By Caio Carvalho (Brazil)

When I arrived in New Zealand in the beginning of the year, I was full of expectations and dreams. All I wanted was to make good friends and enjoy the year the best I could. Right in my first week when I started school, both the teachers and the students were extremely receptive. I was presented with many different things from what I was used to, like new food, different Kiwi habits and different school subjects.

Making friends proved to be difficult for some time though. The cultural and language barrier seemed like insurmountable obstacles. This got me really frustrated for some time since it was easier for me to make friends in my home country. It was in that period I had the AFS orientation in Wellington, where I met amazing people and made great friends I will never forget.

After the orientation, things were starting to feel right. I was getting used to my family and school and starting to make more friends. It was one day after my first party in New Zealand that I received an email from AFS telling me I would have to go home because of the Corona Virus. My world turned upside down and I really couldn’t process this information. After just one month here, when everything was feeling right, I would have to go home. Honestly, as exchange students we expect to face a lot of problems, but a global pandemic would never have crossed my mind.

It was when I got my plane tickets to Brazil that what was happening really started to feel real. It was a moment of immense sadness and confusion for me and for all the other AFS exchange students. Everything happened so fast. By that time I had already accepted the fact that I was going back home. My parents and I were already discussing how I would be going back to college in Brazil and my experience in New Zealand started to feel more and more distant, almost like just a dream.

However, Covid-19 started spreading all over New Zealand suddenly and the borders were closed immediately. Just two days before my flight all the flights were cancelled and no one could go out or come to New Zealand. Because of that I was informed I would stay in quarantine with my host family until AFS found a flight back home for me.

Lockdown was an interesting time. I’m sure I’ll be one of the only exchange students in history that will be able to say they have gone through lockdown in their host country due to an international pandemic. I was able to strengthen my connections with my family by cooking with my host brother and watching rugby and talking with my host mum. It was amazing too to learn more about farm work and of course, doing it. At the same time, it was saddening to see my last fellow exchange students being sent back home. During that time, it was a time to grow and reflect a lot.

Until the last week of lockdown, I was sure I was still going back home right after quarantine. There was no hope to stay in my exchange programme and the preparations for my life to go back to normal in Brazil were being made. The lockdown has taught me a lot. It was only when I felt how it was to lose everything here in New Zealand that I realised how I had wasted so much time and opportunities. I was filled with regret and it hurt me to see how I was taking everything for granted here. I wasn’t enjoying it enough, I wasn’t taking all the chances I could, I wasn’t going out of my comfort zone. At that time I remember thinking I would give anything to have another chance.

However, for a variety of reasons (some I still don’t understand), I was able to stay in New Zealand after lockdown. When I received the news that I would be the only exchange student that actually managed to stay here, I couldn’t be more thankful. It was at that time that I decided I would enjoy it the most. I would do anything I could and never waste an opportunity. Now that I knew how it was to lose these things, I couldn’t waste it ever again. Now every time I feel afraid of doing something, I think about my fellow exchange students that don’t even have the chance to be afraid of doing something here anymore, and about the sorrow I felt in quarantine when I thought: I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could; and then I just do it whatever it is.

After lockdown everything happened. I have made lots of friends, joined rugby and football at school. I joined Whakairo and Kapa Haka. I travelled around New Zealand, met incredible people and places and experienced everything I could in the best way I could.