On Monday the 23rd March I was, much like the rest of the country, sat at home with my family in the UK, hearing for the first time that we would now be in lock down. Just a week prior, I was saying goodbye to my sister as we both boarded flights after an amazing trip around Quintana Roo and neighbouring Islands, hers back to London and mine back to my hometown in Mexico. To say that, at this moment, I was oblivious to the virus and how it could potentially impact my year abroad would have been a lie. As my sister works in the NHS, and was also keeping herself well informed of the government’s measures, we had daily conversations whilst on our trip about the developments in case numbers, testing and travel restrictions. During this week, the global developments and updates concerning the virus appeared to be increasing in number and alarm by the day. When it was the end of our amazing trip, I was then faced with a busy international airport, Cancun, and found myself surrounded by people across the spectrum of concern for the virus: from those wearing masks continually, those with masks around their necks, those waiting in the boarding gate next to theirs which was empty instead of their own crowded one (me), and those who had absolutely no concern and would happily choose to sit right next to someone else even though there were entire banks of free seats (the woman next to me). As I arrived back at my home in Cholula, which although is packed with international students and has a big party scene for them, is an otherwise sleepy town, I felt that surely, I’d be able to see out the rest of the year there.
The Monday I awoke to was frantic. It appeared that, almost overnight, panic had taken over the international student community at UDLAP. Flights to some home countries were being cancelled, borders were being closed, embassies being contacted and mindsets were changing and re-changing, including my own, over and over again. At this moment, the internationals appeared to move in packs: first the Americans, declared they were all leaving, then the Italians, then the French. This wasn’t about nationalism as we were, all in all, a very well-integrated group, but it was a case of people not wanting to be stranded without anyone to travel home with in uncertain conditions, especially when we were starting to hear stories of people going to the airport alone for their flights and having them cancelled, or even worse, have their connecting flight cancelled and become trapped in an unfamiliar country with no visa or rights otherwise to leave the airport. This was one of the most stressful days of my life, most of all because, I couldn’t come to a decision that I was happy with. Leaving Mexico almost 3 months earlier than I had wanted to, and so suddenly, felt too gutting a decision to bear. Yet I was faced with the concern that if I didn’t leave now, with the direct flights to London being cut to only 1 per day and a number of those that week already having been cancelled, I might be unable to come home for a very long time, perhaps until a lot later than I had originally planned. Unfortunately, none of us had any real idea of how long the virus, and the response of governments to it, could shut down international travel.
Although there was a fairly panicked group mentality, I was determined to make up my own mind. Two days may have not seemed long enough to make such a finite decision: in leaving Mexico at that point, I would not be returning to my home where I lived with international friends, as a resident of Mexico, for a long time, maybe not ever. However, I came to the realisation that what made me so happy on my year abroad was the freedom I felt; to travel to some amazing places; the nights out with friends; performing on the cheer team in front of huge crowds at football games, and that- whether I liked it or not- this was being taken from me regardless. My year abroad in Mexico had been the most incredible chapter of my life so far, and I wanted to remember it as that.
I knew that, from the amount of information I had read about the virus, I would feel too guilty to attend parties or travel, where it was still permitted. My classes were all now online and the campus virtually closed, all of the bars and clubs were shut and soon the restaurants would probably follow suit, and, most crucially, so many of my best friends and close housemates were leaving. It came to me that, whether I remained in Mexico or not, the year abroad that I knew and loved, was over. So why fight it. At this point I decided that I would make my last week a great one. With money chipped in from the rest of the housemates, we bought an inflatable pool for the terrace, and we had house pool parties every day, and all ate together each night. I also went for meals with other friends and had a final walk of the campus. Once the day of my flight came, I had already had to say goodbye to a few of my housemates and other close friends. Our house, along with a few other friends who had joined to see us off, did the traditional goodbye route we’d developed in the last few days, of all coming down on to the street and hugging goodbye as the taxi arrived to take us to the airport, and as we drove away I watched my house and my amazing friends, shrink into the distance.
The journey home was smooth and fairly stress free – apart from some shuffling of weight around in our jam-packed suitcases and rucksacks, and then as soon as I knew it, I was home. I was surprised by how normal, jet-lag aside, I felt to be at home. I thought that, alike how I was in uk customs just after landing, I would immediately be translating things I wanted to say into Spanish in my head, or resist drinking water from the tap. But it’s amazingly easy to slip back into the normality of home and, at times, almost feel like you were never away at all. I have actually heard this a lot from other year abroad students, that their life abroad feels like some kind of dream, not quite real. For this I am so glad of the decision I made to leave, because once the experience is over, apart from a few souvenirs and the friends you’ve made, all you are left with are the memories of the experience you had. I didn’t want my memories of Mexico to be distorted by the changes the virus had brought.
So, for me, my year abroad is over. I have been continuing with my UDLAP classes online and still in touch with the friends, but this is part of a new chapter for me now.
Although it may not be a particularly interesting read, made even harder by the comparison with the stories before, with my family now close by, facetimes all the time with friends, and knowing that everyone is going through struggles in some shape or form right now, I think that it’s going to be ok.