Last week, I travelled again. No, it wasn’t the kind of international travel I usually blog about here. I went on a road trip and B&B stay in Portugal, where I live, and where domestic travel restrictions were recently lifted. There were limitations, of course, but it was travelling nonetheless.
I’m eager to talk about travel in the present tense again, but I also know some countries are still very much in the thick of this pandemic, which makes this difficult. You may even be reading this while still in lockdown. Meanwhile, I’m in a place where the outbreak was relatively contained and where the streets are full of life again.
So, to be clear: if your public health authorities are telling you to stay at home, you should.
But I think now is also an appropriate time to start talking about travel again, given that at least some countries are coming out of lockdown.
For those of us who are seeing (some) travel restrictions lifted, how can we make the best of it?
And for others, what do you might have to look forward to when things ease up?
I wanted to share with you my recent experiences — and how I think we can adapt and focus on the positive.
So… this isn’t back to normal
Around the beginning of this month, I noticed the first signs of life returning to normal in Portugal. I was walking through my local park in Lisbon and heard something that had been absent for two months: the ceaseless sound of traffic whooshing past along the nearby 25th of April bridge.
It signalled the beginning of a new phase. It felt like a relief, but a little bittersweet too. The birdsong I’d enjoyed hearing so much was once again getting drowned out by traffic noise. Not having heard it for so many weeks, I was shocked by just how loud it is.
It’s still rare to hear any planes in the sky in Lisbon, but the city is definitely humming back to life. Shops have opened again, and restaurants will follow soon. But of course, it’s not exactly back to normal.
I mean, I don’t know about you, but all this time I’ve just had this uncontrollable urge to lick doorknobs. I’ve wanted to lick poles on subways. I’ve wanted to slobber my tongue all over strangers’ faces.
But licking random surfaces will have to wait.
We also still have to wash our hands, maintain distance, and wear masks when required. None of these things have changed.
The phase we’re entering now here and in other places is a kinda-normal-but-not-really phase. And when it comes to any travel this year, we’ll clearly have to deal with this only-kinda-normal.
The trips I’m planning now
A lot of people seem fixated on what may not be possible anymore for the foreseeable future, or what just won’t feel the same. Definitely, one of the most disappointing things is that travel (much like life in general) will be less openly social than it was before. Crowds are still to be avoided and all large events remain canceled.
But I think instead of focusing on the impossibilities, it’s better to look at the opportunities.
Huddling together at overtouristed sites seems like a bad idea right now, but it’s the perfect time to explore the countryside, get in touch with nature, go off the beaten track, and enjoy places you may have previously overlooked.
This is also what my first trip since the lockdown was all about.
I stayed in a lovely Airbnb in rural Portugal — a cozy country house with a garden with some chickens, dogs, and cats. I traveled with just my girlfriend, using our own transportation. We did some nature hiking in the area, which is easy to do while maintaining social distance. Instead of going to some super hotspot travel destination, we hiked in the Serra da Lousã, a forested mountain area that’s not in the usual travel guide top 10’s, but which surprised me with how amazing it is.
Honestly, it felt good just to be somewhere else for a while. After 8 weeks of stay-at-home routine, which made the days blur together like in an endless loop, I was so happy to go on this trip and reset my mind a little.
I think of travelling as not just as some frivolous activity. In times like this, it can be truly therapeutic. Being in a different place puts your head in a different place too. Fresh air and sunshine can work wonders.
And you don’t need to be in a far-flung exotic location for this. I think the best way to travel responsibly in this interim phase (if, of course, you’re not in lockdown) is to do some domestic trips, longer stays in small-scale accommodation, or nature trips.
That’s not exactly the same as the sort of social backpacking I’ve written about on this site before, which is a style of travel that I love and which sadly is on hold for now. But it’s something.
Actually, I’m excited to plan some trips like this closer to home. You know how people always say “oh, I’d love to get to know my own country better!” and then never do that? We can actually do that now.
The coming months
Looking further out into this year, well, who knows?
International travel is still very much up in the air, so to speak. I’m actually quite bullish on this and that our current views on what is possible will get outdated rather quickly. My bet is we’ll be surprised by how different the world already looks a month or two from now. But that’s just my hunch; I’m not thinking about international travel very much and I’m not promoting it at the moment.
Long before this pandemic I had booked a trip to Sri Lanka for August, but I have no idea if it will go ahead. During the last few weeks I’ve had seven flight schedule change notifications already (the flight to Colombo got moved from Lyon to Paris, then the departure time got changed several times). I’m just going to be flexible and I’m not making any hard plans.
For now, I think there are real benefits to responsible forms of local or near-abroad travel, not just for our own wellbeing but also for the local economies involved.
If you choose to travel in the coming months, I hope you’ll also choose to support the small mom ‘n pop B&Bs, local hotels, and hostels that need our help the most. I’m not too worried about the foreign-owned resort chains (either they’ll be fine, or they go bankrupt and get acquired by some other company). But I’m constantly thinking about the little guys that are desperate for some customers and some hope. If we’re all too scared to do any kind of leisure travel, then they’re just not going to make it. I hope we can at least put them on life support until a broader recovery can take place.
Of course, everyone’s comfort zone and personal situation is different. I’m also aware that in some countries, such as the US and UK, the mood is more glum than in others (this is understandable given the level of government mismanagement and human tragedy). I don’t want to seem out of tune by sounding all positive when some people are still very much frazzled from this whole thing.
But… there is also light at the end of the tunnel.
I think something that may be a little underappreciated right now is how the world is immensely more adapted and prepared for COVID-19 than it was just back in February. Things will get better from here on out. 2020 is not a lost year and we can still do things that will give us joy.
When we can do so, I think we should absolutely travel again — but in ways that are responsible based the situation at the time.
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