Hello, America … eventually

Spanish exchange student would eventually have a great time becoming a part of Mac culture, but first she had to survive a labyrinthine journey just to get to Austin

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Dave Winter

Author Xel-Ha Montejano-Granados interviews sophomore Marina Salaverria on March 3, the last day that students were mandated to wear masks as a COVId safety precaution. Salaverria told the harrowing story of her travel from Spain to the United States so well that most of the digital media class stopped what they were doing and listened to the interview.

Xel-Ha Montejano-Granados, Mac photojournalism

Sophomore exchange student Marina Salaverria will be returning home to Spain this Wednesday.  The genesis of this story was an off-topic conversation in our digital media class (Sometimes goofing off can lead to something constructive).  We were talking about how soon she would leaving and how sad we’d all be that she was gone, then I asked about about her adventures in getting here.

I didn’t expect it to be a big deal, but as she started to relate a long tale of missed planes and weather mishaps, I knew I had touched on a story worth telling, in part because it’s just a good story and in part as a dedication to my dear friend who I’ll never forget. I want to preserve the adventurous spirit that I first saw in her. Before I get to the proper story, I’d like to include that most of these conversations at the airport switched from Spanish to English repeatedly, one more indication of the fearless spirit of the protagonist of this story.

Without further delay (those will come later), our story begins ….

At the beginning of Marina Salaverria’s journey to Austin on Aug. 9, she poses with her parents and her older sister at Aeropuerto de Bilbao about two hours away from her hometown of Pamplona. Her sister made the same journey to Austin from Bilbao during her sophomore year. None of them had any idea when this photo was taken how challenging Marina’s trip would be. Photo courtesy of Marina Salaverria.

It was Aug. 9, 2021 a little past 3 a.m. she was sleep deprived and still groggy on the two-hour drive to the Aeropuerto de Bilbao. When they finally arrived, Marina stood with her parents and her older sister, who made the same journey during her sophomore year. Marina’s nerves fluttered, tickling her stomach, but the night before she had made sure to prepare for her journey by studying her itinerary, two planes and two airports, that would take her to the United States, specifically to Austin.

She walked up to the ticket counter next to her parents to ask to have her tickets printed when the gate agent said, “Oh I’m so sorry. These fights are unavailable today. They don’t exist.”

It was her first time flying alone, but she would also be entering an entirely different country alone, so the actual travel was originally the least of her worries. She walked up to the ticket counter next to her parents to ask to have her tickets printed when the gate agent said, “Oh I’m so sorry. These fights are unavailable today. They don’t exist.”

As a result of the cancellation, Marina and her parents were forced to change her entire flight plan; two planes turned into three, and she was now headed to Munich, Germany.

Her dad and sister faded into the background as she walked to the gate, tears streaming down her face. Her mom looked at her with a reassuring smile as she walked onto the bus that would take her to her gate. She felt the hard stares as she sobbed in the bus and that continued as she walked towards the plane.

A million thoughts rushed through her head: “Was she really doing this?” “Her parents are in that airport; she’ll be gone for 10 months.” “Stop crying. Everyone will think you’re crazy.”

It was now 7:30 a.m., four and a half hours later, and the cheery flight attendants greeted her as tears still rolled down her face. She knew she should stop crying. There was no way back, and someone would think she was having a breakdown, but as the Munich-bound plane slowly took off, she couldn’t help but continue to sob. With a two-hour flight ahead of her, there was nothing left to do but stare out the window and watch Spain fade away.

Marina’s travel mishaps started when she found out her original direct flight to the States was canceled, forcing her to book another ticket to the U.S. connecting through Munich, Germany. Photo by Marina Salaverria.

She landed in Munich at one of the world’s largest airports with five hours until her flight to Chicago. Although all the signs were in German, she went to look for her gate, hoping to put her mind at ease. She called her parents for assistance and was confident that she had found her gate. She walked through different shops, but with two hours left till her flight departed, she realized she was at the wrong gate. Her mind filled with panic, and she scrambled to find someone to help her. Never in her life had she been more thankful that she could speak English.

She was able to locate her gate on time to board and now faced a 10-hour journey on the flight to Chicago, sitting in between a women and her husband. She was thankful to finally get some rest and yet just as sleep started to settle in for some sleep, the man next to her started to snore, and the woman’s head fell to rest on her shoulder. After what felt like far too long wedged in an uncomfortable position, there was only 30 minutes left in the flight. She was hoping the layover in Chicago would pass quickly. She had just an hour to board her flight to Texas directly after the plane landed.

The crackle of the plane loudspeaker came on, and the flight attendants started speaking in German. She saw people around her shift uncomfortably in their seats and waited anxiously for them to repeat the announcement in English so she would understand why they had responded that way.

Then she heard and understood.

The crackle of the plane loudspeaker came on, and the flight attendants started speaking in German. She saw people around her shift uncomfortably in their seats and waited anxiously for them to repeat the announcement in English so she would understand why they had responded that way.”

“Unfortunately, we are going to have to turn around and land in Detroit due to a tornado.”

Her heart stopped. She was going to miss her flight to Texas. They landed in Detroit and she checked the time to discover that her Texas-bound flight back in Chicago had already taken off.

She frantically dialed her mom’s number. Of course, she was there to reassure her as always.

“Hi, Honey, don’t worry,” she said calmly into the phone. “We know you’re in Detroit; we’re already buying you another plane ticket.”

The time in Detroit was 1 a.m., and all that was left to do was sit in the plane and wait for the green light to take off again. No one was allowed to leave their seats, and when she checked the time again, five more hours had passed. She hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and was beyond exhausted.

The greenlight to fly to Chicago was finally given and they landed along with every other plane that got delayed, she was surrounded by hundreds of people yet entirely alone in the United States.  Since she was considered an immigrant, she was herded to U.S customs and security, which would feel like the longest line of her life. She later found out the wait was actually two hours but it felt much longer. After answering the long list of the questions, among them “Where are you from?” and “Why are you entering the U.S.?” she was legally in the States.

Given the number of delayed flights that converged in Chicago, the baggage claim area overflowed with passengers. To make matters worse, her bag was nowhere to be seen. After 15 minutes of looking, a worker informed of another pile of suitcases. Digging through the second pile, she finally found her bags. She was practically gleaming. Her parents called to let her know she had a new flight to Austin at 7:30 a.m., and it was currently 3 a.m., so four and a half more hours of sleepless isolation lay ahead.

She was feeling anxious in yet another very large airport because she needed to take a bus in order change terminals. She called her mom yet again and handed the phone to the gate agent, who ended up being one of the nicest people Marina would encounter during the whole airport odyssey. The agent wrote down on paper step-by-step instructions about how to take the bus and what her gate number was. Together, they walked to the bus stop and spoke to the driver to insure she would get off at the right stop.

It was finally time to board her plane to Austin where she would stay during her time in the U.S. It had been seven years since she had last been to Texas, and her travel anxiety started finally started to yield to excitement about the school year that lay ahead of her.

After being forced to stop in Detroit due to a tornado, Marina Salaverria finally took from Chicago on the flight to her final desitnation: Austin. The sunrise was stunning, for a moment, helping her forget that she hadn’t had a wink of sleep over the previous 24 hours. Photo by Marina Salaverria.

The sunrise in Chicago was gorgeous and perfect as she boarded the plane and sat down by the window it was two-hour flight and a tall big guy sat down next to her.

He turned and asked, “Is this your first time in the U.S.? Where are you from?”

Spain, she responded, and she informed him she’s was an exchange student.

I know it’s just see you later and not goodbye forever.”

— sophomore Marina Salaverria

During their conversation he told her he was also an exchange student but that he was travelled to Spain. He reassured her that she would have an amazing time and make the best out of the year with no regrets because time flies.

It was an essential and perfectly timed message. After the entire airport fiasco, that one man reminded her the very reason she embarked on the journey to begin with: all the memories she would soon create and have for the rest of her life.

As Marina wraps up the year that began with this difficult journey, she can attest that the man was right. Time flew. She had an amazing year attending McCallum High School, joining the cheer team and immersing herself completely in the school’s culture.

On Wednesday, she flies back home to Pamplona, Spain, with a heavy mix of excitement and sadness to leave it all behind but with memories of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. This reporter can only hope that the return journey offers less resistance than her crazy trip to get here.

In concluding our interview, she expressed sadness but refused to call her departure a goodbye.

“I know it’s just see you later and not goodbye forever.”

This story is dedicated to Marina Salaverria, a close friend of mine who came here from Spain as an exchange student. I walked into digital media in Room 134 on the my first day and saw her with long brown curly hair standing tall. She spoke Spanish and had an interesting story and hometown. As the year went on. I’m so glad I met her. She’s been nothing but kind.