All posts by VickieVictoria

Intrepid traveler. Architect and appreciator of design, art, language, opera, history, and anthropology.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM MT. COOK, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 16-17

News Update: As of Sunday, March 7 at 6am (New Zealand Time), Auckland will drop to Level 2 and the rest of the country to Level 1

Global news can change quickly, especially with the pandemic roulette swinging wildly. This up-to-now, COVID worry-free country has stepped up its vigilance. A couple of troubling community cases in Auckland near the airport last week has moved the city into an Alert Level 3 and the rest of the country to Level 2. That affects those of us living in Christchurch on the South Island.

Here’s a snippit from a recent news article on the recent changes:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/437329/covid-19-auckland-back-in-alert-level-3-the-rest-of-new-zealand-alert-level-2

While there are renewed restrictions such as the wearing of masks on public transportation, social distancing and contact tracing, the general population was initially slow in responding to any changes. Now, there are visible differences. The news reports progress openly and transparently, and reminds everyone to follow instructions.

Public service messages also remind everyone to be kind and not to excoriate those who may have extenuating circumstances for not following the rules. Except for uniformed kids hitting town after school, fewer people populate the streets of Christchurch. Local travelers encouraged to see New Zealand are putting intercity travel on hold.

Shops, cafes, museums and cinemas are once again threatened with a downturn in the struggling economy just as it has in other parts of the world. With a chain of events that include the Mosque bombing, the earthquake, and recurrent COVID fears , the people of Christchurch have demonstrated incredible resilience and acceptance of circumstances beyond their control

As the tide was turning, we were in the midst of a weekend outing to Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps. Mt. Cook is high on the list of quintessential outdoor destinations in New Zealand.

Tasman Glacier

The east side of the Southern Alps on the South Island are accessible from Christchurch within three hours. We drove through classic rolling hill countryside, passing an occasional car headed in the opposite direction. After pit stops in Fairlie and Geraldine, the snow-capped mountains appeared.

You can take a boat tour to see the Tasman Glacier on the back side of Mt. Aoraki (known as Mt. Cook). After a short one-mile hike to the lake, we arrived at the shoreline for our excursion. I had expected a big ferry with big picture windows, but the light, open-air raft awaiting at the dock was a surprise!

The German-born guide quickly sorted us into small groups to balance the boat and off we went. She described the history and formation of the lake from the ice melt. In just the past few months and years, the lake capacity has been increasing in volume.

The ice floes show only 10% of its body mass. The rest lies below the surface. On larger floes and along the glacier, you can see the water line where the waves meet the ice form. The floes have lives of their own. They play like otters when they roll over and as the mass underneath changes.

The Tasman Glacier, like those in Alaska, relies on ground cover to insulate the ice from further deterioration. The visible river of ice was only a small rendition in scale with those we saw in Alaska, but nevertheless impressive for its peaceful and serene environment. We could only get partial peeks at Mt. Cook, but we were satisfied at having seen its peak the day before.

Zoom Sketching Live Musicians

The Tuesday night jam sessions with live musicians originating from Andronico’s continues.

And a quick sketch in the Christchurch Gallery of a favorite sculpture–you can compare it to the real thing in the following slide!

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 15

A community COVID case in Auckland last week spurred the country into action, with the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring a Level 3 alert in the nation’s capital and an Alert Level 2 throughout the rest of the country.

All known contacts traced were checked for testing or review. I was impressed by the transparency and rapid response. All news sources provided updates on the situation, and the public was reminded about the need to be vigilant. Wearing masks on public transport became mandatory, and there was visible evidence of people scanning QR codes in public venues.

Though weary, everyone saw the importance of compliance. I compared the inconsistency of response in the States. Although many wore masks, it seemed as if there were as many who didn’t. The mask wearing is not mandatory here, but nearly everyone seems to follow instructions they are given.

Once the exposure from the family of three who were positive was under control, the country alerts were reduced to Level 2 in Auckland and Level 1 elsewhere. It was a relief, but nevertheless worrying and a topic of daily conversation. New Zealanders are aware how tenuous their situation is and how important it is to maintain their hard-earned freedom.

The government announced yesterday that the Pfizer vaccines have been received and the first vaccinations will begin with those who vaccinate. No other indication of when the general public will receive vaccinations, so we are waiting anxiously to find out.

Watching a Zoom Town Hall sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Ting was helpful to follow latest developments in San Francisco Bay Area. Professor George Rutherford compared statistics between the 1918 pandemic with the one today. In 1918, over 3000 people died in the Bay Area (of a population of 350,000). Today, there have been 342 deaths in a city over twice the size. While the numbers are still increasing, it is a testament to modern science and how it has protected the population from grief and tragedy.

Lyttelton Harbor

In the mean time, life carries on as abnormally normal as possible. Daughter Julianne, grandson Felix and I took a day trip to Lyttelton Harbor. It’s a quaint port town that, despite it being the epicenter of the second major earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 that caused extensive damage, many vestiges of a historic town remain evident.

Logging has become one of the major industries in New Zealand. Just behind sheep and cattle farming, the logs are often sent to China and other countries for processing. Lyttelton, a tiny port nestled on the coast beyond the hills of Christchurch, has preserved a lot of its original character and sense of community .

The featured image above captures a warm and colorful server at the local wood-fired pizza parlor. The owners endeavored to make the restaurant a casual and welcoming environment, similar to other establishments in the neighborhood aiming to please

The evening shifted to a different tone. The Gatherings is a restaurant focusing on curated wines paired with delicious seafood. We were excited by a local “Salty White”, an unfiltered wine by Hermit Ram from North Canterbury. Mussels and chips, a mint salad, and whole flounder were a perfect combination from the Chef’s Selection.

Like many cities throughout the world, you can always find a good meal if you take the time to look for it. Thanks to Daughter Melissa, this one was no exception.

Earlier in the week, frequent walks through the park and adjacent cemetery unveiled many stories to be told from lives once lived.

Sketching with local Christchurch City sketchers at Ferrymeade Heritage Park and in Central Christchurch at Tuam and Manchester yielded opportunities to see and hear the city up close and personal.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 12-14

While pandemonium in the Bay Area over getting vaccinations prevails, New Zealand has been steadfast and calm over the rush to get everyone vaccinated. Naturally, the state of health for its citizens are just as much a concern as for those in the U.S., but the order of magnitude is much more significant in the States. As a tiny country and with prudent practice, New Zealand waits to see how other countries handle their vaccination programs and whether any adverse outcomes may result from the injections or the procedures.

We are neither vaccinated here nor there. We watch the news each day to see what unfolds in both countries. I rely on news feeds as mentioned previously from RNZ, San Francisco Chronicle, NY Times, and Deutsche Welle. Most are focused on the delay of vaccination deliveries.

In the mean time, we continue to go about daily life as usual–trips to the market, going to see movies, museum visits, and mall shopping. By American standards, extraordinary. By New Zealand standards, ordinary, but still cautious. There have been a few breaches and cases. so people still scan their devices for contact tracing, a process that doesn’t even exist in the States,

Let’s Get Together and Go for a Walk in the Park!

The past couple of weeks have been filled with many delicious walks through the myriad parks in Central Christchurch. Daughter Melissa laughed at me when I told her that there were too many public spaces in Christchurch for people to consume. From Hagley Park along the Avon River, there are plenty of strolls to sooth the soul.

Rose Garden on a Sunday Afternoon

The New Zealand Symphony performed a medley of themes from Blockbuster movies such as “Goldfinger”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Star Trek”, “Magnificent Seven” and crowd favorite “Lord of the Rings”. In both cases, as you can see, it is inevitable for dancers get out and take advantage of the music.

Victoria Park on a Saturday evening
(Apologies for the wind sweep!)

Sketching in Christchurch

Along with the German Language exchange, I joined a local sketch group. We meet weekly at the library to sketch each other, work on personal art projects, and chat. I still participate in hometown sketching via Zoom. Both the monthly Portrait Parties below and the weekly Tuesday evening Jam Sessions give me an opportunity to stay in touch with San Francisco fellow sketchers as well as to engage in a variety of challenging and lively sketching tasks!

The following series was based on selecting favorite portraits, then sketching them or simulating them in costume and then sketching the simulations! A totally fun and engaging event that we plan to do again.

Sketching via Zoom has created opportunites for screen shots to freeze images while listening to live music. I also sketch from live shots to keep the eye-hand coordination sharp–but sometimes have to jump ship!

The second impeachment trial to convict Donald Trump took place this week. I captured four of the House Managers who gave their impassioned testimony claiming that Trump was directly responsible for inciting an insurrection on the National Capitol. Sadly, he was not convicted by a Senate vote of 57-43.

House Managers Jamie Raskin, Ted Lieu, Joaquin Castro and Joe Noguse

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 11

I follow RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, daily as a source for local information in the country. The feed earlier this week reported a COVID-19 case, where the virus was transmitted to two health care workers in a Christchurch quarantine facility last November, 2020.

Russian sea crew staying at the hotel spread the virus when they walked through hotel corridors to the smoking area outside. Sometimes they went up to 4 times an hour, so the movement was significant. They infected two health care personnel in the hotel through microaerosols in the air. After discovering that, the Ministry of Health put crew in single rooms (previously they had shared rooms) with balconies so the crewmen could smoke directly adjacent to their rooms without having to go through the corridors to do so.

This is just a good example how easily the virus can be transmitted. Knowledge about personal behavior and simple modifications can avoid transmission. But it is a huge challenge to change human behavior. It’s already difficult to convince people to wear masks. To ask them to refrain from smoking would be impossible.

In another story I read in the New York Times, a journalist traveling by car across the U.S. discovered little or no mask wearing during his stops. He was traveling from Connecticut to St. Louis to take his mother to meet a relative. The journalist was appalled at the lack of compliance in mask wearing. Signs were posted everywhere, but no one was complying.

This journalist’s report was discouraging to me. It didn’t give me much confidence in rushing back to the U.S., despite promising plans to vaccinate everyone. In the mean time, we continue to live safely in New Zealand. We take each day at a time and wait to see whether conditions will improve in the States.

We go about our daily activities, visiting the local library, shopping at the supermarket, running errands in town, and enjoying New Zealand’s beautiful, pristine environment. The oceans surrounding the islands and the mountains carved by earthquakes and volcanic activity are clearly visible everywhere. Sun, wind, and rain change constantly from hour to hour, so the weather is, yes, a major topic of discussion.

Mt. Pleasant

A hike up to the top of Mt. Pleasant near the house we are renting gave us spectacular views of Christchurch. The harbor at Ferrymead, beach at Sumner and many inlets along the bay provide housing sites with views to cherish. Paved and gravel roads to outlying areas lead to many walks and pathways for hikers and bikers. (See featured photo above)

Sumner Beach
Sumner Beach, with Cave Rock

Taking strolls along the Esplanade reminded me of the fancy turn-of-the-century promenades I imagine along Brighton in the U.K. Today they are filled with surfers, families, and foreign visitors. The scene looks very SoCal or something out of La Jolla. Like in Papamoa, the distance from car to beach is only a few steps.

Unfortunately, this Sumner building is a sad reminder of the earthquake in 2011. The first earthquake in Canterbury weakened the structures in Christchurch, then a second one in Lyttelton caused most of damage to buildings like this one. Buildings still standing vacant are looking for a developer to raze and renovate.

Sketching

Finally, a chance to sketch via Zoom with local Bay Area sketchers!

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 10

Since arrival in Christchurch a couple of weeks ago, I am beginning to fall in love with this charming South Island city. The easy adaptation encouraged me to connect with two local meetups, one for sketching and one for German language exchange .

Before COVID in March last year, I had been following these interests in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was an active member of SF Sketchers, a group that met monthly to sketch outdoors with other fellow sketchers. Sunset Sketchers, a subset of the group, met in cafes on weekends for morning coffee and sketching in San Francisco’s Sunset District.

Since the pandemic hit ten months ago, we continued to meet sporadically outdoors but this group and other spinoffs finally settled into the Zoom meeting format. Weekly and monthly meetups allowed members to stay in touch by sketching each other, but no places and not live.

Being in Christchurch, I am able to connect with others having the same interests in person. I meet the local sketching group at the library every week, and my first field trip with them will be to the Ferrymead Heritage Park this weekend.

The German Language Exchange group meets every month at a local cafe. Led by a high school German teacher, the small group of five provides plenty of opportunity to speak and listen to German. Three of us are recent arrivals that quarantined before entering New Zealand. One is a woman from the UK, and the other is a New Zealander returning from university studies. We have plenty of material coming from abroad and explaining our experiences in German!

After the devastating earthquake on Feb. 22, 2011, the center of town is laden with new developments. It has taken a good ten years to return to life. With an injection from the government, Christchurch is now able to display its resilience and durability proudly.

Being relatively flat and laid out on a grid system, you can get your bearings quickly to navigate around the city center. The lovely Avon River meanders throughout the city and provides another means of orientation for the visitor.

A Devastating Earthquake in 2011

Unfortunately, many buildings in this area were flattened by the earthquake. Due to liquefaction, the same curse that affected San Francisco’s Marina District in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. Christchurch was not considered to be in an earthquake zone. Buildings in Christchurch were not designed at the time to take the vulnerability of soft, marshy land into account.

A few statistics about the earthquake: there were 182 deaths, and over 200 buildings that required demolition from damage caused by the earthquake. Over 300,000 tonnes of liquefaction were removed, and there was a 3-meter (about 10 feet) difference in distance between Rolleston and Kaiapoi after September 2011.

A large, block-long empty site peeks into the past: earthquake devastated sites like this one yearn for a developer to step up. A few new buildings have cropped up, but the many empty parking lots convey the extent of the damage, physically, economically, and emotionally.

New Life for Christchurch

Old Regent Street is double-loaded with period-style shops and cafes. A miniature golf park next to an amusement park and the city park provides plenty of free activities for children of all ages. Pop-up vendors selling favorites such as real fruit ice cream and chips fulfill desires for the weak at heart.

Today, many blocks of the city center are vacant or used for parking. City planners and the government have put alot of effort into urban renewal and bringing life back to this area.

Exploring the south side of the city led to a series of wall murals located on buildings. The empty parking lots in the foreground provided excellent sightlines for artwork while brightening an otherwise dreary environment.

The Avon River and scenic paths on either side calm the soul. In the adjacent Botanical Gardens, magnificent trees display themselves to strollers. Maori patterns are introduced along the paths telling the history and origins of the Maori culture.

A final stop at the City Library revealed exciting explorations for life-long learning. You can join free weekly programs to learn how to use laser cutters and 3-D printing, as well as how to use more old-fashioned skills like sewing and embroidery side by side. The weekly sketch group meets downstairs to hone one’s artistic skills.

Sketching in Christchurch

Speaking of sketching, I finally drew inspiration from a monthly zoom sketch group. We went back to basics using contour drawings, where you don’t lift the pen while you coordinate what you see on the paper in front of you. I exercised the same concept for the Tuesday night jam session with Bluegrass musicians via Zoom. Here’s what I came up with.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM MIDDLE EARTH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEKS 7- 9

I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.

The latest news as of this morning comes from RNZ, or Radio New Zealand and the issues facing COVID restrictions here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/434420/government-s-latest-covid-measures-described-as-both-too-strong-and-too-weak

The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.

It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.

Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.

New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.

There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.

New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.

New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.

Mt. Ruapehu National Park

Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.

Heading to top of Gondola Station
at Mt. Ruapehu

We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).

Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.

Overnight in Wellington

We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.

The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.

Ohakune Forest Walks

Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.

Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.

Holiday Cheer

With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM PAPAMOA, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 6

The song beginning with the words “Beautiful Dreamer” wafts through my mind as I ponder the sights and sounds of New Zealand. There are plenty of birds chirping outdoors. They wake me up when the dawn is breaking and continue throughout the day, but they seem to be particularly energized at dusk. Many species of birds share the stage here and give me determination to recognize them by name.

Having arrived in New Zealand a month ago, we are undergoing a transformation of normality. We can get hair cuts, go to the mall to buy Christmas presents, eat in restaurants, and more importantly, hug those outside our bubble. We follow the news in the U.S. intently and still share the lingering fear of what lies ahead. Despite the depressing news, we resolved that the best way for us to overcome unsettled feelings is to carry on with life as if it is normal…because it is.

We made a special trip to circumvent the local Tauranga area by car yesterday. As a thriving community of 150,000 people, it is no match for Auckland or other world cities, but its charm and intimate character speak volumes. There are well-heeled districts reminiscent of Auckland’s, but the beaches, country living, and resort life side by side increase its energy and promise.

We took a short walk through the “bush” along the shoreline in Welcome Bay. New Zealanders love “tramping” from very rigorous walks such as the one in world-famous Milford Sound, to tamer, local district walks.

The local radio talk show discussed the recent plight of international students. 60,000 university foreign tudents who left New Zealand to return home temporarily due to COVID-19 are now unable to come back. New Zealand’s economy not only relies on its foreign student population for income from tuition and fees, but it also funds many programs for other local students. The arts, music, labs, and research are being threatened if the students do not return. The pandemic affects everyone in big and small ways, even when the country is COVID-free.

We’ll be heading out to explore the middle earth of the North Island this week in an area known as Tongeriro National Park. It’s known for its ski area, but we are taking advantage of its off-peak seasonal rates for a family reunion.

Before that, I’ll be busy baking Stollen, my traditional Christmas treat. For the first time, I am also preparing mincemeat pie, which apparently is a recipe that originated in the 11th Century. Thanks to the Crusaders, who rocked and raided the Middle East, they pilfered the method of combining meat with dried fruit and spices. With time on my hands like many of you sheltering in place, I may also attempt to assemble and decorate a homemade gingerbread house. Give any of these a try and we can share stories of delight or disaster.

As we approach Christmas, I hope each of you will be able to spend time and celebrate with those nearest to you with joy and love, whether in person or virtually. A safe and healthy Holiday Greeting from the Fong-Chou Family!!

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM PAPAMOA, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 5

Now that everyone has a working context of my reasons for being in New Zealand during the Pandemic from last week’s post, it seems like a good time to reflect on my thoughts about my being here. Obviously, it feels glorious, exciting, and unbelievable. But behind the initial cloak of exhilaration, is a gloomy feeling of an imbalanced existence.

The first sensation is that of chance. Like winning the lotto, or how fortunate you feel for something that happened to you but that you had no control over. No skill, or talent, or grit. Just luck. How is it that I, as an American, can travel halfway around the world, to flee the doom of the rest of the world’s woes? Will we pay the price later? Is it a fluke, or is it something that will suddenly reverse?

The second sensation is that of loneliness. Why are we able to go about freely, in a dream-like society, to walk about and engage with other human beings? What privileges are we given for something that other citizens throughout the world are unable to do? As social animals, humans depend on our relationships with others. Despite being able to interact with 5 million other humans on a captive tropical island, what keeps us from interacting with 5 billion others?

The third impression of being in an odd, or unique country as New Zealand, is the abnormality of normality. People go about their daily lives, yes, with difficulties, but far, far less than those faced by the rest of the world. We can smile at others on the street and they can smile back, with 2/3 of our facial features unmasked.

We are able to hug each other—the most priceless possession at the moment for me and my family. And we are able to conduct life in normal ways—shop, go to the post office, have dinner in a restaurant. And we can even get ourselves exasperated at traffic, stand in line a little too long, and complain about the sports teams’ failures.

What has caused these feelings? No one asked for the pandemic. There is a price for interacting. The urban advantages of living close together are challenging us. But rural freedom is also paying its price. Neither environment is doing much better than the other, as we see numbers climbing in the U.S. in both types.

I have always been fascinated with anthropology. But it will take anthropologists a long time to come forward with their analysis of the pandemic. Maybe it will take decades or even hundreds of thousands of years before they are able to grasp the phenomenon of what we call COVID-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on our society today.

Perhaps they will find evidence of the pandemic. Like mass burial graves in Italy or China. Or chemical traces of the vaccine in our bodies we took to extend our lives. Or a sudden drop in world-wide birth rates, just like what one reads on tree rings indicating droughts. The scads of evidence collected will not convey the human emotion and stress.

New Zealand has indeed done a few good things. And with skill and endurance. A commendable deed between a government by the people and for the people. The U.S. has lost its moral compass, but long before this pandemic. The basics of human dignity were already tossed aside.

I feel as if I am living in the future, seeing normality in a world yet to experience it. Soon, the rest of the world will normalize. Streets will be populated, animated with people meeting people, and lives connecting again. Soon, the rest of world will be living their expected lives with fun, humor, sadness and irony. I am looking through this lens now.

I am grateful to be in a country that enables me to temporarily avoid the woes of the rest of the world. I can only hope that the rest will become “normal” again by this time next year. There will be many stories, tragedies, and fallout, just as there had been from the last pandemic. And we will recover. Mankind can only cope with so much before the next one strikes.

Pandemic Diary from PAPAMOA, New Zealand: week 4

Officially, we are just completing Week 2 of our “Freedom from COVID” visit to New Zealand. We spent the first two weeks in a managed isolation facility after leaving San Francisco on a flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. We were released and allowed to enter normal society on November 23.

After celebrating Thanksgiving at Papamoa Beach in a sprawling suburban house with our family in the Tauranga area, my husband Gee Kin and I transferred to a cozy cottage in the Papamoa Hills. There is a view in the distance framed by the Bay of Plenty, Mt. Manganui and the South Pacific Ocean.

Our short walks up the road from the cottage revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Without much effort, we sauntered past sheep and cattle grazing in the rolling hills, a horse next door, and birds including tuis, pheasants, and hawks.

I picked a bouquet of wild hydrangeas and daisies along the roadside in the midst of tropical ferns hidden in an alien pine forest. The non-native species here are now shunned. A massive national campaign is underway to return the natural environment to native species.

By the end of the week we couldn’t wait to get back to the beach. We could roll out of car in the free parking lot in 15 minutes and immediately feel the sand between our toes. We walked an hour each way without seeing many people as the beach stretched miles before us.

Daughter Julianne, partner Jeff, and precious Baby Felix are having lunch on the balcony of their barn on the avocado and lemon farm where they are staying in Te Puke, kiwi fruit capital of the world.

Why are we in New Zealand?

Five million residents in New Zealand (of which 13% are Maori) are currently able to move about and conduct daily life normally as they have always prior to the advent of COVID-19 in March, 2020. Under the leadership of the prime minister, the New Zealand government tackled the pandemic early and “hard”. 

Around 70,000 New Zealand citizens who were living abroad have been repatriated. Qualified spouses or partners of New Zealand citizens, like me, are allowed to join members of their families. New Zealanders have had a tradition of taking a couple of years abroad to do an “OE” (overseas experience). Many who have been living in other countries are now returning for the first time.

In March, there was a complete lockdown throughout the country. The international borders were closed and all incoming travel was banned.  All businesses were closed (no takeout or delivery) and residents could not leave their homes except to buy groceries. This lasted for about a month.  Except for a few minor breaches, the country has managed to contain any major outbreaks. Services and facilities were gradually opened by levels in a rational, consistent fashion with minimal reversals.

Around 6,000 hotel spaces are provided throughout the country to monitor and test returnees before they are released after 14 days with no symptoms. Travelers cannot come to New Zealand without a voucher for managed isolation facility. Over the upcoming holiday period, spaces are booked out. Airlines do not allow passengers to fly to NZ without a valid voucher for quarantine. Other island countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan have implemented similar policies for quarantine.

During the 14-day isolation period, travelers are given two nasal tests. The Ministry of Health calls daily to check in and take temperatures. The only times isolees are allowed to leave their rooms is for pre-booked 40-minute exercises in a confined outdoor area, where those exercising are escorted and monitored by Defense personnel.

New Zealand has always been extremely protective of its land and environment and prevents external hazards or pestilence to enter the country. COVID-19 policies are an extension of existing policies. Because New Zealand relies heavily on its tourism industry, it is also important to preserve its crown jewels for the future.

While only a tiny country by international standards, New Zealand has focused on what it can do in a responsible manner to protect its people. In close collaboration with the Ministries of Immigration and Quarantine, Health, and Defense, the government has maintained an explicit program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

And to complete the punchline for being here: it was a serendipitous adventure by Gee Kin’s father, who arrived in New Zealand in 1906 at the age of 19 from China to discover, like all immigrants, his fame and fortune. He stayed and left a legacy for his descendants from which we now benefit.

ARRIVAL IN New Zealand!!

After two weeks in quarantine at a managed isolation facility and three COVID tests in Auckland, we were released into normal society on November 23. Our journey before, during, and after had many twists and turns, but we were able to execute our plans to travel to New Zealand. I am extremely fortunate to come here with my husband, a New Zealand citizen, to join our daughters, who are both New Zealand citizens.

In this country of 5 million residents, Jacinda Ardern, the current prime minister, is known here and throughout the world as having managed to keep New Zealand free from many of the world’s woes over COVID-19. There is still much caution and work to be done, but we are witnessing how these efforts have translated into big differences from those of other countries.

It didn’t take much adjustment, as our long-term memory guided us to the familiar past easily. Without masks or social distancing, we could conduct ourselves just as we had done pre-pandemic. We could go to shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. It didn’t seem as surreal as our short-term memory flashed a vague feeling of anxiety and wistfulness.

We left Auckland and drove three hours south to Tauranga, located in the Bay of Plenty. It is a large beach resort similar to Santa Cruz or Newport Beach on the California coast. As the weather was turning into summer, the balmy breezes, warm days and cool nights reminded us of our coastal weather. We took a short walk through Mt. Manganui with beautiful , crisp views of the bay.

Our Air Bnb was located a couple of blocks from the extensive Papamoa Beach. With over 10 mile stretch of pristine sand beach, residents of this small community of 20,000 have no problem with parking or access to it.

New Zealand is better at acknowledging its Maori culture and history. Substantial progress has been made in recent years in promoting the country’s first inhabitants. Maori names and language are being integrated into daily life. We encountered some students at Papamoa Beach practicing for an upcoming event.

Small-scale farming is ubiquitous throughout the country. We stopped at a strawberry patch and a lemon and avocado farm to enjoy the spring bounty. The header above is where daughter Julianne is living.

Most of this first week has been consumed with our arrival and joyful family gatherings, so my comments on New Zealand are brief. Please stay tuned for more to come over the next few months!