Alien in an alien land
Updated: Oct 6, 2021
Piercing the bubble of a Covid-free island
“Mask! Mask! Mask!”
The cashier’s yell pierced the quiet interior of the little grocery store. Startled, I realized she was yelling at me.
Once again, I had left my mask in the car and sauntered barefaced past the “No mask No entry” signs, the sanitizer spray and temperature gauge.
Moving from one of the few Covid-free places on earth to one that was beginning to surge anew was like learning to walk again.
After living in Yap for five years, I pierced the pandemic-free bubble in late June 2021 and flew to Guam, where I am now living.
Yap clanged its borders shut in March 2020 with the rest of the Federated States of Micronesia and remained under the bubble of isolation until a handful of stranded students, medical patients and essential workers were allowed entry in August 2021.
With the rest of the world crashing and burning, Yap remained safe. Why leave, I told friends who were hunkered down in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
But I wanted to move on. Was I being reckless?
Pre-pandemic, flights from Yap to Guam were twice a week. Post-pandemic, with no passengers, the flights stopped. Mail and cargo arrived on another airline contracted weekly to take the commercial fish catch and betelnut to market. Supply ships were under strict protocols to prevent the virus from slithering in. Cargo and mail were quarantined for four days and sanitized before being released.
I arrived at the Yap airport just past midnight on Sunday, June 27 to check in for the 3:30 a.m. United flight. Armed with a new mask, proof-of-vaccination card and negative test, I shuffled through the manual baggage check.
Friends and family members milled around the outdoor sitting area while we travelers waited for the passengers-only waiting room to open at 1 a.m. Signs announcing that masks must be worn at all times were posted throughout, but only passengers and airport employees complied.
The advance testing requirement seemed ridiculous since no one had been off the island for 15 months; but it was a prerequisite set by United so we trooped to the hospital on Friday to have our nasal passages swabbed for the first time and returned on Saturday to get the letter pronouncing us Covid-free.
The mask was heavy against my mouth and nose in the humidity of the equatorial night. My glasses steamed up from my escaping breath. None of us had been required to wear a mask until now.
At 1 a.m. we lined up to enter the passenger waiting room, where signs were placed on the chairs advising us to leave one chair in between. At 2:45 a.m. we were led onto the tarmac and up the metal switchback ramp.
The path to the plane was cordoned with traffic cones and a line of mask- and glove-wearing airport employees whom we all knew as friends, neighbors and family waved goodbye as we attempted to acquire the skill of social distancing.
Months before, the small banks in Colonia pasted circles on the floor for social distancing and set up folding chairs outside where an employee in mask and gloves took the temperature of entering customers. As time passed, they did away with the greeters but installed Plexiglas shields in front of the tellers. The warning signs applied to the floor to stay 6 feet apart became worn and scuffed. People stood together chatting as they waited.
Crude handwashing stations composed of water jugs and hand soap dispensers set atop wooden stands appeared early on at the hospital and outside the town’s main store. They, too, took on the appearance of neglect as the months passed. “Do not spit” signs were taped to community bulletin boards and walls, but still the betelnut chewers left telltale red splatters on the road and parking lots.
Aboard the plane, I found my seat and got settled while attempting to get used to wearing that mask, tugging at it to keep it in place.
Other than reports from those who were living in it, none of us had any experience in what to expect once outside the bubble and into a world that had changed dramatically.
Arriving at the Guam airport at nearly 5 a.m., the long lines of arriving tourists from Asia were conspicuously absent. Pre-pandemic, more than 1.6 million tourists had visited Guam in 2019. Now, it’s not even a trickle.
I still forget to put my mask on before entering stores and restaurants. I explain apologetically, “I’m sorry, I just moved here from Yap and there’s no Covid there.” Followed with blank stares, I back out and retrace my steps to the car.
Guam has reached herd immunity but I often feel like the rogue cow lost in the pasture attempting to find its way back to the barn.
What has become common practice for most is often perplexing, bewildering, even confusing after safely living a normal life with no restrictions, no masks, no required proof that I had been jabbed.
The first time I saw a temperature gauge inside the front door of a store in Guam was puzzling. What is that? What am I supposed to do? Then there was the gauge at the government office that required standing on an X while it took my temperature. How far back? Oh, yes, I see the X. Look straight ahead. Like this? Click.
I also had to learn to take a squirt of sanitizer before entering; to look for sanitized grocery carts; to sign contact tracing sheets; which grocery store aisle fed into which cashier. That was the one that confused me the most. What number is this aisle and which cashier does it feed into?
It’s been four months now and I’m getting used to the new rules of the road. But just this morning I needed to ask the security guard at the apartment complex where I live for something and forgot to put my mask on. There was more than 6 feet between us and he was inside the small guardhouse, but still he leaned back from the open window as I spoke to avoid my invisible respiratory spray. Clamping my hand over my mouth and nose, I said, “I’m sorry. I just moved here from Yap and there’s no Covid there.”
He looked puzzled. I was an alien flaunting the rules as if I’d been living in a parallel universe. Which I had been.