By Jodi Bryant
When Sara Smeath and fiancé Christopher Saunders fled a covid-ridden China with their three young children and only one bag between them, they thought they'd return in three weeks.
Little did they know, they'd have a shotgun wedding in Thailand with a wedding party of strangers off the street, before finding themselves back in New Zealand with all their possessions locked away in storage on the other side of the world.
"We were only intending to wait it out in Thailand. The messages we were being told was that everything would go back to normal after a few weeks," explains Sara.
Northland-raised Sara, 36, met Chris, 32, in Australia, his home country, nine years ago before moving to China following Sara's career as a fashion forecaster. Chris worked as a web developer and they had three girls, now five and two-year-old twins.
But early this year, the world around them began changing at a rapid pace.
"In January, we were already in lockdown in China - sanitising, wearing masks and staying home. Our social media was full of fun isolation videos and a mix of virus information from various places," Sara recalls.
Flights were being cancelled in and out of China and cities and towns around them were being closed off to stop the sapread.
"Ambulances were turning up with people in hazmat suits taking sick people from nearby buildings. There was no test back then so fevers, coughs etc were not to be treated by your local doctor and you had to go to a special clinic.
"We also learnt that if you were suspected of having the virus, you would be put in isolation. With three small children, we didn't want to take the risk."
After discovering one of their children's passports was due to expire, they booked flights and left almost overnight with only one bag between them.
Almost half their expat friends also left and the couple decided to head to nearby Thailand as it was affordable to fly to last-minute. Sara remembers passengers were spaced apart, masks were worn and, arriving at the deserted airport, Thailand had already put temperature testing and sanitising stations in place.
Checking into a hotel, they put themselves into a 14-day isolation period while keeping watch on the news as the virus began to evolve around the rest of the world.
Within two days, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia had put a ban on people who had been in China for the past 14 days.
"We had no intention to go back to New Zealand and didn't worry about the 14-day rule as we would be in Thailand longer than 14 days," Sara explains.
But, as their third week in Thailand approached with the virus affecting more countries and further flights and restrictions put in place, they took another precautionary step.
"We could see that the world was moving quite fast and we could see that if you weren't a New Zealand citizen you wouldn't be getting back in so we decided to elope as a precaution to keeping us together; we have two different passports in our family and we knew, at some point, foreigners would be stopped from entering countries."
What followed was a series of failed attempts at getting hitched - much like the series of proposal attempts years earlier, as Sara explains:
"My favourite was in Monopoli, Italy where Chris's plans of a romantic boat trip, greeted by a band at a look-out which was to be set up for his proposal, then dinner in an amazing cliff-face restaurant were all ruined due to a storm. He tried to pull together a completely different plan B last-minute; a roof-top proposal on top of an old church in such windy conditions that my dress blew up around my face as he proposed with our two-year-old. We were then met at the bottom of the building by a guy holding a guitar singing 'Yesterday' by the Beatles - the only English song he knew.
"'Yesterday, when all our troubles seemed so far away' became our laughable theme song. We missed our dinner reservation due to a wild bush fire on the road to get there so ended up just eating at a cafe near our hotel."
Sara says that Chris, being a romantic, promised to 'propose better next time' - that coming two years later in China with perfection … until he forgot the ring.
The final proposal was the morning of the 'wedding' in Thailand, at breakfast with the kids.
As for the recent wedding attempts, the first time, the family got dressed up and arrived at the registry office, only to find it closed due to a public holiday. The second, they arrived to a mass wedding of hundreds of couples getting married at the one place, to be told it wasn't for foreigners.
"We were about to give up and decided to try one more place. We walked right in and they started the paperwork. There were no words as they didn't speak English and we spoke no Thai. It was just forms being filled out. Then they said: 'Witness?' so, we realised, 'Oh, this is our wedding, it's happening!' and raced out to the street to try and find someone. Then they said: 'Translator?' so, again, Chris ran out to find someone who spoke English and Thai."
There were no 'I do's' - just a pile of paperwork and three bored kids fighting over an iPad, so the pair took turns taking them outside for walks while the other signed endless paperwork.
"There were a couple of times where Chris and I looked at each other and said 'Wow, we are married!' … only to be handed another round of Thai papers to be filled out. We got shown to another room and asked to take a piece of paper out of a bowl. I gave the paper to the person and they clapped and cheered and handed me a couple of bags of rice and a bus-shaped money tin - our wedding gift. We still didn't know if we were married. Then we got asked to take a photo at their display with large certificates so, guessing these were our marriage certificates and we were now actually married, we took the photo and left with our rice and money tin."
They celebrated with a couple of beers and a bowl of chips for the kids as they climbed the furniture around them.
"It was such a non-event," Sara laughingly reflects. "It was definitely not magical. We tried to make it really special but it was literally us signing papers in another language and running round on the street trying to find a wedding party and chasing after three runaway kids while washing hands constantly."
Following their 'big day', the 'Corona Refugees' as they called themselves, turned their attention to their next destination. While Covid-19 cases weren't improving in China, they planned to travel to South East Asia, until the news that travel insurance wouldn't cover virus-related costs. This prompted the family to 'cane back to New Zealand'. By then it was March.
"Non foreigners were still allowed to travel and coming back to New Zealand was like walking into a different world," Sara recalls. "There was no sanitiser, no masks no precautions coming in and definitely no need for our marriage license."
Having travelled via Singapore and Australia, upon arriving in New Zealand, the newly-weds decided to put themselves into isolation again before heading to the Bay of Islands where Sara lived until winning the first Hundertwasser art scholarship almost 17 years ago and consequently embarking on university.
"We always wanted to come back to the Bay of Islands. We bought a home here three years ago - we just didn't foresee the return so soon."
Sara says losing their jobs and belongings, which have subsequently been packed up and stored in China, and starting again has been challenging. However, they have hit the ground running and put their combined skills and experiences together to start up a business.
"We had to quickly adjust to our new life here. As we started our tourism software business Te Kaupapa (an app aimed at maximising travellers' cultural experience of New Zealand), New Zealand was heading towards a lockdown. We had already experienced what was going to happen before and we bought the digital tools businesses were going to need - contactless ordering systems, traceability, the ability to count and limit people in venues, online sales funnels etc.
"We were lucky to have had our software company in the pipeline for a while. It's just made us work faster to make it happen. Now, more than ever, we see the need for what we have built."
Meanwhile, the couple are still planning on having a proper wedding and most of their friends and family are unaware they have already wed.
"When we returned to New Zealand in March, it was like nothing was going on so, with that, we pretended the wedding never happened and hoped to have an actual celebration with friends and family. Until we get it formalised here, it's not actually a legal document anyway.
"We've always wanted to have a wedding in New Zealand and, now that we are based here, it's easier to organise. I'd like it to be at one of the wineries in the Bay of Islands with a little more extended family than just our kids," she laughs. "Having our families together is more important than a perfect wedding to us.
"It's been a huge adjustment but we are happy to be healthy and we feel safe here."