When your grandson’s birth is preceded by eleven days of street protests in the heart of Quito, does the smell of tear gas penetrate the womb, do the whir of helicopters and the boom of explosions echo inside the uterine wall, does all of it presage more disruptive events in his life?
Ilio’s was not the natural homebirth his mother and her mid-wife and doula had so thoroughly discussed and planned. Given the chaotic prelude to his birth, maybe the unexpected should’ve been expected. The important thing was that Ilio was born a healthy baby. Sizeable, too. Grandote, marveled the hospital staff. Perfect, beamed Ana and Daniel.
At just a few months old, Ilio was issued both an Ecuadorian and a U.S passport. His passport photo captured the neckless, flat-cheeked look produced when the subject is lying on his back. The unflattering lighting flattened even more the unfocused newborn gaze. If they cared, even babies might have reason to complain about unbecoming passport photos. Double for those who are citizens of two countries.
The next step was to secure a visa interview for Daniel. Interviews were scheduled the first week of each month in the coastal city of Guayaquil. It was mid-February and the coronavirus still seemed somewhat remote, on the farthest of horizons, or so went the wishful thinking. The March dates seemed too soon to prepare for, so Ana scheduled for April 9, with the idea that the three of them would be heading to the States sometime in May.
In mid-March, it became clear that Ana and Daniel’s timetable for leaving Ecuador was going off the rails due to the spreading pandemic. Daniel’s medical exam, which was a requirement prior to his visa interview, was postponed. A few days later came the embassy notice that visa interviews were being cancelled. Soon there were announcements of impending efforts to repatriate Americans.
Because Ana had accepted a job in Sacramento and was awaiting background check clearance, Ana and Daniel decided that Ana and Ilio should leave for the United States, with Daniel to follow once he obtained his visa. Ana and Ilio’s departure and, consequently, the heartbreak of family separation hinged on obtaining two things:
- A notarized salida de pais to affirm Daniel’s permission for his infant son to leave the country without him
- A flight out of Ecuador
The first had to happen immediately because without it, they couldn’t take advantage of the second, which was also of urgent concern. Flights out of the country, already scarce, would soon be halted indefinitely.
As it happened, the flight was secured first. The first flights Ana received notification of from the embassy were chartered planes out of Guayaquil, a 200-mile-drive from where they lived in Quito. But wait, there’s more! Restrictions on the road required a travel permit, and because the province was closed due to the severity of the coronavirus outbreak there, travelers could not be guaranteed entry. Hard pass on that opportunity.
A few days later, we saw that United was scheduling some flights out of Quito the week of March 23. We called United and were told that the last flight out was Wednesday, March 25 at 12:35 am. We booked it for Ana, which meant she would have to be at the airport before 7 pm on Tuesday so as not to be in violation of the newly imposed toque de queda or curfew.
Meanwhile, the lawyer Ana had contacted about the salida de pais said she couldn’t provide it after all. The Sunday before her scheduled flight, Ana found another lawyer, this one in Cumbaya, a Quito suburb about a 30-minute drive away. Ana and Daniel waited all morning and afternoon for word from that lawyer who was preparing the document. The plan was for Daniel to take a taxi to pick it up and drop it off at a notary. Daniel was then supposed to pick up the notarized paper on Monday, the day before Ana and Ilio would have to be at the airport. Late that afternoon, the lawyer told them the document would be ready in half an hour. Just as Daniel was preparing to leave to pick it up, the lawyer called again and said sorry, no va a pasar. The government had ceased all services and under the estado de excepción, no one was supposed to be working. The system to enter a notarized document was shut down. Even if they were able to have a notarized document in hand, if it hadn’t been entered in the system, it would be worthless. The wild goose in that chase was dead.
Ana posted about her plight on the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page, which responded with a number to call. In the meantime, word came that Ana’s flight had been delayed to 4:30 pm that Wednesday, which gave an extra half day to obtain the salida de pais. They allowed themselves hope. But also resignation, just in case.
On Tuesday, the embassy emailed Ana and asked her to send her and Ilio’s travel documents. She waited all day to hear back and finally that evening they told her a solution with the Ecuadorian government was near. The clock was ticking, as they say in the movies.
On Wednesday morning, Ana received an email from the embassy instructing her to write a letter with the details of her situation, print it, and have Daniel sign it and bring it to the embassy. Ana had no printer and under the estado de excepción, no internet cafes were open where she could print a document. She typed the letter and emailed it to the embassy asking if they could print it for Daniel to sign when he arrived there. Yes, fine, so Daniel went to the embassy only to be denied entry by the guard who told him the embassy was closed. Bewildered and frustrated, Daniel, documentless, went back to the apartment where Ana was putting the last-to-be-packed items in her carry-on.
Ana called the embassy for answers. Send Daniel back to the embassy, they said. Back he went. It was already 11:30 am by this time. They were going to have to leave for the 40-minute-drive to the airport by 12:30. Any later and they would have a hard time finding a taxi because a revised toque de queda took effect that day. Curfew was now 2 pm.
Daniel came back with the document in hand, which meant Ana and Ilio were really going to leave. The three of them were in a taxi and on the road just after 12:30. It was clear that Daniel would have no way of getting a taxi back to the apartment before curfew, so we arranged for a hotel room a short walk from the airport.
After checking her bag and the baby car seat, Ana presented the embassy document to the security officer. We were expecting you, they told her. That should’ve been reassuring. However, the officer told her he had not been cleared to accept the document. They would have to wait. After some deliberation with new officers appearing on the scene, they finally said she could go through, but they first insisted on taking a photo of Ana and Ilio with Daniel, who was on the other side of the security area. Gladly, they posed. A final moment of togetherness, even though the last photo of their family together before their temporary separation would be in the possession of Ecuadorian airport security. Ana and Ilio headed to the gate with forty minutes to spare.
The plane ended up leaving fifteen minutes early. With all passengers boarded and no other flights arriving or departing, there was nothing to wait for. With no queueing on the runway, it was an expeditious take-off.
Ana and Ilio made it to Houston at 9:30 pm where Ana hauled her checked bag, her carry-on, the infant car seat, and 20-pound Ilio onto the tram to the airport hotel. The next morning, she did a reverse haul for a 7:25 am flight to San Francisco and then finally Seattle, arriving on March 26, Ilio’s five-month birthday.
For the next fourteen days, Ana and Ilio self-quarantined in a nearby Airbnb thanks to the generosity of her friend’s family. We left groceries and diapers on the doorstep. Sometimes we met at the park and sat six feet apart. I had last held Ilio when he was two weeks old, when I had gone to Ecuador to await his birth and to meet Daniel for the first time.
How does a five-month old process the world without one of the two people who have been his world since birth? He hears Daniel’s voice every day on WhatsApp, sees his face on the phone screen. Two out of the five senses must suffice for now.
The news coming out of Ecuador is grim. Bodies are being left in the street in the worst affected city of Guayaquil. Daniel is in Quito, where the confirmed cases and deaths are far lower. Residents are allowed out of their homes to buy groceries on their assigned day of the week and before the 2 pm curfew.
An artist, Daniel passes some of the long hours indoors making cloth toys for Ilio. We all wait for the moment when he can put those toys in his baby’s hands. Kiss his baby’s hands. Smell them.