Why Being In Quarantine Abroad Isn’t What You Think It Is

By Jamarr Black

Anyone who’s been following me recognizes that I’ve been living in Cali, Colombia for the past two years, having returned in 2018 after a year-long teaching program in 2014. Some of the same reasons I decided to leave the USA again, wound up being some of the same reasons I decided to stay put after the U.S. Department of State’s suggestion that all U.S. citizens return “home” after Colombia closed its borders due to the COVID-19 outbreak. My reasoning was simple.

First of all, I am home. Contrary to what may be believed by those seeking some degree of citizenship or even a visit to the United States, I’ve been more content and at peace with my life and surroundings since I’ve been back in Cali. My rent is affordable, healthcare is decent and I have a stable job despite the lock down. However, the impact this pandemic has had on the world — especially black communities in Colombia and the United States — has left me somewhat unsettled. So how would I describe being quarantined abroad? It is bizarre and bittersweet.

It’s bizarre because I honestly feel thankful for the fact that I was able to execute my plan and take this path before being trapped into the chaos in my country that I’ve seen and heard about among friends and family across different media platforms. I’ve also been following NBC Nightly News on YouTube to keep up on happenings. I haven’t forgotten my loved ones nor the essence of being in the so-called “land of the free, home of the brave.” However, recent reports have evoked feelings of rage and disappointment that remain reminiscent of what I felt while living there.

Therefore, I actually feel safer where I am. There is no need to move towards a bigger problem. Being a teacher is never easy but I am fortunate to be employed with the ability to work from home giving online classes. I’m particularly grateful that the relief of distance learning arrived just as I was entering another burnout teaching teenagers in junior high. In Cali, schools have been closed since March 16th. During the lock down, the government has taken strict yet efficient measures, only recently easing restrictions. As of now, a system called “pica y cédula” is in place that grants permission to leave your home based on the last number of your ID card. To avoid long lines, each person is permitted two days per week for bank and grocery store visits. There are exceptions to essential workers and the police are visibly enforcing the pica y cédula.

Putting things into perspective, I have had friends leave Cali for potential supply chain concerns or not being able to reach their families in case of an emergency. So far, there have been no major shortages in my necessities but being far from family causes some anxiety at times with the increased possibility of an emergency occurring. The Department of State has been offering repatriation flights priced at over two grand from cities in Colombia to Miami, FL for folks who were stranded while traveling or have an urgency to return. However, they have made it clear that these humanitarian flights will not continue indefinitely. Passengers are responsible for all costs including the route from Miami to their final destination. Furthermore, it worries me to travel and risk getting infected or worse spreading it to my family, considering I’d be in quarantine with them while repatriating. So, I pass.

On another note, being quarantined abroad is bittersweet. While I give thanks that I have not been as negatively impacted as others, I’m aware of my own privilege as a black person who was not born here. In some contexts, a blue passport has afforded me to be perceived as having status. I recall a time being stopped and frisked by police after leaving the grocery store in Cali. They had already detained two other black guys, but as soon as they realized I spoke Spanish in a foreign accent, they let me go. I am also impacted by the stories of those who are struggling because of this sudden requirement to self-isolate. What happens to the local vendors and street entrepreneurs who are losing income for themselves and their families? What happens when there are no savings nor employment? There have been sporadic suicides across Colombia by parents who have not been able to provide for their families. There has been minimal government support to the less fortunate. Many black and indigenous communities, if not extremely delayed, have received little to no government support. Some smaller villages don’t even have a hospital with an Intensive Care unit. There has also been a spike in femicides and sexual assaults of women and girls. All of it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Furthermore, I remain socially conscious of the mistreatment of black people around the world. There has been news of black people being mistreated and even murdered in hospital, harassed and infected at disproportionate rates. The not so recent murder of Ahmaud Aubrey is a painful depiction of one of my anxieties. Often while jogging in certain areas in the US (especially in the south), the thought has crossed my mind of the possibility of death from #joggingwhileblack. No matter how far away I am from home, these things still impact me. In fact, I left Colombia and moved back to the USA in mid-2015 partially because I had a fervor for activism and a yearning for closeness to community after learning of Mike Brown’s murder during my teaching fellowship. I quickly realized that my return may not have been the best idea.

James Baldwin on his move abroad: “I’ll tell you this. When I left this country in 1948, I left this country for one reason only. One reason. I didn’t care where I’d go. I might’ve gone to Hong Kong, I might’ve gone to Timbuktu, I ended up in Paris with $40 in my pocket with the theory that nothing worse would happen to me there than had already happened to me here.”

On this front, melancholy emerges from the mere fact that I’m thankful to be in a country that isn’t my own. A country where these murders are so normal that you feel like the only way to escape that kind of shit is not to be in your own country. I wish I didn’t feel that way but that’s my truth. While driving, I’ve also calculated my routes to avoid potential run-ins with the police. Though I’m certain I’ve committed no crimes, I can’t control how I may be judged in the case of being pulled over by a cop with even the slightest bias against black men. Even worse, being stopped on an isolated road.

Once while driving inside an apartment complex in Hyattsville, Maryland, I turned into a parking lot without signaling as I looked for a friend’s building. At least that’s what I was eventually told motivated the police to stop me. I had been dressed professionally having just gotten off of work. I learned that day that a black body was of suspicion even if in a suit and tie. As soon as I noticed the sirens, I began to park. Two police officers had already gotten out of the unmarked car that was parked behind me. They were pointing their guns at me as though I had robbed a bank and was evading arrest. I had never had a gun pointed at me before in my life. I felt a sweat bubble building along my hairline. There’s a certain eeriness to your heartbeat when someone else has control over whether you live or die within a mere moment. I was asked if there were any drugs or weapons in the car and instructed to keep my hands on the wheel but also for my license and registration. I was shaking. I knew my nerves were on my sleeve. The trauma of seeing black men murdered by police had fully manifested in that moment. I told the officer I had no drug nor weapons and that I’d be moving my right hand to get my wallet. As one cop left to run my ID, the other stuck around trying to make small talk after lowering his gun.

“Why are you so nervous?”

“Because you had a gun pointed at me and you guys have a reputation for killing guys who look like me”

“Nothing happens if you do what we say. It’s not all of us, you know.”

I was done talking. I was not about to entertain this clueless asshole who was clearly taking the piss. They´d finished and only verified that I had some unpaid speeding camera tickets, leaving me with a warning. I’d had two different run-ins with the cops which left me shook by the blatant racism and abuse of power. Feeling as though in any moment while exercising free will, I could wound up dead. It’s a harsh reality.

It’s hard to imagine returning to live in a country where there’s a constant fear for your life from the very people that are meant to be protecting the public. Living in a country where being armed is so prevalent that folks feel entitled to carry their arms and even fear them being taken away. Where white supremacy runs rampant and is at times suffocating. Not to mention the insane amounts of racial tension at times when blatant inequality is spotlighted. It all really just makes me sick to my stomach. Colombia is by no means the perfect country and it has its problems with inequality as well in regards to race and class. Yet, I rarely witness pure hate in people’s actions. Regardless of the fact that I must constantly confront my privilege as an Afro-american living within a society where the majority of people who look like me struggle to make it day-to-day. I also draw inspiration in the warmth that people generally maintain here despite adversity. By no means is Colombia the perfect country, but it works for me.

We carry with us the suffering of our ancestors. Compassion is born from understanding suffering. We suffer less when the energy of love and compassion is born. We need to understand our suffering and its roots in order to reconcile it.

(The Art of Communicating, Thich Nhat Hanh)

Jamarr is a communication, cultural studies and professional writing scholar who offers language training, itinerary planning and writing services. You can read more about Jamarr online at Squribe.com.