More than 8,000 miles from home with terrible internet, few opportunities to take a walk while practicing social distancing and no reading material, Salman Kazmi tried a Hail Mary.
The UT-Dallas graduate tweeted at the State Department. Then he tweeted Mike Pompeo himself. Those tweets went unanswered, as Kazmi tried to get out of Pakistan during the coronavirus crisis.
“He didn’t respond, but I got a couple likes on it. In my desperation, just to let him know how low I’d gotten, I thought, ‘Maybe this one will work,’” said Kazmi, who even followed up with a picture of his cat to garner extra sympathy.
Kazmi, a Dallas native, is back home in North Texas, but it took a long saga filled with movie-like rushes to the airport, emails back and forth with government agencies and lots of waiting around.
With medical school on the horizon and prices low during the offseason, it seemed like a great time to visit family in Karachi for the first time in nearly a decade. He and his mom planned to be in Pakistan from Feb. 19 to March 23. With just 18 confirmed cases in the U.S. and none at the time in Pakistan, what would become a global pandemic didn’t factor into their travel plans when they departed.
Of course, things escalated quickly. In early March, Pakistan had its first confirmed cases of COVID-19 and began to close down schools and government buildings. From there, the South Asian country acted aggressively to stop the spread of coronavirus, suspending international flights March 21 and later banning domestic flights as well.
Kazmi and his mom scrambled to move their flight up or find an earlier departure, but the only tickets remaining were first-class tickets priced at $15,000 each — well outside their budget.
“At this point, we’re like, Jesus Christ, things are going to be a while,” Kazmi said. “I’m checking the news every day, sending emails to the agency, travel agencies. Everybody’s just saying, ‘We don’t know. Don’t ask us.’”
Eventually, the embassy informed Kazmi that there would be a flight from Karachi to Washington, D.C., on April 1, but to earn the right to purchase a seat, they’d need to win a lottery. Judged as low risk of contracting the virus, neither Kazmi nor his mother were selected.
“At that point I was like, this is it. We’re stuck," he said. "The U.S. hadn’t announced they were going to send any other flights, we had no information. They specifically said, like, ‘Don’t even ask us about the flight. If you got emailed, you made it, if not, we don’t want to hear about it.’”
All Kazmi could do was sit and wait. While staying at his mom's brother's house, he burned through one English-language book in two days. He exchanged WhatsApp messages with friends in Dallas when the time difference made it possible.
Unlike most people in quarantine, Kazmi couldn't really watch Netflix. One day Kazmi conducted an experiment to see how long it would take to watch an episode of Breaking Bad. He got through it, but it took 5 hours to make it through an episode of Walter White’s exploits.
“Over here (in the U.S.) when you’re quarantined, it really only changed your life about 20 or 30%," he said. "Most of the things we do are indoors. Our society is technology-based over here. Over there, all of the things you do for fun to pass time involve going out, meeting with people, going to malls, things of that nature. When you can’t do that, you’re just stuck at home.”
While Kazmi speaks and understands Urdu, much of the information he was able to find had to be filtered through his mom. It was difficult to parse rumor from fact.
At one point, they were taking clothes out of the washer, tossing them directly into suitcases and trying to get to the airport for a flight that ultimately was canceled. Eventually, they had a stroke of luck that would allow them to get home.
A relative who worked at Pakistan International Airlines said two flights were going out to Canada, one exclusively for Canadian citizens but another open to anyone. He was holding a spot in line, but Kazmi and his mom had to act fast. So they hurried to the airport and ran through the terminal, with Kazmi still in his pajamas, to claim two of the last tickets left. The next day, they were on a flight to Toronto.
Kazmi was impressed at the measures Pakistan is taking at its airports, like handing out disinfectant and taking passengers' temperatures before they got into the terminals. Employees passed by to give out hand sanitizer, and all airport personnel were wearing masks and gloves.
Once in Canada, the long wait continued. Kazmi and his mom weren’t allowed to leave during the 12-hour layover without going through a mandatory 14-day quarantine, and their passports were held. With the last available restaurant in the terminal set to close minutes after their arrival, they made yet another mad dash on a trip full of them and enjoyed a meal, plus picked up some snacks.
The caution shown in Canada was not the situation once they arrived from Toronto to Dallas-Fort Worth.
“DFW, zero scans. I was worried because they didn’t ask us a question. No one asked us a question to do any checks, temperature screenings, nothing at all,” he said. “We just picked up our bags and left. My dad just came, pulled up to the curb, picked us up and we went home. Half of the employees weren’t wearing masks for gloves. You wouldn’t think this is a country with 300,000 or something cases.”
The number now is in the 400,000s, while Pakistan’s number of confirmed cases is at 4,780 — about 7,000 fewer than Texas, despite the country’s population of more than 212 million, though testing disparities make it difficult to make direct comparisons.
Still, Kazmi is happy to be back in the States.
After a hectic journey, he’s staying home, with all the comforts that come with it. Finally, he can finish that season of Breaking Bad.