A quick dash from Florida to NZ during the pandemic
WHEN LIFE THROWS YOU AVOCADOS, MAKE GUACAMOLE! SO WHEN A GLOBAL PANDEMIC FORCED THEIR RETURN TO NEW ZEALAND FOR QUARANTINE, THAT’S JUST WHAT THE GILMOUR FAMILY DID.
I remember the day we argued about whether it was socially responsible to sit in a cafe and have coffee or not. The cafe was empty, so we did. As we navigated Covid-19 in a country we didn’t call home, without clear guidelines around social distancing, my husband Dave and I suddenly found ourselves making some unprecedented decisions: about what being responsible in a community looked like, what self-isolation meant for us, and what we considered to be safe for our family. With non-essential workplaces shut down, no health insurance covering the pandemic, and reduced flights back home to New Zealand, we began to feel nervous about continuing to live in the United States. It was hard to think about leaving our life in Palm Beach, Florida. Dave was four months into a contract consulting to a start-up company. Our kids, Ruby (4) and Corban (2), spent mornings in kindy while I worked on a photography project, and in the afternoons we found water, either at our apartment pool or the beach. We were looking forward to a visit from my parents, a trip to New York, exploring Florida Keyes, and an all-inclusive Bahamas cruise to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Despite our long bucket list, we started to consider going home.
A QUICK DECISION
After a neighbour told us her husband couldn’t get hold of a gun because they’d all sold out, we decided to leave. Later that night I woke up to a text message from my cousin who was at the airport trying to catch a flight. She described the chaos she was experiencing with cancelled flights, and her message encouraged us to drop everything and leave. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach and I woke Dave up with my shaking. The next morning Travel Safe New Zealand released a statement encouraging all New Zealanders to come back home asap. When I got up, Dave had booked flights.
After 72 hours of packing we were on a plane, having left most of our furniture and belongings in our apartment, as well as hundreds of dollars’ worth of food. It felt like we were in a movie. Within the space of a week we had no jobs and no home. Although we were worried about the future and disappointed about having our Florida trip over so suddenly, we managed to have perspective. Just like us, most people around the world had very little control over their situation at that moment and we were grateful for where we landed – literally and figuratively. I cried with relief when we touched down in New Zealand. Family picked us up from the airport and although we hadn’t seen them for five months, we couldn’t even greet them with a hug. More tears spilled over onto my PPE, making little oval stains on the fabric.
As we stood outside Auckland airport I felt goosebumps on my skin, a sensation I hadn’t experienced for months. I soon realised we were not prepared to transition into a New Zealand winter. Florida temperatures reached 30°C most days so in our suitcases were few warm clothes. New Zealand went into Level Four lockdown just two days later and with most online stores closed, we scrambled to make do with the kids sharing clothes and some extras from a friend.
As we were going to be in quarantine for 14 days, we relied on others for food. A friend who shopped for us recalls sitting in her car at the supermarket watching Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announce the Level Four lockdown on her phone. On either side of her she could see others in their cars doing the same thing. With the shops being low on stock and everybody rushing to prepare, she spent hours visiting three stores and only came back with half of what we’d requested on our list!
OFF THE GRID
We had tenants living in our home in the Waikato, so Dave’s dad Warwick offered to have us stay at his Te Puna avocado and fruit orchard in the Bay of Plenty. Because we’d been exposed to Covid-19 on our flight, we didn’t want to put Warwick at risk and decided not to share his home for the first two weeks of our quarantine period. Instead, we converted his portacom into a room and his tool shed to a makeshift kitchen. We had very few of the creature comforts I’ve always taken for granted. No hot water. No washing machine. We literally went off the grid, living a bit like the Ingalls family in Little House On The Prairie, life stripped back to the basics. But Dave was made for this and strode into full survival mode. His days were spent creating new inventions so we could live more comfortably. He made an outdoor bath, with a fire under it for our S’mores. He separated clay from dirt for the kids to craft with, and made a sheltered outdoor play area. The views and the land far outweighed any inconveniences. We ate a lot of avocados and fruit.
As the weeks went by, Dave and I found ourselves reversing roles. We didn’t really discuss it, but it made sense. Dave, now without work, became the primary child carer doing the cooking and cleaning, meaning I was able to concentrate on a project I’ve always wanted to create – an online smartphone photography course for mums. For the first time in my working life I experienced what it was like to be (at least in part), free of the mental load that I’ve always carried while juggling the roles of primary carer with working mother. Dave made a better stay-at-home parent than I ever did. He even weaned dummy-addicted Corban off his dummy with no tears. And I found nothing more satisfying than asking, ‘What’s for dinner?’ in the evening. I’m sure there are many mums who can relate – not having to think about food is such a luxury.
Because of our ‘glamping situation’, it took a good three hours to do the dinner, bath and bed routine, and as a result our pace of life slowed. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar not being as productive as usual, but good for us. I’ve always liked living life fast and being busy, but I had to remind myself that just because I had the time, it didn’t mean I had the capacity.
Exercise is another area of life I’ve always gone hard in, pushing my body to its limits, but long walks and yoga in the sun became a daily ritual that we looked forward to, and my joints thanked me for the break. ‘Slow’ is something we will very intentionally build into our post-Covid-19 lives. We also plan to do ‘quarantine weekends’, where we make no commitments and return to the orchard to spend some quality time reconnecting as a family.
Eventually we lost track of the date, the day, the time. It was kind of like being on holiday, but also like being grounded. Before we knew it, we’d completed the 14 days of quarantine, and, combined with our negative Covid-19 tests, we felt comfortable moving into Warwick’s house. Once again we needed to form new rhythms and routines.
Although I had looked forward to it, moving day threw me. We had moved five times in the last five months. The experience of navigating yet another space reminded me that we would be sharing spaces for another seven months. The next move would be to my parents in Hamilton for the remainder of the year until our tenancy agreement renewed in January 2021. Although grateful we’d never be without a roof over our head, the novelty of living out of a suitcase was over! I craved autonomy over my space, and the familiar comfort of knowing where things were kept when I needed them.
Like many people, we had to get creative about how to celebrate milestones while in lockdown. Ruby had her fifth birthday, and while in Florida we had promised her a pool party and a trip to Disneyland. To our surprise she was just as content with a trek around the orchard with her cousins (at Level Three) and her requested pink dump truck cake from the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book (again, Dave nailed it). Friends sent letters in the post and birthday videos over Facebook. It wasn’t Disneyland, but the day was still pretty magical; in Ruby’s own words, ‘The best day ever’. We’re so proud of how flexible she has been with the many changes life has thrown at us. And I was secretly pleased that I didn’t have to send her to school the day after her birthday.
Covid-19 will change us. It took away so much but it also gave back, in some unexpected ways. We’ll look back on this time as one filled with rich experiences and fond memories, where we gained new insights into the way we want to live. Never have there been so many hours spent bouncing on the trampoline, so many snacks made, so much bread eaten and so many bad hair days. I’m hoping to preserve the wins and learn from the losses, heading into this next season with a bit more clarity and freedom.
Ruth Gilmour is a professional photographer who recently returned from the USA with her husband and two children. Visit her website to find more photos and online tutorials ruthgilmourphotographer.co.nz.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 50 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW