By March 2020 I was eight months into a year’s secondment in Lonely Planet’s Dublin office. When I moved there from Melbourne, in July 2019, I packed up my life in about four weeks: moved out of my house, organised shipping, jammed in last-minute catch-ups with friends – and one dash to New Zealand to see my family. Then I was off, exhausted but feeling pretty proud that I’d managed to pull off such a big move in such a short time.

Kirsten travelling in Kerry
Kirsten travelling in Kerry before making the decision to return to New Zealand © Kirsten Rawlings / Lonely Planet

Fast-forward through a fun transition to living in a new country, a long cold winter spent sheltering in Dublin’s pubs, lots of great travel in the northern hemisphere and excitement at the glorious summer ahead of me. Then, March, and coronavirus. Among the upheaval at work, sudden shortages at the supermarket and self-isolation, I suddenly felt far from home.

With other friends living away from their home countries I tossed up the pros and cons of heading back. Was it too dramatic? Wouldn’t we feel silly if we ran home in a panic only to have this thing be over in a couple of weeks? Then on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, came news that the Australian government was advising all citizens overseas to return home while they could. Borders were closing all over the place and commercial flights were set to wind down. My boss messaged me: was I sure I didn’t want to go home? I still wasn’t sure. I spent that day on the phone with everyone I could get hold of, seeking advice. My Australian friend in Belarus was fine to stay put. Advice from a friend in the USA was not to be rash. An Australian friend in Berlin agreed I should not overreact. Angela, my fellow Australian at LP’s Dublin office, was on the phone with me on and off all day. We kept changing our minds, unclear what to do. We both had somewhere to live in Dublin, so were not in the same position as travellers who might get stranded overseas. We had friends there. We both had work teams at the Dublin office we were reluctant to leave. On the other hand, what if flights remained grounded and borders closed for months and months? A year? Of course it was impossible to say.

Kirsten's flat in the middle of packing
Kirsten started packing up her life in Dublin after seeking advice from friends and family © Kirsten Rawlings / Lonely Planet

We talked to our boss on the evening of St Patrick’s Day and he was the first person to convince us we should go. He said he’d buy tickets: one to Melbourne for Angela and one to Auckland for me. Though our ‘home’ Lonely Planet office is in Melbourne and there isn’t an office in New Zealand, I decided that if I was going to go home, I might as well really go home – and since everyone at Lonely Planet was working remotely anyway, what difference would a couple of thousand kilometres and a time zone make? My worry underneath all this was that the Australian authorities wouldn’t let me in to that country – I became a citizen many years ago, but don’t have an Australian passport.

The last thing I did that night was call my sister in Auckland to tell her I was coming to live with her. (She took it well, phew!) And then went to bed, knowing I’d be up early to start packing up my life – all the things I had done frantically last year in four weeks, but this time in a day and a half. 

My first job the next morning was to jump on a video call to my teams in Dublin to tell them I was leaving. Then on to the shipping company, then my landlord – I attempted to soften the blow of me breaking my lease by giving her all the beautiful food (and, OK, a certain quantity of booze) I had bought with the intention of spending my self-isolation cooking fresh healthy meals. 

The rest of that day was spent jumping between packing boxes and taking a series of goodbye calls and texts. What a sad way to end my time in Ireland. I thought of all the travel plans I had made (and booked and paid for) for the summer ahead. Of the friends I was supposed to catch up with in Serbia and Montenegro. Of the retreat I had booked for Italy in June. Of the four concerts I had tickets for in the coming months. Then I thought of all the people far worse off than me and tried to get over myself. Besides, there was no time to wallow; I had to pack, pack, pack.

Read more: Will my airline give me a refund due to the coronavirus?

An empty Dubai airport as the coronavirus pandemic closes more and more borders
An eerily quiet Dubai airport © Kirsten Rawlings / Lonely Planet

Angela and I were on the same flight to Dubai, where we would split up to go to Auckland and Melbourne. We arrived at Dublin airport three hours early, worrying about being bumped. Despite the rest of the airport being empty, everyone else on our flight was also there three hours early. The check-in line moved at a crawl due to extra passport checks. At midnight the night before, Australia and New Zealand had closed their borders to all but citizens and permanent residents. An airline staff member came through the line, asking everyone where they were travelling and which passport they had. One man said he was going to India. She said no one was flying to India – those flights had stopped. Others didn’t have the right papers – including an Australian who wasn’t sure he’d be allowed into New Zealand, but was giving it a go because he wanted to get back to his partner. I was glad to have a neatly matching answer (‘New Zealand’) to both her questions.

After spending a long hour in the check-in queue, going through security took just seconds. We had time to kill on the other side, but the usual pastimes were not available. The food court was closed and no bars were open. We couldn’t even fill our water bottles – the ‘hydration stations’ had been deemed too risky. 

A person checking in for a flight with a packet of toilet paper as their carry on
Another passenger taking toilet roll on as carry on © Angela Tinson / Lonely Planet

The seven-hour flight to Dubai was uneventful, and then it was time for Angela and I to part ways. Without a hug, of course. Cavernous Dubai airport was deathly quiet. The waterfalls flowed, the inter-terminal trains ran, but the luxury duty-free shops sold nothing. The easiest way to find your gate was to walk towards the only people you could see. There was somehow still a queue for the women’s toilet.

With all the sudden border closings around the world, I’d been nervous about any kind of stopover. What if my flight was not able to depart? Or if I missed my connection? Would there even be another flight to Auckland? Happily, the Dubai transit all went smoothly – the silver lining again being the ability to float through security in no time – and I boarded for the 16 hours to Auckland.

I’ve done some sort of Australasia–Europe flight many times and though it is never pleasant, it has never been this surreal. Usually most flights are roughly half people from the departure point and half from the destination. This one was an A380 full of Kiwis, most wearing masks. The woman sitting next to me wore two masks, eye goggles and gloves, and doused her whole area with sanitiser. Usually people are bubbling with excitement about the start of a trip or full of stories from their recent travels. Now they were all just relieved to be going home. Everyone had given up or lost something, whether it was a holiday cut short, a rapid exit from a family visit, or a hastily rebooked flight after their original tickets through the USA, or somewhere else they were no longer allowed to transit, became useless. 

There was a sense of camaraderie and even on such a gruelling, endless, uncomfortable leg (I will repeat: 16 hours!), people showed their appreciation to the flight attendants – these great people on the frontline exposed to our dirty trays, cups and napkins, likely about to lose their jobs, but who smiled the whole time. I was so filled with gratitude to them I even managed to channel it into something like tolerance for the small child who kicked the back of my seat for the last five hours.

Auckland's airport baggage hall deserted of people
Kirsten lands in an equally quiet Auckland airport © Kirsten Rawlings / Lonely Planet

The rest is a sleep-deprived jet-lagged blur. We landed, we were home, we were full of relief… And we all had to enter 14 days of self-isolation. An extra checkpoint was created in the airport corridor before passport control, with one-metre sections taped on the floor to keep us at a safe distance. We were asked about our health, and our self-isolation plan was reviewed and recorded. We were told that breaking it would result in detention. NZ had deported some tourists a few days earlier for failing to self-isolate.

Kirsten's quarantine set up; a bedroom with double doors opening on to a garden
Kirsten's very comfortable self isolation set up for the next few days © Kirsten Rawlings / Lonely Planet

So here I am, in self-isolation, in my mum’s basement. It’s extremely comfortable – actually bigger than my flat in Dublin (a Dublin real-estate eye-roll, please, from my Irish friends) – and opens onto a garden. I get home-cooked meals and hot drinks dropped outside my door. I return the dirty dishes in a tub filled with a bleach mixture. If I have coronavirus, I’m pretty sure there is zero chance I have infected anyone over here and that feels good! I have my own bathroom, lots of books and wifi. I work from here, with lots of video calls, emails and Slack messages with teams in the Melbourne and Dublin offices. I am allowed to go for a walk, which I do once a day. I also do yoga and am learning Spanish. A life lived by most of us around the world right now. I have had one visit from my sister, niece and nephew, which we did at a distance. Every day I read horror stories of people trying to fly home and not making it. Of spending thousands on flights that never fly. I am so glad to be here – grateful to Lonely Planet for whisking me home and to my family for jumping into action and putting my self-isolation plan together while I packed up in Dublin. I was not ready to leave that life but we are all giving up a lot at the moment and so all I can do is look forward to the day I can go back, and say a proper goodbye to everyone.

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