Stuck in Canada during Covid

Gilligan Sheppard participated in an AGN staff exchange program. We hosted Dexit from Adams & Miles in Canada for three months. Then we sent Kurt to them in February this year. This is how it worked out…

Heading off to Toronto on the 28th of January, looking forward to all the excitement and adventure of the next three months. Arriving in Vancouver I filled out the arrivals form stating I’d be in Canada on vacation for 100 days and was questioned by the customs officer. I thought I was going to get turned around until he asked where I was staying in Vancouver, to which I responded “I’m not. I’m flying straight on to Toronto” and upon hearing that I was accepted into Canada.

Arriving in Toronto later that evening, the first thing you feel when those airport doors open is how freezing it is outside. Being a South Island boy, colder temperatures are nothing new to me, but these temperatures were something different altogether. There was a two week period where it didn’t get above 0 degrees!

There were protests over the new oil pipeline that was being built over what are indigenous lands. These protests blocked the rail road going to Ottawa so this stopped any initial plans of visiting Trudeu in the capital.

I woke up the next morning and went into my temporary workplace at Adam & Miles. Dexit, who was with us in New Zealand for three months, met me outside the building and introduced me to everyone in the office. It was then that I knew I was in for a great experience. Their office reminded me of a toned down version of Gilligan Sheppard, they still had big personalities, just without their version of our Bruce. 

First day on the job I navigated my way taking the subway below my building and hopping onto one of the many buses that leave the subway station. On the small walk from the bus into the office, there would often be squirrels running around and playing in the trees. Half of the carpark was piled with snow and ice. It didn’t take long to figure out Canadian banking and accounting is a very long way behind what we have here. Cheques are still widely used, bank statements are still posted and bank feeds for accounting software is almost non-existent. The accountants told me that they’ve only been able to use the CRA (our IRD equivalent) online for the past few years. We’ve been able to do that here for well over a decade now. On the first day a group of us went out to Chinese for lunch which ended up becoming a weekly activity.

The second weekend one of the managers picked me up bright and early on the Saturday morning to go ice fishing at Lake Simcoe after stopping at Tim Houghton’s (the Canadian version of Starbucks) for breakfast. While not much of a fisherman myself, I was still interested to see how it worked. Walking onto the lake to find where Jeff had set up, you couldn’t see where the land stopped and the lake started – everything was white with tents and cabins scattered all around. Jeff (another Adam & Miles employee) had all the equipment set up and had caught two fish by the time Peter and I showed up. Unfortunately no more fish were caught by us that day, and not for lack of trying. It was surprisingly cozy inside the tent with a heater set up.

Next up was the zoo. Vicky and her husband Bob picked me up from the bus stop and then we went on to meet Krista at the zoo. Toronto Zoo is huge. We walked around for nearly eight hours and we didn’t even come close to seeing all animals. My favourites had to be the otters, artic foxes, polar bears and of course the majestic Canadian Lynx. Vicky’s husband cooked dinner while Vicky kept us entertained. A deer even jumped the fence to eat from their bird feeder, which I’m told is often enjoyed not only by birds but also squirrels, raccoons and a deer and its fawn.

A few weekends later David, one of the partners at Adams & Miles, gave me his season tickets to go see the Toronto Maple Leafs (an ice hockey team) at the Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto. Having arranged to meet Andrew in the late afternoon, we went for a bit of a tour around downtown. There are walking tunnels that run under downtown that remind me very much of an airport with shops either side. We went and looked at the buildings the TV show ‘Suits’ was filmed in (I’m a huge Suits fan), before heading to a bar just outside the arena for a beer or two before the game. Unlike the way we seem to do sports here, they have a real atmosphere. Everyone is fully dressed in their team’s kit and alcohol and food is in everywhere (you could order it from your seat). The hockey is a real show with the lights and performances and that’s without the game itself. The rules are a bit confusing but I got the general gist.

From this point onwards things took a bit of a turn. Covid had finally started making its appearance in North America. With a trip planned for New York and Washington on the first of May followed by a road trip from Vancouver to LA, these quickly changed as things developed. In what felt like no time at all, I went from riding the subway and bus to work to suddenly not being able to go to work at all. Instead, I was now working on a laptop from my condo. Shops started to close or adjust to the new conditions. Thankfully for me, I never went through the one month of what sounded like hell that New Zealand had. Canada, being a bit like the US, with ten provinces and three territories to go along with it acted on a state level. The Premier of each of these provinces were the people in charge of province wide procedures. I certainly noted to a few Torontonians that while the numbers of people out and about had certainly decreased, there was still a large number of people out. Takeaways and stores were still open and the buses and trains still stayed on, albeit with very few passengers.

The situation was changing rapidly and the time came to decide whether I was to stay or come home. New Zealand was still in level two, and I was thinking that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. I decided to stay. Over the next week New Zealand went into lockdown and flights were cancelled. Bruce, who himself flew quickly home from the US when it broke there, emailed me in a panic to get home ASAP, but I still stayed.

With the help of our lovely travel agent, I was rebooked to fly home on the 9th of May, a week earlier than I was originally meant to come home. Canada Air then cancelled all flights for a month, so we pushed the flight out to the 24th. Thankfully Adam & Miles were fantastic and automatically extended my condo so I at least had somewhere to stay and one less thing to worry about.

The day to travel home finally arrived. It was sad leaving, and it was a trip I’ll never forget. Arriving at the Pearson airport at 6.30am, there were no other cars in sight. Even inside the terminal there were very few people around. It was a requirement to wear a mask through the airport and on all Air Canada planes.

A space between each passenger had been put in place on all Air Canada flights. The lady sitting in the aisle seat of my row sprayed everything around her with hand sanitizer. The air was filled with alcohol making it even harder to breathe through the facemask.

Vancouver airport was deserted. There were only three international flights that day with my connection to LA being one of them. Going through security I found another Kiwi who was also concerned about the Air New Zealand flight so we stuck together when we got to LA. By the time we made it to LA, we had another Kiwi, an Australian and an American tag onto our group. We found the Air New Zealand plane, and with 30 mins to go before our flight, we were able to get tickets and the relief that we were indeed going home.

Arriving in New Zealand was also an unusual experience. It was like I was home, but I still wasn’t home – isolation was to come. Everything unnecessary at Auckland Airport had been blocked off and we were herded, with social distancing, through to customs along with a quick temperature check and put on a bus to a hotel. I was transferred to the Sebel in Manakau. I was amongst the group of people that initially didn’t have to be tested before being released. Of all the information we were given it was never written anywhere that a test was required. Thankfully, I have since been tested and I’m Covid free. I was finally released back into the wild on the first day of level one. While I’m grateful of my time in Canada it’s nice to be home.

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