Covid-19

The long road home from Spain

Like countless New Zealanders stranded overseas, Wellingtonian Rosie O’Hagan will be braving authorities, airlines, airports and uncertainty to make it back from the other side of the world, writes Jim Kayes.

Rosie O’Hagan hadn’t stepped outside for three weeks.

When she finally did – around midnight on Friday night in Spain (midday Saturday, New Zealand time) – it was to begin a trip home from Spain that has her parents excited but anxious, and friends in Auckland preparing to step in and house her if she can’t make the final leg to Wellington.

“It’s been exactly three weeks that I haven’t left the house,” O’Hagan says. “We couldn’t go for a walk or anything, we have been in the house for three weeks.”

It wasn’t meant to be like this. O’Hagan flew to Spain in mid-January excited to be part of the Lattitude Global Volunteering programme that for almost 50 years has been deploying teenagers around the world as a gap year between school and university.

Originally from Plimmerton, north of Wellington, O’Hagan went to St Mary’s College and has been living in Tamames, a small village in Salamanca in Spain’s north-west that’s home to about 800 people.

It was idyllic. Her host family, the Gomezes, took her in as one of their own and O’Hagan enjoyed learning Spanish as she taught English at the local school.

 Rosie O'Hagan, in Tamames, Spain. Photo: Supplied

Then Covid-19 turned the world upside down.

For a while she felt safe. Though the number of cases in Spain and around Europe was rising, her little village was a haven and life carried on pretty much as normal.

That’s changed. Now about 20 people in the village have the virus and everyone is confined to their homes.

“It hasn’t been too bad but the worst part is not being able to go for a walk. We have done a lot of yoga. It’s been very hard not being outside.

“Initially everything was uncertain about how long things would last for. The lockdown was meant to be over by the end of March. And now it’s not certain when things will get back to normal. They are thinking a few more months at least.”

So O’Hagan is heading home.

The trip began at 2am with a two-and-a-half hour drive to Madrid that her host father, Manuel, has warned might see them stopped by the police.

Phone message showing the list Rosie’s host dad Manuel Gonzales wrote for her before their trip to the airport.

At the airport, he walked her to check-in, and now she’s on her own.

The plan is to fly from Madrid to Paris, then Doha, on to Auckland and down to Wellington where her parents are nervously waiting – nervous because no one knows what might happen at each stop. Will the airports remain open or will she become marooned somewhere along the journey?

And even if she gets back to New Zealand, will she be able to get from Auckland to Wellington? Friends in Auckland are on standby to take her in.

“You keep them safe for 18 years and then suddenly there is nothing you can do,” O’Hagan’s mother, Eleanor Cater, says.

She says it’s been an emotional few weeks as the death toll in Spain and around the world has soared. “There are times of real angst, where I am extremely worried, and then I have to bring myself back to rational thoughts – even though the world is defying those rational thoughts.”

And there are mixed emotions about Rosie returning.

“Of course we want her home. I’m so relieved she is coming home, elated. But then the international travel is a worry. Will she get home? because the world is changing all the time.

“So that is a worry, but already I feel like a weight has lifted.”

Having reassured her parents for weeks that she was safe and happy in Spain, O’Hagan is sad to be leaving but keen to get home. She has enrolled at Canterbury University and hopes to start in July, studying a double degree with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and Spanish, and a Bachelor of Youth and Community Leadership.

“That will be me actually doing something, whereas if I stay here I could still be confined to the house in July.”

And she knows Spain will always be there. Now she just has to get home.

UPDATE Monday April 6: Rosie O’Hagan is back in New Zealand after a long trip home from Spain that included a flight from Doha to Auckland that carried only 24 passengers.

Having been driven from her host family’s home in Tamames, Salamanca, O’Hagan flew from Madrid to Paris, on to Doha and then to Auckland. Each flight was virtually empty as were the airport terminals.

O’Hagan arrived in Auckland on Monday and, having had her isolation plan approved by officials at Auckland International airport, is now staying at a private residence for the next 14 days.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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