From Covid Fear To Covid-Free. A Journey Through Events In New Zealand.
Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist
The fog of fear is lifting, at least for now…
(This is the twelfth post in a series. Missed the first eleven? Click here to see them all.) I’m not sure if I’ve made the right decision staying here, in New Zealand, versus returning to America. I made my decision based on a seemingly better chance to stay healthy, and avoid infecting others, and the fact that a flight home, if it even went, would cost $5,000. I paid $26 to get here with miles, so well, that seems a bit expensive. From everything I am reading and friends I’m talking to, New York does not seem like a good place for me to be right now. Looking at my daily expenses, if I went anywhere else in the US it would likely be more expensive than my cottage. I have no rental car, and I’m exchanging some work for a slight reduction in the price of my rent, so I’m under budget, which is helpful, since I have no idea how long I’ll be staying here. I do feel strange, though. After two and a half years of moving somewhere between every 3 and 14 days, I’m now not moving for the forseeable future.
As of March 24th, the shops have closed, we can’t go to restaurants, and, worse yet, we can’t pet the dogs. There are two here at Wharepuke – Bella and Monte. I think not petting them is the hardest part of this lockdown. I have five acres of nature I can roam around, as part of this bubble. I share it with Jess and Aaron from West Virginia, and Zoe and Martin, from England, also stuck here. Jess and Aaron are in the cottage behind mine, and we get along really well. They kindly spend lots of time with me, though always 6 feet apart, or, as I’ve become accustomed to, 2 meters apart. Even when we go to the supermarket together, we maintain the 2 meters distance. In our face masks and our gloves we look like we’re going to rob a bank rather than buy groceries. When we return, we desanitize everything, and then jump in the shower, with clothes on, washing everything. (Um, separately, not together!)
A typical run to the supermarket with Jess and Aaron.
Photo by Heather Markel, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.
A few days in, Jess and I are on the same page – feeling like we’re trapped. We joke that we’re “trapped in paradise” but, nonetheless, we feel trapped. It’s good to have someone to talk about it with. The first milestone in lockdown is Passover. I always spend it with my family. Last year was the first time I wasn’t with them, but I ended up in a small town in Argentina and watched a seder in a synagogue, so it felt like I was still part of something. Jess and Aaron are also Jewish, and, to my relief, are up for creating our own seder. We gather on one of the nearby porches with some of the essential pieces of the Haggadah and some food. Maintaining a safe distance, we sit together. We interweave reading from the Haggadah with stories and comparisons of the Jews, throughout history – what we have survived, as a people – and comparing that to what we’re enduring, now, as a humanity. In a way, I like this even more than a traditional seder – we’re noticing so many parts of history while experiencing the present. It somehow makes the future seem more real, because of the reminder of being able to survive other travesties in the past.
As the days become weeks of lockdown, I realize how lucky I am to be here. Instead of walking from one side of an apartment to the other, I can walk all over nature. I’ve begun to meditate, in that nature, and it’s somewhat magical. I’m doing lots and lots of travel writing (I write for Travel Awaits) and a long-time idea I’ve had is finally getting some time and attention. (Stay tuned…) I’m scared for my friends and family back in America. Especially those in New York. I have fallen in love with Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. This may be the first time in my life that a politician has spoken with clear logic, admits “I don’t know” when she doesn’t know an answer, and urges everyone to “be kind”. Within 48 hours of an announcement being made about our tourist visas, I get the email I was told to expect. I’m now able to stay here legally until the end of September. On the one hand I’m like “really? I might have to stay this long?” On the other, I am amazed at the kindness and efficiency with which this was handled. My own government can’t even get stimulus checks out in a month, and the website to get a direct deposit isn’t working, so I’m not sure my own government will even help me at this point. How ironic.
“New Zealand has shown great compassion and efficiency to foreigners as well as their own people.”
Signs of autumn. It’s strange to be approaching “summer” and find myself heading toward winter.
Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.
As I watch the US from a distance, going from bad, to worse, New Zealanders are taking this really seriously. The government is sending aid to everyone, and they do it within 24 – 48 hours. There’s no toilet paper shortage. There’s plenty of food. The most stressed out person I encounter during all of lockdown is a woman that can’t find eucalyptus oil. There are lines to get in to the supermarket, and then arrows on the floor to ensure distancing, and plastic barriers in front of the cashiers. The Covid numbers go up, then they seem to stabilize, and suddenly, we’re in May, going down to Level 3, and then Level 2. The shops are open again, and, apart from “the cootie walk” (side-stepping strangers on the road) life seems pretty normal. Every Monday night, those of us lucky to stay at Wharepuke gather for drinks Monday nights, and it seems we have a dropdown level to celebrate each time. The US President, if I’m getting accurate information, seems to feel his citizens are like employees – expendable for the sake of money. At one point, he indicates it might be worth looking in to injecting yourself with bleach to protect yourself from the virus. We have one active case in New Zealand, but the US has so many more, and yet, the president is siding with people sick of being cooped up. While Jacinda has made it clear that people come first, the US President has made it clear that money comes first. I think this is part of the reason I felt disappointed with corporate America and have been looking for more humanity in my work.
During lockdown, there’s no laundry service, so my handwashed clothing goes out on the porch.
Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.
Just when America seems cracked to its core – among so many examples, Broadway is shut and New York is no longer the “city that never sleeps” – the US President authorizes tear gassing protesters so he can get a photo in front of a church, and a disgusting racist act is caught on camera, leading to global outrage. As I watch all these headlines, I say to my mother on one of our Zoom calls, “If I were sitting with you and we were reading these headlines about another country I wanted to visit, you would tell me not to go there.” She wholeheartedly agrees.
As bad as it gets, I also consider this like a spark of the spirit of America – no matter how much shit gets dished out, there is a perceived glimmer of hope that it will, at some point, end, and we will move to the next thing, hoping it’s better. Though some behavior of some people is despicable, Americans don’t let it pass in vain – they stand up for change. And, if we can find a way to create that change, and it improves the lives of everyone, that gives me hope. Because, at the end of the day, why are some people vastly wealthy and others horribly poor when there are enough resources for everyone to survive decently? I travel the world because I admire differences in color, in mindset, in ways of living – they come together to show so many creative ways of handling similar life problems. It’s not enough to understand your fellow country-mates with various heritages. You must experience people in their own country to truly understand they are not a minority, they are beautiful, creative, kind people. We all come from somewhere, and now, more than ever, I hope that we begin to stand together. We are all “different” and that’s what makes us interesting.
As of June 9th New Zealand’s last known Covid case has recovered. There have been no new cases for two weeks. We’ve dropped to level 1. Though the borders remain closed, life is back to almost normal. We can congregate in large groups. We don’t need to do the cootie-walk anymore. We can be tourists. I can visit cows, or bars. I get a manicure to celebrate. I’ve begun thinking about the future of travel. It appears, maybe, later this year, they may open a Trans-Tasman travel bubble, allowing me to visit my friends in Australia, and, perhaps, get to one of the nearby Pacific Islands. There are even rumors that other countries who have combatted the virus may open up to each other outside of the Pacific region. I’m cautiously optimistic, but hoping that, at the very least, I can work my way back to the US later this year, or next, via other places I haven’t yet explored. In the meantime, I’m getting to explore some of the local areas of northland, and will share them with you in future posts.