April 19, 2020

Article at GuelphMercury.com

View original

'Things started to get strange': Quite an ordeal for Guelph resident to get home during cornavirus pandemic

Coming home
Coming home
Coming home
Coming home

Change has come quickly over the past month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guelph resident Frank Marchetti experienced the constant updates through a different lens than most Canadians. The entrepreneur is home now, with dark rings around his eyes that tell his story of being away stranded in Ecuador when the crisis unfolded.

On Friday, March 13, Marchetti was nearing the end of a three-month-long vacation that began in the Philippines and brought him to Colombia and Ecuador to before the eventual return leg home scheduled for April 5.

Concern over COVID-19 was low but the next morning, Marchetti knew things changed. On the Saturday, Ecuador announced a border traffic ban. Airports closed with no foreigners allowed, while disinfecting and physical distancing measures were implemented.

“Things started to get strange,” says Marchetti. “There was a heightened awareness of the virus.

“I was overtaken with the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty.”

When Marchetti started his trip in the Philippines on Jan. 8, there was little worry. He approached his vacation like he did every year. October through March is the off-season for his Guelph-based business, Bugs For Bugs.

Marchetti graduated from the horticulture program at the University of Guelph in 1998 and returned to the city he calls his “forever home” in 2002. The following year, he opened the business, selling beneficial insects to agricultural operations used for biological pest management.

The winter is Marchetti’s time to explore. He met an Ecuadorian in the Philippines and decided to visit the country, which didn’t have COVID-19 cases when he booked his flight in February.

“It was business as usual there,” Marchetti says. “I thought I was in the clear. The government had not given restrictions and South America was very clean. I went thinking everything was fine.”

After a quick stop in Bogota, Colombia, on March 9, Marchetti went to Ecuador on the 13th. That week was normal, with all tourist destinations open. But by Saturday, everything changed and Marchetti’s long, stressful ordeal to return home began. He looked up his return flight online and it was still a go.

On Monday, he flew with his friend to Guayaquil. They travelled to her home in Playas by private taxi because public transport between cities was already forbidden. Marchetti felt safe in a gated private property with few people around. He wanted to go sightseeing but nothing was open, including beaches. Two days later, all restaurants closed, leaving only grocery stores and pharmacies open, with a curfew from 2 pm to 5 am.

“That was next-level weird,” says Marchetti. “Day after day, more restrictions were put in. Everyone started wearing facemasks.

“It felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic movie.”

Cancelled flights

On March 18, Marchetti received an email that his flight was cancelled. He was told to rebook and a representative of the airline explained that the next available flight included several stops and would take 34 hours.

But he was urged not to book as the situation was fluid and it would likely be cancelled. Two days later, the airline shut down all international flights until the end of April.

Marchetti went online and found a one-way flight to Mexico City and a separate flight to Toronto. The next day, he went to confirm but they were cancelled. He tried again but that attempt to book ended in another cancellation with no other flights available.

Marchetti, who had registered with the Canadian government at the beginning of the trip, was stranded.

“They knew I was there,” he says. “The embassy in Quito sent me an email saying they knew what was going on and that there were thousands of Canadians like me.”

Foreign Affairs Canada negotiated with the Ecuadorian government to allow special repatriation flights. Two were released for March 25 and 27 and could only be booked with a special code available through embassy emails. They sold out in minutes.

Marchetti finally had some good news. He was emailed about a flight from Quito and immediately hopped online, inserted the code, and booked for Sunday, March 29. Marchetti needed special documents issued by the Ecuadorian government allowing him to travel and break curfew. Travel between cities and towns was banned and Marchetti needed the documents to pass.

“The day before I left, we took that nine-hour drive to Quito and we were stopped 10 times on the way at checkpoints, by police and military, decked out in full gear with machine guns,” says Marchetti, adding that his temperature was checked twice.

“It was not a comfortable sight. I wasn’t afraid for my life but it was unsettling.”

'I was so relieved to get back'

He was concerned the situation would escalate – and it did get worse. Marchetti says Guayaquil has become a hotspot for the outbreak and the hospitals were overloaded. Infected people died in their homes with the state unable to collect them. Families began to move dead onto the sidewalks and the stench was unbearable.

“I was so relieved to get back,” says Marchetti.

“When things slide out of control, it’s always uncomfortable. But when they do that in second- and third-world countries, anything can happen.

“My business is about to get started,” he adds. “If I wasn’t here for April, it would have been a disaster. And not just this year. I would have taken a big reputational hit and lost customers. This is my livelihood. I had these thoughts in my head.”

Marchetti has received help in self-isolation through the Facebook group CareMongering Guelph – Leaning Into Community During COVID-19. One individual got him groceries and another a few other necessities.

“I put out an earnest and sincere plea to get some help,” he says. “I was impressed and filled with gratitude that people stepped up.”

As his self-isolation neared an end, Marchetti was thankful.

“I received a lot of messages that were really comforting, especially when I was an emotional mess and stressed by going through that ordeal,” he says. “It makes me feel good about living in Guelph.

“I felt like people had my back. And I would do the same.”