It was 7 a.m. in Charlotte but 8 p.m. in South Korea, when I spoke with Trina Diakabanzila two Fridays ago. Back then it was hard for her to get time alone, even for a 45-minute phone call. For the last four months she’d spent her days watching five children, in a foreign country, under quarantine. Quiet was hard to come by.
In the course of our call, I heard a few squeals and shrieks, at one point a small voice briefly interrupted, looking for her attention.
“You see, I can never get peace,” Trina laughed.
She was dealing with what a lot of parents are facing right now: no break from kids, e-learning, navigating essential trips to the grocery store. But she was doing it thousands of miles from home.
In January she visited South Korea with her four-year-old daughter. Her sister, who’s stationed there with the U.S. Army, had to leave for about a month for training and needed someone to watch her kids.
Trina planned to head back to Charlotte at the end of February. Months later, she was still there.
When the coronavirus outbreak in nearby China turned into a global pandemic, her options to get back to Charlotte became limited, and dangerous.
Even when her sister came back from training, her job as a public health nurse kept her much busier than usual. That meant on most days Trina was still watching the kids alone.
“It’s been very overwhelming,” she said. “If there’s something past overwhelming, that’s what I’ve been feeling. It’s something new that I had no choice but to get used to.”
Trina was used to spending lots of time with her daughter and parents. They all live together in the University area. She’s an Air Force veteran and a woman of many talents.
She’s self-published two books. One is a children’s book about self-love and natural hair, the other is about saving money in your 30s. Ironically, she was planning to start a cleaning businesses before the pandemic; now those plans are on hold.
For months, Trina was trying to figure out how to get home, not an easy task during a global pandemic.
In March, most major U.S. airlines reduced capacity for international and domestic flights. American Airlines, Charlotte’s biggest airline, reduced its international capacity by 75 percent.
March is also when the U.S. State Department changed its travel advisory to the highest level: Level 4, meaning no one should travel. While technically a recommendation, it advises Americans abroad to either stay in place indefinitely or come home.
For weeks, Trina stayed put. She didn’t want to risk being exposed to the virus.
Plus, the whole process is confusing, she said, with different restrictions and requirements in countries and states she would have had to fly through.
South Korea, for example, is requiring a mandatory 14-day quarantine for international travelers. Anyone traveling to or through South Korea has to download a COVID self-diagnosis app. Even asymptomatic travelers must be tested within three days of arriving to South Korea.
In the U.S., travel restrictions are in place for visitors from specific countries. South Korea is at a Level 3, or “Reconsider Travel, Contains Areas with Higher Security Risk.” Individual states and cities have restrictions too.
And airlines have new regulations of their own. In June, Frontier Airlines will become the first U.S. carrier to conduct temperature checks. Anyone with a fever over 100.4 will be turned away.
As of May 11, all airlines with flights to Charlotte-Douglas either strongly encouraged or required passengers wear face masks.
Trina felt safe in South Korea. The U.S. and South Korea both reported their first coronavirus cases on January 20. Since then, South Korea has reported nearly 11,000 cases and 256 deaths.
The U.S., meanwhile, has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world with 1.3 million and more than 80,000 deaths.
The international medical community has applauded South Korea for its quick and comprehensive response to the virus.
As Trina weighed her options, she read accounts from others who’d traveled during the outbreak. Some recounted packed flights; others said their trips were eerily empty. No one could be sure which type of flight they’d get.
Late last week Trina finally got to fly home. She and her daughter were ready with protective gear and took the long journey back to the states.
She says the first flight from South Korea to San Francisco was nearly empty. She got a row to herself and no one sat in the rows in front of, next to, or behind her. The second flight, from San Francisco to Detroit, had a few more people, but she still had her own row. The final stretch to Charlotte was packed with other passengers on all sides.
She said there was a clear difference between traveling in South Korea, where before leaving her temperature was checked and she had to fill out a health questionnaire, and traveling in the U.S.
“I was not at ease at all,” she said upon arriving to San Francisco. “They had nobody taking temperatures. People were just walking around. No one really respected the social distancing.”
But she respects it. Right now Trina and her four-year-old are just a couple days into their 14-day self-quarantine.
Her days filled with rambunctious kids and e-learning have been swapped for the quiet of isolation and fighting off jet lag.
When it’s all over, they’ll enjoy some quality time around Charlotte and eventually embark on a new adventure, she said. “Once the borders are open and things settle down, we’re still going to travel.”