This pandemic has been tough for all of us. If you’re reading this, travel probably plays a big part in your life, too. Yet this year, so many plans had to be cancelled, adjusted, or plainly thrown out the window. It sucks.
For me, being stuck at home felt particularly bittersweet. I had the chance to stay in the one country that has pretty much managed to beat COVID and where travel is a real option. Yes, I’m talking about New Zealand.
The situation in New Zealand
New Zealand has for the most part managed to get through this pandemic comparatively well. After a quick and severe lockdown in March and April, the country reopened, although its borders stayed closed. Domestic travel was possible again, without restrictions.
I was in New Zealand back in March when the lockdown began. I had been there since November 2019, on a working holiday visa. New Zealand had been one of my dream destinations for years, and finally, I had made it. I never thought there would be any reason to make me go home early, other than maybe having enough of travel (not very likely).
Even in March, when the rest of the world started going into lockdown, life in New Zealand was still almost normal. The pandemic hit late, so travel was still possible at a time when the rest of the world was already hiding inside.
But already, it felt strange. Going out exploring when everyone else had to stay inside? It gave everything a weird atmosphere, almost as though you’re doing something forbidden.
Things got worse: New Zealand in lockdown
Then New Zealand announced the lockdown. Moreover, I found myself confronted with a hugely limited supply of flights home. I was staying in an Auckland hostel about two weeks before lockdown, with many other Europeans. Every day flights were cancelled and travellers became stuck.
At this time, I still planned to stay. Surely, by the time I was going to go home later in the year it would all be over? That’s what I was hoping. But I couldn’t shake the doubts.
By the time lockdown started, it was clear repatriation flights organized by the German government were the only way to still get home. If you didn’t take those, you’d have to wait until normal air travel resumed. And potentially risk being stuck in the country indefinitely.
Now, admittedly, there are worse things than being forced to stay in New Zealand. Even if, at the time, I didn’t yet know how long the lockdown would last. But there were other factors to consider.
Leaving was the only way
Both of my parents count into the COVID risk group, because of their age. Additionally, my mum had already dealt with some health problems that year. She had to go to the hospital only weeks after I had left for Auckland. I can’t even begin to tell you how it feels to get news like that when you’re literally at the other end of the world.
Luckily, my mum recovered. But now that we suddenly had a pandemic, did I really want to risk anything like this happening again? This time without the option to hop on the plain when needed, if things should go bad?
It was not a risk I was willing to take.
So, with a heavy heart and a lot of tears, I boarded a repatriation flight out of Auckland, one day before Good Friday. It was the most unusual flight I’ve ever been on.
There were no masks required on the planes yet, but that wasn’t needed to make everything feel super weird. No choice in seating or boarding class, no hot food before our fuel stop in Bangkok and no drinks other than water. Yes, that meant neither coffee nor alcohol.
During the Bangkok stop, we had to stay on the plane and left immediately after we refuelled. No getting out, stretching your legs, wandering around the airport. The crew, made up entirely of volunteers, was as emotional about the whole experience as the passengers.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who spilt tears more than once in those 25 hours it took us to get to Frankfurt.
Leaving New Zealand during the lockdown
I was relieved to be home and reunited with my loved ones. Yet, leaving a country had never been this hard. I wasn’t done with New Zealand. Not just because I hadn’t gotten to see everything I wanted.
More importantly, because it was emotionally harder to come to terms with this enforced end of a trip than with a voluntary or pre-planned one, no matter how painful those may also sometimes be.
Every time I heard news of New Zealand, all the emotions were back. When they lifted the lockdown. When they had no more active cases. Or when domestic travel was resumed. I was happy for them on each of these milestones, and so proud! But I couldn’t ignore that tiny voice in my mind whispering that I could be there yet, enjoying those freedoms myself, if I hadn’t gone home.
Now, I know there would have been flight options and coming home wouldn’t have been too much of a problem. I also know that all my family is fine and none of them had Covid. But there was no way of predicting this back in March.
The right decision can still hurt
I still think coming home was the right decision. The only one I could have made at the time being. And I certainly know I have lost much less in this pandemic than many others, and for that I’m grateful. But I still can’t help shedding a few more tears sometimes about all that could have been.
Here’s to hoping 2020 will bring travel back and allow us to make up for all we couldn’t do this year.
2020 left marks on all of us. What did you miss most this year? Feel free to use this place to vent, I’ll understand!