The other day, anxious in my desk chair, I became a virtual traveller, staring at photos of public spaces abandoned in the wake of the coronavirus global pandemic: a soccer game in Germany, played in front of thousands of empty seats, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, vacant save for a few confused pigeons, the huge empty courtyard at the Great Mosque of Mecca, usually filled to the brim with worshipers circumnavigating the Ka’bah.
These are places built for humans, but there were no humans. It was like peering into what a future might look like after we are gone, a disaster movie without the movie part.
Our country is slowly wrapping its head around this disaster in slow motion. It is clear that life cannot go on as normal, at least for the foreseeable future. We are entering a wartime of solitude. All must do their part. A friend cancelled a lunch meeting with me a few days ago, writing, “I am practicing active social distancing at this time. No offense.”
None taken. We are all learning a new vocabulary of inoculation: self-quarantine, shedding period, flattening the curve, inflection point. We are learning the exact dimensions of close contact. We are shaking elbows; we are singing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing our hands (I can’t actually get through the first verse); we are working remotely; we are awkwardly conducting our classes online; we are (for reasons I still don’t quite understand) buying ridiculous amounts of toilet paper. By the time you read this, a whole new reality may have set in.
We are also canceling our travel plans, at rates not seen since 9/11. Hence the photos of empty places. Our family was supposed to travel to Charleston, South Carolina, in mid-March for a short break, but we made the wise decision not to go. Like many U.S. families with young children, we are hunkering down in a voluntary quarantine cocoon, with a pantry full of beans, a shelf full of Roald Dahl, the Hungry Hungry Hippos board game and a whole bunch of uncertainty.
My wife and I are also attempting to ration our intake of online news about COVID-19, as we’re finding that the particular cocktail of anecdotes from Italian hospitals, charts of exponential infection rates, and general worry for every older person we know does not do good things for our blood pressure. How does Twitter manage to give you so much and so little at the same time? Needless to say, I have been stress-eating a lot of Cheetos.
Also, I was really looking forward to our trip! It’s been a long, slushy winter. We were craving the break, away from our regularly scheduled programming, away from the tedium of our breakfast routines and Rice Krispies welded to sweatshirts. This is why we travel: to force ourselves to take a breath, to bend space and time, even if just for a moment. We go there so we can come back and appreciate the here.
Over the past year, as the climate crisis has consumed my head and most of my writing projects, I’ve been traveling less and less to there. I’ve been forced to wrestle with the question of whether flying for pleasure can really be ethically justified anymore. As you can imagine, this is deep existential territory for a travel writer.
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