Laysea Hughes
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Isolation in a Foreign Country

Story by Laysea Hughes • Imagery by Travis Burke

Light sparkled on the horizon as the sun rose and began to find its place in the sky. I pulled on my neoprene and paddled out into a vacant line-up. The sea was tranquil aside from waves that peeled off into perfect barrels like something out of a movie. Rainbows glistened in a halo around my face as the off shore winds carried mist into my vision. I wish I could teleport back to that moment, just before things proverbially ‘hit the fan.’

At this point we had been traveling around New Zealand for about a month. We’d toured both the North and South Island, scoring waves up and down the coast, descending into glacial caves in Fiordland and had discovered countless pump-tracks to cruise on our skateboards. Today’s adventure was no different. We woke up in Gisborne, or Gizzy as the Kiwi’s call it, at a freedom campsite on the beach with a generous view of world-class waves from our bedroom window. In the states my partner and I have each traveled extensively in a van for over half a decade, so hiring a campervan in New Zealand was the natural choice. Looking back on that morning it was so peaceful and serene … almost too much so, like the calm before a massive, earth-shattering storm. We were editing photos and watching the waves continue to roll in from the table in the van when we found out — both of our phones simultaneously illuminated with notifications; the Prime Minister of New Zealand had announced a nation-wide lockdown to begin in 48 hours. We were in a rural town, hours away from any major city, and several days away from our scheduled departing flight. If there was ever a time to panic, it would be now.

Alert Level Four

We sat quietly together and watched the recording of Prime Minister Jacinda’s address. The country would have two days before transitioning into Alert Level Four which mandates stay-at-home isolation. Leaving the house would only be permitted for obtaining groceries or pharmaceutical goods. All businesses would close aside from these essential services. The lockdown was scheduled to last a duration of four weeks. The news that dismayed us the most: all borders would effectively be closed until further notice. Thankfully though, all traveling visas will automatically be extended six months given the current circumstances. Up until now we had felt generally ambivalent about the COVID-19 virus. I read the news daily and felt no sense of a need for concern. Realistically I feel as though I was misled by the lack of leadership from our home government that failed to express the gravity of the scenario—what we would now know to be a global crisis. This was officially a pandemic. *cue deep breaths* Without conversing we both began securing the van to hit the road—we knew action needed to be taken fast.

You know in dramatic movies when the characters receive bad news and then suddenly the weather shifts, completely amplifying the already intense tone? I am still waiting for the director to call out ‘scene’ for there to be a break. You can’t make this stuff up. We gassed up after waiting in a line of frantic humans all reacting to the news and set out on the road, still unsure of where we were headed. Auckland Airport was over five hours away, and we’d need to get our travel agency on the line in order to arrange a flight out before dropping ourselves unnecessarily into a frenzy of anxious tourists. The moment our tires turned northbound the clouds manifested out of thin air into a torrential downpour. A proper cyclone had just touched down – right on cue. Travis spent the majority of our time in the car on the phone waiting to inquire about adjusting our flights. The music on hold became the tune of our drive. Each attempted call would abruptly disconnect hours into the wait time. It was clear the airlines, banks, travel agents, and presumably the entire world was busy in crisis mode. It was time to execute Plan B.

Van-Life During a Pandemic: Image of a rearview mirror of the van with a reflection of a beautiful snowcapped mountain.

This image was from what was meant to be our last adventure here in New Zealand. Location: Mount Cook Aoraki National Park. Photo: Travis Burke

Plan B

My recollection of the following series of events swirl around in my head like linens in the wash, there’s no distinguishable beginning or end. It was all a blur. Within 24 hours we meticulously weighed out our options of locations to quarantine on the [north] island, knowing that spending four weeks isolating in a van was not a viable option. We tapped into all of our available resources to find a house to rent during this time, including posting on social media, reaching out to friends, contacting rental services and ultimately praying to the universe to guide us where we were meant to be. With 12 hours remaining until lockdown we gratefully accepted an offer to live on a Healing Center in the Taranaki region, located one kilometer from the ocean with the jungle, or ‘bush’ as they call it, as our backyard. We drove straight for the property stopping only for food, petrol and any last minute items we could warrant spending money on. Suddenly, we went from breezy van lifers who were whimsically traveling New Zealand on the trip of a lifetime to house-dwellers trapped in a foreign country with a growing fear of the unknown.

Fast-forward through the unpacking of our bags, hanging clothes in closets, using old magazines as art on the freshly painted walls, and an establishment of a cozy routine. Today marks three weeks in our newly acquired reality. We wake up slowly as soft morning light begins to illuminate our room through sheer white curtains. The news plays on a TV that we watch from recliner chairs in the living room. There is a massive garden in our yard that was left by the previous tenants where we spend our days immersed in the abundance of mother earth. Life is slower than we are used to.

Van-Life During a Pandemic: Image of author in the garden tending to vegetables.

Harvesting habanero peppers from the garden. Pure gratitude. Photo: Travis Burke

Slowing Down

As traveling content creators we are normally consumed by a fast-paced lifestyle. Hopping on planes, driving through the night to get to location, returning home with only enough time to repack, pressed with deadlines, meetings—all while still striving to enjoy the experiences at hand, have a social life, and maintain sanity. We have been gifted the opportunity to slow down. I spent an hour yesterday observing a snail – I learned heaps about the tiny gastropod and also realized that there is so much life around me that I can still explore within a two-meter radius. Slowing down has unburdened us with pressures of normal life. Sure, I could stress out that the cause for all of my newfound freedom is a result of my jobs coming to a halt. It’s true, there is a good deal of uncertainty circulating around the ability to continue to prosper as a creative. I think the bottom line is our souls crave to express, and we will continue to find a way to do so even in the darkest of times. If anything, this time is forcing us all to feel. I think something beautiful is to come of that.

Continents Away

In a way I believe living in a van has prepared us for this. Our tiny house life morphed into proper house life with more space than we know what to do with! It’s been interesting to observe the dynamic between my partner and I. Our relationship is based around exotic adventures and constant newness. This time has brought us a deeper, more intrinsic connection, that only a space like this could elicit. I get the sense that this sort of shift is happening all over the world right now. Our friends and families are several continents away, so we lean in to the comfort and security of each other now more than ever. It’s scary though, too. I repeat: our families and friends are several continents away. My fur-child whom I have never traveled without until this trip is with my parents. I miss all of them painfully. As I watch the events back home unfold through news broadcasts and online articles my concern for the safety of my loved ones grows insurmountably. The thoughts of their well being, compounded by my dependence on the recovery of the country before I am permitted to repatriate, increases my frustration with the way our leaders are[n‘t] handling the pandemic. Here in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda acted early, taking what some might call extreme measures closing borders to both Kiwis and tourists alike, mandating isolation to every being in the country and closing all businesses that are not deemed essential. Pharmacies and supermarkets are to be the only stores open. Dramatic, but it worked! The daily statistics breathe positivity and trust for the process into the population. There is no growing number of new cases. There is no tragic death toll. The only tally increasing is the number of recovered patients. The country has begun to transition from Alert Level 4 to 3, permitting businesses to reopen, and life to begin to understand this new norm. At this point we are faced with a challenging question; do we board a flight bound straight into the epicenter of the virus (i.e., home to the state of California), or do we proceed with life in New Zealand, protecting our health and the potential prosperity of our creative careers. These are truly some of the most intense challenges I’ve ever faced. I am aware that there are endless unknowns to the hypothetical trajectory of this pandemic. The only thing we can do is focus on the controllables. All we have is the present moment.

Today I went for a run in our neighborhood. A ladybug landed on me in the garden as I was tending to the plants. We spent the evening giggling with each other and sipping red wine as we finished another puzzle. Pizza for breakfast and pancakes for dinner—societal rules matter even less than they used to. Life is good here. Our days are slower, we pay attention to the little details and we are more mindful than we ever were. We are simply taking each day as it comes. It’s true, we have no idea what our tomorrow holds, but truthfully, we never really did anyways.

Van-Life During a Pandemic: Beautiful image of woman walking solo on the shore during an amazing sunset.

A warm welcome back from mother nature during the first sunset of Level 3 with the small crescent moon high above. Photo: Travis Burke

LEAD IMAGE: The calm before the storm — enjoying a peaceful morning from the campsite in Gizzy. Photo: Travis Burke

Ed Note: Laysea and Travis will be heading back to California in June and will sharing their adventures in their Four Wheel Camper. Follow Laysea and Travis Burke on Instagram at gyspealaysea and travisburkephotography.