DIEGO Pearce has never been more relieved to be back in his adopted home of Echuca.
What was meant to be a happy holiday in his native Brazil to celebrate his birthday quickly became a draining three-month ordeal.
As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world, sending millions scrambling to return home Diego found himself stuck.
Others might have wanted to be home, Diego just wanted to be in his adopted homeland with his partner Todd – who had already returned to Echuca.
But from the other side of the world, Diego watched Australia do its best to bring the pandemic under control.
In Brazil, figures soared.
The country now has more than two million confirmed cases, the second most in the world behind the US – had more than 80,000 deaths.
COVID-19 has spread so quickly, there are now cases being confirmed in the most isolated parts of the Amazon.
“It all starts with President Jair Bolsonaro, I believe he is sending the wrong message to his people,” Diego said.
“He doesn’t believe in wearing face masks and copies a lot of what Donald Trump is telling the US.
“The leadership between the two countries has made a difference as to how they’ve been able to control the virus.
“Many people in Brazil choose what they want to believe to make them feel comfortable. There were so many people behaving illegally.
“They didn’t realise their decisions were hurting the people they loved.
“All of this made me miss the rules.”
Diego was originally meant to fly back to Australia on March 22 from Sao Paulo which included a stopover in New Zealand.
But Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinta Arden had just closed her country’s borders to international travellers.
With no other options, Diego checked himself into a hotel sparking a mad panic searching for the next available flight.
Routes via Canada and Chile which looked possible were gone the next.
The world was in lockdown.
“My first flight was only cancelled when I arrived at the airport,” Diego said.
“I had already checked my luggage in before we were told the news and it was still sent to Australia.
“I only had two sets of clothes with me – the one on my back and another in my carry-on luggage. I had to borrow some from a friend.
“I was so stressed, and I wasn’t sure when I was going to be able to get home. I actually needed to seek some help while I was in Brazil – it all became too much.
“In the end, I spent my 32nd birthday in a hotel trying to get home.”
But Diego’s problems were only beginning.
He found himself more than 2000km from his family home in Teresina – with no flights there for a number of days.
A trip to the local bus station brought no rewards, buses had also been stopped.
“I tried to rent a car from someone I knew but their company had but any business on hold,” Diego explained.
“It felt like I was trapped. I was lucky my family were able to make some arrangements to get me home.
“I just wanted to be back in Echuca.”
A phone call from an Australian Government official after arriving back in Teresina gave Diego hope he would soon be coming back to the twin towns.
He recalled receiving the call on a Friday.
They wanted him to fly on Sunday, while paying $3000 to book his seat.
And there was also the slight issue that his visa had expired.
“I didn’t have that type of money just sitting around so I couldn’t afford it,” Diego said.
“As soon as I got off the phone, I completed a tourist visa application which is a process which usually only takes 10 minutes.
“I didn’t hear back from anyone for about a month and that allowed me to get on a flight home.”
The flight from Sao Paulo to Melbourne, via the Chilean capital Santiago, wasn’t without its own dramas.
As he went to board the plane in the Brazilian capital and at the stopover officials interrogated Diego intently.
“They tried to tell me I wasn’t able to get on the plane,” he said.
“I was fortunate there was an Australian official there who made sure I got on the plane.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved than when the plane got off the ground in Santiago.”
But Diego knew this rollercoaster ride wasn’t over just yet.
He still had to endure two weeks of enforced quarantine at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Melbourne.
“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was just glad to be back in Australia,” he said.
“I brought three 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, but I actually finished those in the first three days. I did do some exercise, but there is just so much you can do in a small space.
“We weren’t allowed to go outside for fresh air and the rooms didn’t have windows.
“On the flight home I made friends with the people who were sitting in my row. We decided to make a WhatsApp group so we could talk to each other during the two weeks – that was very helpful.
“The support you received from the government was fantastic as well, they kept calling us to check in on how we were doing.
“We were tested twice a week during our stay.
“I really appreciated knowing that they cared.”
On July 12, Diego was free to return to Echuca.
A moment he had waited almost four months for.
“I wanted to kiss the ground when I got home,” he said.
“There was so much relief to actually get home and know the situation was over.
“I’ve been trying to limit the number of times I leave the house because I want to do my part to keep the community safe.
“Now I’m urging everyone to do the right thing so we can get back to normal as soon as possible.”
More local news