Day 7-Calling It

It’s taken a long time to get this posted. I think this is more about the trauma of the current COVID-19 situation and the disappointment of coming home early than jet lag or “busyness.” Strange days indeed.

We were packed and ready for the bike tour. We woke Saturday morning to messages from many of our siblings and some friends. “What are you doing now? Are you coming home?” We had to get on the internet to find out what had happened in the U.S. in the time since we went to sleep in New Zealand. Apparently the U.S. Department of State said U.S. citizens should return home. Specifically, they said “The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” Hmm. An indefinite period. Suddenly, heading out into rural New Zealand for a three-day bike tour did not seem like such a good idea.

I changed from bike shorts to travel pants and called the travel agency. Again, First Light Travel was available to support us. Despite the fact that it was 6-something on Saturday morning, I was able to reach a live agent and get the cancellation process going. While the agent tried to reach the bike tour company, I got on United’s web site to see if we could change our flights and depart from our current location in Queenstown rather than Christchurch, as originally planned. I was pleased to see that there were two options for the current day that allowed us to change our itinerary for $5 plus tax. It was almost a no-brainer to go ahead with this change, though we were sad to depart New Zealand early.

No one was able to reach the bike tour company, so Maureen met their representative by the hotel office at the appointed time. He seemed disappointed by our decision, but I learned later that the company suspended operations that same day—pulling people that had already departed off the trails. So I think we actually saved them (and ourselves) some hassle. We let the office know that we would not be checking out at 7:45 and were assured that we could leave our bags there until we departed for the airport.

Due to our bike tour packing scheme, we now needed to reorganize all of our stuff. Thankfully we had leftover duck and lamb to sustain us (yep, for breakfast). We took care of that task, dropped our bags at the office, and headed into town to enjoy the rest of our time in New Zealand. I’ve noted earlier that Queenstown seemed to be emptying out. It was even more evident on this final day. Also evident was the nervousness of locals and shopkeepers. In one store, they were spraying disinfectant after each group of tourists left the store. Despite this, we did some shopping—not surprisingly, there were some sales going on as retailers rushed to clear out the season’s merchandise before everyone left.

Sign of the times in Queenstown
Seen in Queenstown. No identifying information.

Eventually, we decided that lunch would be a good idea. Our hostess at the Alexis had mentioned that Vudu had a sister restaurant. We couldn’t remember the name, but Googling “Vudu sister restaurant” solved the problem and Google maps got us there. The restaurant, Bespoke Kitchen, was up a little hill on the edge of the downtown area. The menu was very similar to Vudu’s and I had to resist the urge to have the breakfast board, which was essentially the same as the daily greens breakfast plate I’d had at Vudu. Instead, I had the soup of the day (squash, carrot, something something) with gluten-free bread and lovely New Zealand butter. Maureen had a chicken empanada and we shared an Americano. Quality rivaled Vudu. Happy eating ensued.

One of the things that was interesting on this day was that other travelers kept striking up conversations with us. I think it was because everyone was nervous about the developments around the world and whether they needed to go home. This happened again at Bespoke Kitchen. By this point, we were getting nervous ourselves about getting to the airport and getting home, so we headed back toward the hotel. We gathered our bags and the proprietor called a taxi for us. Interestingly, we had not paid directly for a taxi yet (all were prearranged and prepaid) so I asked advice about whether to pay with cash or credit. We learned that most would take cards, but there was a surcharge, so cash was best. Fortunately, we had withdrawn enough to last two weeks, so our supply was adequate. Tipping is not expected in New Zealand, so our driver seemed surprised when I rounded up just 2 NZD upon our arrival.

The Queenstown airport was not overly crazy. Of course, the kiosk started, but could not complete, our check-in process. We looked at the long “assistance” line and also noted that a nearby agent seemed to be helping folks who got kicked out by the kiosks. Luckily, she was able to print our boarding passes and baggage tags before getting transferred to the baggage receiving line (to which we followed her).

The airports in New Zealand don’t announce gates until just before boarding begins, so we sat in a general area and consumed food that we knew we couldn’t take home (sadly, this did not include the New Zealand wines we left behind at the Alexis). The gate area did not provide room for adequate social distancing, but we did the best we could. The aircraft was an A320, but not as nice or new as the one we flew on our first NZ domestic flight—we were happy, though, just to have seats.

At the Auckland airport, social distancing was more evident. We repeated the outdoor trek between the domestic and international terminals (in reverse), enjoying the fresh air. The security line had many signs reminding people to stay 2 meters apart. We probably dawdled a bit longer than we should have at duty free, eventually choosing a bottle of Jameson’s Round and some Cadbury Flakes and using up our New Zealand cash.

Yum.

Unfortunately, this pleasant diversion meant that most of the eateries in the Terminal had closed when we got there. I don’t know if this is normal or due to COVID-19, but the restaurants all seemed to close at or before 8:00, despite the fact that there were several flights departing much later. We squeaked in under the wire to get some steamed dumplings. I guess McDonald’s was still open, but luckily we weren’t forced to go that route. We should have visited the Strata Lounge, but couldn’t muster the energy.

They announced the gate about an hour before the scheduled departure time, and everyone trekked towards the boarding area. There was another checkpoint on this journey, which seemed to be related to the pandemic. They didn’t say, but I suspect that they were looking for anyone who was obviously sick, or trying to go somewhere they couldn’t legally travel. Not long after we got to the gate, there was an announcement that those who had made a “last minute” change to be on this flight should report to the desk. Many of us looked at one another (from across appropriate distances) wondering what that meant. Two hours ago, two days ago, two minutes ago? Maureen went to the desk and was told it was within the last 24 hours. Thank goodness she did that, because once they clarified this on the loudspeaker, the desk was jammed. We were simply given new boarding passes (even farther back on the plane), but we watched some people having to turn in their boarding passes and get forms to fill out for possible later flights. One woman was in tears when they returned to the waiting area (happy ending though, they eventually got on the plane).

After a bit more waiting, and of course the waves of pre-boarding, we got on the plane. It turns out we were surrounded by a bunch of people who had just come from the science stations in Antarctica. They weren’t necessarily being evacuated, but they were nearing the end of the summer season and there was concern about them being able to get home, due to capacity reductions and border closures, if they didn’t leave right away. The bonus for us was that they were coming from a place with zero COVID-19 cases. And they were far less freaked out than almost everyone else.

The flight was unremarkable, just your average 12-hour flight with minimal sleep. We didn’t have the benefit of pre-ordered meals, but fortunately the food was pretty decent. We had chicken curry for very very late dinner (by which time the dumplings had long worn off, so we were grateful to eat) and eggs with beans and chicken sausage for breakfast. New Zealand wine was on offer, so we again used that to try to encourage sleep (somewhat successfully).

The last four hours of the flight seemed like four days. But eventually we arrived in Los Angeles. It was eerie flying in, since it was the middle of the day but the freeways were almost empty. The airport was not as empty. People were distancing a bit, but not as much as one might hope.

I had received conditional approval for Global Entry, so was hoping to complete the interview process upon arrival. We were directed to a CBP agent who was doing the “interviews” and after some gruffness he looked me up on the computer, took my photo and fingerprints and said I should get my card in a couple weeks. No email from CBP yet, and it hasn’t quite been long enough for the card, but hopefully it worked.

Next stop was Customs, where we reclaimed our bags and pretty much walked through. Very uncrowded at this point. After quickly expanding our big bag to fit the duty-free whiskey in, we rechecked the bags and started hiking toward our domestic terminal. We had hoped to revisit Point the Way Cafe, but they were closed, apparently for COVID (the sign was not very informative) so we kept walking to our actual terminal, where everything except the convenience/magazine/sundries store was also closed. I chose an Honest Tea half tea half lemonade in an attempt at rehydration (since Powerade is never an adequate substitute for Gatorade) and a PayDay bar. Super nutritious lunch, I know. I did at least supplement with cheese and crackers from the previous flight’s dinner. Maureen chose beef jerky and a Dunkin’ Donuts bottled Mocha Iced Coffee. Ah, the things we do in a pandemic (or maybe just an airport). As we snacked, we switched out the SIM cards in our phones and then checked in with our families.

There were about 6 people on our flight to Colorado Springs. The flight attendants seemed completely unfazed by the whole situation. For us, after a 12-hour flight, two hours seems like nothing. We were exhausted when we arrived in Springs and noted that the lounge there was closed as well due to COVID-19. Our bags were already waiting for us, so we chose to enjoy the brisk Colorado air and walk to the car. We had booked a room at the nearby Hilton Garden Inn, so we made our way there. This was the first place in the U.S. that was doing a good job of handling the situation (yay, Hilton). The young woman who checked us in disinfected my credit card before she touched it, and informed us that breakfast was now carry-out or room service only. Given our meager “lunch,” we were really hungry and selected some microwaveable food from the “pantry” to take up to our room. I have to admit that I didn’t much care at that point what it was or how much it cost. There were no mixers to be found, so we had vodka on the rocks with our microwave dinners. One of the benefits of staying in a hotel the first night back was that we could bag up all of our travel clothing and take showers in a place that wasn’t our home. This lack of sports on TV is really weird though, I must say.

In the morning, we called down to the desk and they first said they would bring a menu, then called back and said we don’t have menus, what would you like? [Side note: menus seem like a sketchy thing in pandemic times; the only place we actually saw someone wiping down something similar was at the cheesy kiwi place in Hokitika (which we are now really glad we visited).] We opted for eggs and potatoes and pancakes (for Maureen) and I also had some tomato juice (rehydration continues—let’s not talk about the previous night’s vodka). They brought everything to the room, but actually brought it in (still social distancing, but not ideal) and left it for us.

My car had been telling me that a tire was low for a couple days before we left, and it had been not visibly low, but sounding low when we drove the two miles from the airport to the hotel. Once the frost burned off, I ventured out to see if I could get it “fluffed up” with my mini-compressor. That was successful, so we loaded up and headed for Boulder. On the way, Maureen called Moe’s Bagels, as we had investigated getting lunch and discovered that they were also selling milk, eggs, lunch meat, and cheese. She called dibs on some milk and eggs and they told her to order everything else when we got there.

The Rebbe pickup had to be contactless, sadly. He was happy to see us and we got to at least wave to the Boulder Garelicks. By this time we were wondering how we were going to find a bathroom. There are few rest areas, and most of them were closed, as were the dine-in areas of restaurants since many places in Colorado were already realizing the value of protecting their staff and patrons. Once again, Moe’s was the solution. After Maureen went in and got our food and lunches (and used the facilities), I went in briefly and picked up the coffees she’d ordered once I visited their clean bathrooms.

Gratuitous Rebbe photo

We made two more stops, one to switch drivers at our favorite point for doing so, the Air Force Academy overlook on the north side of Colorado Springs, and again for fuel (and a much needed car wash!) in Fountain. I’d say traffic was a little more than half of normal—certainly not as deserted as the California freeways. We were relieved, but sad, to reach home. I know we made the right call, but it’s hard to walk away from a long-awaited vacation. Wishing all of you health and sanity as we get through the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Cover image credit: painting by Kelsea MacIlroy, based on a photo taken on the flight back from Milford Sound.

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