"I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere but home," says Hannah Rubenstein.
by Madeline Halpert
From the May, 2020 issue
At 2 a.m. on March 12, Rubenstein was awake in her London dorm room when she started to receive texts from friends asking if she was coming home. President Donald Trump had just announced a ban on noncitizens traveling to the United States from continental Europe. Rubenstein, a twenty-year-old Barnard student from Ann Arbor on an exchange semester at University College London, called her parents and told them, "I need to be on a plane right now." The next day, she managed to book a last-minute ticket, at four times the price of the return flight she'd already scheduled for June.
Rubenstein is one of many young adults from Ann Arbor who had to shift plans to return home in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Academic semesters were upended, college graduation ceremonies canceled, and post-graduation travel and work plans halted.
That same night, Maddy Schmitter was on an overnight bus trip from Spain to Portugal. She awoke in the middle of the night to one percent battery left on her phone, news of Trump's speech, and a text from her mother telling her to buy a ticket home as soon as possible. Her boyfriend was already on a flight from the U.S. to meet her in Lisbon. They returned together "on one of the last days before all the flights really started being canceled," she says.
For some, coming home was not the first choice. Alona Henig had planned to spend 2020 working and traveling in Asia and South America. There was already news about the virus when she left for Thailand in early February, but "I didn't want to miss out on this great opportunity that I had set aside for myself," she says.
From Thailand, she traveled to Cambodia and Laos, where the pandemic remained a minor concern. She started to worry only after she arrived in Vietnam on March 10 and had to complete a medical declaration form. "We basically had to testify to
the Vietnamese government that we hadn't had any symptoms in the last fourteen days," she says. The hostel where she had planned to stay was closed, but Henig considered herself lucky: other foreigners were quarantined there.
Still hoping to salvage her trip, Henig bought a ticket to New Zealand. But during her layover in Australia, she learned that New Zealand was requiring all new arrivals to self-quarantine for fourteen days. When Australia did the same the next day, she realized her travel year abroad had ended. "Flights were being canceled," she says. "Countries were closing their borders ... I never was scared of getting sick--I was scared of getting stuck."
Eliza Upton's trip had started in October, traveling in Southeast Asia with Schmitter using a homestay and job platform called Workaway. They had lived on sustainable farms, worked in stand-up paddleboard shops, and slept in bamboo huts. But as the scale of the pandemic sank in, Upton realized she could be trapped far from home. "That was definitely a main motivator behind leaving when we did," she says.
Back home, the young adults are adjusting to a new normal under Governor Whitmer's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order. Upton says the pandemic has forced everyone to hit the pause button. "If anything, it seems to be a strong reminder that we're not invincible," Upton says.
Grateful for her own safety, she worries about others. "I'm anxious about loved ones and their job security and mental health," she says, and everyone at risk from the virus, especially the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. And she worries about a recession and the survival of local businesses. "There is just so much fear and uncertainty in the world, and it's hard to wrap my head around it all."
Henig's travel experiences have caused her to reflect on the ways countries around the world responded to the virus. "I think this entire pandemic is really bringing to light what different priorities different countries have," she says. "In the U.S., freedom is such an important value that we feel entitled to it, even when it's not safe."
Isaac Scobey-Thal, a senior at Yale University, had been looking forward to a spring break in Puerto Rico, end-of-the-year celebrations, and a "victory lap" to celebrate after four years of hard work. Instead, he's back at home in Ann Arbor. "I'm a grown adult and don't have a curfew or rules of the house, but the rules of the pandemic are applying to everyone," he says. "So in that sense it almost feels like I'm a child again. The pandemic is infantilizing all of us."
Scobey-Thal stresses that his disappointment pales in comparison to those whose lives and jobs are in jeopardy. "Now I understand a little bit what it was like during the influenza, or one of the great wars, to have a world event just stop the entire globe in its tracks."
Upton watched this global halt play out in her hometown. When she took breaks from home quarantine to go for runs by herself, "It was such an odd and surreal feeling to run through an empty State Street at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday night," she says "Everything felt deserted, and it broke my heart to see all the empty restaurants and stores. I've never experienced anything like it. Ann Arbor feels quiet and lonely."
Though they have returned to a more desolate Ann Arbor, Scobey-Thal, Schmitter, Henig, Upton, and Rubenstein feel a strong sense of gratitude to be safe at home. "I'm lucky enough that if I want to go back to Europe after I graduate and do some of the traveling that I didn't get to do, I'm able to do that," says Rubenstein.
"There are more important things to me right now, and being home with my family is one of them."
[Originally published in May, 2020.]
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