Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: I’m Stuck in New Zealand

A lush green hillside dotted with homes in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

For several years, my boyfriend and I saved up to go on a trip around the world. Our plan was to see New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and multiple countries in Europe in a year with only one carry-on bag each. We began making plans in November 2019—long before we heard anything about the coronavirus.

We weren’t deterred when we started seeing news about the virus in January. Our preparation included consulting with an infectious disease doctor, who assured us that as long as we didn’t go to China and maintained proper hygiene, we didn’t need to worry about getting sick. Still, as our departure crept closer, I was worried we were being reckless. Around then, toilet paper was flying off the shelves in the U.S., and the outbreak was tearing through Italy. But I pushed aside that anxiety, determined to remain optimistic, and we began our trip on March 4 as planned. Our first stop: New Zealand. The plan was to take a road trip through the entire country, from Auckland to Queenstown, in two weeks. Then the world began shutting down. Six weeks later, we’re still here.

Other than a brief questionnaire and temperature check before entering Tahiti for our layover, we didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary while flying out. In New Zealand, I was encouraged to see it was business as usual for shops, restaurants, and hiking trails. Kiwis remained their relaxed and cheerful selves, with their daily lives unaffected by COVID-19.

But that changed rapidly. One week into our trip, New Zealand began requiring a mandatory 14-day self-isolation for anyone entering the country. We were relieved that we had arrived early enough to travel freely through the country, figuring that all our plans would remain intact. The next day, Australia—our next destination—announced its own self-isolation measures. After hearing this, we spent a solid hour mourning our original plans before coming up with a new one. We reframed the situation as an opportunity to enjoy more of New Zealand. As we’ve said to each other countless times, this isn’t the worst place to be stuck.

A couple of days later we arrived in Wanaka, easily the highlight of the trip so far. There, in the up-and-coming town beside a huge lake nestled in mountains, we began to hear about impacts on the local community from our rock-climbing guide, who told us that we would probably be his last clients before the government ordered businesses to close. As we descended the cliff after our long climb, he fielded calls with his staff about their hours being reduced and closing their other locations. They were even talking about selling liquid chalk (containing 70 percent alcohol) as hand sanitizer to make up revenue.

Still, we held out some hope that we could continue a semblance of the vacation—until we arrived in Queenstown from Wanaka. Our first day there, the streets were filled with families and backpackers. On our second day, we left before sunrise for a cruise in Milford Sound and came back to a ghost town that evening. Restaurants began collecting customer contact information via sign-in sheets so they could contact you if they found out someone had COVID-19. The locals we spoke with recommended that we stay and hunker down, but Queenstown has few Airbnbs or grocery stores.

Worried we’d have nowhere to stay, we drove six hours to Christchurch on March 23. The day before, a helicopter flight lesson company had told us they would be open, so on the drive, we called to schedule one. Somberly, they informed us that the entire country would be under a strict lockdown within 48 hours, so they couldn’t schedule lessons or flights. All businesses except grocery stores and pharmacies would be closed for at least four weeks. Everyone was urged not to leave home except to use essential services or exercise outdoors. With no other choice, we immediately booked an Airbnb while still on the road.

We were devastated after hearing the announcement. With less than 200 COVID-19 cases nationwide at the time, a total lockdown seemed overly cautious. Suddenly, it looked like New Zealand wasn’t the best place to be after all.

In Christchurch, our adventure ground to a halt and we fell into a dull rhythm. The police patrol diligently and once stopped us to (very nicely) ask us where we were headed and advised us to go straight home afterward. Some Kiwis become noticeably wary of us after hearing our accents and more than occasionally ask us when we arrived. At the pharmacy, I stand two meters from the register and call out all the items I need so my “personal shopper” can get them for me. With no food delivery, we cook dinner every night out of necessity. Some days we’re creative and cook tahdig (crispy Persian rice) or bake focaccia, but we mostly cook simple dishes like steak and tacos and unabashedly eat handheld meat pies from the freezer aisle.

Every day at 1 p.m., we check the updated infection numbers hoping to hear good news. As frustrating as this has been personally, the government’s early intervention is working. The daily number of recoveries has begun to exceed the number of new cases. We hope this trend continues so we can start traveling again. The beauty of having an open-ended travel plan is that we can be flexible on where we go and when. But we may be here for a while.

We follow the news to watch how things are unfolding in the U.S. and anxiously check in on our friends and family back home. Listening to their experiences has driven home for me that everywhere in the world, even in this far-off corner, we’re all experiencing the same trauma at once. The pandemic is at once a global crisis and an acutely personal experience. Not a single Kiwi has asked us what it’s like in the U.S., and our friends and family are primarily focused on how the virus is affecting their own communities. For us, we can’t stop thinking about where we’ll go the second the lockdown is over.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.