Travelling during a pandemic: A Mom on a Mission - Part II
Kia ora Aotearoa! It’s me, Louisa, writing from managed isolation. We are so happy to be home!
My three Māori/Sāmoan kids live in California with their dad. COVID-19 is infecting Americans in increasing numbers. The Black Lives Matter protests turned violent. California is unsafe. Pacific islanders in California are particularly at risk for the virus. The NZ border is closed to everyone except NZ citizens and permanent residents. My two sons only have US passports. I applied for Travel Ban Exceptions for the boys to come to NZ with my NZ citizen daughter. Denied. I got on a flight to Los Angeles to bring my children home. I applied again for Travel Ban Exceptions. Approved - finally! Only on condition they travel with me. Choohooo!
FLYING DURING A PANDEMIC
Travelling during a pandemic is a surreal experience. Air New Zealand sent us an email prior to our flight to Auckland that all customers passing through Los Angeles International airport would be required to wear face coverings, “to assist in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.” California’s governor Gavin Newsom issued a mandate earlier in the week that people wear face masks in public places, including outdoor areas where social distancing is not possible.
We did not need a mandate or a warning from Air New Zealand because, unlike some Americans that have balked at the idea of being forced to wear a mask in public, we were happy to comply.
Los Angeles Airport is usually a bustling airport with multitudes of passengers arriving and departing constantly. During the pandemic, the airport has become an alternate reality zone. There are limited numbers of flights and passengers. Hardly any check-in counters are open. There were no TSA lines going through airport security. We still had to take our shoes off and basically strip down before going through the full-body scanner but we had the time to do what we needed to do without staff rushing us or the deadly stares of on-lookers trying to contain their own air rage. I was able to take my sweet time unloading my laptop from its case, multiple devices from my bags, and emptying all the change from my pockets. Once through to the passengers only section it was sad to see all the duty free stores closed and Panda Express as the only dining option at the food court.
On flight NZ5, I knew what to expect as I had just flown two weeks earlier into the USA. As always the Air New Zealand staff were gracious and welcoming. They were masked and gloved every time they interacted with us. I heard some grumbles from fellow passengers about the lack of social distancing on the plane but the flight wasn’t completely full and we were able to spread out. We found out that it was to be the final flight for most of the crew and so it was tinged with sadness for them and us. Two passengers, a husband and wife, sang Pokarekare Ana over the plane’s intercom system partway through the flight and dedicated it to the crew. I felt a bit choked up for them and for all of us. My little family was glad to be going home to the safety of Aotearoa but we had to leave many loved ones behind in California.
We flew overnight and landed in Auckland the next morning. The Airport Health Assessment on arrival in New Zealand consisted of us having our temperatures taken, all normal levels, and being questioned about our health and how we were feeling. This is where they determine if you are ill. If you have symptoms such as a high fever or you aren’t feeling well, you will be sent to the Jet Park Hotel in Mangere for quarantine. We got through immigration, collected our bags, were checked out by customs and exited into the empty Auckland Airport arrivals lounge.
I love the arrivals lounge at Auckland Airport. I remember going there as a child to pick up various family members. There was always so much excitement. We would wait for what seemed like hours - my siblings and cousins taking turns pushing each other on the luggage trolleys, riding the escalator and taking the elevators up and down. Then finally the visitor would come out and shower us with kisses and gifts from Australia or Sāmoa. I’ve greeted many international visitors there, including celebrities, with a pōwhiri to officially welcome them to this land. I have been welcomed there myself - with a rousing haka - when I brought the body of my brother-in-law home after he died suddenly in the UK. I arrived triumphantly with my terminally ill mother in 2017, travelling from Australia against medical advice on a rescue mission to grant her final wish to die at home in Aotearoa. The arrivals lounge has been the site of some very emotional homecomings for me.
Seeing that lounge empty was a sobering thought. This is not the world it once was. Even Aotearoa in level one is not back to what it was. Auckland Airport is empty. The stores and restaurants are closed. We shuffled off to our bus and found out we were going to do two weeks of managed isolation at the Pullman Hotel in Auckland. The bus driver told us we were lucky. No truer words have ever been said. The Pullman is a beautiful hotel and we were glad to be staying in Auckland, since I live in South Auckland, but we were just grateful to be out of the danger zone. If we had ended up in Rotorua, Christchurch or Wellington, we would not have complained because our sense of gratitude and my sense of relief is so strong.
We were checked in at the hotel by staff who were thoroughly professional. We had to give them our passports so I can’t see how any homeless person could have joined in our check in process - as much as I want that story to be true. An NZ Air Force airman took all our details then we moved along the line to see a nurse and then hotel staff that let us know how our meals would work, where and when we can exercise, how to get our laundry done.. Sarah from the Pullman Hotel patiently answered all my questions. The pounamu she wore around her neck calmed me and her sense of manaakitanga at such an ungodly hour assured me that we were indeed home. After being on constant alert for weeks, I could finally relax.
We get our temperatures taken daily outside our rooms with an additional call from the nurse in the hotel to check how we are feeling. We have received calls from the Ministry of Health checking in on us. Yesterday, Day 3, we all had our Covid-19 nasal tests done. This will be repeated again on Day 12.
We get three meals each delivered to our rooms daily. We ordered a week's worth of meals upon arrival. We promptly forgot everything we ordered and foolishly didn’t take a photo of the menu sheet before we handed it in so every meal is a surprise. The kids spend some time arguing over who gets what depending on how the food actually looks compared to how it read on the menu. We have mostly avoided any hostile conflicts. It isn’t always enough food for my sons but so far, so good. We can exercise in an open area between certain hours but we chose to stay in our rooms for the first few days. We are too tired to do much of anything. We each get three laundry bags done for free during our two-week stay and if there is anything extra we will gladly pay for it.
I packed a suitcase before I left NZ with warm clothes, games and books for managed isolation. My sister was able to drop it off at the hotel for me. On arrival I ordered a week’s worth of groceries from the local supermarket and they were dropped off at the hotel the next day. Fruit, chocolate, wine, bath bombs - all the essentials. We are comfortable and safe. We don’t have any complaints about our experience going through this process. I sometimes find myself thinking, this wifi is so slow or the water pressure is weak but no, I’m not complaining - I am going to think positive thoughts. It’s only two weeks!
During my time in America I had friends ask to catch up and offer to take me out for dinner and drinks. I declined. Risking my own safety to fly to America was something I did to get my children out. I did not want to put myself at further risk of catching the virus by going out. I do not want us to be the ones that bring COVID-19 back into New Zealand. We have been tested though none of us have any symptoms. We were delighted to have already received a text letting us know we all tested negative.
I know returnees are being labelled as moaners but you will hear no complaints from me. I am grateful to be home and to be able to offer safety and sanctuary to my global citizen children during these troubling times. We are willing to do whatever is asked of us so that we can do our time in managed isolation and keep ourselves and the NZ public safe. Words to the wise: The NZ border was never truly closed. It is closed to foreigners but kiwis overseas have always had the right of return. It’s in our Bill of Rights Act 1990, Section 18 Freedom of Movement (2) that Every New Zealand Citizen has the right to enter New Zealand. We cannot shut the border to our own people.
Be assured that the border restrictions are doing what they are designed to do. Contain the virus at the border. The recent breaches have ensured the strict procedures in place are being followed to keep everyone safe. Don’t panic. There’s no community transmission. I would be the first one to do the haka if I saw that protocols were not being followed.
As we have done all through this pandemic, let us continue to follow the advice of the experts as we go through these unprecedented events.
KEEP CALM AND BE KIND
What I have been most impressed with is all the support we have received on our journey. From friends and whānau but also strangers online. The media took an interest in my story and many people have been following along and sending good vibes for a positive outcome. People offered to start a crowdfunding campaign if I needed funds and a petition to help my applications for exceptions. Even now I have received numerous offers from people asking what I need so they can drop things off to my hotel. I came into this process with a good attitude and I am getting through it with my usual positivity. I cherish every gesture and offer of support. Manaakitanga (hospitality), aroha (love), tautoko (support), kotahitanga (unity) - these are concepts that we live and thrive by. My children and I are well. We don’t need anything but we appreciate everything. Having a New Zealand passport is like holding a golden ticket and I feel like we have won the global lottery.