I rarely look at the calendar these days. It really doesn’t matter what day it is when each morphs into the next without any events or appointments to plan around. I now avoid my once-indispensable planner. Doing so leaves me feeling “losstalgic” — longing for life “before” with a sense of loss for the places and community events now on pause. A glance today was a reminder that pre-coronavirus me should be wandering the sprawling hilltop palaces of Alhambra in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Granada, Spain. Instead,
real life me is self-isolating at home, gazing at our own Sierra Nevadas and attempting to write about travel … something now associated with contagion or getting stuck at sea or in a foreign country, unable to return home. But it’s that very aversion to something once loved that makes this a perfect time to remember what makes travel important in our lives.
The current situation notwithstanding, science has shown that travel improves overall health. It challenges us physically, thereby increasing strength and endurance. More importantly, it stimulates our minds as we disconnect from routine.
Numerous studies have shown that novel environments and cultures improve cognitive flexibility, creativity and problem-solving skills as new ideas and approaches to common issues are encountered. It’s human nature to get stuck in a rut and go through the day on autopilot. People rarely seek out novel solutions, but rethink past patterns. I’ve been humbled more times than I can count by grocery stores, transportation systems, trash collection … even language that functions better in another country than our own. Speaking of the latter, there are a number of foreign words that would be handy right now if only they existed in English.
For example, have you recently found yourself staring vacantly into the distance only to snap out of it and worry that you’re losing it? The Japanese realize this is a natural function, so they’ve given it a name — “boketto.” Have you found yourself more often flustered to the point that you can’t function or finish what you were doing? The Germans accept that this happens to us all; they call it “fisselig.”And now that everyone’s home and streaming old movies, remember in the movie “Clueless.” when Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) described someone as “a full-on Monet … OK from far away, but up close a big old mess”? The Tagalog dialect of the Philippines has a word for that — “layogenic.” That perfectly describes my hair and nails after weeks of salon closures. And haven’t we all indulged in a little emotional eating lately, resulting in some unwanted pounds?
The Germans call it “kummerspeck.” It literally translates to mean grief bacon! And once all of this is over and we run into old acquaintances, the Scottish language has the perfect word for the panicky hesitation we feel when we can’t remember names — it’s “tartle.”
Although I will admit to buying more than a few treasures on our journeys, the best souvenirs are memories. Unlike physical objects, they won’t tarnish, fade or shrink over time. If anything, they grow as those stories are embellished over the years!
An overnight hotel stay years ago in Singapore is a case in point. Before checking out to embark on a cruise, we proceeded to breakfast only to find they were serving an unbelievably lavish buffet. On hearing the price of $70, Dean advised ordering something small from the menu since we’d soon be eating lavishly (prepaid) every day. Nope! I went for it. A smorgasbord of delectables came back on my plate (uh … plates) as Dean sat grumpily gnawing on an English muffin. Later, when checkout inquired if we had incurred any expenses not on the bill, Dean mentioned breakfast. Imagine his look of regret (and my laughter) upon hearing that breakfast had been included! The brunch was good but telling that story has been better.
Anyone who knows us is aware that we never miss an opportunity to dance. But the most unexpected and rewarding experience occurred in a park next to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. As often the case in the morning, we passed people engaging in tai chi, and others displaying their skill at Chinese yo-yo (spinning and tossing a large wooden spool on a string attached to two sticks, one in each hand).
What we didn’t expect to see was a group dancing to ballroom music from a boom box. Informing our guide that we wanted to watch, he agreed to come back after our small group toured the temple. Watching soon spurred us to join in, but we did so off to one side, not wanting to disturb anyone. But one by one, dancers stopped and trickled over to watch. Before we knew it, we had the entire group around us, smiling and urging us on. Dean finally broke the ice and gestured to one of the ladies whether she’d be his partner. I followed by gesturing that I was a willing partner as well. Soon we were dancing with the locals, none of whom spoke English, but they all understood the international language of dance.
Two cultures sharing the love of a mutual hobby … the outflow of warmth and appreciation from both sides. It brought tears to my eyes then and does again at this writing. That day was magical and one we will never forget.
Lastly, I’ll share an experience that, oddly enough, occurred in a public restroom in Darwin, Australia. Spying a small stainless steel bathroom in a park, curiosity got the better of me. Pushing the button promptly swooshed the door open … and walking in promptly closed and locked it. Directions were posted everywhere, but somehow I missed the one that explained that the entire process was automated and timed for the door to reopen 12 minutes later. Unaware that I was “on the clock,” I took a few photos and looked around at the unfamiliar fixtures before turning to the job at hand. But the timed auto flush was way ahead of me and it triggered a domino series of events. Water began squirting out of the wall, but by the time I scurried to what I now know to be the faucet, the foam soap sprayed, followed by a blower so forceful that it blew the foam onto my face and clothes. As I tried in vain to restart the water, imagine my shock when the door suddenly opened. There I was … covered in soap, shirt untucked and completely dumbfounded.
As I began to relate what had happened to my husband (dutifully waiting outside the door) the final injustice befell me — the entire interior erupted in a mist of disinfectant. Dean tried, but he couldn’t help but laugh. I did as well … it just took a lot longer.
What will travel look like once this crisis is over? It’s safe to say that people will stay closer to home, journeying first by car or train to rural and outdoor destinations versus crowded public spaces.
It may take a vaccine and/or reliable treatment before people feel comfortable heading out to the great beyond.
Health certificates or vaccination records may become routinely carried documents. Maybe we’ll all wear masks. There could be an upside. Change fees might become a thing of the past. Airlines, cruises and tour companies are now waiving all or most of those to promote future bookings. That genie will be hard, if not impossible, to put back in the bottle. Travel may also become more sustainable as countries reduce crowds to control future viral illnesses.
Any recent traveler has witnessed the increase in crowds as land tours and cruise ships allowed tourists to outnumber locals. In many popular destinations, residents chose to rent out their homes and go to lesser-known spots as tourists made life at home unbearable. And, finally, maybe this crisis will end the practice of packing passengers in aircraft like sardines in a can.
Unfortunately, there’s a greater downside. Tourism is one of the largest global economic sectors, supporting one in 10 jobs worldwide. In the wake of the pandemic, few industries have fallen as far and as fast. Concise data regarding losses in jobs and revenue is impossible to calculate since both increase as quickly as the virus spreads.
Planes can’t fly profitably with social distancing and frequent disinfection.
The government aid keeping them afloat ends in September. Passenger masks are now required, but how will that work on long flights or while eating? And the days of stylish attendant uniforms may be over. AirAsia just unveiled cabin crew attire comprised of a hazmat-like red jumpsuit complete with gloves and face shield.
The cruise industry faces an even steeper battle to entice customers after images of passengers, unable to get into port, have been indelibly etched into our brains. With most cruise lines incorporated overseas (avoiding federal taxes and many U.S. regulations), they aren’t eligible for U.S. aid like that extended to airlines and hotels.
Before the outbreak, the cruise industry experienced six years of growing profits, with 32 million passengers and 19 new ships projected for 2020. That’s not happening now.
While we’re not quite ready to pack our bags again, travel is definitely in our future (with insurance and booked with a travel agent with the contacts and experience to resolve issues). We yearn for the day when wanderlust returns without fear, and strangers are once again considered people to meet versus a source of contagion.