The year of no travel

Have you noticed the desperation in the travel-addicted community over the past year? Out of habit or anxiety, many people I used to follow or still do tried to keep a similar level of talking about travel even when they were forced to stay put by the pandemic. Some shared photos of past travels. Others wrote posts about what they realised about the entire culture of travelling. Yet others shared their dreams and longings, and some still managed to sneak some travelling between constantly changing restrictions. I took some time to view these posts and hold their loss, understanding that many of them were really struggling with the sudden restriction of a habit that was making them happy.

But then, around April I think, I unfollowed all travel bloggers, except those who post interesting things about their country of residence. No bitter feelings or newly found anti-travel ‘wokeness’ here, it’s just that as they were raising social and sometimes economic capital for themselves with these posts and I was still travelling, I used to habitually check them out, maybe compare or get ideas, but as I viewed their posts for the last time in my lockdown shelter, I couldn’t see anything in them that held any value for me. I did not follow many cheery and cheesy ones anyway, but even the nice, reasonable, respectful ones, who could have claimed ‘I am a traveller, not a tourist’ or even denounced this claim because of its divisiveness, no longer felt like they are giving me anything. Instead, I embarked on several non-travel journeys, and I believe many people have, too.

The first one is experiencing different places through books. Two Twitter buddies praised this idea, and I even pitched it to a couple of editors, but they ghosted. What is the difference between a trip and a book? Well, the difference is obvious, because a trip engages all senses. People like to be carried away by different colours, background noises, and smells. That’s why it’s so common to take photos of open-air markets. These photos make you vaguely imagine what it would be like to be engulfed in these sounds and smells, and make you want to be there, maybe on your next holiday. A book makes more demands of imagination. But a book can offer to open your horizons without being overwhelmed by intense sensory experience. Someone who is prone to being overwhelmed with unfamiliar sensory stimuli could definitely benefit from experiencing distant places by reading literature from there.

The second journey is a diploma course at the University of Cambridge – conveniently for me, taken online due to the pandemic. This term British author Jeremy Seal is guiding us around the vast landscape of travel writing. In one of his classes he quoted an author who made a distinction between a writing traveller and a travelling writer. If I ever start following travel bloggers again, I will only pick out travelling writers, who use travel to inform their rather than use writing as they expect to dazzle us with their travel experiences. But as travel writing moved from telling travel stories to people who are unlikely to visit these places to creating a blueprint for people who are quite likely to go there, the style of mainstream travel writing flattened out without losing the privileged posing among most of the writers.

When so many locations have been described, overdescribed and, crucially, transformed by these descriptions, writing about adventures and about people still works. There can never be two identical adventures, and, with some openness and a dash of luck, you inevitably meet interesting people on the way. But the thirst for of the unexpected is, in most travels, carefully weighed against discomfort, and the choices people make between the extremes are, let’s face it, not that exciting (in hindsight, I believe that neither are mine).

For the Cambridge course, I’m now 2/3rds into Nicolas Bouvier’s book The Way of the World. It is about a trip of nearly minimum comfort. Two European men are driving around by car, with an aim to reach India and possibly Sri Lanka. The car sometimes breaks down and locals help them fix it. They make money as they go, one as a writer/ French teacher, the other as a painter. I didn’t get an impression that they’re excellent at what they do, but they often appear interesting enough to local elites and make money. Whether the exchanges they have with locals are fair is debatable, but each side gets something they value. It is a kind of trip to take when time is abundant and costs are kept minimal. It’s a kind of fantasy that inspires today’s gap years.

This kind of sharing (stuffing additional passengers into a small car, passing cigarettes around, eating with people in taverns) wouldn’t have sounded too outdated two years ago. Amid the pandemic, it sounds like an echo from another era. So each time I put down the book, I wonder how I will travel if the current state ever ends. Of all people who have made predictions, the most reasonable was made by Miranda Schwandt in a Facebook group, and I’d like to share it, with her permission:

I love backpacking and I’m totally supportive of it. But this isn’t the time to go to someone else’s country and live on the cheap, because the risk to local residents is just too high with people from out of country moving around from town to town. [… I would only travel i]f I had enough $$ to stay in a nice condo and order in most meals, particularly for a couple weeks on arrival again to avoid exposing locals after I’ve flown, [and w]ith enough insurance coverage that I would be evacuated if I became seriously ill so as not to take resources away from locals.” (you can Follow Miranda as @mirandalmwrites on Twitter & Instagram).

I fully agree. Currently it is the only responsible way to travel, especially for those who argue for fewer restrictions using the argument that local economies need tourist cash. Travel will be available again, and maybe even in a few months. But what is travel without striking up spontaneous conversations, being invited to an anti-fascist song night by a Portuguese hostel staffer, being welcomed to tea and sticky rice on the floor in a tiny house on Java, getting a hug from a senior citizen in Belgium for saying a few words in Yiddish, which he hadn’t spoken for decades, and clutching a backpack in a crowded matatu on the way to a new adventure. Just a bit more trees and a slightly different colour of the sea?

Contrary to what people may think, I mostly travel with a certain mission – to learn, to work, to see family or friends, to attend a conference or a reunion. But when those move online, and the contact-heavy travelling style (Couchsurfing, public transport, spontaneous interactions) remain unavailable, will I feel like crossing borders?

There is a reason I used the word ‘addicted’ in the first paragraph. For many people who list travel as their hobby or part of their lifestyle, or those who tackle personal issues by placing themselves in different environments, withdrawal can be difficult. But once we clear the habit of relatively easy travel out of the system, will it be appealing in its new shape?

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