COVID Social History Stories

2020 – The Year I Came Home

By Christine Retschlag

In a parallel universe I am crouched in a parched paddock, contemplating the crepe paper face of the female Jordanian goat farmer I am interviewing. Her crinkled skin is as thirsty as the land on which we are squatting.  A calico wrap, part modesty, part heat protection, sashays around my shoulders before completing a final twirl and resting on my head. There’s the briefest whispers of a breeze I barely notice, as I’m too engrossed peeking behind the veil on this trip, attempting to unravel the mystery of my modern Middle Eastern sisters.  Who herd goats.

In this alternate universe I have just returned from Thailand, pausing briefly at my Queensland tin and timber cottage to write, unpack, wash and repack. The travel writer waltz. In the Land of Smiles, amidst the cloying humidity of Chiang Rai which puts Brisbane’s summers to shame, I have just slept in the world’s first jungle bubbles. These gargantuan see-through balls of glass, fashioned like Venetian souvenirs into hotel rooms, have afforded me one of life’s ultimate luxuries – to slumber among the elephants of northern Thailand. I surrender to sleep amid the gaze of these gentle giants and the imaginary clang of the Golden Triangle upon which I am perched.

I already recognise this feeling from a month before, where, in this year of sliding doors, I have literally experienced the deepest sleep of my existence. Four metres under the ocean in Australia’s first underwater accommodation, I burrow like a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef’s ReefSuites. The ocean above me gurgles in big, wobbly jelly belly laughs and down below, so do I, squealing at my transformation into a modern-day mermaid. Gills not required.

Of course, these sassy stories and dalliances with daring only occurred in a parallel 2020. That fork in the road that turned left, before someone stole the signpost. Incongruously, that path veered right and in March of this devastatingly defining year, I spent days which erupted into weeks clutching a big black marker, striking off stories, cancelling flights, juggling plans which jiggled and collapsed, and struggling to remain stoic. My life became an editor’s red pen of rejection.

International borders were rapidly closing and like a mountain climber I was grasping for purchase. In the last week of March, when Australian borders were clamping bear trap shut, I made one of the hardest decisions of my 30-year journalism career. I was forced to cancel a trip in which I’d be penning the pain and rebirth of Victoria after Australia’s beastly bushfire summer. Mallacoota, which became the unwitting poster child when thousands flocked to its beach for protection from that burnt orange blaze, had beckoned. On the day I cancelled, I hung up the phone and slumped at my desk, sobbing uncontrollably. Big, guttural wails of the wounded writer. I had failed my fellow Australians and failed myself. Game over.

While anxiety became my constant companion, there was also a  quiet catharsis in accepting my career had gone into coma. I spent Easter alone, on my Brisbane back deck, contemplating my future. Had the one true love of my life, my journalism career, finally dearly departed or was it just on life support? I paced the house like a caged lion, tossing up options in my head. The fact I re-read every travel tome I possessed in my home should have given me an indication, had I been willing to listen. But I was tone deaf. Defeated.

Soul searching. Sleepless nights. Financial fears. Isolation. God, the social isolation. Like a Pamplona bull runner, I sprinted the gauntlet in those early dark days. Long, listless nights laying awake, wondering what had happened to the lives of those characters in those stories I was meant to tell. I realised it wasn’t even the travel I missed as much as the stories. That intoxicating world of words.

I walked the Brisbane River in search of light, my mind tracing her Rubenesque curves, an artist sketching a nude model. For the first time in years I had finally come home, but I had no compass. I had lost my true north. Writing.

Despite the darkness, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Not even a writer like me who romanticises life can convince you of that. There was insanity. Hilarity. Like the night I ordered dinner delivered to my home, and in those perilous pandemic days added a note to simply “leave it on my front porch”. I opened the door to find a confused and handsome Spaniard clasping my food. “I thought you meant your front Porsche,” he explained. I cackled like a kookaburra, at the same time desperately missing those lost-in-translation moments you stumble upon on the crazy and complicated road we call travel writing.

In the winter months I shelved my travel writing career, tucking it into the well-worn creases of my life like a love letter in a treasured tome.  A role which would help hoist me back onto my financial feet beckoned and I rose in the dark and stayed after dusk at my desk, dancing the corporate cha cha. My free spirit shackled. We were ill-suited lovers and we parted ways in spring just as Queensland was erupting into bloom and flourishing with possibilities for Queensland writers like me.

Packing for my first trip, that long-forgotten journey to sleep under the ocean on the Great Barrier Reef, I wept with happiness. As the plane soared over Moreton Bay, gasping for altitude, I was genuinely surprised when my ears popped. I’d forgotten about the nuances of travel. But the switch was being flicked back on. That current was running through my veins like the ink in my poised pen. The world and words were waiting for me. And so were my characters.

Sidestepping those rainbow coloured macarons

By Sue Wallace

Walking has been my liberator since the Coronavirus invaded our shores.

Back in March, I laced up my runners – two years old and no sign of wear – rummaged through my cupboard for leggings and a tee-shirt, strapped a Fitbit to my wrist and started walking.

I sauntered through the Albury Botanic Gardens, trudged along the meandering Murray River and around Wodonga’s Belvoir Park Lake with its inquisitive ducks and geese.

Some days I lingered to admire the artistic creations of West Albury’s Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk and on others huffed and puffed up the steep Monument and Mercy Hospital Hills that overlook the city.

I haven’t stopped walking since.

Regardless, if it is wet or glorious sunshine, I clock up more than 16,000 steps a day – sometimes double that – and I love it.

If I haven’t reached my goal at night, a quick sashay up and down the hallway is on the cards. When I am on the phone, I stride out around the house – from the kitchen through the study, into the bedroom and back via the dining room, that’s an extra 100 steps.

A journalist for the past 40 years and a travel writer for 25 of those years, I have travelled extensively and always had my passport at the ready, bags zipped up and laptop packed.

Jitters would set in if I didn’t have trips booked and commissions sorted months in advance.

And I loved every minute of it.

From researching a potential story, pitching it to an editor, the flight – yes, I love flying – to arriving at the destination, it was exciting and addictive.

Often asked if I ever tired of it– I would reply “never.” It is something that gets under your skin.

I love telling stories of people and places around the world and seeing it in print or online. Often, I would return home for a few days only to do the washing, catch up on the news, repack and get back on the merry go round again.

My husband would often travel with me on self-organised trips.

Even jetlag was my friend – I don’t need a lot of sleep and I often write in the early hours of the morning.

Then life changed.

I watched as five trips including Ireland, Paris, a European river cruise, Fiji and South Africa collapsed like a house of cards.

It became obvious there were no more journeys for the immediate future and most of the travel outlets and magazines dropped pages and stopped commissioning.

My passport is back in the safe and my suitcase shelved – literally.

Like many who are passionate about what they do, a sense of loss set in, plus the worry of family, friends, the travel community and humanity as the number of COVID cases and deaths hiked across the globe.

But in a strange way I think COVID has prolonged my life – I am a lot fitter now and can resist the power of sweet treats – well almost.

My willpower used to be non-existent. How on earth do you say no to a Singapore Sling and peanuts galore in the Long Bar at Raffles Singapore or a sumptuous afternoon tea in the pretty Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel London?

Refuse a Queen Victoria Fizz at The Goring in Belgravia that’s so close to Buckingham Palace, you may well hear a corgi bark – I don’t think so.

Then there’s that ridiculously rich chocolate torte at Hotel Sacher Vienna and a Campari Aperitivo and tempting canapes at the chic Grand Hotel Tremezzo overlooking Lake Como.

I always avoided the scales, but I knew I carried a little of every trip with me – Italy, France and Austria, literally sat on my hips, as I indulged in kilojoule laden treats all in the name of research.

That type of souvenir isn’t easy to budge as you flip from trip to trip.

So, with travel on the back burner, I started walking.

My diet suddenly changed too – rainbow coloured macarons and chocolate-dipped strawberry surprises didn’t suddenly appear as they did in my hotel rooms.

There was no Michelin star chef at the ready to whip up a signature dish or plates piled high with delicate pastries and rich decadent cheeses.

Instead, it was 1200 kilojoules a day and one gin and tonic a week – albeit a decent one.

Seven months later the kilograms have slipped away, and I have walked more than 1600 kilometres around Albury-Wodonga – social distancing of course.

I like to compare the figures to the length of Spain’s Camino de Santiago which is about an 845-kilometre trek, so I have nearly done it twice. Who would have thought?

And I feel so good.

I know every street in Albury and where dangers lurk – think uneven concrete paths, twisted tree trunks, slippery sidewalks and dogs with barks much bigger than they are.

As I peek over fences, I have discovered lofty trees and manicured garden beds, smelt perfumed flowers and watched cats curl up in flowerpots, looking smug.

I can now name blooms, shrubs and trees and know a pretty peony from a striking Peruvian Lily.

I have become a novice twitcher spotting colourful birds as we wander and am an expert at avoiding menacing magpies that swoop in spring and seem to seek me out.

These days my wardrobe is more about runners and rain jackets, while my fancier clothes and heels are in moth balls – waiting.

Girlfriends are amazed, my husband and I have walked together most days for months, about 150 days straight. They ask what we talk about and I remind them that we don’t talk all the way – sometimes we don’t talk at all.

But we have added a new phrase to our vocabulary – “doing a Dave.”

After I nearly tripped one day on our walk, my husband grabbed my hand and a friend, Dave, happened to be driving by.

He immediately thought we wandered around on our walks, hand in hand, until he was set straight.

So, on the odd occasion we do hold hands, it’s coined “a Dave.”

I continue to write about travel memories and amazing people – telling stories is what I will always do.

My heart goes out to the worldwide travel and hospitality industries and their plight and I wish I could do more to help ease their pain.

I am pleased however many are discovering wonderful places in our own back yard.

“Walking” has become my friend and as we wait out this wretched pandemic, I will continue to stride out.

There’s something therapeutic about the rhythmic beat of putting one foot in front of the other, as I recall so many wonderful travel experiences – what a privilege.

When it is safe to travel overseas again, I will be ready with passport in hand and this time well-worn runners in my luggage.

A cartwheel or two down the aisle won’t be out of the question either.

As for those rainbow coloured macarons and chocolate-dipped strawberries, I intend to stop at just one, with a cocktail on the side, of course.