written in April 2021
It’s been fifteen months since I’ve seen the clouds from above, felt the tremble of turbulence, and seen the sun reflecting off the wings of an airplane on this flight from Frankfurt to New York. Sights and sensations like these have been central to my life for as long as I can remember.
How can something so familiar feel so strange?
Two Shots of Optimism Await Me
I wish I was flying off to Kyoto, to sleep in capsule hotels and continue research on my next cookbook. Or to Mumbai to see friends and eat all the dishes I’ve been missing. Or to Naples, to sip espresso and roam the streets on an old Vespa. There’s a cabin in the woods a few hours north of Glasgow where I’d love to just hide out and write for a while. Those trips will have to wait.
Right now I’m crossing the Atlantic to recharge and reconnect with family I haven’t seen in years and get two shots of optimism, hoping it will help propel all of us into a more free and connected future.
Ghosts in Motion
The seats of this aircraft are sparsely populated with masked passengers absorbed in the usual individual affairs. We are, unsurprisingly, socially – and emotionally – distanced as we’ve come to be now. The semi-concealed crew occasionally drift down the aisles like uniformed ghosts. I’m trying to write, but my thoughts keep returning to the anxious scene at the Lufthansa check-in of Berlin’s new, colossal could-be-anywhere airport: Shuffling through stacks of documents, circular debates with confused and irritated employees about international entry bans and immigration restrictions, keeping reasonably calm and persisting with the paperwork and screenshots until I was finally let through. This is world travel during a pandemic.
“This might be a taste of an increasingly dystopian future.”
We don’t really know when — and where, or for whom — it will improve. This could be the beginning, or the middle, or the end. This might be a taste of an increasingly dystopian future, or merely a bittersweet tattoo that blurs under our collective skin. Some days we think it’s almost over, but the news or a text or a thought drag us back into the fog.
Weighing Risks against Rewards
I don’t want to focus on how we got here, nor the tangled logic and legality of new rules. Let’s talk about how we move on — responsibly and consciously.
We have to address the risks to others as well as ourselves, accept compromises, and agree to adapt. Above all, we need to communicate and be aware.
Life always involves choices and weighing risks against rewards. Travel takes this to the extreme. When we choose destinations and make travel plans, we consider the costs and challenges. Is it expensive or difficult to get where we want to go, to stay there, to eat and enjoy being there?
The pandemic has introduced entirely new sets of variables, ones many travelers have never dealt with: Is it even possible to go where I want to go? Can I leave, will I be permitted to enter, and once there — what can I do? Are there new rules, and how do I navigate them?
“There’s another field of obstacles now: Social, mental, and emotional ones.”
Yet now we are faced with another field of obstacles: social, mental, and emotional. Frustration, guilt, and envy manifest in people and places in our lives in ways we rarely expected before global lockdowns, closed borders, curfews, and leaving home became questionable.
Adventure travelers already know a world beyond comfort zones and full of backlash from family, friends, and co-workers. But more conventional travelers are less experienced on this new front. What happens when visiting a cosy beach, chilled-out countryside resort, or overtouristed metropolis becomes more potentially perilous and discouraged than trekking through mountains and jungles, or riding ramshackle trains or buses in far-off lands? What do we do when eating indoors at a fancy restaurant invites more risk and debate than eating dodgy snacks from a street food vendor?
The Why of Travel – How relevant has it become?
How significant is the moral difference between flying off to somewhere warmer or happier to restore sanity and jetting off for work or to visit friends and family? These distinctions aren’t always easy to make – I’d say it really depends on the level of risk to which you’re subjecting yourself and others.
Additionally, many countries’ economies rely heavily on tourism. Then again, they may be hungry for tourist income but ill-equipped to handle the havoc we could import if we’re not acting responsible.
To impose a burden on struggling health care systems is definitely not okay, but what if your destination has the pandemic under better control than where you are now? What if staying where you are constitutes more potential harm than getting away safely? What if you can mitigate the threat of actual danger enough that hurt feelings and damaged social solidarity are more likely side effects than any infection, physical suffering, or loss of life?
Looking ahead – not beside and behind us
We all want to be able to move freely again. We want liberation from justifications and judgements. But where do we start?
Well, how about focusing on what we can do to move things forward, instead of dwelling on what we cannot control. There are steps we can take to protect not just ourselves, but others as well. As we do with our food and consumer choices, awareness and appropriate actions, whenever possible, are crucial and make a difference.
The Consequences of Being Human
When we talk about viruses, transmission is real and possible in any number of ways and levels of severity and seriousness we individually may or may not fully understand. Ultimately, just as our bodies are not merely vehicles for our genes to replicate, and we aren’t just digestive tracts with brains and limbs, being human is much more than just being potential vectors for germs. There are ways to minimize risks and maintain protection and compassion, so that we can still allow room for enough of that humanity.
I’ll be honest: I feel vulnerable and concerned while choosing the words and approach for this essay. My emotions and approaches haven’t always been consistent or clear, they’ve evolved through this just as the science and data we share has. It’s easy to judge and it’s easy to justify, but really we need to look inward and think about outcomes.
Bringing Everything to the Table
If you’re feeling envy, I understand. If you’re feeling anger, I get that, too. If you’re feeling afraid, I hear you. And whether you think it’s reckless to even want to trust pharmaceutical companies and politicians, or you think it’s selfish and foolish to leave home and challenge ultra-cautiousness — the feelings are real and it’s what we’ve got to bring to the table.
“This pandemic has different costs and challenges for all of us.”
We should state our desires –– as well as our fears. This pandemic has different costs and challenges for all of us, just as we have differing opportunities and fortune. How we work with them affects us all. Discussion helps us overcome a dangerous sense of entitlement. It also clears a path for progress.
It’s not my prerogative to unmask puppet masters nor preach disobedience. I just want to move along the dialogue and decision-making process so our lives are more about life than limitations. Specifically, we can definitely find ways to start venturing back into the world and connecting with this planet and its people and ourselves.
Escaping the Land of Lockdowns
We can discuss and theorize all day, but at some point we have to decide between action and inaction. Fear is paralyzing, and it’s there for a reason, but eventually the clouds clear and we see a path ahead. Here’s how it happened for me, and how I’ve ended up thousands of miles away from home.
Several weeks ago, before I went on my trip, I met up with a friend that I hadn’t seen since the pandemic began. He was vaccinated at the end of last year as an early candidate. His mindset of calm and optimism was… contagious. Soon after that meeting I talked to family and friends abroad that had also already gotten their shots. It became clear they were living in the future – a place I very much wanted to be in. I know getting there requires trust and a moderated (mostly perceived) level of risk. Hey, very often you’ve got to step into the unknown to escape a stale and stagnant present. Any avid traveler knows this well.
I made arrangements to fly to the US, and booked immediate vaccination appointments. It all felt surprisingly surreal. As someone who has the ability to get vaccinated – with virtually no risks to me and a wealth of benefits and reassurance to myself and others – I know it’s the right thing to do. It’s a minor aggravation but unquestionably a major factor in helping us all evolve out of an unfortunate reality. I trust my immune system to ultimately protect me, but I’ll do what I can to upgrade it. It’s about doing my best to not put others at increased risk of disruption or illness.
“How can I alleviate stress and anxiety for everyone, especially after a mentally turbulent year?”
For five days before getting on a flying capsule to cross the Atlantic, I avoided all contact with members outside of my household. We now better understand that outdoor transmissions are extremely rare — especially if masks and physical distance are involved — but I like peace of mind. I’m not just thinking about me trapped for a day with hundreds of humans in the unavoidable proximity of airport queues and aircraft seats — I’m also considering how to alleviate stress and anxiety for everyone, especially after a mentally and emotionally turbulent year.
A Strange Disconnect and Privileged Ginger Ale
The day before the flights, I got tested. Negative test results are required on most international flights at this this moment in time, but rules aside, it’s reassuring to everyone — especially those who aren’t yet vaccinated — to believe the air is safe.
I won’t lie, it’s a strange disconnect to live through months of media threats and mind-boggling, metamorphic rules, to jump through the hoops and play our parts… and then sit here with my privilege, pulling my mask down to eat a pre-ordered VGML inflight meal and take sips of ginger ale. We’re all crossing our fingers and shaking our heads.
I’ll test again two days after I land; I’ll wait to see people until the results are in, and will be smart and selective about the people I see and where we go and what we do. Soon, everyone I know – who’s able – will be vaccinated. I expect we’ll be fine, and feel more free, but obviously won’t be reckless.
We’ll take it from there, and play out each day, each week, each month as this evolves.
If all goes well, by time you’re reading these words, they’ll feel like a story from a vanishing season, a piece of the near past, the ramblings of an anxious traveler about to embark on an almost ordinary adventure.