Trip To Panama Begins With Signs Of Trouble
April 23, 2020
There were signs of trouble from the very beginning of the Sanchez family's epic trip to Panama in early March.
No pandemic had been declared, although the first signs were surfacing. But the immediate trouble began March 2, when the family drove to Dallas for their flight.
"It was the boys' first plane ride," said Nicole Sanchez, "and the weather was pretty bad ... Me and Titus were looking out the window and were suddenly slammed back in our chairs." The flight was rerouted, and "the guy sitting right in front of me talked about the virus and how we were all infected," Nicole said. "We missed our flight to Panama."
It was to be the first time all seven of the Sanchez family had been to the home country of Dad, Julio Sanchez. All five children made the trip, Micah, 24; Micailah, 23; Blakeley, 14; Drake, 8; and Titus, aka Tito, 7. It would be the last time as a family group, Nicole knew.
"I can't tell you how much I feel like God had his protecting hand on us." Nicole said. "It was not a pandemic at that point, so we decided to continue." A quick trip to an urgent care facility when Julio got sick didn't deter them.
No unusual precautions were taken at the airport, but they were given an "extra sheet with health questions on the plane," along with the usual paperwork. Temperatures were taken.
"I won't say they were scared," Nicole said, "but they were more vigilant. I didn't want to scare the kids, but I warned them to be careful."
Finally they arrived in Nata, two hours from Panama City, where Julio's mother lives. "We had a wonderful time. The kids got to be immersed in culture, a cousin's birthday, a parade and fireworks, and the park in the front yard."
But they had only five or six days - rather than 14 - to "do things before they starting shutting things down," she said. Schools, which had just begun a new year, were closed. "That was a big deal."
The rest of the visit was spent on the front porch, or for the younger kids, playing in the park. The boys are big baseball players and overcame the language barrier to enjoy their favorite game with local Panamanian children, many of whom "don't have the equipment ours do. Micah was even out there with those kids," Nicole said. "That was one of my favorite moments."
Nicole said there was sort of a "Blue Zones type atmosphere ,; everyone walked or biked, and fresh fruit was available everywhere." Grocery shopping was strictly regulated, she said; shoppers had only 15 minutes in the grocery store while others waited outside. A 20-year employee of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Nicole is marketing and social media manager for FireLake Foods.
Panamanians remained calm, but choices were limited on going places and there was a curfew at 9 pm. "We sat on the porch," she said. "It was one of the most meaningful trips I've ever taken." But it was a "whirlwind of emotions; it's been crazy."
One scary moment came when a group of policemen "with big guns" descended on the park in front of the house. Nicole and her boys walked over to see what was going on, and the little guys were quickly recruited to pose for photos with a sign that said, "Help Us – Stay Home!" Nicole said it "went all over national news," resulting in lots of phone calls from their Panamanian family.
But they weren't getting to do a lot of things they had planned to do, and on a Thursday, "we went to his cousin's house and picked up a newspaper with the Thunder story (where a game was called off before it started when a Utah player tested positive for the virus). I was laying in a hammock talking to my boss, Richard Driskoll. He told me I'd have to be quarantined. At that point it became worrisome."
They were due to leave March 20 to return home but decided to see if they could return earlier when Julio's cousin who works for Delta said the airline was about to shut down.
"I was on phone three hours and then another two hours, Nicole said "I finally got someone who said there was one flight left. 'Do you have seven tickets?' I asked. She looked around and found seven.
Panama is so far ahead of the US in procedures," Nicole said. "It was really eye opening. We are such a spoiled nation. I've been completely humbled. ... When we got to Houston, it was really sinking in. No temperatures were taken, no gloves, no social distancing. I was so concerned."
It was an adjustment coming home, she said - no school, no baseball, no friends. And for her, a 31-day quarantine that she described as "brutal" and a coronavirus test (negative) to be sure. She finally got back to work April 15.
"I'm not going to complain," she said." We have jobs and our health. I feel like God's given us a chance to slow down and think about things, an opportunity to change our lives. "
Returning after such dramatic experience "was like my first day of work," she said. "It's so different. It's good to be back. But I never got to watch the grass grow before, or the children grow - to just be, just be there."