By Arpita Das
Photo: Maulee Senapati
Winter has arrived late this year. While the oak and maple trees valiantly hold on to their last set of leaves, the pona (silver fern) continues to lend an evergreen touch. It’s a symbol of hope as we head into a long Wellington winter, a winter like no other. As I write this, New Zealand is limping back to life as we knew it pre coronavirus time. Today is the fifth consecutive day with zero cases and zero fatalities. The health experts seem cautiously optimistic and the country relieved to have avoided a catastrophe. The economy isn’t so optimistic. As I receive updates about the Budget from the Prime Minister’s Office, PM Ardern empahises that today it isn’t about business as usual. She is absolutely correct; nothing is as we know it and will probably not be for quite some time.
And yet just a year ago, my parents had landed in Wellington to spend their first ever Southern hemisphere winter. June and July had meant overcoats, woolly caps, gloves, heaters, countless cups of tea and the goodness of winter root vegetables. August and September brought tulips, picnics along the charming waterfront and long walks. We had joked how they were going back to winter after living through a long winter. I am so relieved that while the pandemic did mean cancelling a long cherished family trip to South East Asia, fortunately we weren’t stranded in unfamiliar terrain.
As the virus was declared a pandemic, New Zealand continued to enjoy its summer. The changes were slow to come in. Initially, flights from Wuhan were stopped, followed by other destinations till the day that non-citizens were barred from entering. Then came the announcement of the borders being completely closed. As the number of positive cases increased, workplaces began to encourage people to work from home. As if on a global cue, this prompted hoarding, crowds at supermarkets thronged to empty shop shelves of toilet paper, sanitizers, rice, pasta and all cleaning products forcing businesses to put limits on items. When the lockdown announcement finally came, it was rumoured that people had bought freezers to store the ridiculously large amounts of food that they had bought. The survival instincts were brought to fore as otherwise polite shopping behaviour queues was replaced by hostility and aggression. When the lockdown was officially announced, we had 48 hours to prepare. My rather generous workplace allowed us to get peripherals to work from home comfortably and we began our four weeks of lockdown from 28th March.
Our two member family began our life in a bubble at level 4 (lockdown with no movement except for exercise and essential travel). Bubble, a popular lockdown term, described the allowed levels of interaction on an everyday basis. As rooted Indians, our bubbles are rarely nuclear. Despite being thousands of kilometres away, we were connected with our families even more- we shared a lockdown, an apprehension of the unknown, but most importantly the solidarity of facing this apart but together. Working from home became my new normal. Seeing my colleagues everyday virtually, with their children, pets, gardens, the Wellington coastline, the hills and a variety of cheerful ‘Zoom’ backgrounds we used, became a routine that I enjoyed. My workplace took great care to keep us connected. I was talking to many more colleagues and reaching out to people I normally would pass by in the corridors. Dining tables became work stations, office wear was swapped for pajamas and webinars became the go to tool to learn, unlearn and debate.
As an avid reader, the wonderful library system came to my rescue. Before the start of the lockdown, I had raided my local library and got some wonderful reads to last me through the lockdown- the timeframe of which wasn’t clear at the start. Despite being well versed in digital technology and privileged enough to own a multitude of gadgets, I was clear that I wanted to hold a real book. It was also a good way to mark the end of a work day, stow away the laptop and delve into my own time and space. Turning actual pages, using a bookmark, writing down my thoughts on paper brought back fond memories of my Aitama and her reading table. It also reminded me of the bookshelves at my Guwahati home, books that have been collected over years, across generations, gifted by authors, priceless manuscripts, and even books from World War II stocks for the RAF. While the enviable collection couldn’t travel with me across the oceans, a precious few have made their way here and serve as a wonderful bridge of being and belonging. As the nation moved out of lockdown in 5 weeks, I had completed about 6 months of reading. It’s a memory that I shall cherish in the post COVID world.
Wellington is a pretty city with hills, the sea and charming neighbourhoods. Despite living in the heart of the city, we are just a few hundred metres away from an urban forest. Part of a 14 kilometre long walkway that begins in the Wellington Botanic Garden and ends on the south coast of the city, there are umpteen number of possible walks. These tracks became a source of exercise, nature gazing, refreshment and gratitude in times when we were facing a deadly virus. While the otherwise bustling playground was a lockdown casualty, it was always a treat to see toddlers marvelling upon seeing the stream, butterflies or just a different shade of green. The songs of the local birds and the rare sightings tūī, the golden hue of the oak and the maple or the evergreen fern were part of our bubble. On the days that rain kept us indoors, we talked about these sights and revel in the realisation that there is nothing more soothing than nature in its glory. Almost a hundred walks later, the familiar routes continue to surprise us and its one habit that I want to hold on to once this is behind us.
The biggest learning from the lockdown however, for me, is learning to be grateful. As most readers of this piece, the pandemic has shown us the privilege of our existence. It has been an eye opener to look beyond our created sense of busyness, self centredness and consumerism. It is a reminder to value everything that does not come with a price tag- families, health, wellbeing, the shared morning cuppa, the birds chirping, a home cooked meal, spending time with our plants, the uncontrolled laughter of a child, listening to your parents voice or better still seeing them often, being respectful to those who do the most important jobs, watching a sunrise or admiring a sunset, praying, and smiling more often. In New Zealand, we have begun inching towards life before March 25th 2020, shops have opened; pedestrian lights are back in use; parking spots are full; weekend revelry is picking up and hopes are high that the friendly whale might visit the city soon again. I pray everyday that my lovely, dynamic and imperfect home turns the corner soon and celebrates the real heroes who have kept us safe, today and forever.
(Arpita Das lives in Wellington, New Zealand)