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Essay

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.

Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus. 

Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant. 

What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever. 

Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers. 

By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India. 

When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea. 

But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry. 

I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving. 

Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.

A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing. 

In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do. 

From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system. 

Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’ 

New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.

This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …

I even sold the family silver. 

My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot). 

What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village. 

Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired. 

Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily. 

The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient. 

My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.

Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years. 

But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters. 

My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.

Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death. 

Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.

All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. 

Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away. 

Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. 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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