MY CORONAVIRUS STORY, 2020: Part 2 - GETTING TO PERTH, THEN TO AMERICA
My ability to travel, to return to my wife Robyn, in the USA was severely restricted from early April onwards. I rented a room for over three and a half months in my friend, Sophie’s house, in Aldinga, South Australia while I considered my options.
Robyn began a teaching contract in August 2019 with a prominent art school in Georgia, (SCAD). The contract ran until June 2021. We had obligations, including a property in New Mexico. I realised I needed to return to the US to help Robyn clear up our affairs and wait until her contract finished. In order to enter the US, I needed to receive H-4 spousal visa. To get this I had to make an appointment with a US Consulate and attend in-person. There are only three US Consulates in Australia; Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. It was quicker and easier to obtain an appointment in Perth, compared to Melbourne or Sydney. Access too, I thought, would be easier? South Australia and Western Australia shared a border and both had very few cases of the virus. The Premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, declared early on (April) however, that he would keep his state borders closed indefinitely. In May, I firmly believed that he would ease the border restrictions after a few weeks and it would be possible to cross into Western Australia, so I booked an appointment at the US consulate in Perth for June 22. This cost a non-refundable $350. I kept watch on the news but unbelievably, the WA border remained firmly closed. The South Australian border was opened in June to West Australians, with no need to quarantine. On June 16. Premier McGowan said,
“Our border arrangements are in place, we will bring them down when we get health advice that says it’s the right time to do so,”
Like most other Australian leaders this stance simply seemed to increase their popularity. The more he shut the state down the more his poll numbers went up.
My consulate appointment was cancelled two weeks before it was due. All US consulates, around the world, were to remain shut for the time being. Temporarily flattened, I rebooked my appointment for mid-July.
To cross the WA border one needs to apply, online for a G2G pass, which I did. After waiting 10 days, I received an email telling me I had been denied. My US consulate appointment was cancelled two weeks before it was due. Appointments at the Sydney and Melbourne consulates were not available until much later in the year. For the third time, I booked an appointment, this time for September 3, then I reapplied for a G2G Pass to enter WA.
Finally, on Thursday August 13, I received an email from the WA government granting me permission to cross the WA border. Unfortunately, my September 3, US Consulate appointment had been cancelled the day before.
I had to make a decision whether to go, or to stay? I had been renting a small studio apartment on a property in Willunga for almost a month. I wasn’t working efficiently. If I was to stay, I’d need to get a larger place where I could paint and wait for Robyn to return, perhaps in December? It was becoming increasingly difficult for Australians, still overseas, to return though. From July 13, PM Morrison had placed a cap on the number of flights allowed to land in Australia. Airlines were only permitted to carry limited numbers of passengers and fewer flights were permitted to land. Due to this, the airlines were preferencing travellers who purchased Business Class tickets and up. Economy class tickets which were normally easily booked and affordable, were no longer available. This meant it would cost a minimum of $10,000 to return to Australia. The Australian government has also announced it would stop covering the cost of the enforced hotel quarantining. Returning Australians would now have to pay $3,000 for the hellish experience of being locked in a room for two weeks. I decided then that I would do everything I could to fly back to Robyn and wait out all the madness in the US until things settled. The November election loomed as well. I felt I needed to return as quickly as possible given the months of unhinged riots in many major US cities.
With renewed focus, over the August 14 weekend, I hurriedly loaded my car. I chose to drive for the following reasons. I craved the freedom of driving for a long stretch to shake off the stagnation of the past few depressing months. I also wanted to avoid the airports which have become almost deserted, but militarised. Lastly, I wanted to transport several paintings to my gallery in Perth. Art transport is an expensive business and if I could deliver my own work, I would save a few hundred dollars. I left Adelaide with few goodbyes on Sunday morning, August 16, then drove 9 hours (777 kms) to the South Australian sea-side town of Ceduna. I arrived at the esplanade as the sunset, and my spirits were lifted by the beautiful scene. I checked into a welcoming, ocean-front hotel, then rewarded myself with evening beers and a meal. The following day I headed to Eucla (492 kms) and the West Australian border. I was told of must-see sights to see along the way. The stunning coast, steep cliffs and endless ocean which were not far from the highway, but I didn’t feel inclined to explore these by myself. The thought of crossing the border made me anxious. I just wanted to get there.
On an open stretch of road on the Eyre Highway, not far from Fowlers Bay, I nudged up to 120 and 122 kms an hour. The speed limit was 110 kms per hour. Over a slight rise a car appeared, passed me, then slowed down. I noticed then it was a police car. As soon as it passed its lights flashed. My first thought was that I was being checked because I had Queensland license plates? Stationary, I rolled down my window and pulled out my G2G border Pass and waited. The cop finally came to my window but dismissed the pass, telling me he wasn’t interested in it. He said I was going to get a ticket for exceeding the speed limit by 12 kms. He wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say and remained totally unsympathetic to any explanation, or my request for a warning. The ticket cost me $466.
Around 4.30 pm, I reached the West Australian border at Eucla. There were one or two other civilian vehicles. I was waved straight through to the group of four or five masked police waiting to question me. Two approached my window and were very focused, firing rapid questions at me. I immediately produced my papers hoping to take the anxiety level down, but the papers did little to satisfy their appetite. Several other questions were asked, then my phone was requested. I had to prove, through bank records, that I’d only been in South Australia for the past three months. This finally, seemed to satisfy them. After a lecture on what I could and couldn’t do, I was allowed to drive on. I was to drive directly to my quarantine address, stopping only for food, rest and petrol. I must not mix with, or pick up anyone and wear a mask whenever I stopped.
I wasn’t given a mask though and hadn’t brought any with me. When I did stop for petrol the attendants looked at me angrily and asked where my mask was? I asked a couple of times if the roadhouse sold masks? They didn’t. One woman asked where I’d come from? Given her mood, Victoria would have been a very bad answer! I told her South Australia and said there were no cases there at the moment. She knew better though. She had been digesting every news report. She told me about an incident in South Australia where a young woman in her 20s had the virus and attended an adult education college in Thebarton. In early August 1,100 people had to self-isolate because of this incident. What she didn’t say though was that no new cases came from the Thebarton incident, only more panic.
After a night in Eucla, I drove 8 hours (709 kms) to Norseman. Perth was another 8 or 9 hours (720 kms) the following day.
I arrived at my pre-arranged Air B&B in Perth on Wednesday 19, around 6 pm after shopping at nearby Coles. I needed several days of supplies. My accommodation was in Mount Lawley. It was a small studio, Air B&B, owned by a friendly, welcoming couple, Pauline and Tom. My Perth Gallery, Linton and Kay, made the connection with them. I was relieved to have a comfortable base with access to a back yard, to start (my second) 14 days quarantine.
I’d learned by this stage, to stop trying to make logical sense of it all. For five months I’d lost all ability to travel freely, make plans, or to re-join my wife. Instead I had to set small goals and accept that my personal freedom was now limited. I had to keep a low profile, not express frustration and do what was pronounced. All this would have been unthinkable a year ago. Two uniformed police officers appeared at the door to my small cottage on the first Saturday night I was in quarantine to check I was actually in my room, as the orders required.
My plans had shifted several times over the five months of the global meltdown. Initially, I was waiting for it to calm down enough for me to travel. That never happened. Now it was: To be in Perth; to be granted an emergency visa appointment with the US consulate; to get permission to fly out of the country; to book a flight; then return to my wife. Once in the USA, we’d bunker down until the madness finally calmed down.
Permission to fly out the country (Travel Restriction Exemption) was granted in less than 24 hours, a surprisingly short time! In quarantine, in Perth, I made contact, via the web, with the US Consulate and was given permission to book an emergency appointment within two days. No direct phone calls, or emails were permitted to the consulate. The next hurdle was booking the actual emergency appointment. I wanted this as soon as possible. It could only be done via the website. I tried many times to find the portal to book an emergency appointment but never could. I resorted to calling the call centre help-line three times and I was finally told that the emergency portal only comes up once and I had already used my one time when requesting permission to book an emergency appointment. Eventually, I was informed I would only be able to book my emergency appointment from September 2, once I was out of quarantine and had tested negative.
On Wednesday, August 27 I received a text from the WA Health Department alerting me that I had to take a Covid test on day 11 of my entering the state, which was the next day. The text said,
“Reminder- You are required to attend a COVID clinic to be tested for COVID 19 tomorrow. Failure to do so may result in imprisonment or a fine.”
I had been dreading having to do the awful looking, nose-prodding test ever since I heard about Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, getting their tests in Queensland, in early March. They arrived in Australia in February as Tom was involved in a film. They must have caught the virus in LA? Rita made a point of saying how uncomfortable the test was and this stuck with me.
Walking out of the front gate for the first time in days, I felt nervous. Around 11.30 am I was kindly led to the Royal Perth Hospital, a 20-minute walk through Hyde Park, then Perth, by my hosts, Tom and Pauline.
As we approached the clinic, I never anticipated the long line that snaked from the front entrance. I’d imagined I’d be in and out in 30 minutes. I had to immediately re-adjust my expectations then join the line outside the hospital. A pleasant young Asian woman in front of me told me there was a two hour wait for the test. The young woman then left the line, telling me she was heading to a different hospital where it would be faster. She said she was going to the Charles hospital. A clearly frustrated, smartly-dressed man in his 40s lined up behind me. I told him about the two-hour wait and he said he wasn’t prepared to wait. I mentioned the Charles hospital option and within a minute he’d decided to head there. He asked if I wanted to go? His car was parked nearby, so I agreed. His name was Frank. I climbed in the car and passed Tom and Pauline who were sitting on a bench close by. They looked a little shocked as I wound the window down and announced I was heading to The Charles. They told me later they thought I’d been taken away by an unmarked police car.
The Charles Covid Clinic was 15 minutes-drive away. At the door, a man and a woman in full protective gear, questioned me. I was asked to sanitise my hands, then take a number. Here, the story was the same, a two hour wait! My new friend, Frank, was very angry. Frank told me he was a fly-in-fly-out worker, a tug boat Captain from Adelaide. He’d been to WA before for his job, but this time the restrictions had become simply too much. He now had to quarantine, pay for it himself and endure a Covid test. He had a family in Adelaide and this was wasting his time and money. He said he wouldn’t go through this again. Once Frank had his ticket number, he returned to his car parked nearby and watched a movie on his phone. I sat on a plastic chair outside the clinic and waited.
The numbers clocked over. Some people hadn’t bothered to wait. At times, two or three numbers would click by. After an hour and a half, mine was coming up. Frank returned just before I went in. As I finally entered the clinic’s doors, I foolishly expected to go straight into an office and be tested. Again, my expectations proved far too optimistic! Once inside there were more queues, more paperwork. I had to register at a counter. Two receptionists in full protective gear registered new-comers. I was given forms to fill in, then, told to sit down. When Frank came in his face showed frustration and disappointment and he continued to fume. It was another hour before I was called.
Finally, this was it! Now the creepy nose prodding and probing. A nurse in full Covid plastic gear and visor with ‘Mandy’ written on the top, guided me into an office. She told me to sanitize my hands, then sit down. If ever I was to catch Covid it would be now! This place is where all the dubious and real cases actually came. They sat in my very chair! The nurse had possibly dealt with positive cases that day. She’ll was going to lean over me and probe my nose!
Mandy was a pleasant woman with dyed red hair, in her mid 50s. Her calm, professional, but pleasant manner, made the awful experience more bearable. I took off my mask and readied myself for the penetrations. Mandy explained I would have a swab taken of both sides of my mouth, then both nostrils. She supressed my tongue, then stuck a longish stick to the back of my mouth on one side. I reacted instinctively, pulling my tongue away. Mandy only got one side of my mouth swabbed before giving up on the other. She then prepared for the even more uncomfortable job, the nose. I said a little prayer, anticipating the unnatural act that I had no choice in. I was told to lean my head far back and breathe deeply in and out. Soon a long stick was slid up one nostril. It felt very alien as it went up, then after a few seconds it went up even further and stayed there! Definitely, an unpleasant experience. Mandy gave me a minute to compose myself before the next nostril. I was told to breathe deeply again, then, the second nostril was invaded. That was it though, it was over and I was given certification that I’d had my test. I was told the results would be texted in the next couple of days.
Outside, I waited by Frank’s car. He’d offered to drop me back to my Air B&B. He was still pissed off, but as we drove away from the clinic, he became more relaxed and in a better frame of mind. Frank dropped me back to quarantine for another few days.
The following day a text came through from WA Health letting me know my test came back negative.
On Wednesday, September 2, I was officially free. The 2-week quarantine was over. It may have been over the day before but I wanted to be certain. I went online to make my appointment with the US consulate but ended up phoning the help-line as I couldn’t make my booking online. The help line asked if I’d like an appointment for the following day, Thursday, September 3? Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and booked the appointment. Pauline dropped me at the consulate building on St Georges Terrace in good time. My legs were very sore. I’d walked so much the previous day, my first day of freedom.
The US consulate security and consulate staff were all pleasant. After screening/security and protocol, I finally had my interview and in a short time, with little fuss, my H-4 Visa was granted. I had been waiting four months for this appointment. Unless I made the journey to Western Australia, it would never have happened.
My passport was held by the consulate for a few days before being couriered back to me. It arrived on Monday, September 7, far earlier than I expected. The next day I booked a flight to through to Santa Fe, on Qatar Airlines, leaving on Sunday September 13. I had to quickly organise my Pop-Up exhibition in Perth with Linton and Kay. With fantastic haste the gallery set it up for Saturday 12, the day before I was due to fly out.
That week was spent readying myself for my journey and preparing for my exhibition. On the Saturday afternoon, the gallery was ready and looked wonderful. This was the first exhibition in their new space. My paintings filled the walls perfectly and before long, a large crowd gathered. The afternoon was a success. People were eager to attend and, more importantly, to buy my work. It was a fabulous finale to a long out-of-control journey that had begun in early April.
On Sunday night I had a 10.30pm flight that would take thirty-five hours to get me to me final destination. Tom, Pauline and their daughter Ali drove me to the quiet airport and waited with me until I passed through all the hoops and checks, then got me to the International Gate. Finally, on board, the plane was sprinkled with passengers who all had plenty of room to stretch out. We were all required to wear alienating face shields and face masks for the entire journey, except when eating or drinking.
There was a four-hour stop-over in Qatar then another long leg on to Dallas. Here things eased up a little. Face shields were not required so mine went immediately in the bin, however, face masks were still mandatory. There were no officials checking temperatures, or papers, only the usual immigration officials checking visas. With small numbers flying, I soon had my passport and visa checked and was quickly granted permission to enter the USA. I boarded the final leg from Dallas to the small Santa Fe airport where my wife picked me up late evening. We drove back to our rented apartment in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Across the USA there are many different covid scenarios from state to state. Depending on the politics of the state governor, the restrictions can be easy, or they can be hard. Left leaning politicians impose harsher restrictions than those on the right. In New Mexico the Democrat Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham has imposed restrictions that have depressed the state. There is a gloomy air as restaurants nervously serve patrons and require masks. Several are shut. Music is rare and movie theatres are closed. We’ll soon be heading to Florida.
October 21 2020