Broadening the Mind … the Narcissist, the Preacher and the Musketeers

Travel introduces you to new people and situations. Being able to take notes on the go is important, so when in transit I have my phone with me, my laptop within reach and a small sound recording device. You never know when something odd or interesting will happen.

I’ve already written about the intrusive train tourist, who was so desperate for our attention that she kept sabotaging my typing on the train. And as long as I wasn’t typing, I could focus on her, couldn’t I?

Then there was the southern Baptist preacher whose wife was feeling ill on the bus, so he gave her an impromptu Bible study — from memory. I’m not sure if it made her feel better, she opted to stay behind on the afternoon tour that day. He later told us that he sent his kids to an all-white private school because the state they lived in was desegregated and he didn’t want his kids mixing with the black kids. He actually wasn’t a bad old stick, he just hadn’t ever been taught to think more broadly. He did attempt to speak French on our tour through Normandy, but his loud morning greeting of “Barn Jewer, everybody!” was a wake-up call with a difference.

The waterlilies in Monet’s garden, Giverny, France. One of our stops on the bus tour.
Inside Monet’s house.

We also found we were often valued for our Aussie freshness and frankness. In Paris, for example, we were saying goodbye to our fellow tour members who we’d become close to in our week together. Most, like our friend the southern Baptist preacher, were from the US.

“So are you staying on for a few days?” Jeff asked one of our new friends, “or are you leaving at sparrowfart?”

The southern Baptist preacher overheard, just as our young friend looked at Jeff, puzzled. “Sparrowfart?” she asked, eyebrows furrowed.

Not wanting to further scandalise our US friends, I stepped in to explain. “He means really early, just as the birds are waking up.”

There was a brief pause while the mental cogs clicked. Our young new friend smiled broadly, but behind her the loud guffaws from the southern Baptist preacher told us that he also understood.

Last day on tour in Paris. The obligatory tourist selfie pics taken of us by a fellow tour member.

All we saw of Notre Dame, from the tour bus. Scaffolding everywhere.

All experiences are worthy of note. The best gems are often tiny and can easily slip through your fingers. Writers should always be paying attention to these magic moments, the mental snapshots. And take notes — a mental snapshot will only last until the next memorable moment eclipses it.

In Scotland, in Dumfries, we attended a gathering at Gilnockie Tower. Looking down to a meadow below the tower, we could see tents and canvas marquees of a small village fair. Beyond the meadow, the river was fringed with willows. We could have been back in the time of Johnnie o’ Gilnockie, or perhaps even Lang Sandy. But no, we were there to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Neil Armstrong, descendant of Johnnie.

Part of the modern Armstrong legacy — a footprint cast from Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. From the museum in Gilnockie Tower, Dumfries, Scotland.
It is claimed that Neil Armstrong took a piece of Armstrong clan tartan to the moon.

Modern Armstrongs still wave the banner.

Our son is a re-enactor, he fights in armour with a broadsword. So it was natural we should gravitate to the re-enactors there. These were musketeers and we enjoyed a chat. Clearly members of a family, with a couple of friends thrown in. Their tartan proclaimed them Scots, and clansmen. And the young man who came to talk to us had a Scots accent you could cut with a sgian dubh.

The statue of ‘Lang Sandy’, Alexander Armstrong, who was executed by the English with his sons in 1606.
The three musketeers — re-enactors at Gilnockie Tower, Dumfries, Scotland.

What follows now is my poor attempt to transcribe how his reenactment group teaches history with dramatization.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell is invading Scotland. He knocks on the door of the castle. “Open up in the name of the Lord Protector!”

The little hatch opens on the door. “Hoo? Hoo is it?”

“It’s the Lord Protector! You must open the door!”

“It’s hoo?” asks the doorman through the hatch.

“The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Open up in the name of the law!”

“Naaw, niver heard of ye.” And the doorman shuts the hatch.

Pounding on the door again. “Open up!”

The hatch opens. “Hoo is it?”

“It’s the Lord Protector! Oliver Cromwell!”

“Lord Protector, ye say? Why didnae ye say so?” The door opens. “Aye, I ken ye noo. Ye got that wee bitty mole just there…”

Cromwell shoots the doorman and proceeds. His guard calls out, “Make way for the Lord Protector!”

A Scottish guard emerges. “Hoo?”

“The Lord Protector, ye daftie!”

“Och, aye, I see it the noo. Ye got that wee bitty mole…”

Bang! Cromwell shoots the guard.

Another guard emerges, sees the bodies on the floor. “Ye’re a wee bitty sensitive about that mole, ain’t yer?”

Apparently they get criticized for levity while teaching history.

The musketeers’ camp, Gilnockie Tower, Dumfries, Scotland.

I can’t imagine why…

Avignon at Festival Time

A year ago, July 2019, we arrived in Avignon just as the annual Avignon Festival was beginning. We planned this deliberately. In 2018 we’d arrived in Avignon for just one night and discovered it was festival time. Our hotel in 2018 was well out of the city and the only way we could get around was by taxi. So we caught a taxi in to the centre of the town (glad we didn’t have our own car, there was nowhere to park) and spent the next six hours exploring this fascinating place. We only had a few hours to explore, and every street corner was another venue for spontaneous street theatre, amazing sights, buskers, promoters and just plain fun. We eventually had to go back to our hotel, pack our bags and regretfully catch the TGV (Trés Grand Vitesse, or Very Fast Train) next morning for Paris. If only we’d known!

So in 2019, we made sure we’d arrive in Avignon at festival time, stay in the heart of the old town, ‘le centre ville‘, and stay for three days at least.

We arrived at 2.23 pm. The heat had been crazy for days, not helped by car air-conditioning that would only work on heat mode. In the end we’d forgone conversation as we drove down the autoroute at 130 kilometres an hour with windows down wearing wet scarves.

The car’s GPS has been programmed to show places to eat. As we drove into Avignon it went crazy.

Plenty of places to eat! We’d had no lunch.

We were told that if we had a hotel reservation, we could drive in to drop our bags. They opened the centre ville barriers for us, but once inside, the security people sent us back outside. Rinse, repeat… so we decided to return the car and get a taxi in. The car return place was not at the city train station, but the more distant TGV (Sydney residents, think Countrylink) train station. It took us until 3.30 pm to return the car. And from then on, we waited for a taxi. And waited. And waited. The scorching heat was unrelenting and my head was pounding. After over an hour, we met an English speaker who lives in Avignon. They tried to ring for a taxi. We’d have another fifty minutes wait, minimum, they were told. Festival time!

Avignon – le centre ville.

We decided to catch a train. We’d waited so long that one was nearly due. Only another half hour by this time.

We finally got back into Avignon by 5 pm and it took another half hour before we dragged our bags through the streets to our appartement. We had to telephone the owner and he sent someone to meet us with the key.

Our front door. It opened into a deep, dark, and above all cool stairwell.

By then I was bordering on heat stroke. We’d been out in the sun waiting for a taxi in 39 C heat. Once inside the small door which opened directly onto the street, we were in a large, utilitarian open space that was shady and cool simply from the heavy walls of the old building. Steps led upwards to our floor. No lift.

Looking up the stairwell. A place of cool tranquillité after the street bustle just outside the door.

Our room was a large, open space with a bed and a small kitchenette. From there, a corridor led off with windows and a tiny balcony, too small except for the most sylph-like Juliet.

Our bed in the appartement was on the floor. Almost.
The sauna in the appartement. It became a handy place for drying our washing over the next few days. We did not turn it on.

The first thing we were shown in our room was the sauna… I kid you not. There was a small sauna in our apartment. After being so cold in UK, we’d been experiencing France’s hottest ever weather, while travelling in a car with air conditioning set only on HEAT.

I passed on the sauna at that point. The temperatures outside were the same as the sauna’s, I figured there was no point heating up the appartement when all we had to do was open a window to get the same effect.

The view from our appartement’s Juliet balcony.
Watching the Festival go by… this man was across the street from our appartement, a perfect, cooler vantage point.

Next to the sauna was a shower which I got into immediately, fully-clothed with cold water only, to try to reduce my core temperature. The concierge was still with us and thought I was nuts. I was too hot to care if I added to the legends in Europe of ‘crazy Australians’.

Next to that was the loo, and after that at the end of the corridor was the jacuzzi. Colour changing mood lighting throughout. Lots of ice in the freezer. A convenience store next door. Windows looking out onto the massive street party through le centre ville of Avignon.

I was still recovering from the heat but after an hour or so I was ready to brave the streets.

Avignon festival had little snippets of street theatre as people promoted shows. We’d think, we might go to this one. Or maybe that one. Talking to the performers who were busking on the streets to promote their shows, we met some fascinating people. Some of the French-speakers spoke English well enough so we could converse. Other performers were from other parts of the world and a couple of shows were in English only. Many were pure music, which is a universal language. And mimes everywhere, with hand-juggling displays too.

Posters everywhere, advertising performances.
More posters…

We missed out on one show we particularly wanted. When we turned up to buy tickets, they were sold out, so we bought the CD and tickets to something else.
They advertised a lot of the shows at the Festival with the line, “La salle est fraiche!
In other words, air conditioning is a huge selling point in 38 degree heat.

Our French would not have been good enough, this looked like an amazing show.

We also took some time to explore the older, more historic places. We’d seen Palais de Papes in detail in 2018, so this time we explore THE bridge. It’s now a bridge to nowhere, but back in the day it was a border crossing of great importance.

A real drawbridge! Squee…
A gateway for maintenance, the little dragon keeps watch. Sadly, weighed down by yet another ‘love lock’.
Sur le pont d’Avignon. No, we did not sing…
Lavender fields below the bridge. Glorious!
Narrow little streets in Avignon, down near Palais de Papes.

Festival time in Avignon is a time when people break the rules and nobody cares.

Translation: ‘It is forbidden to attach bicycles to the railings.’ Yeah, right…

If they’d attached the “velo” to the sign itself it would have been funnier. But there’s so much else attached to the “grille” that maybe he couldn’t see the sign. There were many more bikes chained to the same railing too.

Our first evening was spent having a meal in the main square. All around us, the Avignon Festival played out in all its crowd, noise and colour. There was fierce competition for cafes. The best ones had chilled mist sprays which triggered every minute or so. I was right underneath one. Just what I needed!

Colour, light and fun everywhere.
Jeff posing with a fellow nerd. Great fun, this guy! Sadly, we couldn’t get tickets to his show either.
Plenty of great food. Spoilt for choice!

Next morning we visited the baker next door for fresh, warm croissants. The town seemed very quiet so early, everyone else must have been sleeping off the previous night’s massive street party. It’s street party every night during the Avignon Festival.

Promoting ‘Le Petit Prince’ by Antoine St Exupery.

Over the next few days we explored special places, took in a show (we struggled with the French, but the music was wonderful) and totally blew our minds. Back in our appartement, having a multi-coloured soak in the jacuzzi indoors while watching and hearing the festival outside through the open window, the incongruity of it seemed so normal.

Too much Festival?
A hedonistic love-fest.
What more can I say? We loved Avignon too.

I never did try out that sauna…

Eeny Meeny, Quaranteeny!

It was the trip of a lifetime. A dream trip. Robyn (not her real name) was flying with friends, a couple (we’ll call them Max and Min), from Perth in WA to go to the Antarctic, via South America. As her closest relatives (other than her daughter) we had a copy of her itinerary, as we so often do when she travels. Or when we travel.

On the day they left, February 17 2020, we knew about the problems they were having with a new disease, possibly a strain of flu, in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. A week before we ourselves had flown to Darwin for our own dream trip on the Ghan [earlier blog – Darwin Delights].

Darwin sunset on 10 February 2020, when Covid-19 was still a long way away. Returning travellers from China were to be quarantined outside the city.

On 11 February while we were in Darwin, our tour bus took us past the quarantine station being prepared for people coming back to Australia from Wuhan. We are a country with close ties geographically and culturally to China, and with Chinese New Year so freshly past, there were people who had gone to visit family in China and who were unable to come home. It was in our news and on our minds. We heard news of cruise boats that had recently departed from China who, it turned out, had sick people on board. The countries they were going to had to find a way to assess the situation and determine the best course of action. Different countries handled it in different ways.

To start with, it was only China. Through January, we watched as first early reports came in of a new respiratory illness in Wuhan, possibly associated with a ‘wet market’ there, a place where a wide range of live exotic animals were held together in close proximity for the bush meat market.
By 30 January the virus had spread to all of China’s provinces and World Health Organisation (WHO) finally declared a global emergency. Then on 31 January two Chinese tourists tested positive in Italy.

The only cases outside China were from people coming directly out of Wuhan and these appeared to be isolated and contained. Then it was becoming apparent that the infection in Italy may not have been contained in time. Still, it was all in either China or Europe. An occasional sporadic case in Thailand, always with that connection of ‘out of China’ origins. There was a cruise ship off Japan, the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined there because about ten people had tested positive on 4 February. However, quarantining them was not enough to prevent spread of infection on the ship. There had also been other places that ship had docked since a passenger disembarked in Hong Kong on 25 January and later tested positive. The Diamond Princess was quarantined off Yokohama with passengers and crew falling ill.

Around the world the situation was being downplayed. They kept saying it was all under control, “nothing to see here.” True, Aussies were being evacuated from other contaminated cruise ships or flown home from China and would be isolated in Darwin for two weeks. All under control.

There were no travel advisories for Robyn and her friends, South America was well out of any infection zone. May as well enjoy the trip to a safe part of the world, they said.

We were arriving from Darwin in Adelaide by train the day that Robyn, Max and Min left for Chile and Antarctica. We followed their trip via photos on Facebook. They spent time in Santiago, Chile and explored the Amazon. By 24 February they were flying to Lima, Peru to join their tour on 27 February starting in the Sacred Valley. There were seventeen people on their tour and it really did look marvellous. At that time the virus, now known to be a coronavirus or ‘a kind of flu’ was still mainly in China but had, courtesy of some early travellers who had carried the disease from there, arrived in the Middle East, Europe and the UK, still well away from the part of the world in which they were.

On 24 February we arrived home from our own trip within Australia. No border closure problems then.

Back in Japan on 1 March passengers were allowed to leave the Diamond Princess in Japan and self-isolate at their destination. Those flying home to Australia were to be quarantined in the facility in Darwin.

By Monday 2 March Max and Min were with Robyn at Macchu Pichu; the entire tour group then stayed at Cuzco; some amazing photos of Inca ruins. They were well away from the spread of infection in the rest of the world.

Max, Min and Robyn arrived in Argentina on 6 March with a quick flight to ‘the end of the world’, Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego the next day to board their luxury yacht to Antarctica. Before being allowed to board on 7 March all passengers, numbering about 170, had their temperature taken. Everyone was well. We found that through the wifi on the boat, Robyn was able to send us SMS messages, and she would update us with each wonderful discovery. The yacht was luxurious and they felt spoiled.

On 9 March Robyn sent us excited notes about their first sighting of penguins, orcas and humpback whales from the ship whilst crossing the Drake Passage. We exchanged tips on photography and waited for the next news. Their first landing on Antarctic soil was 10 March.

Antarctica exploration. Far from the madding crowd.

On 11 March WHO finally declared Covid-19 a pandemic. By that stage Max, Min and Robyn had experienced two landings in Antarctica.

As we ourselves back home listened to the news each day, we became more anxious. Robyn and her friends were at least safe at sea in a part of the world where there was no infection, but we were hearing other stories of problems with cruise ships carrying infected passengers, and ports insisting on quarantining them. Robyn’s ship, with its relatively small numbers and rigorous hygiene protocols, had no sick passengers.

On 15 March the Captain made an announcement that with a severe storm forecast in the Southern Ocean, it was decided to head back to Ushuaia one day early. The trip was turning rough.

When the Australian government announced on 17 March that Australians overseas who wished to return home should ‘get home as soon as possible’ we started to really worry for Robyn and her friends. They were still a few hours out of Ushuaia. Then came the bad news — Ushuaia would not let the ship dock. Until the ship had been quarantined at sea for a fortnight, Argentina would not let them dock. To achieve the fourteen-day quarantine period it was decided by the travel company to use the time to sail to Buenos Aires, also in Argentina, where they would have been flying to anyway, from Ushuaia.

Waiting at sea to be allowed to dock. Waiting for two weeks to pass. Who knows where?

However, instead of arriving in Buenos Aires by plane on 18 March, they wouldn’t be allowed off the ship until 21 March (allowing for the two-week quarantine period). They were supposed to fly from Buenos Aires to Santiago on 21 March for a flight to Sydney, then a transit through to Perth in Western Australia so they were still happy enough at this point as booked connections could still be met.

Meanwhile on 17 March the eastern states of Australia declared a state of emergency and the Australian Federal Government mandated that people returning from overseas would have to self-isolate at home for two weeks on their return. Public events were cancelled. The Melbourne Grand Prix was cancelled at the last minute. Sydney’s Royal Easter Show — cancelled. New rules suddenly came in that gatherings outdoors were to be restricted to 500, indoor gatherings to 100. We went to a friend’s funeral that day and experienced our first public outing with social distancing. In just a few weeks we’d gone from news of a virus in China, to global lockdown imminent.

On board the luxury yacht now off Buenos Aires, the dream holiday had suddenly become a nightmare. They had daily briefings when they were updated with the world news as well as the next steps in getting home. Temperature checks were taken every day for every person on board, staff and passengers. Records were kept.

As the ship waited outside the port of Buenos Aires, the travel agent was desperately cancelling the Buenos Aires hotel bookings. Buenos Aires then announced that there’d be another couple of days’ delay. So now they would miss their flights. The travel agent then cancelled those flights and re-booked them for a few days’ time. Trying to make light of things, I asked Robyn if her Spanish was any good, and did she know where the keys to the Zodiac were kept?

With flights cancelled again and fewer planes in the air, the tour company investigated hiring a charter to get them all home. This would entail extra costs for all the passengers, which would not be covered by travel insurance because anything due to a pandemic is not covered, we were told.

Meanwhile back home cruise ships were being eyed warily as they arrived. People arriving by plane or ship were asked to self-isolate for two weeks on arrival, but they still had to get home, often by public transport or taxi. We were talking to Robyn’s daughter and putting in plans for her to self-isolate at home.

We were warily going grocery shopping and discovering surprising shortages in supplies. We reported back to Robyn. “What do you think? No toilet paper! Hand sanitiser is out, too. Crazy!”

Shopping was a different experience. This is 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon. Most shops closed.

I was at a writers’ meeting on 21 March, in a very empty club, and talked to fellow writers about my worries for Robyn.
“She should never have travelled,” one person said. “Why leave the country during a pandemic?”
I explained that when she left, there was no concern for her travel. Events had moved so fast that she and her shipmates had found themselves trapped by circumstance.

The empty club. The only customer was the person I was meeting.
Once there was toilet paper… the trolley of plastic wrap is from the pallets of toilet paper.

On 22 March, after waiting offshore until the required two weeks at sea had been reached, Buenos Aires announced that the port was now closed to them. No one knew what was to happen. After some anxious days, Montevideo said they would take them. They could see the coast of Uruguay from the ship, tantalisingly close.

For us, we were hearing horror stories. Australian people trapped in Peru, unable to get home, deciding to wait out the few weeks this would take… A neighbour who had been in Peru visiting family with her new baby found herself struggling to get home with flights cancelled and borders closing all around her. At the same time that Robyn’s ship was still off Buenos Aires, our neighbour tearfully reported the problems she’d had, the terror she had felt when she thought she was going to have to face a pandemic on the other side of the world from her husband, terrified for her health and that of her baby. Her husband had to organise visas for her and pay extra fees to hurry them along.

On the ship, waiting off Montevideo, the 170 passengers were trying to keep occupied but monotony was setting in as well as the ever-present worry about getting home. What if, after the waiting, Montevideo closed their port too?

Meanwhile back in Australia, our Prime Minister was saying that any Australians not cancelling their existing plans and getting themselves home on the next plane would only have themselves to blame. But Robyn, Max and Min were trying to get home!

On 25 March they docked in Montevideo at last and were allowed to disembark on 26 March. From there, things moved as quickly as they could. They were given a sterile corridor from the ship to the airport, flown via charter flight to Santiago in Chile, and from there the passengers from other countries went their own way. The Australia-bound passengers were put on another charter flight and flown to Sydney, due to arrive at 10 pm on Friday 27 March. As their transit flight through to Perth wasn’t leaving Sydney until 8 am the next morning, the travel agent had booked them into a Sydney hotel overnight. That would have them winging their way to Perth 36 hours before the NSW compulsory quarantining of incoming travellers on Sunday night at midnight. Phew! Max, Min and Robyn had made it by the skin of their teeth, after having already spent nearly three weeks in isolation in the Southern Ocean with no cases on board in that time. A clean ship.

Docking at last!
Disembarking, carefully, in Montevideo.

It took them six hours to be processed through immigration in Sydney. By 5 am, they had cleared it all and were thinking that the ‘overnight in the hotel’ was a waste of time, with a plane for Perth due to leave in three hours’ time.

And that is where things went awry. The NSW government lockdown of incoming passengers, due to start on Sunday midnight, was kicking in early. It was only when they were collecting their luggage off the carousel that they were told that if they could get from the airport via their own car left for them by a family member who was getting themselves home by other means, then they could leave. About half the passengers took themselves off, including some who were heading to Canberra and Queensland. But those without access to vehicles were to be transferred to a Sydney hotel for two weeks’ enforced isolation. In vain they pointed to the plane waiting for them.

So near yet so far. The view across Darling Harbour from their Sydney hotel.

So that was yet another plane that they had to miss.

I got on the phone immediately, as did Robyn. We had to get them home!

Robyn was deeply upset and exhausted. She got on the phone to us. She had expected to be home on 23 March and here it was, five days later and she was looking at two weeks locked in a Sydney hotel room with no opening windows. No fresh air. No exercise except pacing the floor and trying not to jump to conclusions about the universe conspiring against her. She’d run out of some basics, having taken just enough to last her trip. We took a shopping list from her and while we drove to the shops I rang around even further. I talked to the Department of Health to point out that they should have been allowed to transit through to their final destination state. They’d already had three weeks of quarantine, now it was another two weeks, and when she finally got back to her home state of WA, she would have another two weeks of isolation. Seven weeks in all.

We were told different things depending on who we spoke to, but yes, they should have been allowed to transit through. The night’s accommodation booked in Sydney, however (even though they didn’t get to use it thanks to delays in getting through Border Control) meant that they were not considered to be transiting through. Once they were transferred to the hotel for quarantine, that was where they had to stay.

We left to do some shopping for Robyn, and for Max and Min. She was in touch by phone with Max and Min. For the previous six weeks, she had been in daily face to face contact with her friends, had shared Max’s birthday party on the Antarctic ship, had evening drinks with their group as they watched the sun go down. At least Max and Min were in a room together. Robyn was on her own. She was miserable.

It took us a couple of hours to get all the items on Robyn’s shopping list. Some stores were shut. We realised Robyn, having been away from all the changes for several months, had not seen anything of the ‘new normal’, a socially isolated outside world. She was surprised that our shopping trip was taking so long.

Empty inner Sydney streets. Note the structure on the right, it’s seen from the view from Robyn’s hotel room. Her hotel is on the left.

We drove through empty inner Sydney streets on a Saturday afternoon, and parked outside the hotel in what is normally the busiest part of Sydney. Once at the hotel, we ensured the shopping was double-bagged as had been requested (a bag for Robyn, and another bag for Max and Min). Reception at this hotel was on the first floor, we had been told to leave the bags there.
Problem. They wanted room numbers. We didn’t have a surname for Max and Min. The hotel was politely insistent. So, even though she was somewhere upstairs, we had to ring Robyn and ask for her room number. She rang Min (Max was in the shower). Robyn and Min had to open the door to their rooms, read off the room number and call us back. By opening the door, they attracted the attention of the security guard on the floor so they had to quickly go back inside. We gave the room numbers to the hotel reception who then confirmed, took the bags and wrote the room numbers on them. “Thank you, goodbye.”

Outside the quarantine hotel. Police cars filled the driveway, army vehicles on the street.

We turned and left this ghost town as fast as we could. Without breaking speed limits, we had a record fast run back home.

Both Robyn’s and my phone calls continued, to try to get Robyn’s, Max’s and Min’s quarantine shortened so they could get home and do their two weeks there. It was becoming urgent. Their home state of WA had already been enforcing quarantine of all people arriving. Now it was announced that on Sunday 5 April, WA would close its borders.

Each day I would be on the phone for hours, going around in circles. Robyn was also having the same runaround, being told time and again that someone would phone back, but they never did. There seemed to be a standard response, either sympathetic or terse, but all with the same initial message, “You must comply. No exceptions.” The National Coronavirus Hotline was trying to drive the car while it was still being built. When I mentioned the specific problems trying to get these people home interstate after they’d served their quarantine, I got a response. I needed to talk to the Department of Health, I was told. They gave me a phone number. I rang the number. It asked for a postcode. Because I did this multiple times, I had the chance to test, and found that it didn’t matter what postcode I put in, the automated call would transfer me to the reception desk at a particular city hospital. If I had a family member who was a patient at the hospital, I would have rung the same people. At one point (I wish I knew how!) I was transferred to someone who really did work for the Department of Health. “How did you get my number?” was one of their questions for me. By this stage people were sympathetic and I was told, “Leave it with me, I’ll make enquiries.”

Possibly as a result of the phone calls, or maybe just luck, Max, Min and Robyn each got a phone call, very hush hush. “We’re trying to get you home,” said the doctor attached to the hotel. “Don’t talk to anybody about it, but if all goes well we should have all eight WA people on a flight to Perth tonight, before the borders are closed. I’ll call you back in an hour with news.”

A health check was done and then they heard nothing more. They waited, packed, all day. Finally a text message was sent to them at 8.30 pm saying they wouldn’t be leaving. When they asked next day, they were told that staff had gone off duty without handing over, and nothing more was said or done.

Four days later, we still hadn’t heard and WA closed its borders, even to residents. The only exception, I was told, was WA residents arriving back from overseas. Again, trying to drive the car while it was still being built.

Plenty of parking at the mall!

We did another emergency supplies shopping run. Lots of wine! At the hotel the “comfort packages” were stacked on a wheeled luggage rack just inside the main entrance. Judging from the clink of glass, I suspect many of the incarcerated guests were drowning their sorrows. On our first visit we had seen one policeman guarding the fire escape. This time we saw three army and three police all sitting in the foyer, carefully socially distanced. We texted Robyn to let her know we had just delivered, and joked that if her package did not arrive intact, to ask the gun-toting security detail.

Then there was a ray of light from WA. People serving quarantine in another state could get exemption and be allowed to travel home. But they needed a way to get home, not easy when flights were cancelled due to lack of passengers. In order to get the exemption paperwork, Robyn, Max and Min needed to have a flight booked. They would have to travel from the hotel direct to the airport. But without an exemption certificate, NSW Health would not let them leave the hotel. Not knowing what date they could leave was causing problems.

I know I wasn’t the only one lobbying. I can’t have been. Robyn had talked with her local member in WA. But Max, Min and Robyn were in the first wave of displaced travellers, interrupted on their journey home despite the urgency. What would happen when their quarantine period was up but they had no way to continue their journey home? One phone call told them they would be out of the hotel and have to find their own accommodation if they couldn’t get back to WA. The uncertainty, lack of information and empathy was horrible.

It took days of back and forth. The routine seemed to be to call Coronavirus Hotline, then they would refer to Service NSW, who when I first rang wondered why they were getting the job. Again, driving the car without steering wheel and engine attached yet… Service NSW would refer me to NSW Health and give me the number, which went to an automated service asking for my postcode, and then transferred the call to the reception desk at a city hospital. They would then transfer the call back to Coronavirus Hotline. Someone did phone Robyn saying her sister-in-law was worried about her, but there was nothing that could be done as no one knew the process. The goal posts kept shifting.

Hopes would be raised, then dashed. NSW Health said they could leave early if they had the exemption paperwork from WA Health, but WA Health needed a flight number in order to organise the paperwork.

Finally things worked out for Max and Min. A flight was available (not many of those now) with a seat also tentatively booked for Robyn. But while the exemption certificates came in for Max and Min, Robyn’s failed to materialise. She saw the taxi pull up and watched her friends get in and drive away, knowing she was once again missing out on a chance to get home. Two hours later she got a phone call from WA police. “Your exemption certificate has come through. You should still have time to get to the airport, I believe the flight is at 7.45pm and it’s just after 5 pm now.”
Robyn looked at her watch in Sydney. It was 7.15 pm Sydney time. “You do realise,” she said with some acidity, “that 5 pm in Perth is already 7 pm in Sydney?”

With yet another plane winging Perth-wards without her, the whole application process had to start over. Again. An exemption certificate was only good for that particular flight.

Finally, almost two weeks after she and her friends had arrived in Sydney, Robyn was given a day’s notice by NSW Health that she would be able to leave quarantine. She would have to go straight to the airport and catch a flight, but only if she had the exemption certificate. A flight she had booked for the Saturday was cancelled. Thankfully there was enough time for yet another (the third application) exemption certificate to be organised. On Good Friday, (10 April) just on sunrise, my husband collected her from the hotel to drive her to the airport. We were on tenterhooks until she arrived back at Perth airport where her daughter had left her car for her to drive herself home. No closer family contact was permitted. She spent the next two weeks quarantined in her own home with her daughter leaving groceries at the door.

Goodbye, Sydney!

All over, at last. Quarantine completed by the end of April, Robyn began doing her own shopping, sorting out medical appointments and trying to forget the ordeal of feeling like a criminal with the plague in lockdown in her own country. Nightmares of not being able to get home then of being closed in, no fresh air and being told off by the cop on duty on her hotel floor simply for daring to exchange a hello with the fellow shipmate across the corridor when they happened to open their doors at the same time to collect their meals off the floor (no such luxury as a tray!) now in the past.

On 27 May, I got a phone call from Service NSW. “You rang with a query about a relative in quarantine. What is it you need help with?”

No, I did not hang up, but the nice young man on the other end of the phone now has a story to dine out on.

Scraping Together — an Exercise in (Foodie) Improvisation

While we’re in lockdown with Covid-19, clearly we’re not travelling. During the shutdown of daily life due to this pandemic, we’ve seen photos, too many, of people discovering that food can be cooked from scratch. It brought back memories of various meals improvised while travelling.

Some years ago in New Zealand we spent a week in Lake Taupo on North Island then flew to South Island. We’d bought some groceries and I wanted to bring what we hadn’t used to our next week’s unit to save us buying replacements. Of particular concern was a part-used bag of plain flour. My son-in-law wanted me to bin it, but I was raised to avoid waste.

My son-in-law demonstrated the options by holding out both hands in front of him. “On the one hand,” he said, “there’s the $2 it cost. On the other hand, there’s the concerns of baggage security when they find a white powder in your suitcase. Hmm… $2? Or body cavity search? Decisions, decisions…”

We compromised. I found someone else to give half a bag of flour to.

On South Island we stayed in Wanaka. We’d gone in June but there had been little snow to see. However, at last on our last day in Wanaka it began to snow. The wonder of it all stopped us in our packing to go outside and play. The mad Australians who don’t see enough snow…

Then the snow got heavier. The satellite dish filled with snow and we lost all transmission, so no TV, no movies, no news. We went outside even as the sky got darker. My son and I were playing a game of outdoor chess on a large set in the snow and we realised we should stop when the board kept getting covered with snow. One spectator said to me, “You’re in check from his bishop,” and I had to drag my foot across the board to show that in fact there was not a straight diagonal path for the bishop to attack.

We’d eaten down the larder as we planned to go out to eat for our last night, but the thought of slip-sliding in the dark was too much. We stayed put and resolved to be safe but hungry.

However, as I foraged, I found a few gems. We had some butter, a couple of eggs, and the tail end of some “Maori bread” from a hangi we’d attended a few days earlier. The Maori bread was scone-like and a week old, nobody wanted any. But I managed to rejuvenate it into a sort of Maori French toast, using the eggs, some milk and a couple of sugar sachets from the hospitality bar and pan-frying it in the last of the butter. We scraped together a meal of the rather tasty French toast with some soup sachets and hot chocolate sachets. A campfire dinner, with no electronic distractions, as the snow whirled outside in a flurry of white.

A day or two later, stranded by snow on the road to Queenstown, we found some beautifully fresh produce including fresh yams, which I’d always wanted to try. We still had our tub of butter and I was told to try boiling them and serving them hot with a knob of butter.

We got back to the room. Problem – no saucepan. The electric kettle was one of the old Speedie brand ceramic things with an exposed element in the bottom. I improvised and put the yams in the kettle. It worked a treat!

Trying the local food — home-cooked and local is the best experience.

Fast forward to 2018. When we arrived in Zurich for an overnight stay, we discovered that our hotel was undergoing major renovations which had not been known at the time our travel agent booked. We were, in fact, the last guests in that hotel before they closed for major work. The restaurant was closed. No matter, there was some lovely local food on the street. But breakfast was another matter. The hotel would organise a hamper, they said. Sounded lovely!

Next morning with an early train to catch, our departure time was tracked to the minute by the hotel. We were doing our last bug-out check (where we check each space for anything we may have left behind) when the hotel reception rang. How did we like our morning coffee?

When we got to reception, detouring past newly-installed scaffolding and bypassing closed areas, we found workmen well in residence, unplugging leads, removing ceiling battens and trying to remove the reception desk itself. We saw one over-zealous workman get slapped away by the receptionist who was still trying to print out our bill. The reception staff were lovely, the workmen only had a job to do and we, the last guests, were definitely in their way. There was a sense of relief as they helped us out to the taxi. It was at that point that I was handed the ‘hamper’ through the taxi window. A large paper bag each with unknown contents, plus a very hot cup of coffee (tea in my husband’s case). The paper carriers had paper handles which I carefully threaded over my arm. They waved goodbye to us then went back in to lock the doors and hang up the ‘No Vacancy’ sign.

At the station, we had to juggle five bags, the two paper carry bags and the very hot morning cuppas in paper cups. The taxi driver got us to the pavement. We were on our own from there.

We found our way to a bench seat inside the station where I sagged gratefully, putting down the paper cups and rubbing my almost-blistered hands. Jeff built our cube of luggage then headed off to organise our tickets. I rested my legs across the cube before examining the paper bags which were now soggy and threatening to rip. With all the renovation issues and no restaurant, I had low expectations.

A peek inside the paper bag ‘hamper’. We’d already finished the coffee. Note the stripy boiled egg. They sell them like that in the shops in Switzerland.

Inside each bag, to my delight, was a ham roll, a cheese roll, an apple pie, a very pretty striped boiled egg, a cup of yogurt with fruit, a cup of fruit salad, a small cup of milk for the tea and coffee, a bottle of water, a smaller bottle of fruit juice, an apple and a small Toblerone chocolate. All well chilled. Plastic cutlery, of course, and the condensation from the milk, fruit salad and the chilled yogurt was what had damaged the carrier bags, and also turned the napkins to papier maché. I had my cloth Boomerang Bag, of course, and I transferred the rolls, the eggs, the chocolate, the bottles and the apples to it. When Jeff came back we drank the coffee (now at a reasonable temperature) and ate the yogurt. Getting to the train was easier — being now better organised, we could wheel our bags while I had my Boomerang Bag with our food slung over my shoulder. It took us almost until we arrived in Lausanne that afternoon to finish our breakfast.

Setting up our leisurely picnic breakfast as the train pulled out of Zurich.

At other times when driving through countryside, we’ve often stopped to buy a meal at a small local shop. In New Caledonia we bought a jar of paté in a supermarket which I ate for breakfast with a fresh, warm bread roll bought at a local boulangerie. Jeff preferred the fresh croissants with a pot of jam. We’d buy them and drive to a lookout somewhere, or a beach by the lagoon. At one isolated place we found the resident mosquitoes clearly wanting their breakfast too. We slammed up the windows and slapped the mosquitoes into oblivion while we drove somewhere more hospitable.

To Dijon for mustard — perfect for ham on the breakfast baguette. Interestingly, the shop is on Rue du Chapeau Rouge. Street of the Red Hat. I did not put the hat on just for the photo, honest!

Making do like this for impromptu meals has given us local experiences with food not available anywhere else. We’d stop and buy a local cheese, perhaps a local bottle of wine. It can be hit and miss, but the experience is always worthwhile.

Hot food in preparation on a cold day — pumpkin and chicken soup on the left; home-made chilli oil (made with some Carolina reaper chillis from a friend); the makings of gnocchi for a late lunch.
Fresh gnocchi — little Italian pillows of delight when made fresh with eggs, mashed potato and flour. Served with just butter or here, with a tomato-based sauce. Comfort in coronavirus time.

In my kitchen right now, stuck at home with whatever we can put together, I’ve made a chicken stock by boiling down a reserved chicken carcass from a previous roast dinner, and fresh herbs from the garden. We have a couple of pumpkins, one had a bad bruise on the skin which, if left, would send the whole pumpkin bad. I cut out the bruised part and I’m simmering chopped pumpkin in the chicken stock. I’ve also got leftover mashed potato and some eggs — inexplicably, in wet weather and short winter days, our chickens are still giving us eggs. So I’ll make home-made gnocchi too, for a family member who has had to go to the doctor to get tested for Covid-19. Tonight I’ll use up more eggs and some leftover roast meat and vegetables to make a frittata.

As we eat what we put together from what we have, I’ll be remembering breakfast by the roadside in France with fresh croissants, some sliced ham and Camembert, with mustard from Dijon. Or perhaps that amazing breakfast on the train from Zurich, as we watched the countryside flash past.

Soup selfie. Making do in the moment.

One day soon…

Anzac Day at Home

Watching the Anzac Day dawn service on TV

Back in 1919 the observance of Anzac Day was held in quarantine. Here we are in 2020 and the same conditions prevail. But the Anzac spirit lives on and is remembered.

On the TV we watched the laying of the wreaths in the Canberra War Memorial. I suddenly remembered how, in my childhood, I would be sent out in the morning of the day before Anzac Day to gather bracken, often wet from the morning dew or an overnight shower. My mother would often accompany me, showing me how to get the longest stems. Back at our long table on the enclosed veranda, I would help my mother bind the stiff, leafy bracken into the circle of a wreath. Then large, glossy leaves would be wired and fastened deep into the bracken wreath, layered and overlapped like scales on a dragon. Wreaths today are on polystyrene circles, pristine and white. I miss the organic nature of my mother’s wreaths, which could decay into the soil, somehow appropriate.

The Last Post
Driveway remembrance. Jeff wears his own service medal, his father’s and two great-uncles.
Our son is in his own uniform.

We gathered in the pre-dawn, each in our driveways. We had our portable radio. Neighbours over the road turned on the service on their car radio. We waved to one another across the division of the bitumen between us.

This year we observe Anzac Day where we are, at home

The minute’s silence was accompanied by the sounds of birds waking for the day. Kookaburras called to one another. Reveille!

In 1919 it was the Spanish flu. In 2020 it’s Covid-19. How will we be celebrating Anzac Day in 2121?

Anzac Day With a Difference!

When you’re living in lockdown, one day merges into another. We only go out for grocery shopping, for work, for medical appointments and for exercise. Even medical appointments are increasingly being done by phone or video link. When we do go out, we combine trips and get as much done as possible. At home we’re renovating, gardening, cleaning, cooking, working from home. Even the burglar is having to kick in his own door as he also works from home…

We share jokes and, despite isolation, we are connecting as never before by phone, via social media and the new hero on the block, Zoom.

With the pandemic shutdowns and the need for us to remain apart from one another, so much has changed. Big events have been shut down. The Royal Easter Show in Sydney was cancelled, which is a huge thing. Various large open air festivals were cancelled. Vivid Sydney is cancelled. Our choir was to perform at Ironfest in Lithgow — yep, cancelled. Our Writers Unleashed writers festival in August — we pulled the plug on that, too. Monthly open air markets — yep, you guessed it. The child is bored and bound by our gates. She has tidied her room and helped with the gardening. What next? Time to get crafting.

Painting Flanders poppies made from cardboard egg cartons.

With Easter cancelled (and Orthodox Easter the following weekend) it all seems eerily quiet. Even ramadan, beginning today, will be quiet and celebrated apart. We drive (when we must) through empty streets, we wear home-made fabric face masks at the shops.

But Anzac Day — what will we do?

A blurry pic of a previous Anzac Day, people gathering for the pre-dawn memorial. Not this year…

Every year since 1916, there has been a celebration of sorts of Anzac Day. Other countries are also involved every year. At Gallipoli, the peninsula on the Dardanelles in Turkey where the Anzacs first landed on 25 April 1915, our former enemies the Turks are now allies in celebrating not just the Anzac spirit, but the hope that the ‘war to end all wars’ will never be forgotten, never to be repeated. In France they remember the Anzac spirit, often every day in some places. This year we will miss this, around the world people are staying home for their own safety, and that of their communities.

The last time the Anzac Day marches did not go ahead was during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919.

So far, 2020 is shaping up as the year of cancellations. But not Anzac Day.

True, the marches aren’t happening. We will not have the crowds lining the streets to watch the returned servicemen march past. When I first watched this on TV, there were still WWI veterans marching. Now there are so few WWII veterans left that for those remaining, 2020 could be their final year.

But there will still be the televised Dawn Service from the Australian War Memorial. And we are still celebrating in our own way.

Cardboard poppies for Anzac Day.

Tomorrow morning at sunrise, many Australians will go to the end of their driveway to observe the minutes’ silence. Those in the community who play the bugle or trumpet ‘tolerably well’ have been encouraged, by Australia’s most famous trumpeter James Morrison, to stand at the end of their driveway and play the Last Post.

We got the child making Flanders poppies from egg cartons. It was a family effort. This afternoon we put them on our front fence.

Our memorial fence.
‘Remember today… for it is the beginning of always.’ We will remember always.

Whether we get out to the end of the driveway for the minutes’ remembrance, or watch the War Memorial coverage on TV, we are sure we will hear our village bugler as the sun rises over our ocean.

Nobody will sleep in this Anzac Day!

‘Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread’

It’s Easter Sunday, but not like any previous one. Churches are closed, families are staying home, our village is isolated. The rules over personal distance are prompted by fear of the pandemic of COVID-19.

It’s been three weeks since we kept the child home from school. Four weeks since social isolation was first brought in as something we should be practicing. We’re only allowed to drive anywhere for essential reasons. We can still exercise, but close to home if possible.

After three weeks of sitting on my duff, I’m feeling like I’m taking root. So when an opportunity comes up for an essential morning drive, I grab the chance.

An early start to the day. Another sunrise by the sea.

My son regularly collects a supply of fresh-baked bread from a baker at a nearby town, and brings it home to the village store. He needs my help today because the Easter bread delivery is too large to fit in one car. He will take his car, I take mine. Together we can do this. It’s essential travel. But I feel like a kid let out of school.

As so often when I drive, my mind composes text. I write. Often it is dealing with issues that are on my mind at that time. Thoughts and ideas stimulated by the experience of the travel.

I have been dealing with a dilemma for some months now. The details are not important here. Let’s just say that I was raised to be truthful and open, and sometimes that is not welcomed. I have choices to make in my life — do I continue with what I believe, or do I compromise and retain relationships with people I have valued? Let’s just say it is something which is taking time to think about, and needing space.

At home, there is no space. But out under the open sky, I can think. I can see perspective.

It’s peaceful here, a good place to think.

As I drive over the river, little tendrils of mist rising in the early morning sun, I think of the man who died late last night. There is nothing like death to bring one’s problems back into perspective. The man’s death was not connected to the pandemic, and I barely knew him. But his wife is a close friend and she is in pain today. His funeral will be small, by current laws. Grief is harder to resolve when circumstances prevent. What are my concerns compared to hers?

I want to go to my friend, to give her a hug, but as with the socially distanced funeral I attended three weeks ago, resolving grief is hampered by distance.

At this difficult time, deaths around the world have passed 100,000. They are digging mass graves in New York. It is so impersonal, so difficult to consider the individual stories in all this. But my friend is grieving. It awakens deep grief in all of us. Hers is one very personal story.

But this morning, I am free. Free to think. For an hour, I can drive through the forests, across the rivers, enjoy the sunshine and the sparkle of early morning light on the water. As I drive I marvel at the way the sky overhead is an eggshell blue, fading paler to the horizon, stained pale apricot by the early sun. I want to stop, to take out paints, easel and canvas to capture this light. But I am not a skilled painter. My talents lie elsewhere. And plein-air painting is not considered essential.

My dilemma comes to mind again. In all this openness and light, it seems such a small thing to be holding me back. And in a global perspective, my concerns are insignificant. Old memories flash through my mind as I drive. My aunt telling me earnestly, ‘Never forget this, my child, “to thine own self be true”.’ I did not fully understand it at the time, but I realise now that I try to live it. Later study gave me the source — Polonius, in Hamlet, offering tedious advice to his son. I realise that my own drive for honesty and openness bores people. But hey, this is me. I love the light, it is an important part of me.

The first sparkle off the sea. We need our openness and light.

We arrive at the bakery with nowhere to park. I double-park, hazard lights flashing, while my car is filled with warm, fresh bread.

Once loaded, it’s time to go. I convoy with my son, both our cars filled with bags of bread rolls and trays of hot cross buns for Easter Sunday. I am surrounded by the spicy, yeasty, warm fragrance as we begin the trip home.

Our daily bread. Our basic requirements.

We cannot go back the way we came. The route today is one-way only, due to the road closures in this crisis. We drive past the first road block without trying to go through it. We have to find another way. As with life, we cannot go back to make changes.

Roadblock. We can only continue if we have a right to be here.
My son ahead vouched for me too, so we both could continue together.

At the next highway exit, the road is also blocked but we are allowed through. We are going home, and we are delivering the daily bread.

Driving through the forest, I see the mist from this part of the river catching the rays of early sunlight in fingers of light between the trees. I feel touched by the beauty of it all, in all the worry of our daily lives.

It is tranquil. There are times when I feel my life is a hot mess, with daily worries, stresses and tasks not completed. I long to be able to travel again, to explore the world, but it will not be possible for a long time.

As we reach the crest of the hill, I can see the ocean. How could I ever capture that intense spread of pale orange light, splashed across the crinkled sea? The horizon still wears its thread of apricot, fading and blending into the eggshell blue.

On this drive I have pulled over at times briefly to take a fast snapshot. These photos do not do justice to the experience. As I roll down the car window, the peace floods in. I hear nothing but faint birdsong and the rustle of nearby trees in the light morning breeze. I smell the damp earth, the petrichor, from the early morning dew.

But there is no time to linger. This is an essential journey. I have to deliver the bread.

The morning bread delivered. Plenty of hot cross buns!

My life is challenging, but others have it far worse. I have unresolved concerns, but my mind is slowly sorting through them and I have faith that it will, as usual, present me with a solution when it is ready. I feel pain for myself, for others and for the world in general. But as I drive back into the village, the hymn plays over and over in my head.

‘When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.’

Still warm from the oven — and my spirit is lifted.

Happy Easter, everybody! Χριστός ἀνέστη!

The Social Distance Funeral

I was volunteering at what turned out to be the last face-to-face outing for some local elderly people when the phone call came in. My old friend Al had died. Not from Covid-19, he had been well and active. He had been found in his armchair after returning from his usual Sunday bike ride. A heart attack, we were later told. A quick, peaceful end for someone actively involved in his community. Al was 81.

He had lived in our village until about 18 months previously, when his family circumstances changed. He always loved being near the sea and in his new home, he could walk along the shoreline and feel at peace. A gentle, quiet man.

On the Friday two days before Al died, our Prime Minister announced new guidelines to the country — from Monday, outdoor gatherings would be limited to 500 people, indoor ones limited to 100. Not compulsory, just a recommendation.

On the Monday, however, after football matches had gone ahead with crowds of spectators and an especially large international church gathering had taken place (the church run by a friend of the Prime Minister) the proposed guidelines came in and were immediately made mandatory. Added restrictions on social distancing would be factored in so in many cases, the indoor limit of 100 was not going to be possible.

I spoke to the management staff of a nearby club. This is an entertainment venue in our country where meetings can be held formally or informally; receptions, conferences and classes. They also have gaming machines (a source of revenue) a couple of licensed restaurants and a bar. They were allowed to have a maximum of 100 in each room, but they had to allow four square metres per person. This meant some of the smaller rooms were limited to only twenty patrons.

I had a meeting at that club, the day before Al’s funeral. With four of us in the meeting, we had no difficulty with social distancing. Up in the restaurant where we took a break halfway, the usually bustling place was empty. We were outnumbered by the staff. When we left a few hours later, it was at a time when people would normally be gathering for dinner. We were the only customers in the place.

In the club. The customer at the counter was someone I’d come to meet. Social distancing between empty tables.
The clubs were all closed by the government two days later.

We drove to the funeral, unable to socially distance in the car so friends drove in separate cars. My husband and I planned to arrive early, so we could go in to the chapel even briefly. We expected there to be issues with social distancing. At a funeral we want to hug one another, to offer comfort or receive it in return. But here, no touching.

When we arrived, the TV news was there, filming. We had been warned. They were very respectful and paused to let us go inside.

Inside we could see that the pews had been marked with a gaff tape X on the seats to indicate where we had to sit. The pews were alternated; two Xs in this pew, one X in the next. Two after that. The pews with two Xs had seats at opposite ends. The single X was in the middle. So we sat, checkerboard fashion. This way, the small chapel could accommodate just over thirty people.

The chapel at the coast. A beautiful day. He’d have loved it.

Many of Al’s family were not permitted to travel for either health reasons or distance. They had sent their own messages which were read out. The funeral was being live-streamed with the link available for several weeks.

I wanted to reach out, to squeeze my husband’s hand, to touch the shoulder of my friend Mary who sat alone in the pew directly in front. No comfort permitted.

We listened to Al’s favourite music, we watched the slide show reflecting our lives intertwined. The minister of Al’s new church spoke. Family gave the eulogy. Someone read that wonderful passage from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-22, To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. And a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. How true. (Quotes taken from King James Version (KJV)

The chapel window looked out over the sea. I remembered when Mary and I had walked around the chapel with Al while he pointed out his favourite spot for a morning swim. He’d showed us where he went to community classes. We’d had a cup of coffee at the nearby cafe, sitting at a table in the sunshine with many other people sitting nearby. He missed our village but had made a new life for himself.

The sea after a storm. A place of peace.

Outside the chapel after the funeral we did elbow bumps or fist bumps, somehow seeming too light-hearted for a funeral. Plenty of hand sanitiser flowed along with the cups of tea and fruit cake. One friend of Al’s told us of the coping strategy of ‘biffing distance’. If your outstretched fist can reach the outstretched fist of another, you’re too close.

That evening we had a more informal social distance wake for Al, at his favourite place on our local beach. We had music playing and I wore a swimsuit under my dress. We raised a glass to Al in the sunset and I threw off my dress and went for a swim. The saltwater was warm in the evening, refreshing. I thought of Al, who had died before the restrictions had interfered with his life. Al, who had loved the beach, a regular swim and riding his bike. And his music.

Raising a glass on the beach to an old friend. This will not be possible for some time.

We kept our distance from one another and took ourselves home afterwards, to wake to a new world order in the morning. Funerals limited to ten. Weddings to five.

The next day, the clubs were closed. Cafés and restaurants closed except for takeaway. Schools to remain open but keeping students learning at home if possible was recommended.

Every day, it seems, the goalposts get shifted. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been getting thoroughly overworked.

And all through it all, the one thought comforts me — Al never knew, and will not have to endure it.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

It’s been a helluva time. First we had long, hot, dry weather. Water restrictions kicked in to Sydney. For much of the inland areas, water restrictions had been in for months. Some areas were down to the last dregs in the dams and were looking to be evacuated. We were cracking jokes about it being so dry that the trees were chasing the dogs.

Drought-affected parkland in Canberra. These areas are normally irrigated and green.

Then, in July, fires began. They really kicked along in August and September until it seemed that the whole state was burning. We had been horrified at the deliberate burning of the Amazon rainforest, but now we saw our own country burning over a much greater area. At one point there were fires in every state of Australia. Billions of animals burned. Species on the brink of extinction. Lives lost. Firefighters included; one was killed when the fire truck he was in, was flipped over by a fire tornado. Just think about that for a minute — a heavy fire truck, really heavy. And fire tornado. It is what it sounds like — a small tornado made of fire. And they drive fire trucks in and around these, because someone has to fight these fires. And they are volunteers. Our firefighters are so tough, they can kickstart jumbo jets. And that’s just the women…

Early regrowth after fires.

Just when we thought the fires would never burn out, it began to rain at last. It took a couple of weeks of rain to begin to have significant impact on the worst fires. More weeks of rain before they were under control.

What happens when we get so much rain? We get floods. And so much rain — in two days, we got a year’s rainfall. And we had weeks of it. Our roads flooded. Landscape so recently burned had little to hold the soil when the mud slides began. Before we left for Darwin, we drove out on our only access road to find trees falling and blocking it. In the torrential rain people would get out of their cars to try to help drag fallen timber out of the way, but the bigger stuff needed the fire brigade, who had only just returned from the fires and now had to wield chain saws in the rain.

Random volunteers try to clear a fallen tree in the heavy downpour.

The floodwaters rose even while we were away, and when I first saw the unbelievable screen shot from the traffic camera of a SUV trying to drive through fast-flowing three-metre-deep floodwaters near our home, I thought it was a Photoshop job. But it was real. Unstoppable Aussies again. The idiocy was witnessed by one of our traffic cameras (hence my screen shot). I thought it might have been useful if his licence plates were able to be read, so police could notify his next of kin. No bodies were reported downstream, however. It is believed he was able to reverse out. Not surprisingly, despite appeals, the driver has not come forward.

Photo taken from public feed of traffic camera. The deepest part of the road was three metres underwater.
It is believed that the driver managed to reverse out.

Two weeks later while we were driving across Victoria, where we had hoped to travel inland to visit some areas in need of a bit of friendly tourism after the fires, we were blocked by fallen rocks and mud slides.

First the famine, in the form of a severe drought. Then fires. After that, the floods.

And now, pestilence. The sudden rise of novel coronavirus in Wuhan Province in China has now spread to the rest of the world. In some places it’s still clusters only, but it’s now just a matter of time. We’ve seen panic buying, misinformation, complacency followed by political panic, and now we worry about all the economic fallout from so much disaster. Toilet paper is chronically in shortage. Jokes on the radio (we always use humour even in dire situations) have indicated that toilet paper is now like gold. It’s been dubbed ‘craptocurrency’ or ‘buttcoin’. Images of people playing poker with rolls of toilet paper as currency have lightened the mood. I saw a video clip today of a man paying for a cup of coffee with individual sheets of toilet paper torn off a roll. When the barista objected, the customer tore off another sheet, leaned forward and folded it into the barista’s pocket as a tip. Barista happy at last. Joke.

Supermarket shelves emptied of toilet paper. WHY?
Empty shelves. Different day, different supermarket.
The trolley is full of plastic wrap accumulated from multiple pallets of toilet paper.

Fire, Famine, Flood, Pestilence.

With each disaster, it was the worst for a hundred years. Or in existing records. With each, it came closer to home.

Now it’s time to re-think. Fire, Famine, Pestilence and Death. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

A cartoon appeared that showed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Pestilence was carrying a huge supply of toilet rolls. One of the other Horsemen said to him, ‘Dude – really? Not cool!’

New laws have come in, enforcing social distancing in clubs and other public venues. Last night we were in a club for dinner and noted the tables spread far apart, with half the number of chairs. There were very few people. One family was in the corner, collectively keeping their distance. My husband and I sat side by side but away from others. We share the same space at home. But the manager came up to us and asked us to please observe a two metre radius.

I said, ‘We’re married! We share a bed! For us, we choose to sit together here too.’

The manager replied, ‘We could lose our licence if people sit too close together. Please move apart. What you do at home is your business there.’

My husband got up to move to a distant table. Trying to keep things light, I called out to him, ‘I’ll text you!’

In the corner, the young children were climbing all over their parents. One was sitting on his dad’s lap. How can you explain social distancing to small children? But laws are laws. The manager squared his shoulders and headed over to the family.

We collected our pizza, took it home and snuggled up together, eating pizza in front of the TV.

Today in a different club, on a day when you have to wait in line for a table, the staff outnumbered the customers. By evening, when the place would be full of people ordering dinner, there were no customers at all. On a Saturday night.

A lone lunchtime customer — my colleague before our meeting. Note the ‘social distancing’ of the tables.
When we came out of our meeting room at 4.30 pm, the club was empty of customers.

In the drought, in the fires and in the floods, we saw how our countrymen have pulled together. A few hoarders notwithstanding, if we continue to support one another as a community we will get through this as well. But we’re in for a rough few months. Some people joke that someone somewhere has been playing Jumanji again.

It’s getting harder to joke, although I feel we need humour to save our sanity. Right now, I’m more anxious than I was the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I don’t get anxious. Not these days. Not normally. But this is the ‘new normal’, we are told.

I have a memorial service for an old friend tomorrow. Not a funeral, that’s no longer possible. The body has to be privately cremated, when the body is released. The chapel is likely to be spread thin, according to new laws of social distancing. When my friend died six days ago, the restrictions were only forecast, as an advisory. Now they’re much more stringent and getting stricter all the time. I’m glad he didn’t know.

Tomorrow at the funeral I won’t be able to hug anybody. Not get close. Not offer the comfort I feel I need to. Not be comforted.

I might not be travelling again for a while. With weird shortages, such as the apparent run on toilet paper, every trip to the shops is an adventure into the unknown.

Even driving to the shops is becoming pointless and, as with other countries, even that may soon be denied us. For writers, lockdown gives us a chance to get some work done. No distractions, no excuses.

I will still be blogging. Feel free to travel vicariously through my memories.

A thought to hold onto — there are only four horsemen of the apocalypse. Aren’t there?

Final note: in Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time novel (Discworld series) there are Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse (note spelling). There used to be a fifth horseman, Ronnie Soak (Kaos spelled backwards). However, he quit before the group became famous and now works as a milkman.

Maybe they’re putting the band back together…

‘Cancer City’

On the train to Melbourne, we crossed the border right on midday, SA time. Trying to type on the train is even more challenging on the Overlander. None of the long, straight sections of the Ghan. This was a rockin’, rollin’ ride.

Overlander train between Adelaide and Melbourne — there is talk of cancelling this service soon.
Morning mist from the train. Paddocks are greening up from so much rain.
Grain silos at Nhil. Seen from the Overlander.

With the rise of coronavirus, we’d noticed that Chinese restaurants on our trip were not well patronised, so we ate a lot of Chinese food. Once again we sought out Chinatown. And once again, the place was empty. We had a delightful meal with meticulous service, but we were the only customers.

Quiet streets in Melbourne’s Chinatown.
A grey sunrise in Melbourne.

We picked up the car at the train station in Melbourne without much idea of where to go. ‘Out of Melbourne,’ was our mutually agreed choice. Not that we dislike Melbourne, we just prefer to not drive in big cities if we can help it.

We like the coast, we love the countryside, so we looked approximately in the direction of home (no rush, we had a week, and there are still flooding rains there) so we picked Bairnsdale, not expecting to get all the way.

Storms coming in to Bairnsdale, the river rising.

Trying to find a random motel, we pulled in to the first one we saw in time. I stayed in the car while Jeff went to enquire. ‘No, they have no vacancy. But they rang the motel down the road.’

As we drove out through a full car park, Jeff commented, ‘Cancer City.’

I looked around to see if that had been a slogan on the side of a vehicle. What would it be about? An anti-smoking campaign vehicle, perhaps? Odd…

As we moved back into the street, Jeff said, ‘Keep your eyes peeled for this motel.’

‘What’s it called?’ I asked.

”I already told you. Cancer City!’

‘Cancer City? The name of a motel? What kind of crazy town is this? Wait a minute…’

The motel in question came into view. Kansas City Motel.
Yep. We stayed there. It’s actually really good!

The Loft in Bairnsdale. A wonderful meal, but again, not many customers. Not as empty as Chinese restaurants!
In an antique shop in Bairnsdale. I used to own one of these!

Next morning (after a night of storms) we headed off, hoping to get to Bright or Beechworth. But an hour along the road, we came to a ‘Road Closed’ sign.

‘There’s about four truck loads of dirt across the road up there,’ the road worker on duty told us. ‘It all came down in the rain.’

This road closed off the centre of Victoria to us. Mud slide.

With no way through, we changed our destination and headed for Eden.

Although it had rained heavily the night before, and we drove through more rain, we drove past several smouldering stumps by the road. So much of the landscape was charred but, in typical Aussie bush fashion, regrowth and recovery had begun.

The remains of someone’s home, burned in the recent fires.

The bush recovers faster than human habitation, sadly.

Rebuilding is taking time.
New growth in the burned forest, a misty rain falling.
‘Welcome to New South Wales’. Fire knows no borders.

When we got to Eden, we had our usual afternoon look around. It was cold, the sun beginning to emerge from a watery sky. I found a cave on the far side of an inaccessible cove. From what I could see, there was absolutely no land access. However, it fitted the description in one of my stories so I spent a little timer trying to determine its name, its history and anything else. When I asked our landlord at the hotel she looked puzzled. ‘What cave?’

The harbour at Eden. A glimpse of sun after a day of rain.

I zoomed in on Google Earth and on Maps. No information.

My mysterious cave in Eden. It’s just like the one I described in the novel I’m currently writing.

Net morning we drove to Bega and met up with an old friend from our village. We talked to her about it. ‘There are loads of caves like that all along this part of the coastline,’ she explained. ‘Most are not named, especially the little ones.’

I realised, feeling a little foolish, that it would be like naming a rock pool.

Oh, well… time to journey on.