Story: Turbulent Travels
Last summer was going to be one of our shorter stints at home in Nelson, NZ. We arrived later than usual after a longer 2019 season, and the 2020 season’s work schedule was due to kick off earlier than ever before. It was still early in March - we were hosting EWS racers Ed Masters, Cole Lucas and Mark Scott for a bit of a training boot camp; some local racing then a few big rides and shuttles mixed with some beach time in and around Nelson and Marlborough - when things started to get pretty surreal.
COVID-19 was unfolding all around the world and we went from carefree summer fun on bikes to lots of uncertainty with the ever-changing situation. Strava and Trailforks apps were quickly replaced by a new set of maps, graphs, stats and figures that everyone checked hourly. After years of social media updates, TV news updates once again became more important. Nervous jokes turned into serious concerns. For our guests, daily ride plans were hastily replaced with ‘get me the hell home’ plans as lockdown loomed. A year’s worth of booked flights, accommodation and travel plans had to be cancelled and delayed; deposits and payments lost or deferred as the world came to grips with the impending crisis. My bike and bag was already packed for a visit to South Africa, as was Sven’s for the Portugal World Cup season opener. Needless to say we both had to unpack our bags again as we settled into the longest stint we’ve ever had at home, since moving to New Zealand. It would be our first winter in almost ten years.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined something capable of causing worldwide paralysis in such a short time. We all did our bit, our team of five million. New Zealand, with its compassion and respect for fellow man and woman, fared better than most, if not all, other nations - and for this I’m both proud and thankful. Once the shock of being stranded sunk in, we genuinely enjoyed our extra time at home. I didn’t master the art of wheelies or become fluent in another language (despite best intentions) but we slowed down and enjoyed the quality time we had together. Autumn and winter in Nelson was a breeze, a mild one; I was happy to experience the settled weather, the shifting sunsets and sunrises - and the crisp, clear days were just fantastic. We re-established the veggie garden, adopted stray kittens and got to see our friends far longer than we ever do, which made us feel more part of the community than ever before. Everything was amazing – as if COVID didn’t exist. Even better – it didn’t exist in NZ, because we stopped the spread.
However, when the weeks turned to months, I began to feel isolated and even a little panicky. Immigrating to a new land is tough; leaving your whole family behind is a hard decision only made slightly easier by still being able to travel to see them whenever you choose. It’s been hard for everyone; we have all been affected by this in some way or another this year - work and livelihoods have been in jeopardy, or simply evaporated. An international travel ban is a bitter pill to swallow when a family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness. When Europe finally opened their borders to nations who had performed well in managing COVID, we jumped at the opportunity to salvage some work and get one step closer to seeing our families. People were baffled as to why on earth we would even consider leaving the COVID-safe NZ bubble for the crazy, scary, infected world out there! But, we really didn’t have a choice and to be honest, I am thankful for that - because the big, scary, infected world out there wasn’t so bad after all.
In Europe, the people were carrying on with their lives, building up their businesses again, boosting the economy and seeing loved ones. Yes, it was different: we had to wear masks, follow social distancing protocols, be super careful, wash our hands constantly, sanitize after everything and take numerous overly expensive and uncomfortable COVID tests, but at the end of the day - is that really so bad?! Shops and restaurants had their rules and at the busy beaches they cordoned off squares with ropes to safely distance people from on another. I felt totally naked without my mask, but if that’s all I had to do to carry on with work and my life, then I was more than happy to do that. The majority of people we saw, and the places we went, accepted and operated under this new norm so that at least some of this crazy year could be salvaged in a small way. It was wonderful to be back in Europe and the thought of not being allowed to travel again sends shivers down my spine.
Events were very different of course - no spectators, no access to pits or even the riders really - but the event organisers and regions managed to make it happen along with the race teams, and it was good to see how an entire industry - that had pretty much come to a complete standstill for over six months - could still continue (with precautionary measures) during a pandemic. Sven’s season went from the usual grueling 30 weeks of back-to-back events to a truncated five week season - better than nothing, but still quite frightening to see how a virus can change up your life just like that. Adapt or die, as they say.
Our usual six months in Europe was cut down to three. We had just settled into this new way of COVID living when it was time to leave again. Besides the work, our true intentions for being in Europe was for quick access to South Africa once their borders reopened. That announcement came on October 1st and, after some very complicated arrangements and a few more COVID tests, we were on a nearly empty plane heading back to Cape Town. Usually, that would be a very exciting flight for us - looking forward to reuniting with our families and friends - but this was a sad flight, as Sven’s mom had passed away just before we could get there to say goodbye, despite our best efforts. Sadly, we are not alone in having to go through this; thousands of others around the world, and in New Zealand too, have been separated by COVID in times of grief and need. So, it was onto another completely different world of worries in South Africa. Adapt, adjust and just keep your chin up.
From the very beginning of this outbreak, I was petrified for Africa and what this would do to the continent - a complete humanitarian disaster was what I had feared. There are (very) little to no subsidies for the poor, and social distancing is a luxury for some - simply not an option when you live in a shack or small house with ten other people. Telling people to wash their hands when some don’t even have running water in their homes is impossible, and with no work who has money for hand sanitizer? Often there is not even sufficient money for food. To my relief, they have done pretty well over here. Generally speaking, the people have stronger immune systems in Africa, and it is thought that widespread TB (Tuberculosis) vaccinations have somehow curbed a wildfire spread and kept the death rates surprisingly low. For the most part, people are abiding by the rules, wearing their masks and following protocols. So, once again, I’ve witnessed a country where people are now able to carry on with their lives. It is not without utter hardship, poverty and struggles, but they are carrying on trying to rebuild their lives and keep the economy from completely collapsing. The sheer scale of poverty here is mind blowing and it always takes us a little while longer to “get used to” the complete chaos over here. But, once we do, and we settle into the rhythm of the country, we appreciate it for all the amazing things it has to offer. You really do just adapt, adjust and soak up what this colourful, vibrant country contributes to life's tool belt.
Earlier this year, the media constantly portrayed a crazy, mad world outside of safe little old New Zealand, and yes, it was and still is - and to some extent this made me afraid of leaving New Zealand. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t believe all the media hype. Don’t let them scare you. We learn so much by traveling - from other cultures, languages, people and places. I felt alive again and cannot ever imagine a life lived in only one place.
As our time here in Cape Town comes to a close, I feel sad to leave. I’ve slipped back into this way of life again, but I’m excited to once again be going back home to New Zealand after five months away, with a whole new arsenal of experiences and adventures and insights into how the rest of the world is faring and coping in their different ways. I’m content - and ready to face another battery of eye-watering Covid tests and a hotel room (with windows which cannot open) for two weeks of confinement… but I’ll do it again and again if it means I can keep traveling, learning and growing from these experiences. Adapt, adjust and keep your chin up.
Just for the record though, I will be giving the USA a wide berth for the foreseeable future…
Words: Anka Martin
Images: Sven Martin