If, like me, you’re at saturation point with articles and news reports of “the new normal” amid the horrifying daily rise in worldwide deaths due to COVID-19, we find ourselves alternating between the fond memories of past trips, the bleakness of our current situation and the anxiety of what lies ahead. I find myself nostalgically looking back on travel photo’s from a time where we were able to travel freely, could hug others (anyone, everyone), and we were able to plan far in advance. There’s an odd-almost-guilty-maybe I’m being selfish feeling attributed to feeling disheartened with not being able to travel as freely as we were once able. I remind myself often that it’s a privilege not a right to be able to travel.
I somehow, through luck more than judgement arrived back on home soil the week before lockdown in the UK. I’d been living in a camper in New Zealand for a few months and somehow avoided a lot of the coverage of COVID-19 until I landed in Melbourne and almost immediately booked a flight home for the next week. With hindsight that was probably a very wise decision. The closer I got to home the more surreal things became. Melbourne airport was very quiet. The Bangkok to London leg was like sitting in an abandoned library without the books. Silence. Even the cabin crew seemed surprised. “this flight is less than half full, It’s unheard of” said one of them when I naively commented on how quiet it was. Landing at Heathrow was a very eery experience. I counted a handful of outward travellers rushing about at 0600 when I landed.
I’ve noticed a stark change in our behaviour over the last few month’s. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met some truly amazing people while travelling and many of which I’m still in contact with, be it through social media, or the WhatsApp groups set up for us to share our photo’s of the trip with each other that are still active, months and years after the trip ended. There has been a growing intensity to some of these groups, born of suddenly finding ourselves in the midst of lockdowns with an enforced space to think, reflect and consider our priorities moving forward, and also not wanting to lose sight of what we love about travel and what motivates us to get on that plane in the first place.
As time goes by I see a collective grief process happening. My job as a mental health social worker for the NHS means I come into contact with a lot of people experiencing fear, loss, anxiety, attachment to past experiences (good and bad) and questions about how the future might look. It’s been some comfort to be able to at least witness how unifying this can be when suddenly we find ourselves experiencing this together. I’ve gotten to know more of my neighbours in the last 6 months than I have in 9 years living in the same house. We help each other out when one of us is isolating, talk about how COVID-19 is affecting us and our families, and recognise that we’re all pretty much feeling the same bundle of emotions and anxieties at the same time.
As with grief, we find ourselves in limbo. Amidst holding on to our routine’s for dear life (uncertainty is brilliant at making us anxious about breaking habits and making changes that threaten our ways of feeling safe) we look back on how life used to be with fondness and/or a sense of loss, experience frustration at the situation we find ourselves in currently, and look forward with curiosity at how the future might look, as with grief, for some of us looking forward might feel very difficult at the moment.
Like my own experience of grief a couple of years ago, I find myself frustratingly resistant to “the new normal”. Half of me wants to move forward and the other half feels so attached to the past I’m loathe to entertain any suggestion of leaving it behind. In 2018 after a close bereavement I decided to stop the clock on my life as it was, box it up and put it into storage, and get on a plane to Nepal. 2018 was a year of firsts – the first time I’d navigated the probate process and sold the family home, the first time I’d experienced becoming an ‘adult orphan’, the first time I’d been to Nepal, and the first time I’d joined a group tour. I had decided it might be a nice to idea to book a trip to somewhere I’d always dreamt of going, i.e a nice thing, at the end of what had been a pretty traumatic few month’s clearing out my parents house and sifting through memories of the past, i.e a rubbish thing. This was my first Flash Pack trip and I’d seen an advert on Instagram one afternoon for a trip to Nepal to hike the Everest Trail while I was at my parents house knee deep in boxes. I’d booked it within an hour of seeing the advert.
We talk about “catalysts” a lot in mental health treatment. Usually these are in the form of catalysts for change, breakthrough’s, deciding to do things differently, suddenly finding ourselves following a different path than which we envisaged. Often we don’t even really know we’re doing it. Nepal was my catalyst. Before the trip had ended I’d already bookmarked two more trips with them – Borneo and Myanmar, and was beginning to think in wider more adventurous terms, about what sustained and nourished me, what motivated me, and how could I keep the momentum going. Like the experience more recently of finding solace with my neighbours, I experienced the same with the 15 other hikers on the trail with me back in 2018. It still staggers me that of the 20+ group trips I’ve done since, time after time I find myself surrounded by people of the same mindset. Aside from the the obvious differences, we share the same objectives, the same wants and fears, and the same gratitude at being able to witness how beautiful a place is, by being there.
Within a month of returning home from Nepal, I’d made some promises to myself. I’d cared for others for years both in a professional capacity in my work and personally by looking after several family members approaching the end of their lives and decided to take a hiatus. I hate the term “burnout” but it’s probably accurate. I filled a storage unit with my stuff, booked several months off work (then deciding to quit altogether about 6 weeks into the trip) and flew as far away as I could – straight to Bali. I flew on to Borneo, booking onto a Flashpack trip with my friend Teha, who I’d met on the Nepal one. Teha is one of those people you meet and within five minutes you just know you’ll be friends for life. Making really close friendships with other travellers seems to be a common side effect from group trips. The Myanmar Flash Pack trip followed afterwards. I became less and less consumed by grief and loss, and more filled with excitement and gratitude for where I found myself in the here and now.
Long story short, a six month sabbatical became a 15 month round the world odyssey of solo travel, often joining group trips but also often alone. I witnessed abject poverty in the slums of India and tented communities of Africa, slept in perpetual daylight in a tent in the height of the Alaskan summer at the side of a glacier, and woke up one morning to find a kangaroo so close to my ear I could hear him chewing, while swag camping in South Australia. (swag camping is kind of like sleeping in a canvas sleeping bag, straight on the ground, without a tent. And yeah, I guess a spider could theoretically crawl in your mouth while you’re sleeping, not that I noticed). I’ve choked back tears at both the beauty of Vietnam and the violence it’s people have endured historically. I’ve laughed with the train attendants who for 5000 miles from Russia, through Mongolia to China, made sure we had hot water for drinks and shouted at us if the train was about to leave for the next stop and we were still faffing about on the platform buying chocolate.
Towards the end of the 15 month’s away I met up again with some of the friends I’d met on the first Nepal trip, for a few weeks hiking in New Zealand. My Nepal roommate Tony the tiger ( I loved reading his article for Flash Pack on his experience of that trip and have found myself re-reading it since) somehow managed to organise a reunion trip for several of us from all corners of the globe for a trip in his homeland of hiking, camping, and consuming huge quantities of New Zealand wine in the South and North Islands.
What travel offers, be it 7 days on a beach somewhere warm, to month’s in a far flung land, is the unique ability to pull together all the threads of what makes up our lives, into something positive and meaningful. Life grief, we have a semblance of a beginning, a middle, and in some respects, an end. We have the excitement of the lead up to a trip – counting the days till we fly and packing the things we need. The trip itself offers us an opportunity to consolidate and reflect on where we are, what lead us to travel, and enjoy the experience. On returning home we’re left with the memories of the places we saw and the people we met. What we’re left with is friends for life and the perspective that comes with the adventure.
What I learnt from travelling mirrors what I’m learning from living through COVID-19. That when you strip away differences such as race, background, age, we all have the same fundamental fears and desires. We all wish for our loved ones to be healthy, contented and safe. I no longer prioritise things the way I did before, and my sense is that COVID-19 means many others will feel the same about their lives. Travel is about more than beach towels and ice cream. It’s about looking after yourself while looking out for other people, the communities you support when you visit a country. The local guides who earn a living from travellers booking the trips they run, without which there might be seldom other opportunities to earn enough to sustain their families.
We might not be at the point of safely being able to travel as freely as we once were. But we are able to make plans and think ahead, perhaps draw up a list of places we’ve always wanted to go, maybe even think about provisionally booking a trip to give us something to aim for.