What It’s Like to Be in New Zealand Right Now

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In our Windows on the World series, we ask Canadians living abroad to give us a sense of how it feels to be where they are right now. It’s a way to cross borders without leaving home.

Still blissed out post massage, my girlfriend and I make our way into the water. Around us, couples lounge poolside, sipping on cocktails. My own piña colada in hand, I sit back and admire the way the light filters through the hibiscus draped around the pool’s edge.

No, I’m not reminiscing about a vacation in the pre‑pandemic past. And no, I haven’t discovered a time machine.

This was all just last week.

February 23, 2021
Kayakers get mountain views from Hooker Lake in New Zealand

I’m a Canadian in New Zealand. In March 2020, when the border closure was announced, my partner and I had less than a day to decide where we would live.

We could opt to go to Australia (her home), or Canada (mine – I’m from Cold Lake, Alberta), or, since we had already been in New Zealand for 18 months, we could also choose to stay put, as New Zealand was the only country where both my partner and I could legally work and live. At 35 years old, I was still eligible for a working‑holiday visa (likely my last), while Australians don’t require a visa to cross the Tasman.

The sun shining over Hooker Lake Track with tall mountains in the background in New Zealand

That’s why we decided to stay put. It was the only way to ensure we’d be able to stay together.

“New Zealand is our best chance at normalcy,” I said, an argument I’d question only days later, when the country went into a strict seven‑week lockdown.

But our gamble paid off. Since September, New Zealand has only had a handful of cases of community transmission. It’s the envy of the world, a utopia where people still live like it’s the “before” times. Since the start of the pandemic, the country of 5 million has recorded only 25 deaths from 2,340 confirmed virus cases.

A colony of gannets on the sandy shore of New Zealand

My days here are a series of mundane moments made memorable, each one a tiny triumph of right‑time, right‑place. I can buy groceries without wearing a mask. I can go to wineries and pubs and music festivals. Heck, I can even stick my greasy chicken‑wing‑encrusted fingers in a bowling ball like it’s still 2019.

Perhaps most importantly, I can still travel.

Before the pandemic, concerns about overtourism in New Zealand were growing. The country is less than half the size of Manitoba, but in 2019 it welcomed nearly 4 million visitors. At Milford Sound, a spot as renowned for its waterfalls as it is notorious for its crowds, around 3,000 people used to pour off tour buses every day.

Taking a hike through the Caly Cliffs of New Zealand
Rock formations at Nugget Point in New Zealand

By the time I visited in October 2020, that number was closer to 200. There were only two other people on my tour. A couple in their fifties, they’d never been to New Zealand’s most popular attraction, despite living only hours away. They weren’t an anomaly: Over the last year, I’ve met countless Kiwis who are rediscovering their home country. Wherever I go, there’s a sense of camaraderie and the same conversation – just how lucky are we?

But freedom comes at a cost. I’m still isolated, even here. Our friends and families are thousands of kilometres away, and with international travel restrictions changing daily, I don’t know when I’ll see them next. The truth is that I’d give up every last poolside cocktail just to be able to have dinner with my mom.

A person walking along a fenced path to the Nugget Point Catlins

“I want to come home,” I lamented to my cousin last week, after my flight to Edmonton was cancelled. Yet again.

“Yes, but Jessica – where is ‘home’ for you?” she asked.

In Māori culture, there’s a concept called tūrangawaewae, or a “place to stand.” It’s how people identify where they’re from and where they belong. It usually includes their immediate community, their region and their wider place in the world.

Right now, my home is New Zealand. But my tūrangawaewae? It will always be Cold Lake.