• Countries Visited: 11 (I think?)
  • Travel Wishlist: Literally anywhere. But if I had to narrow it down, probably Central Asia.
  • Locked down in: Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada

“At least we won’t be clutching at straws, because those are being phased out in BC to save ocean critters.”

I started 2020 hopeful, but the reality was that I was coming in from months of the worst mental health I’ve ever experienced. I spent 2019 building my dream project at work, a wilderness outdoor education program, and starting my dream master’s program – on the surface it looked like things were great and I was succeeding at everything but I didn’t realise just how stressed out I was and how I was running myself into the ground. I crashed hard in September and spent the rest of the year numb and feeling completely isolated. I would get irrationally angry when my husband, Tim, went out with friends, partly because I couldn’t stand being alone with my thoughts and partly because I didn’t know how to express that I was lonely and needed him to come home. Thankfully, we recognised the problem before it spiralled too far out of control and with Tim’s help, I started the uphill battle of taking care of myself. We ended the year with a big overseas trip, starting out in Melbourne to spend Christmas with my family and then made our way through Asia on the way back to Canada. I’m so glad we made that trip happen – we always wanted to do a big trip together and that might just have been our last chance.

When we returned to British Columbia, I was determined to make 2020 better than 2019. Overall, it felt like I had developed some good mental health strategies and was regaining control – things were looking up! The week COVID hit, everything happened so quickly: on Wednesday 11 March, my boss told everyone that we were doing well financially and he approved a lot of new expenses, including some further developments to my wilderness program. Two days later, BC was going into lockdown and my entire workplace shut down. Every project, program and expense was cancelled and every single employee, including both Tim and me, was laid off, effective immediately.

I can’t explain how I felt that evening. My financial security, my home, my social life, my mental health that I had been working so hard to improve was all crumbling down in the space of one afternoon. Tim and I spent that evening talking, processing and praying, trying to figure out a backup plan. The next day, we started applying for jobs – Tim searched for maintenance work and I decided to return to teaching. Then it was announced that schools were closing and teaching wouldn’t be an option. I applied for other jobs, but having spent the last ten years working in either sport/outdoor education or teaching, I lacked the experience to compete with all the other people who were also out of work because of COVID. In fact, the job market was so saturated that when outdoor education jobs did start appearing again, my years of experience and multiple qualifications didn’t even get me interviews.

However, a few great things did happen and Tim and I made a conscious choice to focus on these when times were tough. I believe this choice made all the difference. A handful of friends offered Tim some work gigs and so he managed to odd-job his way through a few weeks before being offered a full-time position. It was far from his dream job, but we celebrated. We also found ourselves being offered free food from multiple sources and it was such a blessing to know that no matter how difficult or disheartening things felt, our fridge was always full. Finally, our rent payments were suspended for a time and so we could focus on pulling life together without worrying about being homeless. We never took any of these for granted and keeping our sights focused on these things kept us grounded. It gave us a sense of positivity that helped me to keep my mental health on the improve, even when I was stuck at home every day and couldn’t see friends for months.

After a few months, lockdown was eased and I was asked to come back to work on notice – this means that I had to work for two months and then would be officially terminated with no replacement, not just laid off. It was a relief to be receiving a salary again, but motivation is difficult when the sole purpose of each day is to create ways for your job to no longer exist. I understood that it wasn’t my boss’ choice, nor his fault, and I still whole-heartedly believed in the mission my work aimed to achieve. So I worked my notice and I did my best.

The school year began in September and with lockdown eased, I was able to find a fantastic school job. While Tim and I are no longer concerned for our financial security, we are watching as COVID case numbers are climbing throughout BC and we can’t help but think about what might happen next. It broke my heart to hear from my family and friends in Melbourne as they experienced the gruelling second lockdown and I’m celebrating with them as they emerge this week. But as restrictions ease for them, we are beginning to see more over here with the coming winter.

Back in June, Tim and I made the huge decision that we would move permanently to Australia and I must admit that I’ve been glued to news apps ever since, monitoring the travel restrictions while we wait anywhere between 12-26 months for Tim’s visa to be approved. In the past, I would have thought it safe to assume everything would be worked out by then, but now nothing seems certain. However, I trust that there will always be good things we can choose to focus on, just like those great things we chose to focus on when all this began back in March.

At least we won’t be clutching at straws, because those are being phased out in BC to save ocean critters.

Update 30th March 2021

When COVID first hit and we lost our jobs, my husband and I decided that our plan to move from Canada to Australia needed to fast forward a few years. From that point on, it was a wild ride between unstable employment and almost $8000 in visa fees and expenses, plus the mental and emotional pressure of trying to immigrate across the world during a pandemic. We were stuck in limbo trying to come home for almost a year, all the while hearing the negative voices coming from parts of the Australian community:

“You should have come home when the government told you to. This was your choice”.

Except that’s not true. We couldn’t come home because I was not willing to spend an indefinite period of time separated from my husband. I’m an Australian citizen which means that I could go home, but my husband is Canadian. With borders closed to foreigners, we had to apply for an
exempt visa to get him into the country. We applied for the offshore partner visa, one of the few that would actually be allowed to enter, and we began the process at the same time that the Australian government was telling citizens to return.

In other words, we were trying to do what we were told and come home. It took two months to prepare the paperwork, two weeks to arrange our finances to pay a bill that large and six months to be processed and approved. By that point it was December and the negative voices were active while the only flights with even a remote chance of not being cancelled cost $20 000. We booked a cheaper flight that we could barely afford, despite knowing it would be cancelled. It was cancelled twice before the miracle of a repatriation flight, guaranteed to take off and actually affordable, was offered to us. I honestly thought it would be sold
out when we booked, but somehow we got tickets.

This left us with two weeks’ notice to pack up, sell or sign away five years of life in Canada. It was intense. I don’t remember much of what happened during those two weeks and it only ended four days ago as I write this.

There are some heartbreaking stories out there about Australians trying to come home and I am very aware of how fortunate we are. The Department of Foreign Affairs has always had a rough job, I think. Australians overseas can be just plain stupid at times and we have often heard news of someone getting government assistance overseas for anything from lost passports to drug smuggling convictions. The problem is that now it is tens of thousands of Australians who have done nothing wrong, have not acted stupidly, and they are not receiving the government help they desperately need.

Repatriation flights are great and I’m thrilled to hear that they will be increased soon, but even so it barely scratches the surface of the problem and meanwhile those tens of thousands are left hanging. It is not their fault and I absolutely understand why so many have given up on coming home.

At the very least, it’s good to know that the repatriation flight experience, for those lucky enough to be on one, is overwhelmingly positive. To begin with, the passengers are really nice to each other. Everyone is so excited to be there and not even a grueling long haul flight with at least five babies, all intermittently screaming throughout the journey, can dampen their spirits. The staff are wonderful, knowing that this is a huge moment for everyone and they get to be part of the experience, even at the cost of having to go through quarantine themselves.

Everyone involved knows that this has been hard and they seem to genuinely want to make the trip as pleasant as possible, despite the longer, more complicated airport processes. Even quarantine has been positive so far. We are thankful beyond words to be quarantining in Darwin’s Howard Springs facility. Having an outdoor space on the balcony is life-giving, the staff are kind and the food is great. Already there is camaraderie and friendships forming with people in surrounding rooms as we spend so much time on our little balcony spaces and have similar stories to tell.

Our quarantine is only at its beginning, so no doubt I’ll feel differently in a week, but after spending so long in a constant state of tension, not knowing when or how we would get home and then frantically packing up without any spare time and an ever-growing to do list, this feels like a holiday. Not the sort of adventurous holiday I prefer to take, but a holiday nonetheless.

One week before the golden email offering the chance to book tickets on the repatriation flight, I was involved in a car accident and badly injured my ankle. I spent the next two weeks on crutches and another week in a boot, barely recovering enough to get away with just a small ankle brace on the plane. It seems like a fitting end to the chaos of the past two years, crashing and crawling across a finish line and now taking a deep breath, finally having time to rest and recover.