I just returned from being marooned in New Zealand for almost 2 years. I consider myself extremely lucky. I thought my visit to this beautiful nation would be for 3 weeks. Instead, I found myself with the option in March 2020 of returning to New York, then the epicenter of COVID, or staying put and going into lockdown. I went with the New Zealand option. I got “locked in” to a country everyone wants to go to and visited some of the most amazing places in the world free from tourist crowds. From May 2020 to November 2021, my visa was extended, without a job, without a Kiwi husband or partner, six times. Eventually, however, I got vaccinated and felt I should return to see my family in America.

Ironically, the moment I got vaccinated, I was flooded with a surprising flow of emotions. After a year and a half stuck in one country, as a full-time traveler, I thought I was ready to move on. New Zealand is beautiful, but I felt I had seen almost every nook and cranny. Once the possibility of leaving became real, unexpected feelings surfaced. 

rainbows over Kerikeri - Honey House Cafe
Honey House Cafe (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

A New Life

I created a life for myself in the small town of Kerikeri, New Zealand. Barely a day passed that I didn’t see someone I knew in the street. I was friends with half the shop-owners, volunteered at the St. John’s Op Shop, and regularly blogged at my favorite Cafe Zest in the center of downtown or the Honey House Cafe for one of the most beautiful views in Kerikeri. I had a wonderful group of women friends thanks to Latin Fit and got to know other wonderful friends through my time at Wharepuke Accommodation, Restaurant, Garden and Art. The moment I got vaccinated and could leave, I suddenly realized I didn’t want to. It was the moment I realized New Zealand had come to feel like home. 

I’d planned to fly to Australia 2 weeks after my second dose. As fate would have it, Sydney’s cases of the Delta variant spiraled out of control just before my flight, so my plan got sidetracked. I was granted more time in New Zealand, this time, with the eyes of gratitude and appreciation for all the beauty and kindness in my day-to-day experience.

Auckland cityscape, North Island, New Zealand
Naruedom Yaempongsa / Shutterstock.com

Auckland

In August, I accepted a ride from a new friend to Auckland. I planned to do a housesit 4 days later and then complete my time in New Zealand with a few goodbyes to friends around the north island. Instead, I ended up in lockdown. Though it was difficult and unfortunate, in the end, I’m thankful. The fact that I couldn’t roam around freely made it a touch easier to finally say goodbye. I heard a rumor in October that Sydney would open to New Zealand and drop quarantine requirements. I booked the first flight I could find, November 5. I waited in eager anticipation, wondering if the flight would actually happen. I would finally be able to see the wonderful friend I had been trying to get to for almost 2 years.

The day of my departure arrived. A Kerikeri friend who moved to Auckland gave me a lift to the airport. (Thanks, Dorys!) Another reminder of how gracious everyone I met was – from helping me through hardships to taking me in for long periods of time. I arrived at the airport and it struck me that this was the first plane I’d be on in two years. The airport was eerily empty. The man in the seat next to me wore a mask that kept dropping beneath his mouth, making me nervous. All-in-all, it was a smooth flight, and a few hours later, I was hugging my friend and staying with her family. In a few weeks, I got to the Blue Mountains, Melbourne, and all around Sydney. I’d hoped to get to Perth, but the borders were closed, and to the Whitsundays, but they required 2 weeks’ quarantine. I’ll have to return to see them one day.

Singapore Gardens By The Bay.
Singapore Gardens (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)

Home By Way Of Singapore

I wanted to break up my trip home to avoid a 30-hour period of wearing a mask. Unfortunately, open border options were few, so I went to Singapore. It was so tough to get there via the Vaccinated Travel Lane, I wrote a helpful article about what to expect. I was delighted to spend a couple of days at the Gardens By The Bay, which is amazing in person. I loved eating cheap meals at the local cafeterias and found the best satay of my life at Lau Pa Sat for about 50 cents a skewer. I met the owner of a fabulous new bakery, La Levain, and learned he and his wife had bought a house in New Zealand and planned to retire there. Small world! I found a delightful island called Pulau Ubin where I hiked to the highest point and took in lovely views of Malaysia. In just over a week, I got to see the main sites, and also find some lesser-known areas to spend my time. It was exactly the experience I had been craving after such a long time in one country. 

The streets of New York.
Heather Markel

Back To New York

I was finally ready to return to New York. My flight path home was via Korea, where I had a few hours layover. It felt strange that I was going “home” when I had just left a place that felt like home. I felt lonely as the deja vu of the Korean airport hit me. 2 years ago, I traveled there on my way to Vietnam, and it was much more crowded and had many more services available. My flights to New York were so empty I had 3 seats to myself on both planes. It was great for sleeping, but impossible to do my usual routine of coming off the plane with a new friend. 

Once I was through immigration, I jumped into a taxi. As we entered Manhattan and drove through familiar streets, I felt an unfamiliar feeling. On other returns to New York City, I felt like my “trip” was instantly just a memory. This time, I felt like I didn’t belong anymore. Everything around me was more or less the same, yet I changed. There was no nature to fill my soul with a connection to spirit. Central Park simply doesn’t compare to tropical lush trees, the call of the Tui nearby, and the ocean’s caress of the nearby shore. It was an emptiness that won’t soon be filled.

Another unexpected experience was panic attacks. After 2 years in a place that tried to limit COVID exposures and a society that cooperated, I was shocked that there are no check-in points in New York City and I haven’t been asked for my vaccination card once. I’m more afraid than I’ve felt the entire pandemic. There are shortages on the shelves at the pharmacy, and a lack of pharmacists, experiences I never had in New Zealand.

I’m one of thousands of people around the world who got stranded far from home for 2 years due to the pandemic. Each of them understands the layers of difficulty trying to find a way home and then not feeling at home. Our families have had such different pandemic experiences that a natural gap is created. Will it be bridged? 

While I try to adapt back into the world I used to know, there’s a lot I don’t want to adjust to. I am forever changed by Aotearoa. I left behind the summer-kissed blue water, the rolling hills, kawakawa leaves and remedies, friends, and massive mountain ranges. I won’t soon forget my experiences there because I carry them with me as I continue forward.



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