Home: From studying abroad to isolating at home

Throughout lockdowns in Colombia, Maria-Paula Caicedo would ride her bike with her friends so they could hang out while staying safe. (Submitted: Maria-Paula Caicedo)

When I first walked into the Madrid-Barajas Airport on March 13 to catch a flight back home to Colombia, the place seemed deserted. I couldn’t tell if that was a good sign, or a bad omen. I hoped the airplane would be empty, but at the same time, I was scared an empty plane meant people feared they would get the virus if they travelled. Walking into the waiting area, I saw a huge line to get onto the plane. I realized that COVID-19 was serious because so many people were trying to go home.

When I arrived in Cali, Colombia, from my year-long exchange in Spain, I thought I escaped the worst, but things were just getting started. My family and friends didn’t understand the seriousness of COVID-19. Even my parents, who were quarantining me at home, didn’t grasp how bad things were in Europe and how bad things were going to get.

I spoke with a fellow student who also studied in Madrid at that time. We both realized how crazy we must have sounded in March. When we got home, I warned everyone how bad things were getting in Europe and how bad they were going to get here. We felt like prophets that everyone refused to believe.

At home, everyone was still unaware of the virus. My friends went out partying the weekend I came home and they couldn’t believe I returned home early from my study abroad program due to a “mere cold.”

After that first weekend, the president of Colombia declared a state of emergency, shutting down schools, universities, social clubs and restaurants. 

Colombia is a country where people are friendly and social. Our lives include social outings and spending time with friends and family and for the first time, we couldn’t leave our homes.

While everyone was locking themselves up in their homes, doctors like Maria Paula Caicedo’s dad were stepping up to ensure people received medical attention. (Submitted: Maria Paula Caicedo)

While the country locked themselves in their homes, doctors like my dad were getting ready to step up and sacrifice themselves to ensure people would live. I cannot explain what my family felt when my dad was the only one allowed to leave the house to save lives. It felt like we were at war where the doctors were soldiers and the rest of us were home, hoping they would come back safe and healthy.

We were locked up from March until June. The only times I left my house was to ride my bike, a hobby most of my friends took up. That way, we could hang out while exercising and staying safe.

In June, restaurants and malls opened up again with safety protocols. Everyone was excited that things were finally getting back to normal. That wasn’t the case for my family because as things started opening up, the ICUs started to fill up. My dad was asked to do shifts at the COVID-19 ICU, helping patients who were beyond help. These patients were so sick, they were just waiting to die.

Thankfully, after two months, he wasn’t needed at the ICU anymore and he could go back to non-COVID patients, but it was a stressful time for all of us.

Both my family and I thought I would have been able to go back to university in the fall. As time passed by, our airports remained closed and cases kept increasing, so we started to lose hope. Though I was disappointed when I got the email that all classes were going to be online, I was also relieved. I was not ready to leave my family in the middle of a pandemic. I felt safer staying home than going back to Canada because I knew I would have my family to support me and I would be here to support them as well during these unprecedented times.

St. Thomas University international student Maria Paula Caicedo said isolating from COVID-19 isn’t how she expected to spend her final year of university. (Submitted: Maria Paula Caicedo)

This was not the way I pictured my senior year of university, but it was the right choice for STU to make, especially for us international students. There are more distractions at home and online learning can be overwhelming, but I would not have it any other way.

Currently, things have somewhat gone back to normal. Though COVID-19 cases have spiked, the economy couldn’t stop again. The government opened all the restaurants, malls, bars and even nightclubs.

The government is thinking about closing things down again, but that seems unlikely as people here are done with isolation. A lot of Colombians live off what they make on a day-to-day basis. If they don’t go out and work, they won’t have anything to eat.

All we can do is hope that the virus won’t kill as many people because Colombians have decided to respect safety measures but still go on with their lives. I think only time will tell what will happen here.