This blog, as you will notice from the header, is supposed to be about writing and travel. That’s been challenging over the last few years due to Covid restrictions. Especially in Australia, some parts particularly, we’ve been very limited in travel, or even leaving the house. It’s been very isolating.
I’ve been busy writing, I published two group anthologies while Sydney was in lockdown from late June 2021 to early October 2021, when there was ‘early release’ for those who have been double-vaccinated. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of the government directives. It just is, and merely sets the scene for what now follows.
I love to sing. I especially love close harmony, but that becomes increasingly challenging when ‘close’ conflicts with the need for social distance. I belong to two choirs which each give me something different, musically. One sings modern arrangements in a barbershop style while the other performs music from past centuries in multiple languages.
I’ve written earlier about my links with historical clothing. When we went into the latest, longest lockdown in Sydney, it was just after my attendance at Blacktown Medieval Fayre. I felt dissatisfied with my attempt at costume and resolved to do more. I wrote about this in Down the Rabbit Hole. https://wordpress.com/post/helenjarmstrong.home.blog/1529
First I repaired the medieval clothing of other family members who are regular historical reenactors. That gave me the confidence to try more.
During the early part of the lockdown, I hand-sewed a 13th century kirtle (think, Maid Marian). Then I think I went a bit crazy. I had some old, worn fitted sheets with ‘dead’ elastic. I spread them out on the lawn in a desperate attempt to keep involved with life and hopefully say hi to any passing jogger. Cutting out fabric, I hand-sewed several chemises, learning more in the process. A coif or two as well, using an old torn shirt and a ripped sheet. I found myself binge-watching historical videos and clothing history sewing videos while I stitched. As I adapted the discarded fabric in my life, I channelled my inner Scarlett o’Hara (remember those green velvet curtains at Tara?). One way or another, as God was my witness, I would never be costume-less again.
As we began to come out of lockdown, our Renaissance choir (ROH Ensemble) was able to rehearse once more (under very strict conditions). I showed photos of what I had been making, and sat at rehearsal finishing the hand-stitching on another St Birgitte coif.
“Would you make me a ruff?” one male chorister asked.
I thought about it. That would be stretching my skills. “I’ll have to find out more,” I told him.
More binge-watching. The information was frustratingly scarce. The process seemed frustratingly tedious and painstaking. The more I studied, the more I realised that ruffs, while worn by ‘ordinary folk’, were very much a status symbol because of the effort (and therefore expense) involved in their making.
I was determined to try, however. One video looked more useful.
The first day we were allowed to leave our local government area, we went to visit our daughter. She gave me an old cot sheet which I carefully unpicked. “While you’re sewing costumes,” she remarked, “Master Six wants to be able to dress up as a Tudor prince.”
Okay, another request for a ruff. And a Tudor cap. My to-do list was rapidly growing.
I visited a neighbour with whom I do a lot of community sewing. In her basement I rapidly machine-sewed a number of quick projects. Using her rotary cutter and very careful measurement, I cut the old cot sheet into as many lengths of 10-cm-wide strips as I could, then carefully machine-hemmed one side. The video had said there was no need to hem the other side. I’ve since found this is bad advice…
As Bernadette Banner (noted dress historian and prolific YouTuber) so often says, “there is no such thing as true historical accuracy.” All we can do is study the past and try to extrapolate how it was done, and hope we can get as close as possible.
Back at home I sat and hand-stitched some more. I developed a technique of hand-stitching a ruff that let me carry it around in my pocket, so I could take it out and sew a little more wherever I was. I was almost manic in my zeal, when our choir director told us that we had two gigs in the city. We needed costumes! She was determined to improve the historical accuracy and the look of how the choir presented.
In our Renaissance choir, the look is very individual. We do not look like each other. Often, we’re not always from the same time period, our brief is medieval and Renaissance. I had originally planned for my own costume to be 13th century, but now I was sewing a ruff, that put my costume in the Elizabethan period. Late Tudor.
At my neighbour’s place again, I raided her stash of upholstery samples and made some pockets. These were worn in medieval and Tudor times either under an over-dress or on the outside. When you hear the child’s nursery rhyme, “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it”, it is referring to these old-style pockets which tied around the waist. According to reports, some women would even carry live chickens to market in their pockets. I figured I could use one to carry my medieval mobile phone and my medieval Opal card (public transport card). I sewed a couple more for other women in the choir.
I went shopping. Cautiously, wearing my mask and keeping my distance. Maybe I could make another dress… then I saw some lace, and some braid. I scurried home with my treasures. And did more sewing.
Another friend bought himself a new costume. There was nothing wrong with the old one, but he wanted a change. Unfortunately, it needed work. So that pulled me away. He also needed a Tudor cap, and in my fabric stash I found some royal blue corduroy and fuschia taffeta. An old music folder contributed some stiffening for the brim. It was brilliant. Sadly, too small (hopefully, it will fit Tudor-prince-loving grandson). So I started over, using two layers of plastic drawer liner as stiffener. This time — too big.
My other choir, Endeavour Harmony Chorus, was also booked to perform in the city, on the first night of the Sydney City Christmas program, which was very exciting. Getting the costumes organised was a lot easier for a choir where everyone dresses the same. The City of Sydney was providing t-shirts for us.
The City of Sydney also offered t-shirts to ROH Ensemble but our director graciously declined. It would have looked so wrong with a ruff.
On the day our Renaissance choir performed Christmas carols in the city, we did our best to travel in as a group. With Covid restrictions still in place, there was nowhere sufficient, or with enough time, for us to fully change into our costumes so we travelled in to the city by train already in medieval and Renaissance costume. People were carefully not looking at us.
On Sydney’s public transport we still need to wear masks. Next to the performance area a hotel gave access to two toilet cubicles and a warm-up space. The hotel required QR check-in, proof of double vaccination and masks. But as performers, we also needed to put on some make-up. Masks make a big mess with lipstick, especially.
We managed. We managed it well, I think.
Endeavour Harmony Chorus has now performed twice this year in this Christmas tree space, and each choir has one more performance to go in the city. It’s been exciting, challenging (fitting in song sets in between the large city clock striking every quarter hour, and an over-enthusiastic programming of the giant musical Christmas tree). On our next Renaissance performance, apparently a nearby cathedral has brought in bell-ringers from around the state, and they will be enthusiastically pealing bells while we sing of Christmas. In costume.
It’s different. But it’s wonderful to sing again, and to be out and about. What a Christmas gift!
After our next performance in Renaissance costume, I’m taking the ruff apart. It needs more work to ‘floof’ it out a bit more. However, each time I do something or make something, I get better.
I have a long way to go, but it will be a fun time getting there!
Last night one of the other sewer choristers gave me three boxes of fabric for costumes… *sigh*
We’d planned to be in Canberra from early Monday before Christmas to babysit the kids, with school finished for the year but parents still working. We were then going to stay until Christmas Day, leaving the next day (Boxing Day) to head home. I planned to use the quiet evenings to work on writing and editing. Then we heard that we would be allowed to attend our granddaughter’s dance concert. The choir concert (a few weeks earlier) was unfortunately not open for audiences.
We had already booked accommodation and planned to drive down on Sunday, but the dance concert was midday. With a three and a half hour drive, we’d have to ‘bug out’ early from home. We also planned to bring our son Rob with us. He had an event to attend on Saturday, so the schedule was tight. We were considering leaving on Saturday ourselves, and perhaps getting Rob to come down by train. We booked the extra night’s accommodation (in a different hotel, the one for the majority of our stay wasn’t available that night).
We discussed it all on Friday night. Rob was determined to attend his event on Saturday so we went online to book a train. We could have booked Sunday, but would have missed the dance concert to collect him from the railway station in Canberra, so we reluctantly booked his train for Monday instead. All other trains were booked out.
Within five minutes of booking (and paying for) the train ticket, Rob’s phone went off. The Saturday event was cancelled. There was an increasing Covid hot spot in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area, about as far away from us as you could get and still be in Sydney. So could he come with us after all?
“I’m working tomorrow morning on the bread run,” he explained. “It’s too late to let them know now.”
Rob decided to come down by train on Monday. That way he could work Sunday morning as well.
With the Northern Beaches Covid cluster growing in momentum we felt some disquiet setting out. Strong restrictions were coming back in, but we knew we were still okay to travel. We double-checked, loaded the car and set off. We’d packed the car carefully to allow for Rob’s seat and luggage coming back with us.
We wore our masks whenever we got out of the car — buying fuel, buying lunch, checking in to the hotel in Canberra. The hotel was full of cricketers! There were security guards and Covid marshals on every exit, which was disconcerting.
Next day was a more relaxed bugout with perishables carefully packed in a cooler back somewhere buried under the load of Christmas presents. We were carrying gifts from the extended family to the “Canberra mob”. Fortunately we were able to park under a handy tree and wait.
Our grandson almost exploded into our car with his energy to announce their arrival.
Queuing for the concert was interesting. We wore masks, but in disease-free Canberra this seemed to be an exception. We were all expected to leave 1.5 metres between us in the queue, but inside it was full seats. We kept our masks on…
That evening there was a press conference. The border was closing at midnight. I rang Rob. Could he get down to us before midnight, by car? Nope, not packed. With the likelihood of heavier traffic than usual, the chance of him getting to us by midnight was vanishingly small. There was also the chance that we, as recent arrivals, could be sent home or, worse, made to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. Should we leave? We’d delivered our Christmas presents already.
The kids were upset at their Uncle Rob not coming for Christmas.
We took a chance. Next morning we watched the news anxiously. Yes, the border was closed but we had no problems. We’d booked time slots to take the kids to some of the public places around Canberra and decided to go ahead. If we were going to babysit, we’d have fun too, and see the sights.
First stop, Parliament House in Canberra. This is a fascinating place, I’ll write it up separately some other time. Under Covid conditions and with two young children, we weren’t going to have the usual leisurely tour. With parliament not sitting, there wasn’t a lot to see. The kids loved the Lego model of Parliament House, complete with Lego sheep on the lawn on the roof (Parliament House in Canberra is an earth-covered building). They really liked the artwork and some of the stories that various guides told us in passing.
After Parliament House, we went to the Australian War Memorial. Again, our time here was pre-booked to ensure that not too many people were inside at any time. Our grandson wanted to look at the eternal flame first, he was fascinated with the burning gas bubbling up from the pool. From there we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I explained to the kids that nobody knows who is buried there, except we know he’s Australian from World War I. So for all the families who lost a brother, a son or a father in WWI, there is some peace in knowing that the man buried there could be him. He represents them all, all Australian servicemen and servicewomen who never came home.
We looked for names on the Wall of Remembrance then explored the displays inside. Again, with the children we knew their attention spans would be short, but we think some of what they saw was understood.
The next day we took the kids to Telstra Tower on top of Black Mountain. It was on their list of places they’d wanted to see. We went up into the tower and enjoyed the view from the observation deck, amazed at the wind.
On the way back to the car we saw a young ringtail possum snoozing in a nearby tree. “It’s all an adventure,” we told them.
We collected their mother and went for a drive in the bush, as requested by our grandson. We ended up in a place we’d never been to, or even heard of — Gibraltar Falls.
We hiked down the slippery granite steps to the falls, and the kids exclaimed over a lady beetle. Little things and big things caught their attention. I got out my macro lens and we explored further, getting up close and personal to beetles, flowers and the lady beetle. It seemed a world away from coronavirus.
Christmas Eve was all about preparation. Last minute grocery shopping, and keeping the kids out of the kitchen while their father set about his one day of culinary glory in the year — cooking up a feast. Far too much food, but all of it tasty. It will all get eaten, but not necessarily today.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
Stay safe, stay well.
Tomorrow we drive home, and back to higher restrictions.
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].
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’