The lessons I've learned thanks to coronavirus

When writing my previous post let alone when starting my international journey last November, I had no clue I would suddenly find myself back in Finland, but here I am – laying in my bed in Oulu, Finland. When taking on the journey, I knew to expect surprises and struggles but I did not see this one coming. A pandemic and a global state of emergency changed my course as it did to many other people. I am beyond disappointed, as my next leg was supposed to be Australia, which has been my biggest dream during the past 15 years or so and was the ultimate goal of this journey. I had everything organized: flights bought, an au pair work contract starting in April, Backstreet Boys concert tickets for May etc. However, the past two weeks have been a struggle, first with AIESEC and then with the notorious coronavirus outbreak, so I had to cut short my volunteering experience in Brazil, forget Australia for now and find a way back home. Even though I am disappointed, being home in this situation is worth a celebration so, virtual cheers to everybody!

I ended my last post wondering, if I would find out what I was about to do when volunteering in Brazil before this post. Well, I spent 4 weeks in Aracaju, but I did not manage to find out where to give my input. As described on my previous post, me and the other volunteer spent the first 2,5 weeks mostly waiting for the coordinator to arrive and to answer our questions about what it was that we were supposed to do. The day after my previous post, I was surprisingly taken to a two-hour meeting for another project (only Portuguese spoken) and being told that I would start there the next day as the coordinators finally admitted that in reality there was not much to do in the first project. The administration people of the new project were not present during the next days, so I did not have a chance to make a work plan with them before the pandemic escalated, work was suspended and the Finnish government recommended all the Finns to come home. So, indeed, I left Brazil without even knowing what I was supposed to work with. I’m again upset with AIESEC as wasting 3 weeks of a 6-week program trying to find out what to do, is not okay when people have put a lot of time and money in being there. Right now, I am waiting for their reply to my request of getting a refund of the participation fee to compensate at least part of the investment I made.

Panic packing my stuff to be ready to go home

Well, even though the volunteering project did not give me much, I think the whole experience was still unforgettable and surprisingly not least due to COVID-19. This unexpected situation has made me think, decide and see so many new things that I think it’s worthwhile writing them down. Due to coronavirus I have learned a lesson or two about 1) resilience, 2) discrimination and 3) solidarity during the past week. To make the learnings count, I want to share them with you.

Resilience

As soon as Finnish government took the decision of closing the borders, I contacted KLM in order to advance my flight. I did not hear back from them in the next days as the policy was to serve only those who had their flight within the next 72 hours. Hence, as the number of available flights was decreasing rapidly and a few days could make a difference between being stuck in Brazil for the next months or getting home, I decided to buy new flights. So, on Friday March 20, I checked my luggage till Helsinki and boarded my flight from Aracaju to Sao Paulo and the next day continued to Istanbul. Everything so far went smoothly and if so many people didn’t wear respiratory masks, it would have been difficult to notice that anything was out of the normal. The flights were almost full and there were a lot of people on all the airports except the international terminal of Sao Paulo.

However, after landing to Istanbul, the struggle started. As I was supposed to wait till the next day before my flight to Finland would depart, I had booked a hotel room just next to the airport. However, I quickly noticed that all the passport controls were closed. When asking about it, I was told that as I have a Finnish passport, I am not allowed to leave the airport. The new restrictions to enter the country had been put in place while I was already in the air on my 12-hour flight so suddenly, I had no way out. I wanted to inform the person from the hotel who was supposed to pick me up that I would not be coming, but I had no way to do that as I did not manage to connect to wi-fi and my Finnish SIM was not working. After a while, I found a machine where I could get wi-fi for the next 60 minutes by showing my passport. I entered to my e-mail to see the hotel details only to realize my flight to Finland was canceled. As were all the other flights to Europe. So, no way out from Turkey and also no way into Turkey – I was stuck. The situation was worse than I had feared so I could not help bursting into tears in the middle of the airport.

A quick call to mum trying to explain the situation and informing that I would not be able to communicate after the 60 minutes of wi-fi would be used as I did not succeed in buying more. Then, survival mode on and to the queue for the Turkish Airlines stand. At first, it looked like the only destination I could fly to in order to get closer to home would be Russia. Two layovers in Russia without a visa to Russia did not sound like an excellent plan so I did not take the deal. After the officer went through a bunch of European cities to see if there would be any flights going, I was finally told that there was a flight to Tallinn the next day and I could be rerouted there. I took my chances and changed my booking for Tallinn.

I succeeded in getting the second-to-last available room at the hotel located at the airport and managed to sleep barely for an hour. The next morning, I got to my boarding gate early to confirm the flight would still be going, and everything looked fine. At the boarding time there were about 50 people yelling something at the boarding gate in a language foreign to me. I don’t know what was going on but soon a Turkish Airline representative took as with him to another gate, so I guess the (local?) people did not want us there and we needed to leave before anything worse would happen. Once we started the boarding at the new gate, I was told to wait until the boarding was completed as I might not be allowed onboard being a Finn. Anxiously waiting for 20 minutes allowed me to notice there were also two other Finnish girls in the same situation. So, together we watched everybody else to get into the plane. After everybody else was in, the Turkish Airlines guy started calling around to see if we were allowed to enter. Finally, he was given the permission to let us in and we were taken by bus to the gate the plane was originally supposed to leave from.

As we were three girls in the same situation, we put our forces together and filled in the coronavirus questionnaires in Estonian to get into the country once landed. There were absolutely no problems at the border. In addition, 2 out of us 3 also faced the unexpected beauty of seeing our backpacks on the luggage belt. We were inside the European Union and 2/3 of our backpacks had succeeded in arriving with us in spite of the cancellations and rerouting – success! The next thing to do was to catch a ferry to Finland so we took an Uber to the Tallink terminal. At 13.07 I was paying for my ferry ticket to the Tallink shuttle that was to leave at 13.30. With the tickets in hand we started an Amazing Race -like run to the ferry through the never-ending corridors. Having 30 kilos of extra weight in the form of two backpacks made it way too exhausting but I finally entered the ferry half a minute before the doors closed. All three of us bursted into tears realizing that we finally would get to Finland.

To me, all this was an ultimate test of resilience as last week was one of the most mentally challenging in my life so far. Picking myself up after realizing that my dream of getting to Australia would not happen any time soon. Baring the nagging sensation of being unsure if I would be able to get home within the next months. Leaving my Brazilian family unexpectedly. Plans changing over and over again and continuous uncertainty of what would happen next. There were many times when I was feeling devastated. Still, I managed to pick myself up every time keeping my goal clear. 51 hours of traveling finally took me home and now I’m in Oulu knowing clearer than ever that even though I can sometimes be temperamental, when things take unexpected turns, I know to keep rather calm and can focus on finding a solution after solution till I reach my goal.

Discrimination

This is the first time in my life that I have felt being a white person or being a Finn is not a privilege. During my last days in Aracaju, I noticed that some of the locals were stepping further away from me differently than they did with fellow Brazilians as if they were more scared of me having the virus. Also, being at the Istanbul airport not being able to cross the border only because of my nationality even though I could clearly show with the passport stamps I had not been in Europe since January 3rd and hence had nothing to do with the coronavirus situation in Finland, was a weird experience. The cherry on the cake was needing to change the gate just before boarding the flight to Tallinn as the environment towards us was hostile. I was lucky that the situation was not as bad as in e.g. India where I heard some white travellers being thrown rocks at because they were thought to increase the risk of getting infected by coronavirus.

Even though the experience was not pleasant, I think I have now a tiny bit better understanding of what it feels like being discriminated based on your nationality or looks and hence this was a valuable lesson learned. Unfortunately, when leaving the ferry in the terminal in Helsinki, I was reminded again that some people experience this all the time: At the terminal door, there were border guards checking that only Finns or legal residents would be entering the country. A black business traveler speaking fluent Finnish gave his Finnish passport to the guard and was then asked if he was born in Finland. How could not being born in Finland eliminate the fact that he was now legally a Finn and had the same right to enter the country as I did? We three Finnish-looking girls were just asked if we had been backpacking, that’s it. I think we were the bigger risk for national security clearly having come through several airports and crowds of people.

Solidarity

Even though the time is stressful and it’s easy to react fearfully towards other people, I have also noticed an extra dose of solidarity around me. Before Australia closed the borders, I also considered heading straight to Australia instead of coming to Finland. Before taking any decisions, I asked on some Facebook travel groups about possible places to serve my quarantine at. I received an enormous amount of support and within the same day I had a place to stay at. Unfortunately, I had to turn down the offer as Australia announced closing the borders, but the genuine help from others was heart-warming. Also, when being stuck at the Istanbul airport, travellers whose flights had been cancelled were super supportive to each other’s – I even received an invitation to finish two bottles of cachaça (the alcohol used for e.g. caipirinha) with two Brazilians if nothing else worked out. Furthermore, bonding with the two Finns when boarding the flight to Tallinn was empowering and getting home was the result of our collaboration. Challenging situations seem to create an incredible bond between people who are going through the same.

This, let’s go through this pandemic together and help each other’s any way we can. It’s easy to judge other people’s actions but we need to remember there is always something more behind the story. People saying that it’s your own fault if you are stuck abroad might be the same ones who go to a pub in the evening and couldn’t care less about not tossing without covering their face. People being stuck abroad might be also people who were working there to save lives or to finish their degree instead of looking for a cheap vacation – they do not deserve to be held away from home. As we are all new to this situation and everybody is worried to some extent, we don’t always know what the right thing to do is. Fear, loss of control and lack of information don’t create the best environment for smart decisions. Every single one of us has done something that might make the virus spread faster. Could we just try to help each other’s making smarter decisions the next day instead of judging others?

After all this, I am hopeful even though the situation looks terrible. I’ve learned so much during this pandemic that I feel like it has served for something. Am I scared? Yes, I have no income and I’m not sure if all my friends and relatives will make it through the pandemic. Do I regret resigning from my work and Finnish life last November? No, I don’t – I’ve had insightful 5 months abroad. Do I regret not going to Australia earlier? Yes, a tiny bit as the experience in Brazil was not as fulfilling as expected. Then again, I believe there is a reason why this happened and it will be better for me to stay home now. To quote my own words from last November “I am not sure where the journey will take me but I have a feeling it will be the right place at that moment”.

More than anything, this experience has reminded me the hard way that if there is something you really want to do, start doing it now (but don’t risk other people’s health). Don’t make excuses to postpone your dreams as once you finally have the gut to realize your dream, it might be too late. It hit me hard that at some point I thought I would be kept away from home. It hits me similarly hard to know that I cannot do much else to gain my liberty back than to stay at home. I am still determined about hitting Australia but right now I have no idea when it will be possible. The only thing that I know is that this will make me appreciate the experience in Australia even more once it becomes possible.

I don’t feel this is the end of the journey I started in November. I’m still on a journey but I took a detour. I don’t know what this phase will hold inside or how the journey will continue later on. I will keep writing here until I feel like the journey is completed, so shall we take a look at it together?


P.S. I got an e-mail from KLM on Thursday 26 stating that my original return flights were all cancelled and there was no way to rebook so, I would indeed have been stuck in Brazil, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to buy another flight with extra money as the refunds are only made in vouchers.

Also, the funny thing is that in the same e-mail KLM gave me this recommendation as they were not able to rebook: “Are you abroad and do you need help going home? We strongly advise you to contact your local embassy, as they will be able to assist you.” On the contrary, the e-mail received from the Finnish embassy on the same day instructed me to contact KLM or Air France in order to organize my flight back home in case I was still in the country. Clear, eh?

4 Comments

  1. Oli mielenkiintoista seurata sun blogia! Harmi että päättyi näin, mutta Australia odottaa sua vielä!

    Tsemppiä ja pysykää terveinä!

    Nina S

    Like

  2. Samankaltaisessa tilanteessa mutta ehdin käydä Australiassa Joulukuuu-Helmikuu (ei mennyt kuitenkaan ihan niin kuin Strömsössä kun suuri osa maasta oli liekeissä..) Nyt Balilla ja pari lentoa jo peruttu. Uusi lento ensi viikolla ja jos ei tämä mene niin olen jumissa täällä. Mutta hyvä että pääsit ajoissa kotiin.

    Like

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