The long trip began on Thursday March 5 when I dropped North Kingsville resident Craig Wickstrom at Cleveland Hopkins Airport to begin a business trip to...Africa.
Wickstrom works for the Evangelical Covenant Church of America and was heading to the Congo to coordinate efforts between the American denomination and it's sister churches represented by the Evangelical Community in the Ubangi-Mongola, he said.
The trip ended when he arrived home around 8:35 p.m. Friday evening after a journey that nearly included a longer stay in Africa than expected.
Wickstrom is used to international travel, and the challenges that come with it, having grown up as a missionary kid in the Congo. He also served as a short term missionary when his family underwent a mandatory evacuation by the United States government during a coup in the Central African nation in the 1990s.
After years of working jobs in Ashtabula County, and earning a doctorate in Urban Planning at Cleveland State University, Wickstrom agreed to work for the church and was on his second trip to the Congo in this role.
About a week later coronavirus concerns began to escalate around the world. He said about a week after leaving the United States the issue of whether to stay or leave began to come up in conversations with his wife Cheryl, a teacher at Edgewood High School, and church leaders.
"I think we heard about the first case (in Kinshasa) on the 11th...We started talking about what we should do," Wickstrom said. He said his wife originally thought it might be good to get home so he didn't get stuck somewhere for an extended period of time.
Originally he wanted to continue the work of meeting with the African church leaders and American missionaries and also to work on deepening relationships with those around the country. "By the 14th (of March) people were starting to encourage me to come home," he said.
By this time Cheryl Wickstrom was wondering if it might have been better to stay in Africa where few cases had been found while Europe was in the grips of the virus. "We were beginning to wonder whether it would be better to stay in the Congo," he said.
"On the 15th I was told to come home," he said. The decision was made by denomination leaders in Chicago and plans were put into effect as traveling internationally became a challenge.
After the plans were finalized he reversed his original trip by leaving the city of Karawa for a driving trip to Gemena on Monday morning. "I didn't even get to say goodbye," he said.
He said he had Monday afternoon and Tuesday to regroup before grabbing a flight to Kinshasa, the nation's capital, which is about 800 miles away. "If you would drive from Gemena to Kinshasa it would take you a month (because of the lack of quality roads)," he said.
After an hour and a half trip in the air he had another four and a half hours to a guest house where he stayed Wednesday evening.
The next challenge was getting out of a country that was about to shut its border, probably for at least a month, Wickstrom said. He said his ticket to Brussels, Belgium, was questioned because of changing flight numers and the general chaos involved.
"I was definitely concerned," he said.
After getting on the last flight out he arrived in Belgium to a sparsely occupied airport. "They were really emphasizing social distancing. They had tape out to let you know how far to stand apart," he said.
In Brussels he had to leave the airport and enter Belgium and then go through customs and security again.
The plane (from Belgium to Washington) was sparsely occupied so he was allowed far more room than usual. "I ended up with four seats to myself," he said.
Wickstrom arrived in Washington D.C. around 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon for his 5:20 p.m. flight to Cleveland. He said the health screening in Washington involved three questions regarding a fever or a "new cough".
"They didn't even take my temperature," he said.
He said airline officials in Africa had taken his temperature two weeks before when he landed.
The rest of the trip was uneventul and Wickstrom is on a 14 day self quarantine at the request of church leaders, not the U.S. government.
Cheryl Wickstrom was not only keeping in touch with her husband but also seeking to work out the ramifications of an Edgewood High School trip to Greece that was cancelled around March 12. "I would say it was very stressful because of his last health issues (a bout with malaria in 2018)," she said.
"We were in touch off and on at various points," she said. The possibility of an extra month in Africa was a big concern to her, and her children, she said.
"That amped up my stress," she said.
Two trips changed by a virus.
"I was supposed to be flying to Greece yesterday (Friday) not picking Craig up at the airport," she said.