What I Learned During my Coronavirus Vacation

I thought 2020 was going to be a year of perfect clarity. A year when we could look back with

hindsight on all that we learned, and as travelers, all that we saw, and glean from it lessons that would move us forward in life. This is after all, what travel does to those who are paying attention. And it is the definition of 2020 vision. Instead, I have thus far learned something far more meaningful, as events this year kept me mostly indoors looking at the four walls in my home and my coffee colored carpet. I had much to think about during our period of lockdown and slow reopening, which was intensified by nationwide civil unrest and early curfew in Los Angeles and other major cities.

First, as fallout from the pandemic and my cancelled travel plans, I learned how to deal with my “travel grief, “a term for feelings I never knew existed. In March, I could only unpack with sadness one item a day from my suitcase which was raring and ready to go to Europe to otherwise enjoy Sicily and Malta for five weeks. Even my empty suitcase looked sad. This has now been the second time I have had to postpone seeing Sicily due to world events. I figured my 50-day trip later in the year, a return to Central Europe to see Prague and Budapest again, followed by a trip to the Baltics, Romania, and Russia, would still be fine. But in the end, I had to deal with the reality of the pandemic, and every travel company’s ever- changing policies of giving refunds if one was lucky, travel credits otherwise. I was grateful that I understood the nature of the relative “flexibility” of the travel industry under such dire circumstances which brought all travel to a grinding halt amid severe economic consequences. I still have travel “goodies” I thought I had put away, but which now look as though I have them out so I can travel soon. Grief ls like that; just when you think you have it all tucked away, it turns out you do not, and it creeps up on you in unexpected moments. And travel grief follows the same five stages of grief from the death of a loved one: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, acceptance. In the span of a few months this year, I have experienced all five.

Because of the pandemic as we all scrambled to find face masks, hand sanitizers, and large supplies of soap, I only had to go to my suitcase to find these now essential items. I always travel with them for health reasons anyway, and in 2021 and beyond, they will become necessities, not toiletries.  It is no secret to experienced travelers that airplanes, buses, handrails, and foreign currency are among the many modes of bacterial transmission during travel. We travelers were a tad bit more prepared for the essentials necessary to weather the pandemic and its aftermath. Travelers – not just tourists – have quintessential moments of learning and understanding that unexpectedly find their way into daily life.

 I have seen the travel industry recover from so much. Chernobyl in 1986, September 11th in 2001, SARS in 2003, and Ebola in 2014-15. In the case of my family, small travel agencies were being hit by the rise of the internet in 1989 -90. Agencies such as what my parents owned did not survive that one, but the larger companies made the necessary adjustments and exploded with success as new companies also emerged with a new business model. So while I was unwinding one set of trips and moving all my travel plans over to 2021, I knew with certainty that travel would be in my future in 2022 while I made initial plans for travel in a post-pandemic world, whatever that would look like. Again, the flexibility of being a traveler and rolling with the punches came to my rescue and enabled me to have a positive outlook to counteract my travel grief and uncertainty.

And just as we were dealing with one virus, another one hit the nation -and the world – once more. I could hardly believe that Los Angeles was going to have another round of riots and protests, the third since the 1960s, and once again over the virus of racial and social injustice. But this time I had Facebook to consult, and the many travel groups I had become part of. As I spoke with multi-racial family members living in Minneapolis not far from the tragic and unfolding events that seemed destined to give birth to a renewed civil rights movement,  I not only ensured that they were safe, but I also saw what was unfolding on social media in different travel groups. Travelers are open minded. We have experienced different cultures. We may not have been sensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement in the past or considered it relevant to our own lives today, but now our senses have been awakened. Not all travelers, of course. But certainly, enough for me to realize that when we have open minds, we can also have open hearts. We understand that things change in the world because we have been to the sites that gave birth to the need for change; sites of atrocities throughout human history, and the sites of a renewed tomorrow. Sites that ensure we will never forget, and sites that ensure we will always keep learning.  But I also learned that changes in the heart emerge slowly, and of course the heart cannot be legislated.

I have come to believe strongly that this confluence of events entered our lives for a reason. For there is a time for every purpose under Heaven, no matter what your belief system. A strong wind blew here in Los Angeles during the time of the George Floyd memorial, stronger than I typically see and it lasted several days.  A strong wind of change, a message from nature, in case nobody was paying attention to anything but the weather. Since shut down in Los Angeles, I have been breathing the cleanest air on the planet with most cars and other forms of transportation off the road or otherwise closed to the public. I have gotten to know new travel friends and old boyfriends better than before. The love of travel unites us and enables the conversation to keep flowing, either by phone, email, or Zoom.  The Universe, in its infinite wisdom, gave us a virus of nature, a virus of our own social making, and a virus in the environment. Yet it is the climate of change we are left to grapple with, rather than the enormity of climate change itself. A new environment of social justice, and a new environment of health is now part of it.  And I believe we as travelers, with our broader than average world view, are up for the task.  Clean air and water, for as important as they are, seems like a metaphor for what we must deal with now.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize this moment in time as Mother Earth screaming out to us for what we have done. “Y’all go to your rooms now, you hear? Look at what you have done to yourselves, to each other, and to me! And I do not want you to come out until this has been taken care of. I do not care how much you like to travel, or how much money you have spent on it. That is not my problem. You should have thought of that before  I won’t let you come out of your rooms until you have thought long and hard about the damage you have done and come up with a solution. “

As we wander through this new reality, I am also learning that while the day will surely arrive when we must fly overseas and travel with masks, the time will also arrive when we can shed them freely, as many are shedding the coronavirus today. When we take off the masks and once again stand more closely and safely to our friends and neighbors, we will emerge as new and different people, and hopefully better human beings.  And hopefully Mother Earth will forgive us.  

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