March has been quite a year, hasn’t it?
One week ago, I arrived home to the cold, cloudy Indianapolis suburbs after 24 hours of stressful and sanitation-filled travel.
Nine days ago, I was lounging at the beach near my apartment in sunny Sydney, Australia. I shouldn’t have been, I know, but Aussies weren’t social distancing yet, okay?
Two weeks ago, my best friend arrived in Sydney for her spring break, and I reassured her everything was fine. I was adamant that we were safe, not indefinitely, but for a few more weeks, at least.
I should have seen it coming. A student at my university in Sydney had the coronavirus in January after arriving on campus from China. I had my temperature checked in Thai airport security in February. I should have been more prepared, at least mentally, for what was to come, but life “down under” was operating as normal. I had no reason up until last week, aside from the international news alerts constantly lighting up my phone, to think anything was wrong in Australia. At least, not yet.
The last two weeks have felt longer and slower than I ever imagined possible.
Let me walk you through it.
Last Tuesday was St. Patrick’s Day. I stayed in to work on a paper, but some of my roommates went out. Bars and restaurants were still open and classes were still meeting in person. It sounds, and feels, like another life, but it was just a normal Tuesday in Sydney.
Wednesday morning, I woke up to an email from my study abroad program urging us to consider heading home. Our program supervisors, like us, had been anxiously following the news. We had all watched study abroad programs across Europe send American students back to the States.
We had watched as those who pulled the plug a bit too late struggled to find flights out of their increasingly locked-down countries. The program supervisors were worried, the email said, that it might soon be difficult to find flights out of Australia, too.
I immediately sent a screenshot of the email to my parents, but I wasn’t worried. Everything was fine in Sydney, I promised! Life certainly seemed better there than it did in the U.S. My parents and I agreed that, for the time being, I was probably safer in Australia.
Thursday morning, the choice was no longer mine. An email from my program provider told me my time was up: They had canceled all programs in Australia and New Zealand. We had a week to pack our bags and head out. As my roommates and I joked that day, the message was essentially: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
I was, of course, disappointed. But I told myself we were the lucky ones. We knew this was coming; it had been a slow burn. I had an entire week to slowly pack up my life in Sydney, make a few final, joyful memories and leave with a sense of closure and calm.
That is, obviously, not what happened.
The next morning, a few friends and I woke up early to watch the sunrise at Coogee Beach, about a 30-minute walk from our apartment. A couple of my roommates were leaving that weekend, but I still had five days left to fill—surf lessons booked, shopping lists to complete, even homework assignments to submit.
As we sat on a cliff overlooking the sea with the sun rising above us — yes, it was as beautiful as it sounds — our laughter was interrupted by texts and calls from our parents. While we’d been sleeping, the U.S. Department of State did what many other countries had already done and advised all Americans abroad to return to the U.S. as soon as possible. A tearful call with my dad confirmed the thing I had been dreading. I had 24 hours left in Sydney.
I want to stop here to say I know this is not that bad. I know that there are far, far worse things happening to millions of people around the world right now. You don’t need to send me that Kim Kardashian meme that says, “Kim, there are people that are dying”— really, I know. I am not here to say that having to leave my study abroad program early is the end of the world, by any means. I’m just sharing my experience, however inconsequential it may be in the grand scheme of things.
I spent my last day soaking up as much sun as I possibly could, hoping my tan wouldn’t fade too quickly after arriving home. My roommates and I stayed up most of the night, packing our overweight suitcases and sending leftover groceries to friends remaining in Sydney. It was, all things, considered, a perfect last day.