If struggle is our greatest teacher, then 2020 has given us a top-class education. Since early March, every day is a school day but its recursive lesson has been pervasive and brutal. We count the toll of the pandemic primarily in lives and livelihoods, but its truths are imparted in countless other ways too. COVID-19 has stolen our ability to touch, to hug, to be close to others. It has isolated countless millions of us and made us wary of strangers. It has cancelled weddings and birthdays and turned the ritual of funerals into a sparse, solitary experience.
From the start of the crisis we have been forced to deal with what Jane Guyer, Professor of Anthropology at John Hopkins University, terms "enforced presentism", a feeling of being stuck in a barely changing present coupled with an inability to plan ahead. We don’t know when we’ll be able to see our friends or loved ones again, when we might be able to go back to work like before – or if we will have a job to go back to. We don’t know when we’ll be able to travel again, or where we’ll be able to go.
Thanks to social media, though, I don’t just know when my last trip was, but I have reminders of almost every trip I’ve made in the last 15 years. This morning’s Facebook memory: four years ago today, I was in London for the David Bowie art exhibition at Sotheby’s. A year earlier, I was in Balgo, Australia, just about to set off on a nine-day trek through the Gibson Desert. On this day in 2009, I was in Abu Dhabi, on my way to Bangkok.
Yesterday’s memories were less exciting perhaps but no less significant. Two years ago: a trip to Cumbria to visit with my in-laws (who have been isolating more or less since the beginning of March); this time last year, I was in my hometown of Dublin, which I now haven’t been able to visit since January.
What were once pleasant reminders of a life on momentary pause have become a cruel tease of what once was and, in the throes of this enforced presentism, is hard to imagine ever being again. It’s the not knowing when that kills you.
But we will travel again. We will plan holidays to destinations we’ll visit for the first or the umpteenth time. We’ll have short breaks and long journeys of discovery. We will visit family in faraway places and travel with friends for weekend festivals.
At some point soon we will trawl a hotel website to pick out a sea-facing room and make plans to visit museums and art exhibits. We’ll count the days and weeks before we can turn on our out-of-office email notification and look forward to an uninterrupted week of sunshine and poolside cocktails. It won’t be long before we find ourselves expressing frustration that our flight has been delayed again and a new departure time will be made available as soon as possible. We will gingerly apply aloe vera to any burnt skin because we weren't as careful in the sun as we should have been.
It’s inevitable: the urge to explore is too strong and travel will come roaring back eventually.
In the meantime, we persevere through the present, where the pandemic has made so much of the world literally unreachable. In corona time, there’s plenty of room for reflection.
On how travel had become so easy and the awe of exploration had been tempered by ease and accessibility. The world has gotten smaller, its furthest corners brought closer by low fares and the internet and ATMs on every corner. Technology’s reach has mitigated the thrill of displacement and made foreign places ever more familiar.
I dream of the next trip I will take. Of getting home to Dublin to see friends. Of traveling to Italy to see my mum. I imagine my next travel assignment and its accompanying anticipation. Having spent all of 2020 in one place, the world feels faraway again and familiar places more exotic than ever. The thought of getting on a train or a plane for somewhere fills me with delight: I can’t wait to look up at a departures board and play “where would you go?”
When I do get there, wherever "there" is, I hope that I will savor it fully and recognize the immeasurable gift that travel affords us all. Any journey from here to there, from our home to another, is a gift that allows us to be astounded by the world and learn about ourselves at the same time. It’s a gift to be treasured like something we feared we’d lost but have rediscovered anew.
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