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The Fernweh-farer: The Season That Wasn't (Thoughts of a Grounded Traveler)

“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” - Haruki Murakami

The plan called for this post serving as one of thoughtful observation from a balcony in Hanoi, overlooking the chaotic symphony of the city’s Old Town. Interspersed with a photo essay of basket balancing vendors brushing shoulders with noodle slurping street stalls and motion-blurred scooters. Ah, the plan. Will we ever look at the “best laid plans” the same again after this year? Likely not. At least, not for a foreseeable stretch of our often limited attention spans. So, instead of a season spent adrenaline shuffling from airports to ride shares to home shares, I find myself doing what most others are right now…waiting.

Attempts to put some order to the thoughts swirling in my mind, and arrange them sensibly on paper, have been met with a sense of overwhelming inputs and questioning if the choice of phrase results in underwhelming impact. I finally realized that there is no timely approach to writing a piece on the times we currently face. The already insanely frequent twenty-four hour news cycle of just months ago has now manifested itself into the hourly news cycle that changes more quickly than the doorbell arrival of food delivery orders which have become much more a part of our daily routines. 

I realize that “response posts” such as this can feel trite and trivial against a backdrop of grander and more important context, and that is completely acceptable. Writing is highly cathartic for this traveler and, along with photography, a grand avenue meant for expression and coping. So, if reading my writing is not a cathartic experience for you…I understand and encourage you to seek out whatever that form might be, now more than ever. Writing is a release and means of connection for me, and I refuse to let this virus take that away as well.

Obviously, not everyone is experiencing this surreal national “school sick day” experience that many are adapting to. First responders, healthcare professionals, grocery clerks, restaurant line cooks giving everything they have to keep the lights on, and many more are only seeing compounded stress on their daily routines. It has been inspirational to witness the ingenuity and resiliency these entrepreneurs, thinkers and tirelessly dedicated human beings have exhibited in response. If you see them, thank them, tip them, donate to a related cause and remember them beyond this moment of crisis and immediate need.

Seminal emotional waves are, and always have been, a hallmark of these types of events. If you are not experiencing a wild ride reminiscent of the zaniest our now shuttered amusement parks have to offer, then check your pulse. For me, the crushing weight of reality suffocated me when I returned to my home in Austin a few days ago. As alluded to earlier, my original plan was to be overseas and creating travel content in a freelance capacity. A road trip to my parent’s home to retrieve my pup, Tucker, wrapped up with my return to a house I was not expecting to be based out of for another 3-4 months.

As I unpacked and returned my litany of camera and video gear to its designated spots on my office studio shelves, I felt the emotions build. However, not until I slid out my passport from the secret compartment of my travel backpack did it really hit just how impactful the unfolding events were from a personal perspective. Suddenly, my studio space lost roughly 2/3 of its square footage and the walls closed in faster than I could take in a breath. 

Do not feel guilty for these admittedly selfish moments of sorrow. They are part of the process. I had plans to advance my creative process and spend months doing what I love more than anything: traveling and learning from other cultures. That is not currently an option and, this, really pisses me off. Shed some tears, scream into a pillow, eat an entire sleeve of Oreos - whatever is required to get past that initial gut punch. Just don’t touch your face during your coping and wash your hands immediately afterward.

The important thing is to remind oneself not to dwell. Recognize the feelings for what they are, process them, put them into greater perspective of the greater good and then lace up to move forward. We all have a responsibility to show respect by remaining removed. I am relatively young and healthy, but my parents are identified as an at-risk portion of the population. Also at risk, the healthcare professionals that will be the key to overcoming this challenge as quickly as humanly possible. Not adhering to the guidance put forth for social distancing is disrespectful and an affront to the long hours they put in and the human toll to come.

There is a sobering TED Talk video of Bill Gates predicting this COVID-19 outbreak with stunning accuracy…nearly five years ago. Watching it now surfaces those feelings of “Biff got the sports almanac from Marty” (children of the 80s and 90s, you know). He highlights all the elements that have now become part of our general lexicon: “flattening the curve,” community spread and social distancing. He likens the challenge to modern warfare, just not in the traditional sense of artillery and dogfights. Instead, it is a battle against the invisible and a fight to hold together the unwritten societal norms that keep us all bound.

The wartime analogy is practical in many aspects. Sacrifice, rationing and courage are necessary. However, equally important is selflessness, calm and patience. Attempts are being made to draw parallels to this generational challenge against a backdrop of similar landmark events like 9/11, the Great Depression or the 2008 Financial Crisis. These correlations are a very natural human response of course, as they associate the current situation with one that was overcome previously. However, the key difference that makes this so hard to wrap our minds around is the one human element this crisis robs us of: social connection.

In the past, when tragedy strikes we take shelter in the comfort of human contact and our community. Whether it be benefit concerts, local pubs, religious ceremonies, or just getting together for a weeknight hang with friends - this challenge forces us to pivot from our most natural inclinations. That will be the mark of courage in 2020. Not breaking bread together, not marching thousands strong in the streets and not storming beaches. We do not get to cherry-pick our moments.

As a solo traveler, the road and skies are my sense of connection and the lifeblood in my veins. A solo traveler embarks on the world with the expectation of interaction and shared experiences. I thrive off the chaos of standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a 3-hour line to get on a last-minute flight,  or riding in a standing-room only subway to save a few bucks for another cheap and delicious street food delicacy. We brush off that last-minute ferry schedule change as an unexpected opportunity to strike up a conversation with a few Greek locals. 

However, I know that my travels have instilled a sense of appreciation and skills that will benefit me during this time too. Witnessing the strength and resiliency of one of the hardest hit areas of this crisis, Italy, has been inspiring. Social media sharing spotlights brave residents in many of the same neighborhoods where I shared laughs with inviting Airbnb hosts and learned a few new Italian phrases. Similarly, the patience instilled from the unexpected twists that inevitably occurs is invaluable. Like setting out on foot a year go for a long trek across Bangkok to a heritage noodle shop, only to get there and find a sign stating the family owners had “taken the week off.”

One learns to “roll with the punches” when they step outside their borders and accept that life, and events, don’t check in with you first. Each learned skill will prove useful as this crisis plays itself out on an undetermined schedule. One learns to accept these as unavoidable occurrences when you put yourself out there in the world.

I am afraid for what this means for institutions already facing headwinds before this crisis: the landmark local storefronts that make the places we yearn to see with our “own two eyes” magical. Already fighting an uphill battle against conglomerate chains, this could be the final sweep that takes out their last standing leg. 

The small Bifanas sandwich shop I frequented on the edge of the Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, the fragrant roasted duck spot in the Bangrak neighborhood of Bangkok that has operated since 1909, or the romantic dim-lit cafe in Palermo where my bowl of pasta paired perfectly with hopes that perhaps my late grandfather stopped into that same restaurant while stationed in World War II.

These are the things we fight for. Along with our local businesses, family and friends. These are the things we will need to re-establish a sense of completeness when “normalcy” resumes. Things will change. Likely gone will be more insignificant habits like communal self-service food and condiment stations. But larger industry shifts will result too. Movie theaters may finally cede to the growing at-home viewing behavior and getting your temperature checked may be just another step along with showing your ID and taking your electronics out to board a flight. Sound unlikely, just think back to what the airport experience was like before 9/11 and after. Steps introduced as short-term become permanent. 

In the meantime, we do our part by staying apart. We buy time for the science. I have found myself using this time to focus my creative energies on bubbling business ideas, photo editing, a lot of writing, brushing up on my Spanish and Italian learning efforts, reading a collective stack of books that I was “definitely going to read” last year, and filling the gaps with playtime and walks with Tucker. Dogs are true miracle workers - those who know completely understand. I, like many others, have also found creative methods to stay connected. Video calls with family, more frequent texting with friends to check-in, and witnessing a welcome change in tone and supportive engagement on social media.

Anyone that claims certainty over what this will all look like on the other side is dealing from a deck of falsehoods. However, the one thing we can all agree on is a desire to get to the “other side” and find out. It will be a monumental challenge but we will be nothing if not steeled to pull ourselves up and get to work when the dust settles. I do long for chaos again, just invited chaos of a different kind.

For now, fellow travelers must turn our insatiable energy to wander and explore to an internal energy and resolve to stay in place. Bide our time. Help those around us that need it, responsibly. We still smile and wave at our neighbors, just from a further distance. We still celebrate that birthday, just via screen sharing. We are fortunate to live in a time where virtual connection is as seamless as it is. Take comfort in the things that are consistent. That sliced banana on your morning bowl of cereal, still tastes like a perfectly ripe banana. That conversation about some random topic that seemed mundane two weeks ago, now is strangely cathartic and appreciated for its normalcy and lack of complexity.

A final parting anecdote to share. Lately, I have been listening to a jazz piano station in the house during the morning hours. It serves the dual purpose of calming the nerves and installing an undercurrent of white noise during this isolation. As is typical of genre stations on today’s music services, several same songs resurface each day. One has quickly become my favorite. The mood and tempo conveying a feeling both uplifting and sobering - very fitting for this rollercoaster we are all strapped in for now. This morning, I finally decided to add the track to my “Favorites” if it played again. Sure enough, about five songs later it did. The song - Miles Davis Quintet's “It Never Entered My Mind.” I could only chuckle to myself. “You can say that again, Miles. You’re damn right it didn’t.”

Keep creating. I am. Keep sharing. I am. Visual images and descriptive words paint the pictures for those passions we fight to get back too. Be well.



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