This was how Kellen started our bedtime prayer in Colombia on Saturday night, March 21, as the emotions began flowing in ways they never had before. Kellen started pretty much every bedtime prayer with this same line throughout our nine months in Colombia; however, this time it felt very different because it would be our last. Earlier that day, DeeDee and I had made the decision to return to the states two months sooner than planned. We would be leaving abruptly the next day. Tears streamed as we gathered as a family for our last bedtime prayer together in our house.
The fuller story started nine days earlier when our friends came to visit us. Blake and Carlin Buhrman and their kids arrived Thursday night, March 12. This was the same day that many big cancellations began happening in the U.S. due to the coronavirus. They persisted with their travel plans and made it safely into the country that night. Two days later, Colombia banned all foreigners from flying into the country. During their visit, the Colombian government began to impose tighter restrictions around travel and larger gatherings. Our school in La Mesa was cancelled until April 20, church was cancelled until May 30, and then a four-day countrywide in-home lockdown was announced beginning the day after the Buhrmans were to leave. At times, things felt as if they were caving in around us.
With the increasing fluidity of the situation, the Buhrmans looked into earlier flight options out of Colombia. No options existed. They flew out late Thursday night, March 19 on their planned flight. Kason and I went with them to the airport in Bogotá that evening. After an emotional goodbye, we quickly found a cab to take us back to the bus stop. The city of Bogotá would soon begin their lockdown at midnight. Probably 100 buses came by but only ones going on more local routes. After waiting for an hour and not finding a bus back to La Mesa, I began to think about contingency plans if we got stuck in Bogotá for four days. I was starting to feel regret bringing Kason along with me. Bogotá is a 2-hour bus ride away from our home in La Mesa. I told DeeDee on one of our last texts back that “God’s got us,” and we’ll be fine. I was still worried though. One last bus eventually came by for this longer route. What a relief! We got back to La Mesa around 10:30pm.
During that time DeeDee was back at the house cleaning up from visitors and playing with Kellen and Taylor. At one point she had a conversation with another service worker with Mennonite Central Committee who was in La Mesa with us about the possibility of needing to leave early. DeeDee said that we planned to stay and see what the next few weeks brought, but our friend eventually decided it was best to catch a bus and head to Bogotá for a flight out before getting locked out of Bogotá or locked into Colombia.
Friday, March 20 was an unusual day. We were sad that our friends were gone, yet felt so fortunate that they were still able to come see us and make it home safely – sorry about your quarantine due to visiting us!
Friday was also the first day of the country-wide quarantine. Colombia only had around 200 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the whole country at that time, so this was very much a proactive measure to slow the inevitable spread. We could only leave the house to buy groceries (one person) or to go to the hospital or pharmacy. All other stores had to be closed. I took a big grocery run and stocked us up for the next week. I was stopped by the police and asked what I was doing. They told me to buy my groceries and get home soon. The streets were empty, which was so sad to see in our busy town of 30,000 people. So many people rely on selling things in the street for their family’s livelihood. Having the streets shut down for four days would have its impact. Little did we know, it was about to get worse.
We’re not the “cuddle up and read all day” type of family. We had been walking an average of around four miles a day as a family with our long walks to school, hikes, after school activities, etc. Being in a small house all day didn’t sound like fun to us, but we figured we could get by with some creative activities if it was just four days. It was hard not to sneak out on a hike because we love our family hikes, but we couldn’t risk it.
Saturday morning, we woke to an increasingly difficult situation. First, we read an email sent out by our mission agency, Mennonite Mission Network, that suggested if your term was ending before July 1 you should consider returning to the U.S. as soon as possible. We knew they would support us if we decided to remain, but we needed to make the decision that best fit our family. Then we discovered that our countrywide lockdown was being extended another three weeks until April 13 (later extended yet another week). Now things really did feel like they were starting to cave in. We had already purchased flights to return to the states in late May, and had fun ideas for how we wanted our last two months in Colombia to go. With school and church cancelled, being locked down in our house for nearly a month, it was clear we needed to reevaluate our plans. We certainly understood the government’s decisions to take more drastic action to curb this virus, particularly given Colombia’s inability to handle a massive outbreak like the U.S. was experiencing. Their healthcare system would collapse under that strain. That said, the timing of all this still made it difficult to figure out how we would end well.
DeeDee and I gave the kids some screen time and went in front of our house to begin processing what we should do. Two or three hours later, our heads were aligned that we needed to leave, if it was still possible. The other thing that was caving in was the international flight options. When Colombia restricted foreigners from entering, and later even their own citizens from entering, the likelihood of having outbound flights seemed shaky. As suspected, all U.S. airlines started cancelling their flights from Colombia to the U.S. Why would they want to bring in an empty plane to take only a few people out of the country? The other scenario we needed to at least consider was after our quarantine in Colombia ended on April 13, could the U.S. be shut down to all inbound international flights? After lunch, we purchased what had to be one of the last flights from Bogotá to the U.S. Our flight would leave the next day at midnight. There was immediate affirmation from friends who could see the bigger picture and understood the Colombian government inner-workings, which gave us some sense of relief.
Could we pack up our house in one day? How would we wrap up our nine-month experience so suddenly? We were in lockdown, so we couldn’t even meet with our friends to say goodbye in person. Once we made the decision to leave, we needed to stay on that path, but we knew our hearts were not ready to leave La Mesa. We cried plenty, but had to suppress some of our feelings with all the work that needed to be done. How could this be the end of our wonderful journey in Colombia?
While we knew we had flights out at midnight on Sunday, we didn’t have transportation to the airport in Bogotá. Buses were not running. Private cars were not allowed to be used. Thank God our pastor sensed the urgency of this piece of our departure plans and jumped into action. It wasn’t until Saturday night that he had found a solution, and it still wasn’t for sure. Two taxi drivers were going to get permission to leave La Mesa and to enter Bogotá. DeeDee spent a couple hours with them on Sunday morning working on paperwork and permission for this trip. What a fiasco! The drivers didn’t want to risk coming back to La Mesa in the dark, so they would pick us up at 3pm. We scrambled to get the rest house cleaned and things packed for an afternoon departure. We didn’t have time to do much else, but two things brought us a small measure of peace amid our rapid packing.
One was that our pastors, Rodrigo and Emilse, came to our house to pick up things we were leaving behind and to say goodbye. We talked through the difficulty of this decision with them, prayed together, and took some final pictures. This couple was a huge part of our positive experience, and we can’t say enough good things about their hospitality, their love for us and the church. As with so many other things, it felt like we received so much more than we gave.
The other neat thing we found time to do before the taxis arrived was to go through our house, room by room, and share experiences and say what we would miss. This was therapeutic and gave us a small sense of closure with this house that contained so many new experiences and memories over the past nine months. What a gift!
The taxi ride to the airport was as tranquil as we have ever experienced in Colombia – only a few taxis on the road.
The sun was shining on the rich green Andes Mountains, which brought both sadness and a sense of peace to this beautiful place we have called home.
We arrived to the airport seven hours ahead of our flight. Their airport was mostly quiet with small groups of remaining foreigners who hadn’t found their way home yet. Three days earlier when the Buhrman family flew out, it was a very different sight – more like chaos. We prayed that our flight to Houston wouldn’t be cancelled, and it wasn’t. Of course, our flight from Houston to Wichita was cancelled, but that gave us less worry. We found a flight leaving three hours later to Wichita. Even though it only had 12 passengers, it wasn’t cancelled.
By 2:30pm on Monday, we were in Wichita. Kason was the most tired since he stayed up ALL NIGHT from Bogotá to Houston playing games and watching movies on the United flight. We were drained in every way possible, but had to keep going. We knew there was more work ahead of us on Monday.
We don’t have one clear reason for returning early. It was more a confluence of known events and possible scenarios that brought us back to the U.S. We did our best to make the right decision for our family. We didn’t want our last two months to be on lockdown in Colombia and to ruin our wonderful year abroad in the eyes of our children. That would feel like an eternity for them and could taint how they remember our experience. Also, if we played out all of the worst-case scenarios, it was better to be in the U.S. than on foreign soil with expired visas in a country experiencing crisis. Needless to say, it is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to be back, but we know we made the right choice. Our heads are confident of that, but our hearts will continue to have regret and sadness. We gain peace, however, knowing this will not be the end of our experience in Colombia. One of our reasons for wanting to serve in Latin America was that it would be easier to return, which we will, and maybe sooner than planned!
It’s hard to imagine finding a blessing in this virus that has robbed us of so much, but we found one. The 14-day quarantine we are experiencing now allows us to process, be a family, send videos to our friends in Colombia, pray with our Colombian church at 7:30 pm, let our emotions roll and slowly adjust to our new normal. We have been blessed by so many since we have been back and are thankful for all of that support. Having our pantry, fridge and freezer full of food was huge. We cannot express enough how helpful this was for us! We are looking forward to being in conversations and community with those we love. For now though, we are grieving for what was lost and appreciating this quarantine time allowing us to just BE. God is good. We know the world is experiencing many more difficult situations than ours, so we remain grateful for all we have and the access to support and resources to land softly back here in the U.S. We experienced firsthand how so many vulnerable people don’t have these safety nets in situations like these, so we also pray for healing and for needs to be met.