Categories
Essay

One Life, One Love, 300 Children

Keith Lyons writes of Tendol Gyalzur, a COVID 19 victim, a refugee and an orphan who found new lives for many other orphans with love and an ability to connect.

Tendol Gyalzur: “My religion is wiping children’s noses.”

This story is about how one person found joy and happiness, not in accumulating material possessions or going viral on social media, but in finding her purpose through doing service, and making a difference to many, many lives.

Yet it might have turned out differently for Tendol Gyalzur. Her parents and brother were killed as they fled Tibet. As an orphaned refugee she was adopted in Europe. She had every reason to be bitter, every reason to hold a grudge, every reason to hate. It took great courage for her to return to her childhood homeland which had been invaded by China. It took huge sacrifice for her to work with those occupiers who’d orphaned her. And it took a deep love for her to admit that sworn enemies were actually capable of love.

I first met Tendol nearly 20 years ago while I was travelling in the Tibetan borderlands of north-west Yunnan province, in a place which later changed its name to Shangrila in a shrewd move to attract tourists in search of the fictional place of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933). In Zhongdian, a predominantly-Tibetan town which sits at a literally breath-taking 3,300m above sea level, the owner of my guesthouse drew me a rough hand-drawn map on a blank back page of Lonely Planet China showing the route from the Old Town to the ‘Gū’ér yuàn’ (solitary nursery).

I made my way through the rough cobblestone lane maze of the Old Town, past steamy yak hotpot restaurants and karaoke bars where red-robed monks drank beers and barley spirits, to the much-larger New Town with its wide boulevards, guarded bank buildings and muddy construction sites.

After turning right at a new 4-star hotel, skirting alongside a placid lake, and halting just before the town’s new traffic-light junction, I spotted a sign for the orphanage. The arrows took me behind a primary school into a residential area, and up to a walled compound. I knocked on the gate metal door, a couple of guard dogs inside started barking, and eventually, the door was opened by someone in a cook’s apron and sporting the trademark Tibetan alpine rosy cheeks. “Welcome,” she said, and I presented my offering of a bag of warm winter hats, scarves and gloves. “Come in, and I will get Tendol.”

I’ve watched enough television and late-night charity ads in my life to assume that any orphanage will have poor, sad, bedraggled kids confined in drab quarters, but I was not expecting the light, spacious and clean courtyard, with a basketball court and stable with horses. Bright Tibetan motifs of the sun and moon and swirly cloud patterns decorated the trim of buildings, while in small gardens orange and yellow flowers reached for the clear blue skies above.

From one of the buildings out came a woman who, after stopping to tie up the shoelaces of a small child and send them off to play with a hug, introduced herself to me as Tendol. She ushered me into a small reception area where I was given tea, and after explaining about her work, she showed me around the facility, which had spartan but well-maintained tidy dormitories, classrooms for after-school study, and a cosy kitchen.

I was surprised not just at the uplifting environment and its positive vibe, but also at just how content the dozens of children seemed. As a deliberate policy, two aspects of the orphanage’s operation were aimed at mainstreaming and protecting the children. Rather than become a closed institution like most other orphanages in China, the children went to school at the nearby school next to the orphanage, so they could integrate with their peers. To give greater security and remove the fear of being further displaced, Tendol committed to keeping all the children in her care safe from being put up for adoption.

It was one big family, and the children regarded each other as brothers and sister, with the house-parents and Tendol and her husband Losang referred to as parents, aunty or uncle. While most of the children were Tibetan, some were from seven other ethnic minorities including Naxi, Yi, Lisu, and Han Chinese. With orphans found abandoned on the street, or having lost parents, she said how Children’s Charity Tendol Gyalzur doesn’t discriminate on the ethnic origin, the colour of skin, or religion. “Instead we accept those who are most in need of our help and protection.”

While most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, Tendol was brought up in Europe with Christian values, but her mission was never religious and the orphanages were non-denominational. In an interview she once said her work was practical and pragmatic rather than religious, “My religion is wiping children’s noses.”

“I am the happiest person on Earth,” Tendol would often tell me when I visited her bringing donated clothes and food, or guests. “Really, I am the happiest person,” she would declare, wrinkles appearing around her deep dark twinkling eyes as she smiled, while outside youngsters playing tag, improvised soccer and hopscotch shrieked and chortled. “You can write that down.”

I did take note of her genuine proclamation and was curious to learn about her story, not just of her tangible ‘bricks and mortar’ achievements, but also of her personal transformation which made her in my books more saintly and less dogmatic than the likes of Mother Teresa (now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta).

So how did an exiled orphan return from Switzerland to establish orphanages and nomadic schools across Tibetan areas during the last three decades? That journey, going full circle, from being an orphan herself to caring for hundreds of orphans, is Tendol’s story. The short answer is that was obviously very hard work, requiring dedication, perseverance, and boundless love. Tendol was supported by her family, especially her husband Losang Gyalzur and two sons, as well as donors throughout the world.

Given Tendol’s tough, turbulent childhood as an exile, refugee and orphan, you might expect her to hold a grudge against those who orphaned her. Yet she was possibly the kindest-hearted person you might ever meet.

I wanted to know about her life and struggles, and how she overcame the obstacles. When I stayed in Shangrila for 18 months, and later lived in the nearby town of Lijiang for a dozen years, I came to appreciate the difficulties for outsiders to live and work in China. For me and many other foreigners, the cost of visas and frequent visa-runs were higher than the actual cost of living.

Every year or so, someone I knew would be fined and deported. Several Tibetan-focused NGOs operating in Lhasa were kicked out, re-establishing in Yunnan, only to face more scrutiny and barriers. Tendol no doubt had to make some compromises in her work, but her continued ‘licence to operate’ seemed to come from her outstanding reputation, key connections and ultimately, from her record of success: she provided a social service for those most in need.

Tendol fled Tibet in 1959 during the suppression of the uprising against Chinese rule, escaping across the Himalayas with her parents and brother. Along the way, during the treacherous journey, her parents and brother died, and at one stage the group of refugees she travelled with left her behind in a remote village. She realised her plight, and ran after the caravan, making it through Bhutan to India, where she was placed in a refugee camp. She didn’t know the names of her parents or brother, nor did she know the date or year of her birth. Her age was only estimated based on the number of baby teeth.

The events of 1959 left tens of thousands dead and saw over 80,000 Tibetans, including the 14th Dalai Lama, flee to India. Tendol was transferred to an orphanage in Dharamsala run by the Dalai Lama’s sister and was chosen to be part of a group of a dozen children to go to Europe in 1963. Before departing to Munich, the Dalai Lama spoke to the children, hoping that one day they would be able to return to help rebuild Tibet and spread happiness, as ‘flowers that would later bloom in Tibet’.

She was adopted by a young German couple, both doctors, and grew up near Konstanz. As well as suffering culture shock and racial abuse for the darker colour of her skin, her less traumatic early memories include being invited to lunch with the mayor of Munich only to be served a bland meal of hominy grits, and being sick from eating too much chocolate at Easter.

In Germany, she met her husband, Losang, a fellow Tibetan refugee who had fled to Switzerland in 1972. They moved to near Zurich in Switzerland (the country with one of the largest populations of Tibetans) and started a family.

When her sons were still young, and when Tendol was 36 years old, she returned to Tibet for the first time in 1990, this time bearing the distinctive bright red Swiss passport with its bold white cross. While other visitors in the capital Lhasa were marvelling at the enchanting Tibetan Buddhist architecture and magnificent high-altitude scenery, she came across two dishevelled children rummaging through trash. She took them to a nearby place to eat, but at first, the manager refused to let them in.

“It was then, for the first time in my life, I realised that the only thing I wanted to do was fight for the rights of these abandoned children,” she said. “I know there are orphans all over the world, but I am Tibetan, and I wanted to help the orphans of Tibet.”

When she described her vision of establishing an orphanage in Tibet to her family and friends back in Switzerland and Germany, many argued it was an impossible dream. After all, she was just a surgical nurse, with little money, up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles to set up a private institution in bureaucratic and xenophobic Communist China.

Haunted by the images of the scavenging Tibetan street-children, which triggered her own memories of being an orphan, she took out her savings and some of her husband’s pension, sought donations and loans from family and friends, and secured some financial support from the Tibet Development Fund. Within three years of that pivotal moment in Lhasa, she returned in 1993 to open Tibet’s first private orphanage at Toelung just outside Lhasa. It started with just six children.

She opened a second orphanage in her husband’s hometown of Shangri-la in 1997, and five years later established a centre in western Sichuan for the children of nomadic herders.

Back in Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France, she gained more support from those inspired by her work. After dividing her time between both worlds she eventually moved to Shangri-la, spending time at the two other facilities and returning to Europe to report on progress and fundraise.

Although the authorities appreciated her work, and would often find or refer children to her care, the local government didn’t provide much in the way of resources. I remember one time Tendol showing me a large screen television gifted to the orphanage by officials, and lamenting the lack of government support for her humanitarian work. In later years, the government was more supportive, offering to fund teachers’ salaries and helping with clothing, food, housing and transportation. Chinese have been among the sponsors and volunteers, though the vast majority of the funds to maintain the operation have always come from abroad.

While some children’s charities gain sympathy and support by showing emotive images of deprived downtrodden children, Tendol didn’t rely on this tactic to attract donors. Instead, the charity showed the children doing activities, playing, and having fun, with some before and after photos showing the transformative for some of the orphans found abandoned on the streets.

Her husband joined her in Shangrila, and one of her sons, who had been a professional ice hockey player in Switzerland, relocated to establish a craft brewery, one of the highest in the world, which also employs adult orphans as part of a training and apprenticeship scheme. Songtsen’s two restaurants also give skills to youngsters in the tourism-oriented economy.

As the children in the orphanage grew older, some went on to tertiary study, vocational training and jobs. One of the former orphans from her Lhasa home became house parent in Shangrila. Tendol once confessed to me the challenges of seeing the children grow into adults. “It was a big change for me, from looking after them as children, to seeing them start careers, get married and have families.”

She hoped that in the family-atmosphere of the homes the children would not only strengthen their identity and independence but also live and work peacefully together. Each child had daily and weekly duties including keeping the premises clean, with teenagers, often seen hanging out laundry, helping the cooks prepare meals or playing for younger residents.

Volunteers were enlisted to help teach the Tibetan language, which was in danger of dying out, and as well as completing homework the residents were given lessons in Tibetan and English. When I lived in Shangrila I often visited, bringing other travellers to play with the kids. Teachers would devise fun games, musicians would teach new songs, and a juggler would entertain the children. When a new performance hall was completed, the interaction could take place indoors, with the children sometimes welcoming visitors with traditional songs and dances. The openness of the orphanage and its standing in the community meant you were as likely to see Tibetan monks or government officials come to study the innovative model as you were overseas sponsor groups or student volunteers.

After Songtsen joined his parents in 2008, an additional grassland property gave the children more space to run around in. The father of the orphanage, Losang, was an accomplished horseman, and a number of the children learned the skills of Tibetan horse riding, with several winning prizes at Shangri-la’s annual horse-riding festival.

Later when I moved to Lijiang, four hour’s drive away, I would still visit, sometimes taking small groups and families. If Tendol was in town and not away at the other orphanages or back in Europe, she was more often than not in a meeting or doing necessary paperwork. But she always made time, getting up from her desk to give me a big hug, sometimes lapsing into German (she admitted to mistaking me for a German-speaker as this was her main working language in liaising with sponsors and donors).

She was proud of all of her children. Around the walls of her office, certificates and prizes awarded her children joined photographs of her Swiss family and birth sons. Tendol had a big family that went beyond her own and her homes. She was also quick to point out that her endeavours weren’t just a one-way exchange, saying she’d learned a lot from the children, and that others might learn how to live in peace from them.

She said at the start she saw the Chinese as enemies. Her children would throw stones at any Chinese. But she was able to turn those enemies into friends and allies, and Chinese have been among those supporting her work.

As she passed retirement age, and Losang turned 70, they gradually closed the orphanages, with the remaining children now under the care of well-run government orphanages, and the couple returned to Switzerland. The Shangri-La Brewery and Soyala restaurant still remain in Shangrila.

Last year Tendol’s achievements were outlined in the German-language book Children of Tibet: The Unbelievable Story of Tendol Gyalzur, published in Switzerland. Publishers Woerterseh would like to release an English translation.

However, the last chapter of Tendol’s life of service in helping 300 children came earlier this month, when she succumbed to coronavirus, and died in Switzerland. The New York Times was one of the media offering a tribute to her life, in its new ‘Those We’ve Lost’ section highlighting the lives of those who have died from COVID-19. In Shangrila, one media outlet praised her inspirational life overcoming many obstacles, poetically declaring, “Love is boundless, and able to turn dry lands into a lush pasture.”

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Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Categories
Musings

People matter more than Money

By Keith Lyons

Some of my best friends on Facebook aren’t my friends anymore

It was the post on Facebook, in the early days, before, you know, before it got really serious. “Does anyone know of anyone actually getting this virus?” The question behind the question was something like ‘this is all fake news, all made up, this is not real’. In the comments section, her FB friends and followers were quick to respond. No. No. Don’t know. No. No. Don’t know anyone. As if to confirm suspicions. So, the poster followed up. Wasn’t it interesting that no one of her hundreds, perhaps thousands of friends, had themselves or knew of anyone with the virus?

When I checked later that week, the denial and dismissal hit some bumps. People, from around the globe, added comments to the list. Yes, they knew of someone who had it. Yes, one of their friends got COVID. Yes, I have it.

So that conspiracy theory in the making was quashed. I selected first unfollow, then unfriend. And thought about blocking or reporting.

But like the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, more so-called Friends were re-posting ‘alternative news’, or penning their own takes on the virus. Sure, we are in a democracy. Sure, information is distributed. Sure, we can be critical of official sources. But when a friend posts, all in upper case, “THIS IS ALL CRAP” I am tempted to turn off the shouting. Because this is a sign that someone has been contaminated, just like in the horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead. Ironically, it is their shouting about all the unnecessary fear and overblown panic that suggests that they themselves are afraid and panicking and have chosen to find comfort in the thin veneer of insight that comes with conspiracy theories. Just that you can’t call them conspiracy theories. Non-mainstream views sounds nicer. Alternative news perhaps.

I’m told not to believe public health officials, political leaders, epidemiologists or scientists. Because, somehow, without educational qualifications, just with a little time using Google and YouTube, my friend is now privy to the real truth, and I am just a mere witless sheep, so naive, so unable to see that this virus hoax is actually a black swan event being used by the powerful elites and clandestine organisations to bring about compulsory micro-chipping, GPS tracking and vaccinations. Or is it really a white swan event, and we could have seen it coming?

So, who will achieve world domination through the pandemic and the recession to follow? The coronavirus itself, isn’t that its goal, aided and abetted by human carriers? All of this is a tad confusing. There’s an invisible virus which is wreaking havoc, it has almost closed down many nations and brought a halt to human activity. We can hear the birds singing, the water is clearer, the air is breathable again, and filled with smells and fragrances. It is an unexpected benefit of lockdown. In such a short amount of time, the Earth has started to heal. We’ve seen how a new world might look, with the kindness of neighbours, a sense of community, time to pause, linger, reflect.

There’s a psychological test, where you imagine yourself in a white room, with no way out. What do you do? Your answer is supposed to indicate your attitude towards death, specifically your own death. In a way, the lockdown has been like a mini-psychology test, to see how we do behave. Are we productive and organised, with full routines and self-care and connecting with others? Or instead, do we mope around, eat too much, binge on Netflix or entertainment as a means of escape, rather than use this time to sort out some things in our lives? Funny how a few months ago many of us were complaining we don’t have enough time with our families or that we are putting off doing things because we are too busy. Yet when the opportunity to spend quality time together or the freedom to do that home decorating task finally arrives, instead we find ourselves wanting to kill those we live with, lamenting over our lack of progress on those rainy day errands, or getting into a cycle of avoidance, regret, and guilt.

In these turbulent times, many things have been put on hold. Not just haircuts, or holidays. But many things have carried on too, though in ways that are not so familiar to us.

The first of my friends to get COVID-19 was in Canada, though she wasn’t able to be tested to confirm her case. One of my best friend’s mother died at the start of the lockdown, not from the virus, but from the kind of natural causes that sees you go out in your late nineties. Travel restrictions and prohibitions on gatherings meant a small service was held via video link.

A comedian and actor from my childhood, Tim Brooke-Taylor, died from COVID-19, on the other side of the world, but because he’d been in the living room when I was young, it seemed like it was close. Then, just a few days ago, a friend calls from China, bearing sad news. One of my friends, a Tibetan in her sixties who founded orphanages and schools across Tibet, had died in Switzerland. The cause of death, I check and re-check the translation on the article in the newspaper: the virus. Tendol was the kindest, big-hearted, loving person I have ever met. She was literally mother to over 300, having welcomed street children, abandoned waifs and orphans into her homes.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, it seems to have separated out those countries that have acted quickly from those who haven’t, or those lacking resources. The daily updates of confirmed cases, patients in hospital, and deaths seems to be too much like the Olympic medal table. We check on how we are doing, how others are doing, how we are doing in relation to our rivals. Self-proclaimed experts ponder exponential curves and possible projections, politicians casually dismiss that it might hurt tens of thousands of people, but they are standing in the way of economic growth.

I would like to go on Facebook and tell others about my friend Tendol, who more than once told me she was ‘the happiest person on Earth’. I would like to let others know that this pandemic is human, not mathematical. I would like others to know people matter more than money, that you can re-start an economy but you can’t bring someone back to life, that if you let go of selfishness and greed you may find your love extends beyond yourself, your family, even your country.

I would like to say this to all my Facebook friends, though the ones I’d really like to reach are now quarantined, unfollowed, unfriended.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

Categories
Musings

Julie Felix: Singer, star-gazer and child of the universe

By Keith Lyons

There’s some wise advice that you should never meet your heroes in person, for fear of destroying their aura of invincibility. But what happens when you meet a childhood hero, the singer of a song which is still on rotate in the back-catalogue jukebox of your mind? This is a tribute to the great, late Julie Felix, a legend in her lifetime, who was more than just a bohemian folk singer who knew no borders.

Julie Felix

It is not easy to classify Julie Felix, who died the week before last, aged 81. Most of the labels don’t fit. Sure, you could tag her as a folk singer, as she had one of the longest careers in folk music, spanning more than half-a-century. The singer-songwriter was also a humanitarian and human rights activist, having been politicised in the 1960s and was active in peace and environmental movements. But to dismiss her just as a protest singer of yesteryear would be to ignore her much larger contribution.

Californian-born and raised Catholic (as a child she wanted to become a nun), Julie started singing at beach parties and coffee bars, then tripped around Europe, where she had a fateful meeting with Leonard Cohen on a Greek island in 1962. Arriving in the UK with just her guitar and duffel bag, the woman in her mid-twenties known for her strong voice and long black hair rose to prominence in 1960s beatnik England as folk music gained in popularity. She ended up spending much of her time on that side of the Atlantic, including a stint in Norway, dying peacefully in her sleep in a village north of London once rated the happiest places to live in the UK.

With Mexican, Welsh and Native American ancestry and heritage, the American, British-based recording artist was very much a global citizen who defied being placed in a box. Her passion for music was instilled by her father, a Mexican mariachi ensemble musician who played guitar and accordion, while her Welsh American mother liked the mournful ballads of Burl Ives — both her parents had Native American blood.

In 1964, even the British record label Decca Records didn’t know whether to place her debut album in the classical category for folk music or take the risk in marketing her music as ‘pop’ and mainstream. It was eventually decided she was a pop singer. That decision was a key moment in her career. She became a household name, TV star and Top Twenty recording artist. In the late sixties, perhaps oblivious to her Californian origins, The Times newspaper described the musician as ‘Britain’s First Lady of Folk’. She had an engaging voice and a charming manner, but never learned to read music. She put it down to being at the right place at the right time. “Fate whisked me along,” she said in an interview last year. And it was fate that led to me meeting Julie almost 30 years ago.

There’s a wise saying that you should never meet your heroes in person. Obviously, I chose to ignore that advice when I met Julie, my childhood hero of sorts.

I knew of her because she sang a song popular at primary school and on the radio, particularly on the New Zealand Sunday morning children’s hour show Small World where ‘Going to the Zoo’ was a popular request along with Spike Milligan’s fairytale ‘Badjelly the Witch’. ‘Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow . . . And we can stay all day!’ starts out with the catchy chorus: We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, How about you, you, you? You can come too, too, too, We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.’

The action song, complete with onomatopoeic animal noises, was a big hit at Nayland primary school, and it was a soundtrack on constant loop when we made a school trip to the nearby Tahunanui Zoo (now known as Natureland Wildlife Trust and more into wildlife conservation than a petting zoo), back before zoos became places to avoid because of their treatment and captivity of animals.

So, in 1992 I met up with Julie in the South Island of New Zealand and travelled around the Catlins area near Dunedin for almost a week with the legendary folk singer, hosted by Fergus and Mary Sutherland of Catlins Wildlife Trackers. At the time I was a budding writer, fresh out of post-graduate journalism school. As well as tagging along to write some stories for newspapers and magazines, I was quickly identified as the unofficial local guide, the fixer, and the fetcher. I was tasked with taking photos, opening wine bottles, and carrying her prized guitar. We hiked trails to spectacular waterfalls in the lush forest, visited panoramic coastal viewpoints, ventured into limestone cathedral arches, combed beaches looking for petrified tree fossils, and watched dolphins play in the surf.

At night, with no street lights, if the skies were clear, we’d go outside to admire the Southern Hemisphere stars with the Milky Way and its just-visible breakaway of large Magellanic cloud, and the constellations unfamiliar to Julie, such as the Southern Cross, or ones easily recognisable, such as Orion, which were differently oriented compared to night skies in Europe and North America. “This is where I belong,” she declared after a long session of awed gazing, “I am a child of this wonderful universe.”

On that adventure was the glamorous American health and beauty author, Leslie Kenton, daughter of jazz musician Stan Kenton. There was a little bit of tension on our sightseeing trip, as Leslie, former health and beauty editor at Harpers and Queen, and author of Raw Energy and The X Factor Diet was into raw food for vitality and longevity, while Julie was more into living in moment rather than her appearance, the future or order. She didn’t wear make-up, she dressed in comfortable clothes, and she enjoyed the occasional puff on hand rolled cigarettes. It wasn’t quite a reckless rock n’ roll lifestyle, more of a down-to-earth, unpretentious, good-hearted existence.

Julie’s habits were met with a disapproving look from radiant Leslie, who was three years younger — though it was health freak Leslie who died earlier, in 2016, aged 75, near Christchurch, having been charmed enough by New Zealand from that first visit to decide to move permanently.

The slight clash of personalities, Julie later confided to me, was mainly astrological. Fortunately, we got on well, possibly because I didn’t want to change her in any way, had no expectations, and I also shared Julie’s skepticism, about the virtues of coffee enemas. Though I must admit, I did hope that at some stage she would sing THAT song.

Julie would roll her eyes after another plea from Leslie to try a new-fangled supplement, recently-discovered treatment or life-changing product. “Where are we going to tomorrow?” she once asked me to divert Leslie’s attention, so she could go out for some fresh air and a smoke. “To the zoo,” I replied, hoping to subtly remind her of the song I wanted to hear her sing.

During the trip, Julie didn’t feel the need to impress, even though she had an impressive CV and contact list. She had become the first solo folk performer to sign with a major British record label, and in 1965 she was the first folk singer to fill the Royal Albert Hall – that same year she was the first ‘popular’ singer to perform at Westminster Abbey. She even had her own primetime BBC TV programme (the first colour series produced by the BBC), after being a member of David Frost’s satirical ‘Report’ team.

Her own series ‘Once More With Felix’ included guests The Bee Gees, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, The Hollies and Spike Milligan. Julie, with her dark, long hair, was often compared to (and sometimes mistaken for) fellow American and Californian resident Joan Baez. Even though she still had an exotic West Coast accent, a US passport, and sang songs penned by American’s Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon, she was once dubbed ‘Britain’s answer to Joan Baez’.

Among her contemporaries and friends were Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie (‘This Land is Your Land’), Dusty Springfield, Paul McCartney, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Page, and Leonard Cohen. She once opened for Dylan at the Isle of Wright Festival, later did a cover of his peace song ‘Masters of War’, and so liked the fellow Gemini’s music, she recorded a double-album of his songs. Julie was one of McCartney’s girlfriends, and it is said he sang ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to her before it was first performed publicly. She is credited with being the person who taught Cohen how to turn his poems into songs. If you get the chance, there’s a Youtube clip of her singing with Cohen ‘That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1EJ-ITAcEU). It was Cohen’s British TV debut.

Julie was born in Santa Barbara, but couldn’t get her musical career off the ground in the US, so with savings of US$1000 in her pocket, and inspired by Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, she hitchhiked across Europe (meeting Cohen in Greece on the bohemian island of Hydra and lending him her guitar), and then found a bigger audience in the UK, where she stayed for decades.

She once got arrested at Heathrow airport for possession of cannabis and carrying more than the allowable amount of cash — that was more than 50 years ago.

She first came to New Zealand in 1971, singing to a record-breaking crowd of 27,000 at Western Springs in Auckland, urging Kiwis to reject conscription for the Vietnam War. But she wasn’t just a singer of protest songs, she had a deep concern for the world, the environment, and its people, particularly those less well off. As well as being a singer, social justice, human rights and peace were important to her, and she was involved in many initiatives, charities and humanitarian causes for women’s rights, refugees, and victims of oppression, including projects to end the military use of landmines in Third World countries, and as an ambassador in the Middle East and Africa for Christian Aid.

One of her most requested songs is ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Lost Gatos)’, about the mistreatment of migrant farmers, while her top hit was ‘If I Could’, best known as the Simon & Garfunkel version ‘El Condor Pasa’ which starts off with the ‘I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail . . .’ And of course, among a younger audience, she was the voice behind the ‘Going to the Zoo’ song, which featured in her second album released in 1966 (that song was also sung by Peter, Paul & Mary).

At the end of the week, with Julie rejuvenated from the New Zealand natural scenery and serenity, (and with better access to tobacco, alcohol and spicy, ‘well-cooked’ food), she had a concert in Dunedin, and I got to be her temporary road manager, carrying her guitar, the treasured one from her father. After the soundcheck, one of her devoted fans, who had met her two decades earlier during the anti-Vietnam War era, snuck into the green room, and pressed upon her a tinfoil containing marijuana that he’d especially prepared just for her.

There was a surprisingly large turnout, with an older audience of loyal followers eager to hear her voice again, which had gone a little dusky over the years (she was then in her mid-50s), similar to the vocal trajectory of Joni Mitchell, thanks to the nicotine habit. On some of her songs, everyone sang along. After helping her out (‘Keith, where can I get . . . ‘ she would ask), I thought perhaps she’d do ‘Going to the Zoo’ as one of the encore pieces.

So if you haven’t heard it before, or if you did a long, long time ago, you can still hear Julie sing ‘Going to the Zoo’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgCiE_tiyQo). It is quite a good song if you currently are in coronavirus lockdown with children to entertain or care for. It ends with this:

Well we stayed all day and I’m gettin’ sleepy, Sittin’ in the car gettin’ sleep sleep sleepy, Home already gettin’ sleep sleep sleepy, ’Cause we have stayed all day.

Listening to her sing, as I stood backstage, I realised why I liked her, and it was because her voice reminded me of a simpler time, when I was young, when things seemed more black-and-white. “This world goes round and round, green leaves must turn to brown, what goes up must come down, It all comes back to you,” she sang out Tom Paxton’s ‘World Goes Round and Round’. “People knocking at the golden door, they got plenty but they still want more, don’t know what they’re looking for, the world goes round and round.” She has also sung Paxton’s ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’. It was Paxton who wrote ‘Going to the Zoo’. But did I get to hear her sing that zany song? Nope.

The next day, before Julie headed off on her travels (she wanted to go bungy jumping over the Shotover River in Queenstown), she confided that she did sometimes sing ‘Going to the Zoo’, but the performance was usually reserved for a much younger audience. “Keith, I’ve been singing that damn song for more years than you’ve been on this precious earth.”

She took away a few pebbles and shells we’d found on our shore and estuary ramblings, and I made her a booklet of photos from the trip. After our time together, we kept in touch.

A few years ago, she said that when she sings live, she taps into a great energy, and it was her way of praying. “Music is like breathing to me,” she declared. In one of her most recent interviews, she said she missed her youth and the energy she once had but was grateful at being able to make music and share it with others.

She was still touring, recording and performing into this year, with an album released in 2018 of her own songs, and a schedule of concerts planned for 2020. She had even teamed up Mike D’Abo from Manfred Mann to do songs they’d performed together more than half a century ago, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Fare Thee Well’ with the lines ‘So it’s fare-thee-well, my own true love, We’ll meet an-other day, an-other time’ (see this from 1967 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsH0xPFbV0g).

She died on Sunday 22nd March, a couple of days after another 81-year old who had made a contribution in expanding the audience for a music style and making it more mainstream, Kenny Rogers, and on the weekend when the UK went into lockdown.

Julie leaves a deep legacy not just musically, but in her ideals, and how she strived to make a difference. She was both a product of her time, and ahead of her time, in wanting to make the world a better place, and being prepared to speak up, particularly for those without a voice. In a divided world, she saw no divisions, only an unrealised global consciousness, that we are all one, all children of the universe.

Keith Lyons is an award-winning writer and creative writing mentor, originally from New Zealand, who has lived in Asia for more than a dozen years. His creative non-fiction, short stories, and poetry have been published in journals, magazines and anthologies around the world, and his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He edited and co-authored ‘Opening up Hidden Burma: journeys with – and without – author Dr Bob Perival’ (2018, Duwon Books), and is currently working on a book about finding Asia’s last island paradise, the Mergui Archipelago.

Categories
Essay

Countdown to Lockdown: Fear and Loathing in the Trolley Race at the End of the World

Keith Lyons from Christchurch discovers that the big world seems very small when it comes to stockpiling for the coronavirus.

If I had to choose a place to be to sit out the coronavirus pandemic sweeping over the globe, there are probably few places better than the South Island of New Zealand. A significant number of the world’s super-rich have invested in the Southern Hemisphere nation, some even buying residency through a controversial and secretive ‘Investor Plus’ scheme. Tech startup incubator for Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb, Sam Altman, Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel, and the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman are among those who have invested, buying secluded boltholes and luxury bunkers. One US company has constructed more than three dozen doomsday bunkers in New Zealand. Several of my friends have worked for ‘high net worth individuals’ as staff at remote lodges and on luxury super-yachts.

Kim Dotcom, of Megaupload, is among those who have decided to call New Zealand home. I call New Zealand home because I was born here. And now I’ve returned ‘home’ after more than a decade living in China and spending the last few years in South East Asia.

In February, this year, my route back from India via Myanmar took me through Phuket airport where a taxi driver had already been infected with the coronavirus. Transiting Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2, after an overnight in Denpasar International Airport in Bali, I discovered no tests had been made to determine if anyone had the virus. Then a short stopover in Melbourne, Australia, where there seemed to be no additional measures to combat the spread of the corona virus. Even on arriving in my hometown Christchurch, there were no temperature checks or questioning to see if I had come from China, Italy or South Korea. In mid-February, the most stringent measures encountered were in Central Phuket Festival mall, where the handful of customers going from one half of the normally teeming mall to the other side were stopped for a temperature check.

If 9/11 meant greater security with screening for knives, box-cutters, and nail files, and having to take out water bottles, mobile phones and laptops, almost two decades on, we are now adding to the security screening with thermal cameras and the symbol of 2020: thermometer guns. After the masked official at the Phuket mall held his gun to my forehead, satisfied that I didn’t have a raised temperature indicating fever, he turned it around so I could see the digital reading: 36.8 C. Now, I am not expert on human health, so assumed it was not too hot and not too cold, as I couldn’t make out if the official was smiling or grimacing behind his mask. At least they aren’t taking the readings the old-fashioned way, rectally.

One of the things about the coronavirus is that is it invisible and faceless. Like an imaginary menace. Its presence is only made more tangible and real when we see on TV the patients in ICU units, doctors and nurses in masks and glove hurrying around with beeping ventilators and tubes, maps showing the spread of the new virus which threatens like a hurricane.

The other thing about the coronavirus is the speed at which it moves, spreads, and intensifies. When I travelled back from Asia to Australasia, coronavirus was primarily a Chinese problem, with some possible spread to Italy. But as February turned into March, it became more apparent that this Wuhan wet market virus was going global big time.

I guess we should have all been ready for something like this to happen. It was corona virus — COVID19 — there was bound to be a pandemic which would sweep the world, infecting millions and killing many. After all, such an event has been predicted by everyone from Nostradamus and Bill Gates to author Dean Koontz (see conspiracy theories) and The Simpsons. There are even some among us who believe one episode of The Simpsons foretold the self-isolation of Tom Hanks.

There are also those among us who having known something like this was going to happen have made preparations for their survival. This is now an ‘I told you so’ occasion for the smug ‘preppers’ who feel vindicated having lined their shelters with emergency rations, first aid kits and firearms, though this coronavirus thing is turning out to be mild compared to the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it seems the ‘always carry’ list for those fighting the hidden enemy includes wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and N95 masks. The US company Preppi at one stage marketed a special US$10,000 prep bag which included gold bars for bartering.

My hometown, Christchurch, has experienced several traumatic events this last decade. A large earthquake in mid-2010 followed by a more devastating quake in early 2011 damaged nearly 100,000 buildings, half the city’s roads, and killed 185. A year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot dead 51 people at two city mosques. New Zealand is geologically young, and prone to natural disasters including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so most homes have emergency kits with food and water to last at least three days.

However, the prospect of an infectious pandemic with a lengthy lockdown period has taken most citizens by surprise. When on the second-to-last day of February news broke of the first case of coronavirus in New Zealand, brought by a resident returning from Iran, I was in my local supermarket a few hours after the announcement. There was no flour available, the shelves of the 1.5kg bags and 5kg bags were empty. It was not just the ordinary white flour, it was high-grade flour too, along with self-rising flour and wholemeal flour. On the next aisle of the Countdown supermarket, a Thai woman was posing for a photograph in front of shelves half empty of rice. I mentioned my observations later to friends and family, wondering if there was a shortage or some other reason.

A few days later there was news of a second case, this time arriving from Italy. But even though this virus had arrived on our shores, it seemed like its impact would be insignificant, as it was not spreading, and those returning to New Zealand had mild symptoms, not unlike a cold you pick up during a long haul flight. There were reports that some supermarkets have been swamped by customers buying toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.

Ten days later, the news was full of events happening far, far away in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The coronavirus had spread to more than 100 countries, and infected more than 100,000 — a few days earlier the World Health Organisation declared it an official pandemic. In New Zealand, the sixth case of the virus is confirmed. This did not deter my parents, who did their regular Saturday morning shopping at their usual supermarket. “Yes, it was quite busy, busier than normal,” my father noted.

During our Sunday dinner, I casually mentioned that maybe this was the last weekend that we would have the freedom to do things as normal, and perhaps from now on, it might be best if I went and did the shopping instead. My parents looked at me as if I have overstepped the line between parent and child. Over-reacting again, they are probably thinking.

An international cricket match between New Zealand and Australia was played in an empty stadium, and then the rest of the tour called off. Cancelled too was the memorial service for the mosque attacks. I visited the neighbours of my parents, bringing them a date and walnut cake I had especially made according to a detailed Iraqi recipe. My visit interrupted an interview with a documentary crew from BBC about their son Hussein who was shot dead trying to stop the gunman.

I felt like I am moving between worlds, from the warmth of the kitchen to the coldness of a massacre, and then outside, there was something sinister and foreboding which was looming bigger than kindness, bigger than tragedy, an acute existential crisis that was unknown in its quantity and impact.

In the following week, I set about sourcing various things from around town, and stocking up on supplies. I got some seeds to plant for autumn and winter harvest. I visited two Indian grocery shops to procure green cardamom seeds, almonds, ready-made chapatis, MTR ready-to-eat meals and dosa flour mix. I loaded the boot and back seat of my parent’s Toyota Ractis until its suspension springs almost snap from 450kg of wooden pellets for their fire. With my mother we did one big shop, making sure we got her favourite brands and the foods preferred by my father who is recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer.

During my daily shopping visits, I noticed that this wasn’t the normal shopping experience anymore. I did not witness any of the stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, though at a store I did overhear a staff member tell his colleague, “We need to bring out the remaining fruit stock we have out back, as it is all selling fast. I am not sure why.”

In early March, there was already a run on particular items, most noticeably and perhaps misguidedly, folks were stocking up on toilet paper. I am not sure the rationale behind this, somehow extrapolating that toilet paper might not be available in the future. It seems many people had the fear reaction triggered, and it was compounded by seeing supermarket shelves already half empty of toilet rolls. Toilet paper is non-perishable and will all eventually be used, so it is not an unnecessary purchase. It also is bulky and takes up space, so its absence in supermarket shelves signals to us ‘shortage’, while having it stocked up at home fulfils some primitive need to be prepared and ready, and also signals that we are smart shoppers, having ample supplies of large 16-roll 4-ply toilet paper, what a bargain and an easy way to relieve worries of not being prepared for the impending doom.

There is a meme doing the rounds with a kid asking his mother, “What is the corona virus?” with the parent replying, “Shut up and eat your dinner” with a picture of a bowl serving a roll of toilet paper. The panic buying of toilet paper was a reaction to the mixed messages about the possible severity of the coronavirus, something of an emotional pacifying purchase to gain control over our hygiene. In other countries where a bidet, bum gun or old-fashioned scoop and water pail is used, there must have been some eye-rolling when stories emerged of Westerners stockpiling toilet paper, price gouging and even scuffles in aisles to secure the rolls of toilet paper.

The government was quick to reinforce the message that was enough to go around, and that essentials would be available. That seemed like the sensible approach. And it was an appeal to people’s sense of community and togetherness in fighting the virus spread. But in times like these, a different mindset kicks in. One of my longtime friends showed me a photo of his partner in the supermarket. After finding the shelves stripped bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they found a whole carton of sanitiser behind other items on another aisle, and much to the shame of my friend, his partner (from South America) loaded the carton into their shopping trolley, later posting on social media of her cache.

That shared image, along with the footage of empty shelves and shopping trolleys piled high with supplies reinforce the panic buying mentality across the world. In Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery of toilet paper. In Australia, a newspaper printed eight extra pages for use as emergency toilet paper in case supplies run out. Now in many supermarkets, there is a limit of two items for these symbolic products along with other essentials, with security guards and supermarket staff patrolling aisles and scrutinising shopping carts.

I noticed during my pre-lockdown shopping excursions quite a range of responses by fellow shoppers. Many were doing big shops, marking off items on a checklist. Some were clearly in unfamiliar territory or were struggling to decipher the list given to them by their partners or friends. “Is tomato puree the same as tomato puree?” one man asked me rather than call his wife again to clarify the differences. In the aisles, it was interesting to observe the interactions of couples, with usually one being ultra-cautious and thorough, while the other (usually a male) being more carefree and unperturbed. “Shouldn’t we get one just in case?” I heard a woman still in her airline uniform ask her husband, who was displaying the typical New Zealand ‘no worries’ attitude. “No, she’ll be right. We can always get it later.”

As well as tension between shoppers, there was also a new dynamic I noticed. Individuals or families were largely in their own bubbles, increasingly aware of the need to stay clear of others who might be contagious. But shoppers were also aware of the goods others had purchased, peering into nearby trolleys, noting what products others were stocking up on, or what items they had secured the last of. On a few occasions, my eyes met others after a mutual trolley check out, and I made a mental note to get a particular item, or even scoffed at other’s purchases.

As well as the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was the quick sell-out of perishable items which suggested widespread fear of missing out. Bread and milk were coveted items, along with eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.

However, it was the stockpiling of non-perishable items which contributed to the overloaded shopping carts and baskets, and perhaps revealed most about our globalised connected world. Despite the news being full of footage from northern Italy about the horrors of the virus, in New Zealand and Australia, and other countries, shoppers opted for Italian food. Pasta, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes, risotto rice and olive oil quickly disappear from shelves. On one supermarket run, I found only a few packets of flat lasagna, just the wholemeal and wheat-free varieties, and the following day, nothing except a couple of damaged packets of cannelloni, the pasta meal that requires the most preparation.

But it was not just Italian food we sought for comfort in our emergency supplies and lockdown rations. While most of the fresh produce is still grown locally, increasingly more things are being imported from Asia, in particular China, along with Vietnam and Thailand. Even homegrown brands are sourced from overseas or made of ingredients from as far away as Chile, the USA, Ecuador or Spain. Closely reading the fine print on a bag of mashed potatoes reveals it was made in Belgium, the tuna was canned in Bangkok, while the frozen strawberries hail from Peru. In the dry noodle section, I have to choose between Mamee from Malaysia or Yum Yum out of Thailand. It is a small world after all.

As I shop locally but collect items from around the world, I wonder if it is being sensible or selfish. I wonder about those that can’t afford to stock up, who survive week to week.

As the coronavirus morphed from a foreign plague to a resident contagion, stores imposed limits on some items, increased cleaning and hygiene, and tried tactics to ease consumer’s concerns. My local Countdown placed a pallet of toilet paper just inside the entrance to signal that there was plenty of stock available. Health authorities reinforced the key message that soap and hot water for a 20-second hand wash was better than sanitizer. I started to get emails, some obvious ‘cut and paste’ jobs, from every business about how they were protecting their staff and customers.

Around this time, there was news of a case in Christchurch. The next day, the government announces it was closing its border, to all but citizens and permanent residents. On the following Saturday, 21st March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on a four-level alert system, raising it to Level 2, then a couple of days later raising it to Level 3 and outlining the move to its highest level 48 hours later. Businesses and schools have been closed, everyone had to stay at home, the only reason to venture outside was to shop at supermarkets for essentials, visit a pharmacy, or doctor. It was a lockdown, though people could go out to exercise as long as they did it in their neighbourhood and did not mix with others.

This pandemic quickly changed the boundaries and borders.

It spread. New hotspots light up the world map.

My own personal geography changed too. Other than my local supermarket, less than a 15 -minute-walk, I also factored into my shopping a fresh vegetable market nearby, and a branch store bakery offering bread, milk, savouries and sweets. I figured that this trio of shops within walking distance could be relied upon for my future shopping, along with the pharmacy.

When I first visited the bakery, it was business as usual, and I was rather surprised to see the staff not wearing any additional protective masks or gloves. Three days later, it was a completely different story. I had to wait outside to be called in. There was a station set up with hand sanitizer and blue gloves to be worn (optional) and customers were reminded to keep their distance from others. At the checkout, items had to be placed on the counter, and the customer was asked to step back behind a line so the clerk could price the purchases. The choreography meant the shop assistant would step back and the customer then approached the counter, to pay by card (no cash was accepted), pack their own bags, and then exit, allowing the next person in the queue to go through the routine. On returning home, I described the new shopping behaviour to my parents, who seemed amused at all the fuss. I was half expecting them to say it was all ‘health and safety gone mad’.

The next day I checked Facebook for the store hours and there was a notice that the outlet was now closed to the public. The greengrocer who had reduced hours to ensure more time for restocking also posted a similar notice, not being able to ensure a safe space, and also deemed by the government to be non-essential.

Yesterday I braved the cold winds and ventured out to Countdown (a New Zealand supermarket). Having to wait outside in a long queue, spaced 2m apart, operating on a one-out/one-in rule that meant when I finally got in and cleaned my basket handles, most aisles only had one or two shoppers nervously avoiding each other, and imploring with dagger eyes ‘keep your distance, buddy’. In the chilled food section, I had a moment when I thought I might sneeze, and I worried that if I did, security guards would bundle me up into a bag to be dispatched the hospital. On my list of items to buy was black pepper, but I skipped that, fearing that a whiff of pepper might induce a sneezing fit.

Back home, gloves discarded, hands washed, items sprayed, I pondered the craziness of it all as I savoured my cup of hot miso soup from Japan. All of my shopping could be in vain if I get the virus. One of the first symptoms noted by doctors in Europe is that those with the coronavirus lose their sense of smell and taste.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).