Getting Home Amidst Covid-19

March 26, 2020

Well, our wonderful 7-week Western Australia and Bali adventure has come to a different ending than planned. Early Thursday morning, March 26, Tony & I arrived at LAX on the LAST international flight allowed to leave Brisbane, Australia. The night before, we flew all night from Perth, WA to Brisbane on the LAST Qantas flight allowed out of Perth. Getting onto those two flights was nothing short of a miracle, facilitated by a network of guardian angels, to whom we shall be forever grateful (including dear friends Mary & Marty Landau who filled our fridge with food since we are now quarantined for 14 days)!

While some people would question our decision to continue with our road trip from Perth to the far north Western Australian town of Exmouth, we reconsidered it every single day and inched forward based on that day’s reports on the pandemic. Our dilemma was that our itinerary included dropping off our rental car in Exmouth and getting a one-way flight from a small airport in Exmouth back to Perth, connecting to Brisbane and then back to LAX. It was like a domino game, with so many coordinates needing to all work together – and, we had thousands of dollars worth of pre-paid hotels, tours, car, etc. to consider.

The other complication hindering us was that we had flown from Perth to Bali to spend 12 days with our daughter, Lyndall, and son-in-law Justin, who are living in Bali.  After our return to Perth, the Australian government instituted strict travel restrictions for anyone who had traveled anywhere in or out of Indonesia, including a 14-day quarantine.  So, we were not even allowed to fly anywhere until we had completed that 14-day period.  Although not required when we arrived in Australia, we complied with the spirit of the quarantine just because we knew it was the right thing to do.  We were very relieved when we finally had reached the milestone where we would be allowed to fly – that was March 24.

The areas we traveled to in Western Australia are very remote with great distances between scattered tiny towns. The beaches were deserted so we felt safe from the virus – either driving in the car or spending a few hours on beaches all by ourselves. We certainly were practicing ‘social distancing’ and still managing to enjoy our trip. The only time we interacted with anyone was ordering take-away dinners most nights and checking into hotels, which mostly was just picking up a key in a lockbox – most reception offices were closed to protect their employees.

The farther north we got, the more the tiny towns were shutting down so getting groceries and dinners was getting harder and harder. We felt our best option was to continue northward, away from populated areas, and Qantas kept assuring us our flights were still ‘safe’.

Everything changed Tuesday evening, March 24, when we got an email from Qantas saying that our flights were cancelled, offering no assistance on how to get back from the far north of WA. The pandemic in Australia was escalating quickly and every state and territory was shutting its borders in the next 24-48 hours and they were stopping ALL international flights in and out of Australia. Calls to Qantas for help indicated a wait time of over 2 hours and our cel phone reception was constantly cutting out. Now we were scared!

We woke up Wednesday morning and knew we needed to start driving south and try to reach Perth that night, which turned out to be an 11-hour drive. Our plan was to go straight to the airport and try to get on any flight heading to the East Coast and then hopefully a connection to LAX.  Luckily we made sandwiches to eat on the road as we did not have time to stop other than for gas and bathroom stops. The car and my lap became ‘mission control’ and I started making phone calls as soon as we hit the road. I called the US Consulate in Perth to see if they could help us get onto flights out. Our dear friends in Perth, Robert and Luisa, called their local Member of Parliament to ask for help on our behalf. I was talking to our travel insurance’s emergency assistance hotline as well as numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact Qantas. We were brainstorming with Robert & Luisa throughout the day, as they were making all kinds of calls for us.

Finally, I decided to call an old friend who is a travel agent in Sydney who I toured around Europe with 41 years ago, Sue Myers. She said, “Give me a few hours to see what I can do”.  Not long after, she called and said she had MIRACULOUSLY placed a hold on two flights – Perth to Brisbane at 11:35pm THAT night and then Brisbane to LA the next morning. Our GPS said we would arrive at Perth Airport at 9:00pm. Pedal to the metal!

My cel phone service was going in and out, since we were in what Aussies call ‘Woop-Woop’ (aka “the middle of nowhere”). Sue and I were calling back and forth making the arrangements and suddenly she said she needed copies of our passports. Luckily, we were about 30 kms away from the only biggish town and we found a McDonalds so we could use their wi-fi. (Of course, McDonalds had their whole dining room boarded up with sheets of plywood to keep anyone from entering their dining area – you could only walk inside straight up to the counter to order to-go.) Finally got a wi-fi connection and sent the passport copies and credit card info (washed our hands in their bathroom, of course) and then back on the road to Perth!

Sue and I were calling back and forth for the next few hours as she frantically completed the ticketing process – all while my cel phone battery was getting lower and lower. UGH! (Note to Self: always carry a car charger or power bank for every cel phone, even when you don’t think you will ever need it!) She didn’t want to process the payment until she knew for sure we were going to make it in time to board the flight in Perth, so that entailed all kinds of pulling strings and calling in favors with her airline contacts all around Australia. And, we still weren’t sure we would even be allowed to transfer to the international terminal once we arrived in Brisbane because they had instituted a requirement for all interstate passengers to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine. So, she didn’t want to process the payment for the Virgin Australia flight from Brisbane to LAX (which, ahem, was an obscene cost, but we were quite ‘happy’ to pay it) until she was certain that we would be allowed to board. I’m pretty sure that Sue didn’t sleep all night – what an incredible friend!

Of course, our rental car was a giant mess with all our beach gear all over the back seat, dirty clothes everywhere, several bags of food we had been stocking up on due to all the shutdowns. When we stopped to top off with gas just before returning the car in Perth, we ripped everything out of the car and spread it on the ground in the gas station parking lot. We just shoved everything into our suitcases (including all those stinky, dirty clothes – UGH! (2nd Note to Self: don’t put off doing laundry till tomorrow when there is a global pandemic going on).

I was walking up to strangers’ cars in the gas station and offering them unopened food – bags of chips, cans of veggies, a bottle of wine, spaghetti & sauce jars, jam, ketchup, etc. When we dropped off the car at Avis, I gave the last few bags of groceries to the guys there and they were super excited to find there was an unopened roll of toilet paper amongst the goodies! (TP situation is the same in Australia as in the US)

We literally RAN to the check-in counter in Perth and luckily they did not feel the need to take our temperatures, despite the fact that we were sweating like pigs after driving 11 hours in 100+ degrees and had done our speed-packing in the hot parking lot at the gas station. Even a quick change of clothes at the gas station couldn’t mask my sweatiness – pity the poor girl who sat next to me on the 13 hour flight home the next morning.

But, we made it on the plane! We were on our way home, even though we knew ‘home’ was probably going to be Hellish during this crisis. While still on the tarmac, we suddenly noticed them opening up the baggage hold below and we saw them removing large containers containing luggage. This did not look good….and then the pilot announced that they had ‘removed’ one of the passengers who ‘was not well enough to travel at this time’ and they then had to also remove his luggage. So, despite the border closing at midnight, the Powers That Be allowed us to take off after midnight, under the circumstances. Quick text to Sue, “Go ahead and process our credit card payment for the first flight – we are on our way!”

When we landed at Brisbane domestic terminal, it was like a war zone. There were police and security guards everywhere, even uniformed firefighters, creating human barriers as we walked past to collect our luggage. Once we arrived at the International terminal, the check-in line was the entire length of the terminal, and then wrapped all along one side of the huge building. The flight jumbotron showed 11 cancelled flights and then we saw ‘our’ flight on Virgin with the flashing ‘check-in open’ announcement! Whew! Out of all the flights listed, there were only a few flights still going out, mostly Virgin Australia.

The only tickets we had were on my phone, which was now 100% dead. I snuck out of the long line and found an outlet to quickly charge my phone enough to be able to show the tickets, if needed. When I went to rejoin Tony in the line, I couldn’t find him anywhere. Slight panic, but then he found me to say he had been pulled from the line and sent for interrogation. Turns out Australia had just MADE IT ILLEGAL for Australians to leave the country and they heard Tony’s Australian accent, not knowing he is also a US citizen. So, he was taken aside and he had to prove that he lives in the US or they would not allow him to board the plane. Luckily his California driver’s license, medical card, Bank of America credit card, etc. were sufficient. Back into the line and finally got checked in, just in time to board the plane home. Sent Sue another quick text to let her know she could process the credit card payment to Virgin, now that we were officially on that flight. But then we sat on the tarmac for 2-1/2 hours with no explanation – just to make us sweat a bit more.

Thankfully, everyone on the flight was subdued – mostly Americans very grateful to be getting out on the last flight to LA. We could hear one person coughing throughout the flight, but they were way in the back of the plane. The worst feeling was when I could feel a random sneeze coming on, knowing that I would be considered a pariah by the rest of the passengers for the rest of the flight! I grabbed my jacket and put it over my mouth and hoped it muffled the sound of my inopportune sneeze! (and, of course, I then washed my hands for the zillionth time).

Just when we were feeling sorry for ourselves for having to pay nearly $6,000. to get home, they announced on both flights that the flight attendants were all flying their last flights and they would all be laid off the next day. Sobering moment. Let me just say that EVERYONE is losing something in this nightmare and an unexpected airfare seemed like a pretty trivial loss for us at that point. The pilot asked everyone to ‘be kind’ to the crew and to each other. Good advice for all of us.

Brisbane flights, the ‘new normal’ in our home, Tony wearing ‘armor’ on the plane
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Chasing Sunsets

Chasing Sunsets banner 2x9 920px@200It’s 4:30 on this February afternoon and most of my friends are thinking about leaving work, driving home, or starting to make dinner.  I walk over to my upstairs window, looking at the sky to see if there are any high clouds.  Should I stop working right now and quickly drive to the beach to enjoy a beautiful sunset?  I look at my tide watch to see what the tides are doing – the lower the tide, the better the reflections are for photos at sunset.  The best tides are the extreme negative low tides that come in winter as they can create mirror images of the clouds above or any structures – such as piers – nearby.

The sight of some really high, wispy clouds makes me turn off my computer and grab my camera gear.  The closest beach for me is the ‘River Jetties’ – right on the border of Huntington Beach and Newport.  Street parking on the Newport side is free and plentiful in winter.  I love that dogs can run free on a very small strip of County beach that is sandwiched between the areas that prohibit unleashed dogs at Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach.  Seeing the exuberant group of playful dogs silhouetted against a pink or orange sky with the dark outline of Catalina Island on the horizon is a great way to end the day!

From about October to March, Southern California residents are blessed with many spectacular sunsets over the ocean.  As the winter sun sets behind Catalina Island, the sky lights up the atmosphere and any clouds that hover above.

One secret to capturing the best reflections in shallow water is to get down as low as possible.  Sometimes this means getting very sandy or even wet, but it is worth it once you get home and see your photos.  Even with today’s ‘image stabilized’ lenses, it is best to use a tripod or monopod to get the sharpest images in low light conditions.  Although not as stable as a tripod, I prefer a monopod as it allows me to move around easily to compose shots from different angles and it can quickly be raised or lowered.   Once you set up a tripod, it is hard to move around.   Wait for each wave to recede to get the mirror images at low tide.  And, if it is safe for you and your camera, wade into the shallow water for a different angle, so be prepared with appropriate footwear or go barefoot.

Including a focal point of interest in the foreground such as a tree, bird, dog, surfer, boat, lifeguard tower, pier, or even people can enhance your sunset photos.   Don’t be afraid to experiment with your camera settings to get different effects such as using a slow shutter to get a blurry image, use backlight settings, vertical vs. horizontal formats, etc.   Investing in an inexpensive ‘remote shutter release cord’ also helps to eliminate the slight movement that occurs when your finger presses the shutter on the camera.

It is easy to make the mistake of leaving the beach too early and missing out on the most spectacular explosions of color.   I have done that far too many times and it is heartbreaking to look in my rear view mirror only to see the whole sky ignite in a burst of color!   So, always stick around a few minutes beyond the point where you think the sunset is over.

I often call my friends and mention that I think there is going to be a nice sunset and many of them are puzzled as to how I know that.  Pay attention to the hints, beginning with the sunrise.  Many times when we’ve had a beautiful sunrise, it is followed by a stunning sunset.  Watch the clouds throughout the day – sunsets are always more dramatic with clouds.  When we have had Santa Ana winds blowing through the day, the pollution blows out over the ocean and can result in very colorful sunsets.  Recently we had a thick fog all afternoon and I gave up on it clearing in time for the sunset so I started driving home.  Only a few blocks away, I looked back towards the ocean and the fog had suddenly lifted and all the moisture in the air created the most spectacular sunset.

And, if you have a hungry family at home that isn’t impressed with you racing out the door instead of making dinner, my secret weapon is to throw some meat in a slow cooker early in the day.  That way, dinner is ready when you come in all wet and sandy and raving about the amazing sunset photos you just got!

© 2014 Diane Edmonds, All Rights Reserved

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Surf Affliction – Confessions of a Surf Photographer

Bolsa Chica 1/21/14

Bolsa Chica 1/21/14

Anyone who is married to or spends a lot of time with a surfer is likely a victim of “surf affliction”.  Most surfers only surf when the waves are good.  That means they don’t surf when the waves are bad or marginal, which unfortunately is the majority of the time.  This is why surfers HATE committing to anything too far in advance, because it just might be the ONE DAY all week, month or year that the surf is firing.  If there is a fun sized, offshore day that happens to coincide with the day you promised Grandma you would help her clean out her garage, there are going to be some tears flowing.  Events like your own child’s birthday parties, your child’s soccer team playoff final, your sister’s wedding – heck, your OWN wedding – are almost always going to turn out to be the best surf days of the year.  You can count on it!

This is why surfers rarely fully commit to anything and they get in a lot of trouble for it.  Surfing can cause many problems in families and relationships.  Non-surfer wives have a hard time understanding a husband’s hesitation to commit to going to the in-law’s house for an all-afternoon bar-b-que.  He’s going to get the stink eye if he sneaks out to have a quick session instead of making sure the car is ready for the long drive, let alone helping load the car and getting the kids ready for the family outing.  Only a surfer fully understands this dilemma.

As a pro surf photographer, I am as bad as the surfers.  I learned a long time ago that there is no point in wasting my time shooting surfers in 2 foot whitewash.  Most guys are annoyed that they even had to surf that slop – they certainly don’t want a permanent 8 x 10 glossy reminder of it!  So, if I actually rely on shooting surfers to pay my bills, I pretty much have to keep my calendar very fluid so I am available to shoot when the surf is good.

You have no idea of how annoying my unwillingness to commit to invitations has become to my friends.  A friend calls up and asks if I want to go to lunch next Wednesday.  I try to stall while I run to my computer and quickly log onto Surfline to see what the long-range surf forecast looks like for the middle of next week.  Darn, the swell is building all afternoon Tuesday and is forecast to peak at noon on Wednesday!  So, I suggest that we meet on Monday, but then I start remembering how big swells have a tendency to arrive a day or so early and those little windows are usually the best conditions.  My friend counters by suggesting lunch on Thursday – darn, I know that once the long period swell starts to back down on Wednesday, the interval will shorten and that will make one of my favorite surf spots go off on Thursday.  How many ums and ahs can I get away with as I try to suggest that maybe we should postpone our lunch to the following week?

And so, we pencil in a date for the following week.  I wake up on Wednesday and there is a pea soup fog so I quickly call my buddy and tell her “my plans were cancelled at the last minute” and see if we can squeeze in that lunch after all.  Nothing shuts down a surf photo shoot faster than a fog rolling in.  And, surfers love it that every spot becomes a ‘secret spot’ in the fog.

Other days, I wake to a dreaded south wind and know that most local spots are going to be blown out, so I get out my ‘to do’ list or clean toilets.  I have learned to make the most of ‘non surf’ days so my days are clear when the surf gets good again.  Herein lies the secret for keeping life in balance – be super organized and productive when there is no surf so you can afford to drop everything when the waves are calling your name.

One of my favorite things to do is volunteer my time to photograph surf events for charity organizations that put on surf days for children with special needs, people with spinal cord injuries, amputees, foster kids, etc.  These events are planned out months and sometimes even a year in advance.  So, I have to commit way in advance and they are counting on me to be there to take photos.  Sure enough, we’ll have a lull of 3 weeks with absolutely no surf and then a huge, perfect swell arrives on the same day as my volunteer shoot.  Suddenly the “value” of my donated time goes way up because I have now sacrificed my only chance to make some money all month in order to fulfill my volunteer commitment.  Luckily I get a lot of joy from volunteering for these events, and luckily my family does not rely on my surf photography income, but not all surf photographers are as fortunate.

The other situation surf photographers find ourselves in is surf overload when we get back-to-back swells.  Surfers paddle out and surf for a few hours and then go home and mow the lawn or go back to work, etc. – their “work” is done.  After shooting for a few hours at 8 frames per second, I go home and spend the next 8 – 12 hours or even several days dealing with thousands of photos.  Just scrolling through them and deleting the bad ones can easily take an hour or more.  Then uploading, coding by surfer, sorting the best ones, backing up, etc. takes a few more hours.  Editing is the most time consuming part of the job, but it is where the artist in me gets satisfaction.  I can’t bring myself to post unedited, junky shots on my website.   I believe that my reputation is only as good as my worst photo that’s been posted.   And so, I edit when I should be sleeping.

Strangely enough, I am nearly as stoked as the surfers I watch while capturing their best waves.  And, I actually enjoy re-living each wave at my computer as I sit editing at midnight.  If we have day-after-day of firing surf, I get very little sleep.  If I edit into the wee hours of the morning so my clients can enjoy seeing their shots as soon as possible, it’s going to be very painful for me to set my alarm for a dawn patrol session the next morning.  However, the lure of great waves and great conditions always wins out and I often get talked into shooting a few days in a row.  But, this comes at a very high price in that I have to drop everything else in my life.  This is where my crock pot comes in handy and ensures that my family gets dinner at a reasonable hour – I just throw in a roast as I head out the door for an all-day surf safari.

My favorite thing is turning on my cel phone each morning and hearing the text alerts going off by the dozen when the surf is firing.  I love receiving eyewitness surf reports from my most reliable surf buddies, up and down the coast.  Those morning reports help me decide where the surf is best for shooting that day, so I don’t waste my time driving from spot to spot as the optimal lighting is lost.

What can I say?  I suffer from a bad case of Surf Affliction and, if anyone knows of a good one, I need a 12-step program to get over it!

© 2014 Diane Edmonds, All Rights Reserved

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