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  • Writer's pictureRebecca MacFarlane

Far from Home: Finding Courage Abroad Amid a Global Pandemic

When I moved from Canada to Australia in November of last year, I felt like I was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Ultimately, I was right. But it came about in ways I never could have imagined.

About four months into my working holiday experience, things changed. For lack of a better term, shit hit the fan. Not just for me, but for the world as a whole.

When you think back to the first days of the COVID-19 global pandemic, you probably remember your “Oh shit” moment. The moment you realised this whole thing was a bigger deal than you initially thought. Mine came in mid-March: I had been working as a bartender at a bar in the heart of Sydney’s central business district. Weeknights were normally hectic; in huge numbers, the suits would roll out of their offices and into our establishment for the daily happy hour. Usually, I’d be running around so much I would barely have time to think. But this shift was different.

The bar felt like a ghost town. At this point in time, businesses all over the world were encouraging their employees to start working from home as much as possible, which meant that the offices surrounding us were empty. The city, once vibrant and bustling, was now housed an eerie stillness. With little to no customers to serve, I found myself idling, pacing behind the bar, cleaning anything and everything just to pass the time. Despite their efforts to remain composed, the managers looked unsettled as they spoke to one another in hushed yet urgent tones. I was sent home after only two hours of work. Later that night, my roster for the following week had been cut in half.

On the morning of March 17th, I received the text I’d been expecting: they had cancelled all shifts for casual employees. Just like that, I was unemployed. And so were many of my friends, many of whom were fellow backpackers. While there was still a great deal of uncertainty over what the future would hold, the situation for all of us was looking increasingly dire.

As backpackers, we were not eligible for any kind of financial aid. Instead, the Australian government was reserving its fund for citizens and residents. I expected nothing more and nothing less, so that didn’t come as a massive shock. Neither did Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s dismissal of international students and backpackers, in which he urged us to pack up and go back home. That said, considering we inject billions of dollars into the Australian economy, his statement didn’t exactly feel like a warm hug.

With that, more and more of my friends started returning home to their respective corners of the world. Messages continuously poured in from my friends and family back home asking if I planned to do the same. And so began my inner turmoil – to stay or to go.

In many ways, returning to Canada was the sensible option. I could move back in with one of my parents and regain some financial stability. I’d be living in a country where – if I did happen to get the virus – I’d be covered under the universal healthcare system. I’d have the comfort of being closer to my friends and loved ones, even if lockdowns prohibited me from actually seeing many of them in person.

But there was something I couldn’t shake off. A feeling that, if I went home, I would regret it for the rest of my life. As uncertain as my future in Australia looked, there were many things keeping me here. I was in a new relationship. I still had some friends to lean on for support. The rate of infection in Canada was far higher than in Australia, which made the prospect of returning look both undesirable and potentially dangerous. Plus, I just couldn’t bear the thought of giving up on my working holiday dream after only living it for four months.

But how will I support myself? What if I go broke? Why didn’t I have more in my savings? What if I change my mind later and can’t get home? What if I’m making a huge mistake by staying? These questions played on repeat in my head for weeks. As I’ve mentioned before, self-doubt and self-criticism are rampant in women’s minds. In my case, the initial stages of the pandemic exacerbated these thoughts hugely.

In spite of them, though, I did what I thought was right: I stayed. I knew that, if I returned to Canada, it would have been out of fear. Instead, I vowed to do whatever I could to keep my head above water and make the most of this working holiday experience.

In saying this, it’s important for me to acknowledge my privilege; I was lucky that staying in Australia was even an option for me. I was still making a bit of money through freelance writing and, in the event that my finances went south, I had family members offering to loan me money. I had an income source and a safety net, two things many other people in my shoes did not have.

Regardless, what I did was not easy. It was incredibly fraught and often lonely. Despite this, at the time, I didn’t think of my decision as particularly brave. When I look back on it now, though, I see it for what it truly was: a courageous act of independence. In the face of a challenge I never anticipated, I learned to stand on my own. In the end, it helped me realize that all the bravery and resilience I’m ever going to need, I already have. And – at the risk of sounding like a self-congratulatory narcissist – I think that’s pretty fucking cool.

If you’ve stayed with me until now, I’ll leave you with this: I share my experiences not to brag about how brave and independent I think I am, but to encourage you to give yourself the credit you deserve for your own achievements. As women, we’re so quick to downplay our accomplishments and, quite frankly, we need to cut that shit out. It’s an attitude that simply has no place in 2021 and beyond.

So, whether you found courage, resolution, or inner peace, tis the season to celebrate it. Cheers to you, babe.

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