Five weeks ago, I was happily galavanting around the South Island of New Zealand, having just reached Nelson after a two-month long adventure that had begun in Christchurch and taken me to Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Wanaka, Queenstown and up the West Coast to Franz Josef and Greymouth. The trip was my reward for all the hard work I’d done thanks to my Working Holiday Visa years in Australia and New Zealand, and as a full-time freelance writer, I was finally settling into a nice work-life balance on the road. My sister and her husband had been planning their own dream trip to visit me in both countries and would be arriving in a week.
On March 14, everything changed. That’s when New Zealand officially announced the first of its many COVID-19 prevention measures. Australia soon followed suit, thus ending the possibility of a two-week family vacation with both countries now requiring 14 days of quarantine for anyone entering their borders. A few days later, with flight cancellations on the rise and news of an imminent lockdown looming in New Zealand, I made the gut-wrenching decision to return to the U.S. after being a digital nomad in Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand for nearly 2.5 years. I’d just lost a major client due to COVID-19 related budget cuts and didn’t want to risk being stranded for an indefinite amount of time so far from home, especially with my tourist visa and financial assets fizzling out.
I consider myself extremely lucky, having been able to track down a flight home relatively painlessly, using 40,000 American Airlines miles to fly from Wellington (WLG) to Sydney (SYD) to Los Angeles (LAX) and finally, to Washington, D.C. (DCA). My sister and her husband graciously allowed me to stay with them in Virginia, so in a bizarre twist of fate, I did get actually to see them at the end of March. It’s been a wild ride in such a short amount of time that I still find myself struggling to process it all. Here are four things I wish I’d known before I came back to the U.S., in the hopes it might help other digital nomads facing similar decisions during the COVID-19 crisis.
You’ll Need To Self-Isolate For 14 Days
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website recommends that anyone returning to the U.S. from other countries self-isolate for 14 days to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which you may have picked up while you were abroad or on your way home. While technically not required or enforced by the U.S. government, it’s still a good idea to err on the safe side and listen to the CDC’s guidelines. Take your temperature twice a day so you’ll know ASAP if you develop a fever. Stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others—that means no public transportation, ride-sharing services or taxis—and practice social distancing by remaining at least six feet (two meters) from others.
Instead of worrying about being lonely or focusing on how long and boring the next two weeks of your life will be, try to think of it as a two-week retreat, a chance to reflect or reboot after your trip. You’re going through some major lifestyle changes so take time to rest, read those books you’ve been meaning to or write in your journal—whatever you need to do to process everything you’re going through in a way that works best for you. Reach out to friends and family via Skype or participate in Zoom workouts or group chats if that helps. Just make sure you’re following the CDC’s guidelines in case you are carrying the virus, though after 14 symptom-free days, you should be off the hook. If you do develop a fever, cough or shortness of breath, stay home but call ahead if you have trouble breathing and need to go to the doctor or emergency room.
You’re Going To Need Health Insurance Again
Having to navigate the ridiculously complicated U.S. healthcare system is one of the reasons I left the country in the first place. When I had the Working Holiday Visa in Australia and New Zealand, I’d paid about $100 or $50, respectively, to get in on their local health systems (BUPA and NIB) so I could have access to doctors, dentists and hospital care through a private plan in case I ever needed it. Now that I’m back in the States and freelancing without having a full-time job, it’s up to me to find my own medical insurance, and prices, as you can imagine, are sky high.
Theoretically, you can apply for coverage through Healthcare.gov and mention that you have moved, which should qualify you for a major life-changing event if you’re trying to get medical insurance outside the regular enrollment period. After spending an agonizing day researching and pricing out all my options—and eventually getting rejected by Healthcare.gov for reasons I’m still trying to figure out—I ended up going through my state to get short-term health insurance (in my case, United Healthcare Golden Rule), which isn’t ideal but will at least cover me for a few months until I’m able to get a regular full-time job and all the medical benefits that come with it.
Everything Feels Different When You Get Back
You’ve been around the world, seen and done amazing things, but when you get home, everything feels the same way you left it—the only new twist, of course, being the pandemic, which just makes everything so much more strange to come home to. Friends and family members are still working in the same solid jobs they always have, taking care of their kids and haven’t traveled in a while—basically, the exact opposite of your usual fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants digital nomad lifestyle.
While you might feel more isolated than ever at times, it’s important to remember that you’ve changed, even grown as a person as a result of your experiences, but so have they, though you might have done so in different ways. It might be hard to relate to each other sometimes now that you’re back, but that’s normal. It’s also a good reason to keep in touch with friends you met abroad for little reminders of how things were and a chance to catch up over shared adventures and travel stories.
It’s Really Hard To Stay Motivated
Maybe it’s the stress of dealing with a pandemic or the fact that your once-unpredictable lifestyle is now suddenly very predictable. It might even be old procrastination habits coming back to haunt you. Either way, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay motivated and keep doing the things that were once part of my daily routine. On the road, I was the boss of my own adventure but at home it’s much more of a take-it-one-day-at-a-time approach now that pretty much everyone is on lockdown and so many things are closed.
With so many inflight magazines and travel websites folding or freezing as a result of COVID-19 related budget cuts, it’s been really hard to concentrate on pitching, too, and now, for the first time, freelancers are being included in federal unemployment schemes so there’s something else to think about and apply for. At this point, I think it’s important to just take it day by day and hope for the best. Only time will tell whether we’re able to return to the digital nomad lifestyle again someday.
All details and policies mentioned were accurate at press time.