Portfolio

Cake #259 was different

Update: My story of Justin’s epic baking efforts was picked up by the ABC. It’s attention so well deserved by him and his a marathon of flour sourcing, carrot grating, rainy scootering and hot oven handling.

Read it over at the ABC: Justin Mackee had baked 258 cakes to get though coronavirus isolation in Tokyo, but cake 259 was different

Or here:

You’re in lockdown, so you baked. So did your neighbours, and your colleagues — and the whole pandemic-rattled world. But you didn’t bake like Justin Mackee.

Isolated, lonely and with a massive heart, the Tokyo man — a risk consultant whose work dried up as COVID-19 bit Japan — decided he would fill his newly empty time by baking a cake, then selling and delivering that cake for charity.

He wondered if anyone would pay for the cake and whether, maybe, he’d be able to make a few, or even a dozen, to benefit the Japanese food bank, Second Harvest Japan.

He hoped the only cake in his repertoire — a carrot and banana loaf — would cut it. He gave his impromptu project a name, then introduced Let Tokyo Eat Cake via Instagram. He decided he’d take and post a photo of everybody to whom he delivered a cake.

He went to the local supermarket, then to the next store and then the next as he battled supply shortages to find the wholemeal flour he needed. And then, and only then, he prepared his tiny counter-top portable oven for the handful of cakes he envisaged making.

Eight weeks on, the 39-year-old has baked 262 cakes from his cramped central Tokyo kitchen, raising over $US8,800 for the nationwide charity.

Baking through isolation

Justin’s impromptu decision to turn his small kitchen into the hub of his own cottage industry has led him, loaded with cakes on his scooter, to mansions and soup kitchens, to strangers and old friends, and to a sort of social interaction he craved.

“This is very much a selfish endeavour in the sense that I’m isolating on my own and I’m really struggling. I’m just struggling at home, struggling with a recent break up, struggling with worrying about my own business,” he said.

His parents live an hour away, beside the surf and in view of Mt Fuji, his 97-year-old obachan, or grandmother, in their full-time care. In less unusual times, he regularly takes the train to visit his obachan, taking her for breakfast and a walk and to watch the waves.

“I couldn’t see my grandma. I love being able to do something for someone I care about and I couldn’t do that,” he said.

Sweet surprise

His days now begin with mixing the fruit, nuts and flour together for his loaves, with the first batch in his oven by 6am. By mid-afternoon and eight neatly wrapped cakes later, he begins around three hours of deliveries on his scooter to anywhere within Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Most cakes are bought as presents for others, often as surprises, and he has delivered dozens to local children’s cafes, or local charitable organisations that provides meals for the children of financially disadvantaged families. Along the way, he has photographed every recipient, an ever-expanding gallery of loaf-laden customers — and fleeting social moments — filling Instagram.

“I’ve met old friends I’ve not seen for nearly 10 years, award-winning actresses, globally renowned chefs, the 70-year-old parents of children who are based in the US, millennials who want to do something to help others and a lady who was searching Instagram for cakes,” he said.

“As brief as the interactions are is just how much positivity it gives me being able to see a smile and deliver a cake to someone I’ve never met.

“From the beginning I was taking a portrait of every single person and, looking at them after a week or two, I realised the portraits were wonderful because there’s a little bit of joy in every one of them.”

Visiting customer 259

But it was cake number 259, baked on Friday, that gave pause to his epic efforts in lockdown.

That loaf was baked for Justin’s most special customer yet. After three months apart and a steady fall in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, he was finally able to hand deliver a cake to his obachan in her home beside the beach.

“I can’t tell you how happy it made me,” he said of their reunion.

“The tears in my eyes, just from her holding my hand, took me by complete surprise.”

——-

Read my original Medium story here. And please share the love.

All photos credit @let.tokyo.eat.cake.

View at Medium.com

Standard
Blog

Coronavirus and a three-year-old

 

A three-year-old, two minutes, a mic and no warning: Welcome to Finia Fridays.
In this first interview, we talk COVID-19, social distancing and the locked-down state of international air travel. Kind of.

Me: Finia, what’s in the air and what are we scared of when we touch each other?

Three-year-old: Um, coronavirus.

And what is coronavirus?

You can’t touch things.

Why, what does it do?

It’s do get corona on your hand.

And then what?

Then what. You have to wash your hand. Huh?

Mmm-hmm.

And then you have to … mm, don’t touch things.

Why, is it because, does it make you sick?

Yeah, stay.

Makes you sickie. And then what.

Then what. Then what?

Do you have to go to hospital?

Yeah. Have to go to hosiple. Hmm?

And then, what about all the planes in the sky?

All the plane is gone in the sky co’ we can’t go on plane co’ we can’t reach the plane cos all the plane in the sky so we can’t fly in the plane. Everyone fly in the plane, now we got no more planes to fly in. That why it’s really sad.

And are you, do you miss seeing anybody?

She buries her head in the sofa. Ok, now she’s looking sad and she’s told me she’s not doing any more talking. Ok, Finia, thank you for the interview.

Huh? What?

Standard
Blog

On running and crying

 

There’s a part of my running route, a short and gentle uphill climb that turns a right corner at the top, where the path curves round a busy set of traffic lights. 

I’ve come to remember sections of my runs by what I was listening to when I trod each section. Or maybe it’s the other way round – I remember pieces of podcasts and news stories, reports of global events and snippets of heart-warming anecdotes when I think of the places I’ve run. The beach in Queensland that is all about Turing and sentience, the corner of summertime Munich that now reminds me of alien invasion, the Kenyan elections unfolding alongside a corn field in west England. 

Maybe it’s the rhythm of my jogging, or the fresh air, or the lack of distraction, but I have a curiously vivid memory of those places and their soundtracks.

The path has got a lot busier than usual, we’re allowed out of lockdown for exercise and the gyms and beaches are closed in this part of Sydney, Australia, so everyone seems to have taken up running, or walking with their families, to escape the four walls of home. I tread from the pavement to the road and up again, skirting around prams and masked couples where I usually pass next to no-one. 

And as I tread the warm tarmac, sweep around roadworks and pass boats parked on trailers alongside the golf course, I listen to news from America during the Covid-19 crisis. My runs have become 

That’s what I was doing as I approached the small hill a few days ago, and that’s how I learnt how hard it is to run and cry at the same time.

I’m listening to a story about a woman who is barred from visiting her mother who has ALS and lives in a hospital and, with coronavirus spreading, the woman worries about never seeing her mother again. She stumbles with grammar, her syntax muddled by the overwhelming reality that, if coronavirus reaches her mum’s ward, it’s very likely she’ll die. She lives across from the hospital and can see her mum’s window. She’s forced to ask questions she never imagined she’d ask – will she have to stand in the park as her mother dies, and imagine what’s going on behind that glass as she looks up from her safe distance?

And I think of my own mother, in a high-needs unit in a care home in England. She has early-onset dementia and is hoisted from her bed into an armchair and back again each day. Because of the virus, she’s not allowed to leave her room or to have visitors, so, even if I was to somehow abracadabra my way through aeroplane-less empty skies to Covid-ravaged Europe, I’d get no further than looking up at the double-glazing in her window, too. 

My chest seizes up as the woman describes her dream of getting her mum the fuck off planet earth and how irrationality sometimes takes over – could her mother’s ventilator be given to a younger, more potentially fruitful patient? She has no breath of her own, and no chance of taking another breath, after all. 

It’s happened a few times, now, as I run and listen to what sound like dispatches from a third world country. The hospital worker in New York City who couldn’t be with his wife as she died at home. The immigrant who, sick with Covid-19, is sleeping in his car because he was thrown out of his accommodation by his scared, pregnant landlady. 

I struggle for air, my throat clamping down and my chest feeling like it’s buckling under a heap of sand bags. I can’t breathe. I imagine asthma attacks as I try to keep moving. I hear a whimper – it’s me. I stop, fold over and catch my breath as tears merge with sweat, pricking my eyes.

I leave the green of the park behind me and run towards the ocean cliffs. I lean on the railing and suck in big lungfuls of salty air, the foam churning 100 feet below and, in the distance, with the land, people and the virus behind me, I look to the calm, grey horizon.

The accounts go on – ventilators puffing and emptying broken lungs. The suffocating coughing, the good samaritans and the thought of so very many, locked down, locked away and locked out. I miss you, Mumma. I’m not running, so this time, when the tears roll and my face crumples, I can breathe.

Standard
Portfolio

That’s Bondi, baby. My piece for The Guardian

Bondi Beach: how the Australian icon became a coronavirus hotspot

–Bondi is one of NSW’s most famous destinations, drawing 2.6 million visitors a year. Has its popularity made it vulnerable to Covid-19?–

A block from Bondi Beach six female travellers, all aged between 22 and 31, share a two-bedroom flat, each paying $200 a week in rent.

They came to Australia, and settled in Bondi, for the work opportunities, the sun and the freedom.

Last week, two of the women tested positive for Covid-19.

The Sydney beach suburb draws 2.6 million visitors each year, according to Destination New South Wales. It’s a place of contrasts. Sparkling natural bounty and dense urban living. Billionaires and backpackers. Instagrammed bodies and old-timers’ swimming clubs. A place obsessed with health and beauty but now, one of Australia’s Covid-19 hotspots.

Bondi, part of Waverley council area, has taken a heavy hit from the coronavirus, the local council’s 159 cases as of Friday (101 of them in Bondi alone) knocking the sunshine out of the surfside playground.

This week, in response to Waverley’s newfound status as home to both the highest number of Covid-19 cases and the highest number of locally transmitted cases in the state, the government opened a local pop-up testing clinic.

While the advice during the global coronavirus pandemic is to stay home, the reality for some, especially in a place like Bondi, is that crowded living conditions make physical distancing difficult, even for the most prudent.

“I couldn’t believe I was negative, I slept in the same room as two positive girls,” says one of the Argentinian housemates who was given the all-clear, who did not want to be named. “I was staying home, worrying about the virus outside, but it was in my own place.”

Unsure where to turn, she appealed to the authorities for help and her infected housemates – one of whom is suspected to have caught the virus in the house – were moved into quarantine in hotels, paid for by the government.

the others, a sense of gratitude has settled on the flat: they and their sick housemates are safe and isolated, friends are helping with food deliveries and a neighbour has lent them exercise equipment. She has heard of worse, including newly jobless, homeless travellers who cannot get to their home countries, and infected members of shared houses who have stayed put.

They’re like many temporary working visa holders who continue to share cramped homes, some of 12 to 15 people, across the suburb. Since 20 March, hostels, meanwhile, have had to comply with new distancing rules of one person every 4 sq metres. At Noah’s Backpackers, just along from James Packer’s erstwhile beach house, every room, including six-bed dormitories, were made single occupancy.

The landmark building has a view down on to the Bondi Beach that is usually alive with crowded surf and its famous lifeguards. On 21 March, the beach was closed, its entrances hastily fenced off. With no surfers and sunbathers, Bondi Beach has never looked so bare. Now in the spotlight as the centre of Australia’s coronavirus outbreak, the suburb has never felt quite so exposed.

The scene is a far cry from images just over two weeks ago, when crowds from well beyond Sydney’s east took to the sand on a 36C day, flouting social distancing rules and the new 500-person limit on outdoor gatherings. A hot Friday with family-friendly surf is what Bondi does best – but by the next afternoon and in the glare of global media, police were sweeping the beach of sunbathers, forbidding even surfers to enter the water. For the first time, the beach known around the world as an icon of Australia’s natural beauty and symbol of our love of the sea and sun is now associated with something far less glamorous.

When New South Wales chief health Officer Dr Kerry Chant singled out backpackers and their potential to infect the community when outlining the response, she directed public focus towards Bondi’s reputation as a destination for travellers, already in the headlines because of a coronavirus cluster traced to a tropical-themed party at a popular Bondi beachfront bar.

From Noah’s Backpackers, the view is bleak. A few weeks ago, the hostel was bustling with 266 guests. Now, it’s desolate, with manager Dylan Tenbrink closing its doors last Wednesday, saying it was “impossible” to stay open under the new regulations around social distancing as well as media scrutiny. Unfounded rumours of a positive case of the virus in the hostel were unfairly targeting backpackers and the result was fear among both visitors and the community, he says.

“Bondi’s one of the greatest suburbs in the entire world. There’s opportunity, it’s safe, there’s freedom for everybody,” Tenbrink told Guardian Australia in the days before the hostel shut. “Now, people see you walk [out of the hostel] and they shout at you and say it’s an epicentre of disease.”

With a young, international demographic and thousands of daily visitors, Bondi’s infection rate comes as little surprise to local photographer and Aquabumps gallery owner, Eugene Tan. He has photographed Bondi Beach at daybreak for the last 21 years, and the daily surf photos are known worldwide.

“Bondi’s a brand, everybody knows it. You come to Sydney, you come to Bondi. It’s a welcoming place,” he says. It’s that spirit that might have landed Bondi in the situation it’s in today.

“The police cleared the beach on Saturday and then all the bars filled up. It’s a melting pot, which I love, but Bondi gets out of hand easily – we have a lot of travellers and they have a carefree attitude.”

But to point to the backpacker community alone as responsible for local infection rates is to miss the reality of Bondi’s broader community.

The Waverley mayor, Paula Masselos, says it is the kindness of the community and its adaptability that stands it in good stead for the future. “We are all in this together.”

Brand Bondi, after all, reaches well beyond its bay and, to Tan, its pull is stronger than ever. He has been receiving messages from people all over the world telling him how images of Bondi are keeping them sane during lockdown.

“Without the beach,” he says, “you feel a bit lost.”

Standard