A farewell photo, taken high above Ohope from Julia & Derek’s house
Mr. Bill and I have burst our bubble.
It happened just before the clock struck twelve, on May 13th, when New Zealand went from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2. Unfortunately, all was closed at midnight in Ohope and there was no place open, to go and celebrate our newfound freedom. Nothing for it but to go to sleep and dream of all the things, that we could do come morning: such as, finish packing. We bid Aotearoa farewell, on the day that Kiwis emerged from fifty days in lockdown. Although we missed all the fun and excitement of resuming our stalled social life, at least we were free to stop and say goodbye to friends, as we drove out of town. We might have missed the opportunity to take a final Tiki Tour, when the travel ban between the regions was lifted, but fortunately, it meant we no longer needed permission to drive to Tauranga Airport. And we definitely missed the chance to get haircuts. I fear we’ll be sporting our long, lockdown locks, for a lot longer!
Mr. Bill has hung up his scalpel. It was a hard decision to retire but all good things must come to an end. He has always maintained, that’s it’s better to leave too soon, rather than too late. However, Mr. Bill never dreamed that he would be ending his career in a pandemic, when he decided that this locum tenens would be his last. As the novel coronavirus spread, across the globe taking its terrible toll, he was worried for his patients and concerned that the health care system, would be overwhelmed, should the disease spread to New Zealand. Whakatane Hospital prepared and braced for the worst.
The first case of COVID19 in New Zealand, was reported on February 28th. In the beginning, all cases were related to overseas travel. Contact tracing was implemented and the virus was ‘contained’- not spreading beyond close family members. Arriving passengers, were asked to self isolate for two weeks. By mid March, however, community transmission had occurred, with clusters of cases on both islands. The borders were closed and the country entered into the strictest lockdown, Level 4, on March 25th. Returning Kiwis were placed in supervised quarantine, in Auckland hotels for two weeks. Everyone stayed home, unless they were an essential worker and to the relief of Kiwi Kids, the Easter Bunny was deemed an essential worker. We all tuned in at 1 pm, to Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s and Director of Health, Ashley Bloomfield’s daily briefings, which ended with the reassuring words, “be kind”. New Zealand mourned its first death on March 29, that of an elderly West Coast woman, with no known exposure to the virus. Not being able to determine, the source of her infection was alarming. At Whakatane Hospital, strict protocols were implemented to protect patients and staff alike. Temporary walls went up in the wards, Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit. Portable outdoor showers were installed, for staff leaving the hospital, to protect the public, from possible exposure. Admissions were processed in the parking lot and visitors to the hospital, were banned. All elective surgeries were cancelled, in anticipation of beds being needed for COVID 19 patients. Only emergency operations and cancer procedures were being performed. Yet, incredibly, no cases were admitted to Whakatane Hospital, not one. By working together, everyone throughout New Zealand, had stopped the spread of the disease. On April 28, the country stepped down to Alert Level 3; elective surgeries were allowed once more. Mr. Bill was back in the operating theatre, relieved that he could tackle, the backlog of delayed cases.
Our last days living in Ohope were interesting, to say the least. Like everyone else, suddenly experiencing the restrictions imposed under lockdown, we mourned the loss of all we once took for granted. Our children and grandchildren’s visits were cancelled. Plans were scrapped and life slowed down. The gentle pace of Ohope ground to a halt, on the day that everything stopped. Life, however, didn’t come to a complete standstill. Soon a new rhythm established itself. In the absence of commerce and cars, cyclists took over the empty streets. Walkers and runners easily shared the footpaths, the latter stepping into the road, to maintain a safe social distance. Children went on bear hunts, as they searched for Teddy Bears in the windows. The birds seemed to sing louder, but maybe it was the absence of vehicles, making it easier to hear them. Without the Boy Racers tearing up Ohope Hill at night, we could hear the call of the nocturnal kiwi birds, in the bush behind us. Even the cows enjoyed new delights, when they discovered construction equipment, sidelined in their Pohutukawa paddock. With no workers to stop them, they examined the idle machines, to their heart’s content.
“Stay Home. Save Lives”, was the message but everyone was urged to go outside for fresh air and exercise; just as long as you stayed in your own bubble and kept it local. Unable to go further than my feet or bike could carry me, I came to experience Ohope in a more intimate way. My bike rides took longer and longer, as I stopped to chat (from a safe distance- always) with friends both new and old. I took the time to introduce myself to people, who I had only waved to, when I had cycled by, the past seven years. I must admit, that it was always a hoot, when I would explain that they would know who my husband was, by his distinctive running gait. Sure enough, they always did! Staying home on weekends, meant that Mr. Bill could accompany me on my route. I felt like a teenager, showing off that I did indeed, have a boyfriend. When we peddled by Greg on Ocean Road, I could not contain myself and hollered out, “look who is with me”! To that, Greg shouted back, “the man”!
We missed our mates, Linda and Gavin, over the hill in Whakatane. Video calls, emails and texts were poor substitutes for our play dates but were a Godsend, none the less. Yet life wasn’t lonely in lockdown, thanks to our Balcony Buddies. Living once again at Beachpoint, we found ourselves situated in a row of ex-pats, delightfully positioned between an English couple and an English/Aussie couple. In the mornings, neighbour Janis, on the left, neighbour Vicky on the right and I would chat across our balconies, as we hung the day’s washing. In case of a sudden shower, one of us (usually eagle eyed Janis) would give a warning shout, to save the day. In the afternoons, I could always count on getting a bit of stick, from lefty neighbour, David. In the evenings Mr. Bill and I looked forward to hearing Trevor’s cheery ,”Cheers”, when our right hand-side neighbour, raised a glass of red at day’s end. When we all gathered on our respective balconies for happy hour, somehow, I became the ‘monkey in the middle’; running from one side to the other, repeating what had been said on the left to the ones on the right and vice versa, until I was breathless. Returning home from the hospital each day, Mr. Bill would step out onto the balcony and report the news from the world beyond, to our friends. One afternoon, I was surprised by Mr. Bill’s unexpected arrival and I remarked that he was home early. His reply was, “get used to it”. (Ah the 24/7 togetherness of retirement, would soon be ours). One day, information came from on high, thanks to our friend Julia, who rang from her house on the hill. Julia alerted us to the pod of orcas swimming past; we in turn called out to the neighbours and we all watched the whales, from our balconies. Life was simple. We treasured the little things. We knew how fortunate we were, to be quarantining in paradise. However, the BIG question always loomed large, in our conversations over the railings – how would we all travel safely back, to our respective homes? All of our flights had been cancelled. Options for safe passages home, looked dubious at best. Re-booking flights, was easier said than done, as airlines dropped routes around the world, without warning. Trevor and Vicky were the first to leave, securing seats on a repatriation flight to the UK, after Emirates cancelled their tickets. They are now home in Cornwall, safe and sound. Janis and David are leaving next week. Godspeed Gladwins.
As safe as we were in New Zealand, where they first flattened, then smashed the curve of the pandemic’s transmission and are now free of COVID 19 (Good on you New Zealand!), it was still an anxious time to be separated from family and friends, back home in America. We worried and we prayed for our loved ones. We were especially concerned for our daughter-in-law, Mandy, who is a nurse and had volunteered to go, “wherever needed”. Mandy was working long shifts, in a COVID 19 testing tent, in the hard hit state of Connecticut. Soon it was time to leave. Mr. Bill’s contract had ended. Too soon, rather than too late, but apparently with time enough, to take the long way home. Flying on Air New Zealand internationally and on United Airlines domestically, our original itinerary had us booked to Florida, via Houston. However, our way home was constantly changing, as the world’s aviation industry, adapted to the new normal. With the number of global travellers down by 95%, Air New Zealand dropped 85% of its long-haul flights and United Airlines cut domestic routes by 50%. We were rerouted through Los Angeles, then up to Chicago and down to Florida, with long layovers in Auckland, LAX and O’Hare airports. Our trip which usually takes one day, was extended to 41 hours, from door to door. Just a tad longer than the 19 hours it took the astronauts riding on Space X , to travel from Florida, to the International Space Station. But who’s counting?
Now in our new bubble, I am listening to Mr. Bill strum his guitar and sing, while I write these words. Life is good. May it be so, for all of you dear readers. Stay well. Kia kaha (stay strong). Be kind.
COVID 19 precautions at Whakatane Hospital- outdoor admissions & showers
Cows in lockdown
Final ride in Ohope, before our bikes went to a good home
Last lunch before lockdown, with our mates, Linda and Gavin
A royal send off from David & Janis
Trevor & Vicky, home in Cornwall -safe & sound
Teddy Bears in lockdown and words to live by~
A super hero, artist Teddy Bear captures a likeness
Annie’s Teddy Bear, sporting a poppy for remembrance, on Anzac Day