The Kiwis who didn’t fly home: Life in overseas bubbles

Shaniqua Juliano

Most of the world has spent most of 2020 in some form of lockdown. And while plenty of the team of 5 million have returned to Aotearoa, where we’ve had some of the best economic and health outcomes of any country during the coronavirus pandemic so far, others have stayed […]

Most of the world has spent most of 2020 in some form of lockdown.

And while plenty of the team of 5 million have returned to Aotearoa, where we’ve had some of the best economic and health outcomes of any country during the coronavirus pandemic so far, others have stayed put in their adopted homes – at least for now.

We spoke to five New Zealanders who’ve been living out the weirdest year overseas.

Journalist Laura Walters and her husband Michael moved to London earlier this year. The Tube has been quieter than usual.

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Journalist Laura Walters and her husband Michael moved to London earlier this year. The Tube has been quieter than usual.

Laura Walters, a 31-year-old journalist, moved to London with husband Michael, a teacher, from Wellington in February. At the time of this interview, England appeared poised for a second lockdown.

When we were flying out, Covid was obviously a very real thing, especially in China. Italy was starting to flare up, but we didn’t expect, or foresee – like everyone – that it was going to turn into what it has.

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In our minds, we were moving to the UK, and there were going to be some cases, but at that stage there was no talk of lockdown.

Public transport was still running, events were still running, shows were on, sports games were on.

We arrived and it felt normal. We didn’t have a reference point, but it felt similar to what it felt like in New Zealand – we met our friends, we got on the Tube, Michael went to an Arsenal game. We went to a couple of gigs.

People started saying things to us like, “You’re so lucky that you’re not experiencing the Tube during normal times.” We thought it was busy.

But people were starting to ease off because cases started to go up. Within two weeks of being here, we realised that things were getting pretty bad.

We went to a friend’s show at a pub, maybe a week before lockdown, and there were about five people there. We were very much in the mindset of “Keep calm and carry on.”

Outside Buckingham Palace.

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Outside Buckingham Palace.

Things just snapped within a day or two. We were staying with a friend and cases were going up, there were panic-buying stories all over the news. We went across the road to the Sainsbury’s and there were just rows and rows of empty shelves in this massive supermarket. We were just finding anything we could that was non-perishable. We probably bought too many frozen veggies. I think we got the last packet of rice and the last packet of dried pasta in a supermarket. There was no hand soap, but we did find some extra dishwashing liquid.

That night, we made a decision to get an Airbnb and start self-isolating because we decided it wasn’t fair to be moving around friends. Within two or three days, I had Covid symptoms pretty intensely – the fever, the cough. There was no testing, there was no way to find out if you even had it.

After about 10 days at the Airbnb, we moved in with friends – we went into official lockdown. Boris did his address… Every house got a letter from 10 Downing St.

Everyone kept to themselves. At 8 o’clock every Thursday night, everyone would go out and clap for the NHS, or bang pots and pans. That was kind of the most people you’d ever see at one time.

After a while, you could meet up with one person. I met up with a friend in a park, sitting a couple of metres apart, having a drink on a Friday afternoon. And then, all of a sudden, you’re meeting up with six people in the park. And then you could go for a beer, and you could sit outside at a pub. Things started to feel like they were getting better. Some people were going travelling, which seemed crazy. Almost as quickly as everything got much better and started to open up, it’s now just gone straight back down the other side.

Walters hasn't seen any of Europe since she arrived in London. But she's explored much more of England as a result.

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Walters hasn’t seen any of Europe since she arrived in London. But she’s explored much more of England as a result.

There was no alert level system like in New Zealand until really late in the game. Once they did introduce it, they introduced it on level 3.5 – very confusing. I think there were a lot of people that weren’t breaking the rules on purpose. Having, say, a birthday party in the park with 15 people, which they couldn’t do. But if it was a wedding, they could do it.

In the past couple of weeks, with the increase in cases, there’s been a lot clearer communication around the restrictions. You can have a group of six – they say, “Just remember the Rule of Six.”

Before the first lockdown, we were watching countries like New Zealand, moving into these more restrictive alert levels and going, “Why are we not doing that here?” We’re kind of sitting in the same place now. Why are pubs still open? We’re just waiting for more restrictions. I did go to the pub a few weeks ago with a small group who have been in our bubble the whole time. We sat outside, at a table that was away from everyone else – you order on an app, the meals are brought to you, and you take them from a tray. I’m feeling like those days are probably gone for a couple of months.

Our biggest motivation for coming over here was travel. And we are yet to go to any other country in Europe. The flip side of that is we’ve probably already seen more of the UK than a lot of Kiwis would see on their OE.

We don’t feel quite defeated enough yet to go home. You asked if I’m still glad we moved over. And I am. You couldn’t have foreseen all of this, but you absolutely still have to give things a go. I think it’s kind of a “no regrets” situation.

As told to Britt Mann

Freelance writer Richard Meadows has been living in Mexico City, with two human flatmates and a canine one.

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Freelance writer Richard Meadows has been living in Mexico City, with two human flatmates and a canine one.

Richard Meadows, 29, has been in Mexico City since February, when he moved after living in Colombia for six months. The freelance writer from rural Auckland shares an apartment with a Brazilian perfumer/ballet dancer, a Mexican Spanish professor who’s been giving him lessons, and a rescue dog named Zucca.

I came to Mexico because my Colombian visa was about to expire, but I was really loving Latin America and wasn’t ready to leave. I was only vaguely aware of the virus at the time.

I thought I’d have lots of time to travel later in the year, so I mostly spent those first few weeks looking for an apartment, gym, office space and generally doing admin stuff to get settled in. With the benefit of hindsight, I really didn’t capitalise on that freedom!

We went into isolation in mid-March. At that time, no-one was taking it seriously, there were still big concerts and football games going on. The president was out kissing babies and pretending it was no big deal. I was talking to a friend in Korea, and she had been telling me about this crazy post apocalyptic-sounding new reality, with klaxons in the street warning of infected areas and so on. I started paying a lot more attention after that, and realised it was about to get bad here, too. We went into self-imposed quarantine, and started wearing masks in public and all that.

There were a few reasons I decided to stay here [rather than return to New Zealand when Kiwis were advised to come home]. I would have had to travel through a minimum of three crowded airports and two planes, at a time when border security was a joke. And being young and healthy, my personal risk was very low. It was definitely tempting to head for the comfort of home, but there wasn’t really any good reason to change my plans. My main problem was trying to convince people back home that I’d be fine.

I was definitely a little on edge to begin with, mostly because no-one was taking it seriously and I felt like I was going crazy. I stocked up on a bunch of supplies and essential meds, which was handy when we had food shortages later on. Then, as the data came in, I got less and less worried about my own personal situation, and more and more angry about the clusterf… out in the world. Luckily I have great roomies, including one of the four-legged variety. I get that whole thing about pets relieving stress now.

I’m still not entirely clear on the rules to be honest. First they banned large gatherings, then they asked everyone to work from home and closed all the bars and restaurants. At one point, masks were mandatory on the street, then they weren’t. The bars and restaurants are opening back up again now, even though we’re barely past the peak. Honestly, I don’t think they had any way of enforcing a New Zealand-style quarantine – the informal economy is huge, and lots of people have no savings whatsoever. It would have been a nightmare.

I got a high fever out of nowhere, and was pretty sure I had the bug. We called up the government health authority, and apparently I had enough of the symptoms to pass their triage system for deciding who gets tested. There was a huge backlog of cases, so I had to wait something like 10 days – by which point, all my symptoms were well and truly gone.

When the doctor and nurse arrived, they were dressed in their regular clothes. They went through this elaborate ritual of putting on all these layers of protective gear while standing right next to me, all the way down to cute little disposable booties, and sterilising the table and floor. Then, after they did the test, they stripped it all off and put it in one of those biohazard waste bags. It took another 10 days to get the results back, which were completely useless by that point. The whole exercise was pure theatre. I still don’t know for sure if I actually had the virus.

Mexico has been a write-off for me, in terms of actually getting to see the country. I’ll have to come back when things settle down.

– As told to Britt Mann

There were widespread fears and warnings that African nations like Ghana were going to be devastated by Covid-19, and face overwhelmed healthcare facilities. Stacey Knott, 35, a multimedia journalist from Nelson, is based in the capital Accra with her husband, John, reporting on Ghana’s handling of the pandemic.

In Ghana, I find people often prefer a face-to-face interview, which can mean sitting in traffic for an hour to get to an office for what might be a 10-minute conversation or to drop off a hardcopy letter to request an interview with a bureaucrat. Early on in the pandemic, this was a forced change due to lockdown measures and widespread restrictions. Everyone is learning to adapt – for me that has meant recording phone interviews in my closet or coaxing people through using WhatsApp voice memos to be used in radio reports. The lockdown provided a bit of respite from my usually very noisy street, where loud, roving preachers might often pace outside my window at 4am, trying to win souls.

As restrictions on movement eased from late-April, I’ve been able to return to shooting videos, and conducting in-person (though socially distanced) interviews. I’ve visited a plant research clinic here who were looking for a Covid-19 cure, and markets to report the fallout from the pandemic on informal sector workers. I’ve spent a few hours shooting in a textile factory which usually relies on people buying fabrics for events, but during April, at least, there had been little use for new outfits so sales of fabrics plummeted, as all the jobs associated with events also disappeared – like catering or dressmaking. I’ve also reported on fears of an increase in child labour as kids are still out of school, and money for those vulnerable to this is even tighter than usual.

'Verconica' buckets are a simple public health measure developed in Ghana, that have come into their own during the pandemic.

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‘Verconica’ buckets are a simple public health measure developed in Ghana, that have come into their own during the pandemic.

My husband, a chef, was also a temporary Covid-19 casualty, as hotels and restaurants shut or cut back their services.

In Ghana, innovation and entrepreneurship have always been crucial to survival, and this has proved especially so now – washing hands has become a defining way to stop the spread, but access to clean, running water is a challenge. Since March, shops, markets, businesses and offices have had “Veronica Buckets” – named after their inventor – set outside for people to wash their hands; this is a normal plastic bucket with a tap at the bottom, and a second container underneath to catch the water. It’s a simple device that was invented here in Ghana years ago and is now seen as a cheap measure to improve public health in developing nations. Another step to ensure economic and social life can continue is the mandatory wearing of face masks. Like those Veronica buckets, African print fabric masks have become ubiquitous here.

Ghana and other African nations have defied early predictions of Covid’s impact – death tolls have been a lot lower than those in the West. Figures here from late September show 299 deaths and a total of 46,387 positive cases for a population of about 30 million. Some research has pointed to many of those cases being asymptomatic and there’s been much speculation as to how and why Ghana (and other African nations) has not been as hard hit – a younger population, early interventions, less testing for the virus and environmental factors among them.

I’m yet to quite get back to crossing the city for a 10-minute interview which could be done over the phone, but life here has in many ways returned to pre-Covid normality. The borders are open, and the churches are back in full swing and the street preachers are back to their 4am sermons.

Annabel Armstrong-Clarke moved with her husband Adam Cath and their sons Eelke and Bodhi (pictured) to Doha, Qatar from Christchurch after the earthquakes. All four of them recently had Covid.

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Annabel Armstrong-Clarke moved with her husband Adam Cath and their sons Eelke and Bodhi (pictured) to Doha, Qatar from Christchurch after the earthquakes. All four of them recently had Covid.

Annabel Armstrong-Clarke, an archivist, lives with her husband, Adam Cath, a library director, and their sons, Eelke, 15 and Bodhi, 12, in the city of Doha, in Qatar. The family are making plans to return to New Zealand.

When Covid first kicked off, because Qatar shut down so early, it seemed safe, and we decided it was best to hunker down and shelter in place rather than add to the mad dash to leave the country and potentially get sick along the way. We have faith in the health minister (Dr Hanan Mohamed al-Kuwari) and the message of the government back in March was very much in line with New Zealand and the rest of the world. But the problem in a country with a huge range of cultures and languages is that there was real misinterpretation of the government guidelines and, even with the threat of large fines and possible prison time, there was no “team” mentality.

Qatar shut down at the same time as New Zealand with what was then roughly the same number of Covid cases. The numbers then grew and grew to the highest number of cases per capita in the world. As my husband has ongoing health issues, we were extremely cautious, had very limited social interaction and embraced the full cliched experience – the awkward two-weekly shop (fully masked and gloved), washing everything when it came into the house, getting used to endless Zoom calls, Joe Wicks workouts, lots of movie watching and even some pro-level sourdough making. We were all indoors all the time as the outdoor options we were permitted (walking and biking on our compound) weren’t overly attractive with the intense summer heat of Doha, which can hit 57C.

We had been so careful that, even when I had a headache and sinus issues, I didn’t suspect I was positive for the virus. It wasn’t until I had a fever one night that I started to worry and the next day woke up with a weird dry cough. I got tested that day and early the next morning got a phone call to say I was positive. Although it wasn’t a shock, considering my symptoms, it was quite the psychological blow to actually have this virus that has caused such chaos throughout the world. The health person who rang said I’d never find out how I got it because it was so prevalent in the community, and to this day it remains a mystery.

After many phone calls and some extra tests, I was allowed to isolate at home for the next 14 days. That meant I had to stay in my bedroom, not leaving for any reason. Adam had to drop food and supplies at the door. It was a strange time to be sick and alone – my symptoms ranged from awful lung pain and inability to fully inflate my lungs, to an aching body, a rash, diarrhoea, loss of taste and smell and a never-ending tiredness – still lingering after eight weeks like an unwanted party guest.

Anabel’s son Eelke feeding a baby camel, pre-Covid.

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Anabel’s son Eelke feeding a baby camel, pre-Covid.

The doctors who rang regularly were wonderful and reassuring and having an oxygen reader (pulse oximeter) helped a lot – so I knew I was getting enough oxygen even if it often didn’t feel like it. I heard regularly from my family and friends throughout the world and all that love really helped. There was also an amazing network of Kiwis in our compound and other friends who dropped a constant supply of meals and groceries to us. That support was a very beautiful thing during in an incredibly difficult time.

On my day 10 of isolation, Adam and one my sons tested positive, so I got to come out of the bedroom (yay!) but our 14 days began again at that point (boo!). The whole family was sick – one of my sons continued to test negative despite having the exact same symptoms, if not worse.

Overall I ended up having four Covid tests and five weeks in isolation – it was like a never-ending cycle that we couldn’t escape – many Groundhog Day moments were had. None of us are 100 per cent yet – by the end of each day my lungs still hurt, my husband and son regularly have terrible nausea, and tiredness is normal for all of us, but we are so lucky that we have had the “mild” version.

Things still are far from normal – the kids go to school every three days but are online the rest of the time, Adam goes into the office only two days a week and I’m working from home indefinitely as I work for a university which is operating remotely.

In some ways, having had Covid has made this next stage in the pandemic easier for us as we believe we will have immunity for a few months at least. We can go out without the same level of fear and anxiety we had before we got sick and have some limited social contact now. These strange months have also made us question our very way of life though and I’m writing this surrounded by 10 years’ worth of possessions as we sell up and begin to move home. Expat life doesn’t make as much sense when we can’t get home easily to see our elderly parents, no longer have the advantages of cheap and easy travel around the world, and the quality of life and education for our kids has decreased so significantly.

Ten years ago I left New Zealand with two small boys after the earthquakes in Christchurch so it feels somewhat fitting to be taking them home during a global pandemic.

Jordan Rondel at the Chateau Marmont, overlooking Sunset Boulevard.

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Jordan Rondel at the Chateau Marmont, overlooking Sunset Boulevard.

Jordan Rondel, 31, aka The Caker, moved to Los Angeles in September 2019 to expand her baking business. The ex-Aucklander lives in the Echo Park neighbourhood with her Kiwi boyfriend and a Californian flatmate. Sister Anouk Rondel, also a co-owner in The Caker, rounds out the bubble.

I definitely chose a very strange time to move overseas, especially to the US. When we moved to LA, our intention was to replicate what we have in New Zealand with The Caker. We’ve got this big pumping bakery, recipe books, a line of cake kits. I do classes, I write recipes – so we were trying to replicate that on an even bigger scale. When Covid hit, the idea of the bakery went out the window. In retrospect, we’re actually really glad we didn’t put everything we had into building out a bakery and hiring staff. We hadn’t signed a big lease, we hadn’t started paying builders. It’s almost like nothing really changed for us, because we were only just finding our feet anyway.

We felt like this was an opportunity for us to really focus on our shelf product, which we’ve been working on for three years. [Because of international shipping costs], we haven’t really been able to scale up at all in New Zealand. Here, it’s a completely different story, and we’re about to launch our US kits. It’s all very exciting and starting to feel quite real. This is still a good time for us to be releasing a product which requires people to bake at home, because people are still obsessed with that. Weirdly enough, the timing of it isn’t terrible.

Rondel prepares for a baking masterclass in pre-Covid times.

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Rondel prepares for a baking masterclass in pre-Covid times.

[During the pandemic], I’ve been baking a lot, cooking a lot, spending a lot of time in the kitchen and not hating it. I get a lot of my inspiration for new [recipe] ideas from going to farmer’s markets and going out to dinner and tasting different things. [Without those], inspiration has been a little lacking, so I’ve been focusing on the old favourites like an almond butter and raspberry cake. I’ve been trying to add different things, like collagen powder to my baking, and hemp powder, and just playing around with different crazy things you can get.

I live in Echo Park and I love it there. It’s got a really nice kind of neighborhood-y, almost like a Grey Lynn feel. I like being able to walk places. Luckily, I live right next to Elysian Park, so I go there a lot, do nice walks. We’ve just started doing a little outdoor pilates thing, a friend organised it. There’s like 12 of us in the group, and we all go and sit up in Elysian and do a workout, which is good because I hadn’t done anything physical for months.

We’ve had a few little outings [to stay sane]. We went to Palm Springs for three days and to Joshua Tree. Even just going to Malibu for the day cleared the head a little bit. Having my sister always next to me has been [great]. We do everything together. We own the business together. We’re inseparable. Imagine if I didn’t have her, I would go crazy!

– As told to Lynda Brendish

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