Sunday, 27 September 2020


Enjoying life in Whitianga after fleeing the Philippines

A move to Whitianga wasn’t in the plan for Robert and Kaylee Cook and their three children, but Covid-19 intervened and the family may now be calling Whitianga home for quite some time.

An international assignment with Fonterra took the couple to the Philippines four years ago where they have made friends, a home and a fun life for Ethan (6), Brodie (4) and Peyton (3). However, their lives were thrown into chaos in March as the coronavirus gripped the world and the advice came to evacuate back to New Zealand immediately.

“It was a whirlwind, only having 17 hours’ notice to pack up life with three little kids,” Kaylee says. “It turned into such a hurry because the Philippines president, Duterte, said he was shutting the airports down, so there was a limited amount of flights and seats were booking up fast as most expats were fleeing.

“Another major factor in our decision to leave was the quality of medical services. If we did get Covid-19, would we have proper medical care? With families not earning, we feared social unrest and the president had already threatened martial law. New Zealand seemed like a safer option for our family.”

Kaylee says the nervousness and anxiety among people was very visible during their two weeks of mandatory self-isolation in Auckland. “Initially we felt like the ‘foreigners’ back from the Philippines with neighbours glaring over the hallway as we entered the apartment we were isolating in. It was a very lonely and tough time.”

After seeing out the 14 days, the family were able to drive to Whitianga to form a bubble with Robert’s parents, Angela and Patrick Cook. “From as soon as we arrived, we spent every second we could outdoors and my kids told me they were happy again,” Kaylee says.

Multiple daily walks, collecting shells on the beach and taking them home to paint not only helped the children to relax again after an unsettling few weeks, but it inspired Brodie to try to lift the spirits of others feeling anxious or sad.

“Brodie wanted to spread love to people ‘because of the virus,’” Kaylee says. “When I asked how, he suggested we make shell hearts for people to walk past on the beach so they can smile and be happy like he is now. It was heart-warming for me because we came out of such a tough experience and the simple pleasures of the outdoors made my little people so happy.”

From then on, the family’s routine lockdown trips to the beach typically ended with a heart-shaped shell creation.

With still a high level of uncertainty around international travel, as well as the current state in the Philippines, the Cooks at this stage say their timeline for a return is unknown.

“Ideally we would like to get back to our home in Manila,” Kaylee says. “We miss our dog and cats. We adore the Philippines but are very blessed to have this time in New Zealand with family. It looks like we may be here for several months, so we are enrolling Ethan at the local school here so he can have a bit of routine and hopefully meet some friends.”

Despite this massive disruption to their lives, Kaylee says they feel lucky to have been able to relocate to such a beautiful place. “We are very lucky that my in-laws have an Airbnb which we have been fortunate to take over as our spot for now, we are so grateful to be here in Whitianga safe and sound.”

Pictured: Three-year-old Peyton with one of the Cook family’s shell hearts created on the beach in Whitianga during lockdown.


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