Johannesburg, South Africa …

5:51 p.m. Jan. 1, 2022 (South African airspace) 

Is it possible to miss your flight after a 10-hour layover? I nearly did. After my 10-hour flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, I arrived in South Africa dreading yet another 10-hour layover that would take my total time spent flying/in airports to 40 hours.

I was also dreading having to transfer my bag myself since Lufthansa doesn’t recognize the Zambian airline I’m using for my final flight home — Proflight. But transferring my bag did mean that I could go through immigration and was free to see Johannesburg beyond O.R. Tambo International Airport for the first time in my life!

I feel so close to home.

I’m also exhausted. The toll of the 40-hour trip (soon to be 42 hours) is taking its toll.

There have been times that I’ve forgotten that there’s a global pandemic outside my plane window. But I’m reminded by the constant requests to show the same PCR test result (in Denver, Frankfurt, and Johannesburg), the fits of irritation that follow me spotting a casually unmasked passenger, and the worry about possibly infecting my parents when I get home.

Still, when I reflect on the journey here, I realize that I’m not just carrying the weight and stress of these past three days.

This journey began the day I left for the U.S. in August 2019. I believe there’s always something calling you home.

If you fly in the right direction, you can gain more time than you lose. Perhaps these two and a half years of absence will make me more present in these next three and a half weeks with my family and friends.

7:43 p.m. Jan. 1, 2022 (Zambian airspace) 

Phew! Everything worked out in the end! Even from my tiny plane window, Lusaka never looked so beautiful.

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