Last week, just as the third wave of the pandemic was nearing a crescendo in South Africa, I boarded a United Airlines flight from Joburg to Newark, New Jersey. It wasn’t an ideal time to travel but I’d booked the flight several weeks earlier. It had been a year and a half since I visited my family and I wanted to seize the opportunity to get vaccinated in the United States.

Lots of people have asked what my travel experience was like, what kinds of restrictions are in place, and what the current situation is in America. Here’s a random collection of thoughts mixed with photos I’ve taken since I arrived.

Hydrangeas in Sykesville
Hydrangeas blooming at my dad’s house in Sykesville, Maryland.

Air Travel During a Pandemic

U.S. airlines require a negative covid test for all international travelers; the test must be taken within three days of departure. So I went for a test last Monday morning, 2.5 days before my flight out of Joburg.

Covid tests are really easy to get in South Africa right now. (Apparently this is not the case in America, so I’ll see how this process goes before I fly back to South Africa.) I went to the Lancet lab in Richmond, right next to Melville, where there is an outdoor testing station. I paid R850 (about $60) for my test because those testing for travel reasons cannot claim through medical aid. I received my negative test result via text message in just over 12 hours.

The airport experience was relatively normal, although my trip happened before the most recent lockdown started in South Africa and circumstances could be different now. Thorsten drove me to the airport and he was allowed to come in with me. We even had a snack together at Mugg and Bean before I went through security.

The plane was about 70 percent full. I had an empty middle seat next to me, and several rows had only one passenger. The flight attendants were pretty strict about making sure everyone wore their masks at all times. But there were three meals served during the flight and we were all allowed to take our masks off while eating. No alcohol was served during the flight — I’m not sure if that is a covid rule or just a new way for airlines to cut costs during pandemic times.

My flight landed in Newark at 5:00 a.m. and I had to wait five hours before catching an Amtrak train to Baltimore. I feel like Amtrak trains used to run more frequently but again, maybe it’s a covid thing. The train was extremely full, and while masks are mandatory I noticed a few people wearing them under their noses/mouths.

First Days in America

The United States always feels like a different world compared to South Africa, but right now the contrast is particularly pronounced. First of all it’s summer, and I haven’t been to the U.S during summer in ten years. The leaves are so green and the flowers are so pretty and the air is so freaking warm, especially since I came from the cold, dry Joburg winter.

Dad's house during summer in the pandemic
My dad’s riotous garden — total sensory overload.
Another look at Dad's garden
Another look. My nephew Jack is dwarfed by all the massive green plants.

My favorite American foods taste delicious after almost 18 months away. I bit into an ear of summer corn-on-the-cob with butter and salt, and literally gasped with pleasure. (Corn-on-the-cob tastes totally different in the U.S. mid-Atlantic states than it does in South Africa.) My everything bagel with cream cheese from Dunkin Donuts was…everything. I had forgotten how much I love Cheezits.

The Snowball Stand
My sister and I took Jack to the Snowball Stand in Woodstock, Maryland, which we frequented during the summer as kids more than 30 years ago. It’s still exactly the same. I was overjoyed.
Jack’s rainbow snowball.
Heather eating a snowball in Maryland during the pandemic
I had blood orange with marshmellow topping. (Photo: Susanna Mason)
Jack with rainbow snowball tongue
Rainbow snowball tongue.

I’m delighted by the rabbits and the humming birds and the white-tailed deer and the noisy cicadas and the bright red cardinals. I’m wilting in the oppressive summer humidity.

Getting Vaccinated in the United States

The pandemic feels virtually over here. Getting vaccinated is easier than filling your car’s gas tank in America these days, and everyone over the age of 12 who wants to get vaccinated has been vaccinated already. Covid cases are down to only a few dozen per day in Maryland, where I’m staying. Many stores and restaurants are no longer requiring their customers — nor even their employees, in some cases — to wear masks.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon and could have gotten my vaccine right away. But I opted to go straight to sleep and get vaccinated the next morning. I was the only person getting a vaccine at the local Safeway grocery store, and probably didn’t need the appointment I’d made just to be safe. I got my first Pfizer shot and received an appointment card for my second shot on July 16th. The shot was free and I even got a coupon for 10 percent off my grocery bill.

My arm was really sore for about half a day, and I had a mild rash on my arms, stomach, and chest (apparently a very unusual side effect) for a few days afterward. But I’m fine now.

Family at Dinosaur Land
Susanna, Jack, and my dad at Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia. Dinosaur Land deserves a post of its own — hopefully I’ll get to that.

It feels weird living a relatively normal life in the U.S. while covid armageddon is happening in Joburg. To all my friends back home: I’m thinking about you and hoping you’re safe. If you have any more questions about the trip, fire away.

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