The Pandemic Letters: Trapped Overseas

Trapped in New Zealand: The Experience of Jim

Associate Editor Jim Weitz has compiled a series of interviews and first-person accounts from travelers trapped abroad by quarantine protocols related to the CCP virus (COVID 19) Pandemic.

I’m a New Zealander stuck in his own country. I know that doesn’t sound quite right, but I’m going to tell you how it happened.

I led a fairly typical life for a Kiwi: high school, college, work, marriage. We didn’t have to hang on a job a long time, as work was plentiful. I felt the same about women, and uninterested in the responsibility of having my own children, was happy enough later with the experience of stepchildren. It was all jolly good even, until it wasn’t.

At the time ‘when it wasn’t’ was a classic mid-life crisis, I even bought a Harley. But was also able to throw myself into a project of designing and building a house on a contentious piece of Maori land at the seaside. The NZ resource management act can take a bit of navigation, but over about a ten-year period I created a fine piece of architecture in a remarkable location. It was also worth about a million dollars at a time when there were not so many houses on the market worth a million dollars.

I grabbed it man, took the cash, and elected to hit the highway. In NZ we have the option of signing out of residency status in exchange for a forfeit of any state benefits coming back. This is a point of interest to potential escape artists that is widely overlooked. A lot of guys choose to keep an insurance policy going on at home so there’s something to come back to, but the cathartic effect of being off the books cannot be overstated. I reckon about 800 Grand to be the magic number at which one can be self-sustaining.

And so it was. Like most of us I was fascinated by the Orient. So, travelling as much by public transport as is possible I crossed Australia before flying into Indonesian Bali, a charming and safe introduction into Asia, where step by step as it were, I could start to push the boundaries. I spent two years just getting to China. China is unreal man, but you need some language despite the fancy language gadgets, and in no time I had myself enrolled in a language school in Beijing.

This is a powerful thing to do in my opinion … go to school. Not as a teacher but as a student. My majors were history and philosophy, chosen specifically as being unlikely to lead to a career, so the idea of being a perpetual student was no big deal. I loved that school in Beijing. I was 60 and it was exciting then as university had been decades before. And bit by bit, the infinite mystery that surrounds these guys dissipated. The yin to the Confucian yang is, of course, the Dao de Jing, and reading the poetry, and the stories of the Sages of the Bamboo, and Zhuangzi, I felt compassionate to it.

I got around from Heilongjiang to Tibet (that five-letter word) at a time when I was lucky enough to do be able to do so, but it’s tough going too in China, so a good plan is to work out the exit and reentry points. The SE Yunnan has a few of these and a classic is the Mekong river exit out of Xishuangbanna. The golden triangle is just fabulous I reckon, with its stories of the wartime resistance against Japan and subsequently displaced Kuomintang gangs subsidizing their armies with the opium crop. And there are 500-ton river boats that ply between Jinghong and Chiang Saen in Thailand, on which you can buy a ride with a few beers and some rudimentary Chinese.

Chiang Saen is as far as these boats can travel, because of rocks, so it is like a Chinese port in a sense. Thailand is an easy place to fall in love with, the land of monks and hookers I’ve called it, and the last of the Orientals as John Gielgud called it. Not the least of its wonder lies in the Thai people’s fantastic rendition of Buddhism. Thai Hinayana, they call it, and it is unique. But Buddhism and Taoism are similar in quite a few ways, and both are inspired by the writings of the Taoist Zhuang zi.

Risk is quite a big deal in Buddhist teaching, its purpose being to keep one’s attention on the temporary nature of existence. Women of course are always a risk I suppose, but some of the old Thai hookers have it in abundance. When I was about 65, I thought it was time to ‘retire’. Not that I was working of course, because I was student, but to “retire” to something more gracious had a certain dignified air to it I thought, so I selected an old pole dancer out of the jungle surrounding Betong, a tiny border chinatown in Thailand’s Deep South in the province of Yala, which is a tourist no-go area because of the Malay Muslim insurgency against Buddhist orthodoxy. Betong itself was where the Malaysian communists dug themselves into tunnels in their final stand against the British army in the last decade of the Malayan insurgency, and I went down there after reading Chin Peng’s account of it. These old buggers’ families still live there in the ‘peace villages’ given them by the Thai Queen where they maintain their shrines to their atheist heroes in the moldering jungle.

I bought my retirement piece a house there and we and lived together, calling each other husband and wife, chewing kratom, and attending to the orchids. Sometimes I would agree to go to the bilingual Thai/Chinese high school. I’d stand in front of the class but would deny myself teacher status by refusing recompense.

Always a student, don’t believe a thing they tell you, I’d say.

But apart from that I thought I was becoming quite mature, although my retired showgirl never quite got out of the habit of threatening me with the machete. Yeah, even just ‘going out’ she took the machete along, and although she eased up on this a bit, it was the first thing she grabbed when she got mad at me. Not that she scared me too much, but it wasn’t good either. They say a showgirl never leaves the stage, don’t they? She was a difficult one, this old tart. My language is not good enough. Nuance, I used to think, if only I could nuance what I’m saying in Thai or Chinese then I’m sure I would be understood. But this is the lesson of the Tao, is it not? Nuance is bullshit when you think about it, being that sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink complicity that obfuscates the guts of it. Yes, manners too are bullshit, but they’re also disarming.

It wasn’t the machete that made me leave, but the toxicity of burning plastics and the effect of the massive SE Asian haze on my lungs that compelled me to make the decision. I hate making decisions that involve other people, preferring the adage that ‘procrastination is the key to flexibility’. Okay darling I’m off to see a man about a boat in a few days … but I left through the bathroom window before she realized it, just to be on the safe side. I did look at boats in Langkawi, Borneo, and Indonesia but in the end thought the better air was in NZ and went looking there.

I thought I would be back in New Zealand for just a short time. I got back to Auckland on the Chinese New Year and within days the COVID thing was the story everywhere and we were all locked down. And it’s not easy being back either. I was always a bit dysfunctional at a certain personal level. Not a family man. But quite OK in the abstract. I like the poetry of the Tao, and I like people who conduct their lives outside of bourgeoise orthodoxy. New Zealand is a safe place, egalitarian and compassionate, but for now … well, I’ve been a bohemian without attachment for 15 years.

So, I’ve signed back in with the Inland Revenue Department, telling them I hoped to be living on some sort of boat down in the Whangarei town basin. They were really good about it all, no problem. I began thinking about potted geraniums and a boatshed … and then a small house that’s got a garden already, that doesn’t even need an anchor. So, I got one. I actually have settled on a small house just today and, and I move in two more days.

And the money thing? The sum was sufficient to regenerate itself, I’m on the pension now but at the normal tax rate, and on balance I’d say we came out about even.

My escape routes are cut off for now, but what a trip. Maybe it completes a circle. I still feel essentially Bohemian: anti-materialist, self-indulgent and Taoist, but also still a student. I’ve gone virtual with my Thai family, and realistically that’s probably a good thing. It’ll be cheaper that’s for sure.


About the editor/compiler:
James Weitz is the author Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He is also a travel writer. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously, he worked on anti-corruption issues at the Organization of American States and in the Latin American and Caribbean section at the World Bank. His writings have appeared in print at the Mekong Review and in the online journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He is an Associate Editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters and also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image: National flag of New Zealand. Public domain.