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Living in limbo, unable to leave

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

Read my latest for The Guardian here.

Or my version in full here:

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

I know, because I was there, under the West Country sky. And I was there because I had, in a haze of panic and sick with fear five days earlier, somehow mustered enough clarity to fill in an exemption to leave application and satisfy the Australian government’s unique and harsh border restrictions. I had scrambled for letters from doctors, submitted images of my dying mother, bought flights I knew wouldn’t fly, flung winter clothes together for myself and my two toddlers and kissed my husband goodbye, not knowing when we’d get back to him. I doused my children in sanitiser as we made our way through darkened, hushed airports, bus terminals and train stations in three countries. By the time I reached my mother in her care home, I knew only to strip away my regulation top-to-toe PPE and climb into her bed, resting my head on her shoulder and stroking her soft, cool hand.

Tonight, here I am, half a year on, listening to the news of another Australian man and his Indian mother dying from Covid in India. In Sydney, her remaining son is pleading to allow his grieving 83-year-old father, who survived Covid, to join him in Australia. He would have heard, of course, that borders will most likely stay tightly shut until June 2022 – and that, as a non-citizen, even as a parent of an Australian, his chances of gaining an exemption to enter the country are next to impossible.

Last winter, I wrote about my fears of being unable to get to my sick mother in the UK and how, for better or worse, my life in Australia depended on the air traffic that blights the skies but delivers so many of us to our loved ones. It turned out that the very worst did eventuate – but, in a perversity of norms that could only be wrought by a deeply human crisis, it also turned out that I’m very fortunate, given this moment, in this place, in this pandemic.

I’m Australian and I got to her in time. For every story like mine, there are hundreds, if not thousands, that end with a computer-says-no thud.

I have heard of babies who haven’t met their fathers and wives who haven’t seen their husbands in 18 months. There’s a friend whose father passed away from Covid and couldn’t get to him in time. And another, whose Czech father hid the extent of his stage four cancer from her so that she wouldn’t have to confront the risk of no exemption and dumbfounding costs of flights, given all he had heard about our isolationist way. Then there’s my British father, who’d very much appreciate coming to scatter his Australian wife-of-nearly-50-years’ ashes, sort out her affairs and spend time with his Australian daughters and grandchildren. Yet, parents don’t count as close family and so, the answer, once again, is a no.

Like so many here without family overseas and those looking on from abroad, he doesn’t get it. They can’t get their heads around our border closure. Is that even allowed? they ask.

I completed hotel quarantine with a two- and a three-year-old while grieving. It wasn’t hard compared to the haze of uncertainty that came before it on Australian soil – not being able to freely visit my unwell mother, the fears over how I’d secure an exemption and afford flights, the predicted (and extremely pricey) battles to get seats home to Sydney. No, quarantine was fine. Quarantine makes sense. It’s the lack of a plan that really wears a soul down.

November feels like a bad dream, but the perversity continues, because, now, after my mother’s death has come a sense of grim relief. The limbo of watching from afar, helpless and desperate, is over. I will never have to submit another exemption to travel request to the heavy machinery of the federal government moments after seeing her, supine and hollow-cheeked, as a nurse held an iPad over her deathbed. And with that knowing, that immensely sad knowing, the stories of the missed deaths and illness and human moments strike me with the force of a body blow. I got out and came back when so many couldn’t and won’t – and their limbo stretches on. For now, they must wait for the too-slow vaccine rollout to unfurl and for confidence to nudge away fear on one hand and easy, gilded disconnection on the other.

The virus will reach us, no matter how long we are kept apart from family and loved ones, no matter how long we are prevented from finishing university courses and starting jobs and maintaining businesses and giving safe harbour to refugees. Keep us locked in and the world locked out until Doomsday and the virus will still find us, smug hermits, suntanned but alone.

When I was a little girl, my school motto was ut sibi sic alteri. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Nowadays, I’d add: even, and especially, when fearful. It’s what makes us human.

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The educating refugee

My latest story for SBS is about the lovely Noor Azizah and her family’s fight to leave Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The Rohingya refugee talked to me from her home in Sydney, where her work as a teacher allows her to constantly reflect on her dramatic and long journey into Australian education.

Read the story in full here.

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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.”

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

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

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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.”

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