Love in MIQ

There’s a sunlit square reflected at us through the new Christchurch Convention Centre windows.  It’s usually the hotel car park, but now it’s the MIQ exercise yard. We’re on the third floor, unlike some other lucky punters who have scored views from floors higher up. The online brochure depicts snow-capped mountains, a painted blue sky and that strange flatness that is the Canterbury Plains. Instead, we see the reflected shadows of people marching in a monotonous kind of circle.

It’s kind of flat in here too.  We arrived at 10 last Saturday morning in Auckland, fresh from Seoul via Singapore. I’d been following a spreadsheet created on a thread on an MIQ Facebook page that I’d joined.  It gave me very high odds of the Grand Mercure in Auckland for our stayover.  So, it was a shock when a fresh-faced army chap jumped on board our plane minutes after we’d landed to say we were heading to Christchurch

So here we are – my husband, John, and me – at the Crowne Plaza, Christchurch, on the third floor, with a view of the new Convention Centre.  We have two King single beds bedecked in fresh white linen, each single bed almost as big as my mum and dad’s double bed in the 50s. We’d requested single beds, realising 14 days in isolation might require moments of separation.

Arriving home to be greeted by the NZ Army took us back to travelling in the 70s. That moment when you landed and were told to stay seated, while one of the crew walked up and down the aisle fumigating the plane.  And then there was the ordeal with officious men at customs, mostly in shorts and long socks, who quizzed you as if you were part of an international crime spree and, hey, you’ve been caught. 

We learned the trick of over-declaring … acting like ingenue’s, so they rolled their eyes and ticked us through, while the extra alcohol or undeclared electronics stayed secreted in our bags.

So, it was a blast from the past when we disembarked from our flight at Christchurch airport and some kind woman from the Army, spotting John’s duty-free whisky purchased in Singapore, suggested he stop right there, open his bag and shove it in … or else, she warned, the hotel will take it off you.  

We are allowed one bottle of wine each a day in MIQ.  This to me sounds like a lot of wine.  John is finding it a perfect ration … you must leave the empty wine bottles outside your bedroom door before they replenish.  Currently, there are two empty bottles outside our room looking lonely on a dark and deserted hotel floor. 

Well, Friday I started drinking at lunchtime.  There’s a very sound reason for this. It was John’s birthday, and we had completed our 35 laps of the car park at 10am. 

One of our exercise call-ups was at 5am. We set the alarm, then promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. We were punished for this. The scheduled walkathon that evening at 10pm was cancelled.  Most of us are treading the well-worn rectangle, eyes down, sometimes overtaking slow walkers. There’s a certain courteous pattern to it all.  If someone is an extra slow walker, you take a wide berth and kind of overtake them without looking pushy. 

A newbie turns up, to enliven the sunlit square. She appears in golden sandals, shorts and a glowing tan, her long curling hair softly falling. She ambles, she wanders, she stops and reads the poems and artwork that decorate the enclosure. I mumble good morning through my mask and then wish I’d said, ‘Ata Mārie,’ or something more magical than good morning sounds. She beams back at me the way you do when your mouth is hidden and your eyes need to do all the work.

The nurses call at the door to do our nasal swab and they are delightful. Not the swabs, the nurses.  One nurse asks John if he still loves his wife. We are both standing masks on, in the doorway. All four of us, both nurses, John and I laughed so loudly, I can’t recall if he said yes.

While I am here in MIQ, I am working on the edits for my very first poetry collection, Formica. It will open with a poem that featured in the Friday Poem collection published by Luncheon Sausage Books and edited by er … the man the woman from Narrative Muse (the ones who got half a million) had to Google. Ah yes, Steve

Later it occurs to me that the nurse’s question was a secret code for a husband to say … no, help, help, or of course, vice versa.   The same nurse sang ‘Happy birthday to you’ to John through her surgical and Perspex masks.  We sang along.  She must have alerted the kitchen staff, because a birthday dessert treat arrived for John, iced with birthday wishes, plus a card signed by some of the staff.

There’s a rhythmic sound from the room next door each day at exactly the same time.  At first we cheer them on, but we come to realise, disappointingly, that it’s probably not the people next door at all but just a quirk of the building, a kind of tap-tap-tapping, but that’s how desperate things get in MIQ.  You look for signs of life everywhere.

I recall tut-tutting, early on in the first lockdowns, possibly in Australia, when lonely travellers forged relationships with the security guards. We were a wee bit outraged.  How dare they!  But look, I’m officially elderly, and after seven days in a four-star hotel with fresh white linen, if I didn’t have a companion I can see now how a nice man in uniform might go well with dessert. 

John and I live for the phone calls (they are automated) that advise us that food is at the door.  We sit with our headphones on watching separate Netflix series but always with one ear open for that telephone call.

The food is good. We were given a barcode that took us to an online form so we could complete our menu requests. Impressive. The meals have become tedious though. I’m not much of a salad girl, so the little pottles of salad are piling up on a shelf by the TV.

Today, our exercise slot is 6.30am. We’re up for it.  At first there are only three bubbles walking and this is doable. When it gets crowded with families, it becomes more challenging.  There are a number of people here with young children and toddlers have no understanding of two metres distance.

Watching a young couple early this morning trying to corral their two lively toddlers made me think with great sadness about the recent tragedy in Tīmaru, and the tragic loss of three young lives.. It’s not difficult to imagine the stress that family must have endured relocating to a new country through lockdowns and isolation in MIQ.  It’s both incomprehensible and yet not difficult to imagine the at times intolerable stresses.

It’s okay, we’re not seeking sympathy. We chose this. 

We had a brand-new grandson born in Seoul in May. He was rushed from the maternity hospital he was born in to ICU on the same day, due to a few breathing issues. This meant he was separated from both his mum and dad for the first ten days of his life.  We watched videos of him being caressed by nurses wearing plastic gloves.  So, you can imagine it was not something we dithered over when the South Korean government offered double-jabbed Kiwi parents or grandparents with family in Seoul a special three-month, quarantine-free ‘family sojourn’ visa. 

We did not wait to see if we could get a spot in MIQ.  It was an adventure.  We knew we could sit at home in our own wee bubble safely or grab the moment, so we grabbed it.

On arrival in Seoul, we had to download an app that would track us. Then we were whisked in a pre-booked taxi to our Airbnb via a Covid testing station. We had to remain in our Airbnb until we got our test results the next morning by text … negative. We had to report our daily temperature for a week via the app and have one more Covid test, and then we were able to delete the app and go free.

The highlight of that arrival, was standing on the sixth floor, looking out over a small balcony to the road below where our Seoul family stood waving to us. John swears that Oli, just four months at the time, raised his arm in a wave.  Such is the joy of seeing loved ones in the time of Covid.

We left New Zealand early August without a spot in MIQ, telling ourselves that surely by November double-jabbed people like ourselves would be allowed to self-isolate on return.  And then Delta broke out in Auckland, and we saw our chances fading, day by day.  Still, we consoled ourselves, here we are in Seoul with family.  We are safe.  We’ll get home eventually.  Our visa was a one-off, three-month visa, perhaps South Korea would kick us out – making us stateless and therefore NZ would have to let us in.  Turns out South Korea were happy to extend …  

None of this came to pass, just the first MIQ Lottery.  And we were successful.  I should leave a space here for the howls of outrage from those who missed out. I started reading them on Twitter and on FB and had to abandon that, as some of the cases are just so blatantly unfair

Here in MIQ, we’ve nearly made it. We’ve had our third negative nasal swab result and will have one more (day 12) before we are released.  Right now with the hotel at full capacity with 194 residents, it feels like leaving our room permanently could be the riskiest moment for us in terms of being exposed to Covid.

But, we know we are in safe hands. Today we got fresh linen and we danced to Jerusalema as we remade our own beds. We are grateful Kiwis…   and we’ll be home soon.

Maggie Rainey-Smith’s poetry collection Formica (The Cuba Press) will be released in March 2022.

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