Just Squeaked Through
My Travels During COVID 19

Pamela Breves

© Copyright 2020 by Pamela Breves

Photo of cathedral cove in New Zealand.

I was fortunate enough to travel to the North Island of New Zealand recently! It was in early March so the Coronavirus hadn’t reached the pandemic stage, or at least to our knowledge, so two of my adult children and I took a chance to visit good friends and attend a wedding.

It was quite the adventure! But it did feel like we were being chased by something as the news was getting worse, borders and other things starting to close, even though New Zealand felt like the safest place in the world.

Thursday, March 12, 2020, Dulles International Airport was a desert. It was like my two children and I dropped into a sci-fi movie the likes of “A Quiet Place” or “I am Legend”. Only it was a different kind of danger we were trying to avoid. Just as invisible and still much unknown. Coronavirus.

What I didn’t say to my kids, although I am sure they were thinking it too, was “let’s get the hell out of here and go home!” It was that creepy. We were in our ‘can do’ mindset, focusing on the length of the trip, connections etc. The virus was still relatively new to most of us, the borders still open worldwide, and travel was just discouraged unless it was absolutely necessary and this was absolutely necessary. We were on our way to go visit our dear friends and attend the marriage of their daughter, Kate. In Wellington, New Zealand!

We were as cautious and prepared as we could be; hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes but no gloves and scarves instead of masks as the spike in demand went to essential workers, so we washed our hands often and avoided contact with the few people that were there. Masks were not worn by every employee but most, social distancing has become a word but not always practiced in these early days and we wiped down our airline seats just in case. Seattle becoming a hot spot now was making us keenly aware the virus was getting closer. But we made it! Washington, DC to San Francisco CA, to Auckland NZ, and finally to Wellington NZ! Even though they are our closest friends, we did give the Johnston’s and anyone we were introduced to, an option of a hug free hello – no many takers!

Our first taste of Wellington was a stop just passed the airport, Scorching Bay. It was here we had our first feel of the Pacific Ocean (or at least this end of the ocean!) and brunch, including my first “flat white” coffee, at the Scorch-a-Rama Café. Located right on this pretty little beach with brightly colored tables, it was a beautiful spot to eat, marvel at the scenery, and have our first face to face conversation with our friends in a few years. Ash and Harriett’s house is in Karori Wellington and our Air B-&B was one region over in Thornton. “The Trinket House” was a good fit for my family that were able to make the trip with me and my master bedroom on the top floor offered spectacular views of Wellington Harbor, which would be empty of cruise ships very soon. Our Air B & B was originally going to house six of us but I got two last minute phone call cancellations. My daughter Piper and her husband Corey, school teachers, were only coming to New Zealand for one week that coincided with their spring break. They were worried that they would be ushered into a two week quarantine and miss school. Turns out they were not wrong. My son Matthew had a slight fever knew it wouldn’t be right to board a plane just in case. Happily it wasn’t COVID. My husband had chosen to stay home with our aging dog and can safely work from home. Not a mere four hours after arriving, our host Ash, who works for the New Zealand government, receives an email – any non-nationals arriving starting the day after next, would need to be quarantined for two weeks. Jacinda Arden, the PM was starting to take action to protect her county. I turned to Jack and Mimi and said, “Wow, we just squeaked in” and without a mandatory quarantine. Piper and Corey weren’t due to arrive in another 3 days so they were right about their decision! With all the dangers of the virus now being explored and splashed around the news, I have to admit – I wasn’t feeling that great. Not sick, not feverish, but not quite right either. Turns out Jack and Mimi were feeling the same so when Harriett asked us “Are you still bouncing?” our heads turned to hers very quickly – wait what? Bouncing is the feeling you have for a while after being on a plane as long as we were, the plane gently bounced us for so long, and our bodies hadn’t shaken the feeling (pardon the pun). Not sick! Just bouncing!

With less than a week until the wedding our site-seeing for now needed to be paired with family of the bride duties. Wellington holds plenty of marvels so we were in no way deprived. We needed to check out a vintage 1960’s Lincoln Continental for the bride and groom transport and run the route from church to the reception site followed by some necessary errands, so that brought us through Wellington Central. Checking on the flowers meant a relaxing stroll on the beach in Seatoun and Breaker Bay. While the bridal party was busy with the mother of the bride, Ash took his son Chris, me, Jack and Mimi on a tour of Peter Jackson’s studio Weta. In the DC area, WETA is a public television station; in New Zealand it is an ugly pre-historic looking bug. Very fitting studio name for the creatives working for Mr. Jackson! Fascinating full tour, where they have even created their own molding plastic which better suits their monstrous designs. Walks included the top of Kelburn and the one steep cable car – very necessary in this hilly city. Otari-Wiltons Bush is a lush walk with the sun light is filtered through the many native palms, fronds, and ferns. Did I mention the weather? This island nation is known for its high wind days, rainy days, sometimes cold temps in their fall, sometimes quite hot. Every day was beautiful! Sunny, warm, maybe one day of wind and rain but our time was perfect. Harriett said after we left for home that they had a week of hard rain, like the country noticed our absence. Ahh, New Zealand! The wedding was perfect, the bride and groom gorgeous and happy, the reception a blast and Kate and Josh ‘just squeaked through’ as future weddings were being postponed because of the new no gathering restrictions. Chris put it well one evening to Kate and Josh, “yours WILL be the social event of the season!” They honeymooned ‘in place’ instead of a trip to California as planned, but they got their special day with friends and family.

With the ‘social event of the season’ accomplished we were off! Ash, Harriett, Christopher, Jack, Mimi and I boarded a flight in Wellington to Auckland and the plan was to drive our way back down the North Island to Wellington. We had a rental cottage in Hahei, Cormandel, and the rental being on Cooks Beach. According to my guide book Cooks Beach is one of the least attractive beaches – hardly! Or at least think of the beauty that awaits us! We stowed our stuff, the boys grabbed a couple of kayaks that came with the house and we went to explore this lesser beauty. We met a young Frenchman who was extending his stay in NZ a little longer, a sad reminder of how the virus was sweeping through Europe and the death toll rising. Now, aside from Wellington, my friends and the wedding, the biggest site on my list was Cathedral Cove. When the second Narnia movie from the trilogy came out our family went to the see it with the Johnston’s as they were living here in DC. The shot came on the screen of when the London train disappears leaving the children on a beach, their whole family gasped. “Home” Harriett whispered to me, and I knew I had to go one day. Cathedral Cove is only accessible by foot or boat so we left the car in the lot located at Hahei beach and headed off for our hike in the morning. The beach is also only accessible at low tide so timing is important. The hike is about an hour and typical New Zealand – up and down, up and down! Breathtaking vistas along the way eased the strain and very convenient to stop for a moment to soak up the view (and catch your breath!) You arrive on a small patch of beach with our destination through a huge arched tunnel in a massive rock formation. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, you emerge to the most stunning beach I have ever seen – movies and advertising hardly do it justice. White soft sand, turquoise water and a huge looming stone arch jetting out of the surf. If beaches were churches, beautiful and peaceful, this cove is indeed a cathedral. We had lunch by the massive cliff that was part of our entrance and it was draped with ferns and flora. Exploring walks, small rock climbing, our kids played American football and we all just enjoyed such a relaxing, stimulating destination. There are some places that just fill me with happiness, this is one of them. We had to mind the time, our exit depended on the tide, and swimming through the tunnel might be a little dicey. Plus we had another destination our hosts wanted to share with us – Hot Water Beach. Hot Water Beach is a thermal oddity! During low and mid tide, you can dig a hole in the sand and hot water fills it for your own little hot tub! It’s a pretty humorous sight see people digging and sitting in holes on the beach! It brought to mind Louis Sachar’s book “Holes”! A more vast beach to roam and another spectacular view of the ocean, whether sitting in a hole or not!

 The next day we packed up and headed to Rotorua. We had great plans of seeing “The Hobbit” houses from the set left in tack for fans and of the Maori Village for some education and culture. News on the radio and information on Ash’s email it was becoming clear that we needed to cut our exploring adventures short. The world was getting sicker and world leaders getting stricter, NZ PM leading the pack, we needed to drive back to Wellington and stay in place. But not before one nice stop along the way, Huka Falls in Coromandel . Here the Waikato River thunders through a narrow chasm over a 35 ft. rock ledge from Lake Taupo. Loud and mighty, the color of the falling water was an amazing ice blue, a humbling reminder of the power of nature. Just as we were leaving the park, a ranger was locking the gates and attaching a sign that stated it was now closed due to the virus and additionally said in Maori “Rahui”, meaning stay in place. #justsquakedby. The remainder of our site seeing was through the car window which was fine by us as we drove around Lake Taupo which is beautiful, vast and still. We cheerfully made plans to return, played car games and music, all grateful Ash was driving. Back in Wellington, more emails were coming in for me from the airline, flights were being re-directed and flights were being cancelled. While being on hold numerous times about our flights, once for three hours, we cooked, watched TV and movies, and played board games every evening. There really wasn’t any reason to panic, New Zealand didn’t want to keep us, the government had plenty else to worry about. It was our landing in California and getting to Washington, DC that gave us the concern. I had doubts that I could rent a car if it came to it, and did I really want us to drive cross country during a pandemic? The number of new COVID cases being reported in California and elsewhere was staggering.

On a brighter note, all of the new friends my children and I made came by, keeping a distance, to wish us well for our trip home. The people of New Zealand are so warm and kind and quite simply, some of the most unflappable people I have ever met. Of course the press conferences with Prime Minister Ardern were full of precautions, worries over the economy, food supplies, job security, but the people as a whole were calm and at ease. Our journey home was pretty uneventful except our flight from Auckland to San Francisco was full as expected but a great many were airline employees who needed too to get back into the states before the borders firmly shut. The pilot sitting next to me said almost simultaneously with me “please don’t take offense” as we both pulled out our disinfecting wipes for our seat area. Once in California we learned EVERY flight to the DC area was cancelled, except one, the last one. We’ll take it! This resulted in an 11 hour layover in a nearly boarded up airport, we’ll take it.

I don’t recall the flight back to DC, just the relief we made it on board and we were going home. Did I sleep for 3 days straight in my two week self-quarantine, oh yes. We landed on March 27th so Washington, Maryland, and Virginia were locked up tight, sleeping and telephoning friends and family was all anyone was doing. I feel very fortunate to be able to squeak in such a great adventure that is New Zealand before a world wide shut in. Very fortunate. And we dodged the virus, very fortunate.

Now as the world is starting to recover and reopen I can feel that woman in me emerging who longs to walk down the aisle and hear those words I yearn for; “This is your Captain speaking….”

I live 20 minutes outside of Washington, D.C. with my husband, one dog, and one cat. I have four grown children, so a visit from any one of them is the best day.

I have worked for the past 15 years as a lead pre-school teacher, which I love. To be their first exposure to school is an honor and each day ended with a hug. Not every job can say that!

While the pandemic has changed my work, I have been using this time to write stories, which has always been a passion for me. Mostly children’s books, but also short essays about my life and the wonderful people around me. Most with humor, like teaching to my son on how to write a resume for the first time. As a stay at home Mom, before teaching, my jobs - resume style, would include head nutritionist, triage nurse, chief procurement officer, tutor, and head of entertainment!

I am looking forward to the end of the pandemic and all of our lives returning to more normal state, I will never stop writing.

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