March 2020. When the pandemic was declared, one of the fastest things to close here in Toronto were the libraries. There was no advance warning. I went to return books and found the branch doors locked, and even the book return slot sealed shut. “Keep your books until further notice,” was all they said. Things were getting serious.
I stared at the stack of books in my arms. They were all travel guides. Just a few weeks prior, I had checked these out to help me decide between South America and Jordan. I was looking for a Plan B after cancelling a spring trip cycling in Italy, one of the first Western countries to declare a state of emergency.
I thought, “certainly by the fall it will be safe to go somewhere“
News of the coronavirus ravaging Asia, Europe and cruise ships was no joke, but it still seemed possible to go on an adventure later in 2020. Maybe not Tuscany, but certainly by the fall it will be safe to go somewhere, right?
Sadly, nope. One by one, borders closed and all travel options were taken off the table. Not just global travel to Peru and Petra but even within my own country, as some provinces imposed their own closures and quarantine rules.
In the grand scheme of things, I was quite fortunate — I wasn’t desperately trying to get a refund for an expensive booked trip, rearrange a wedding, or get home from a destination where flights had been grounded. But I didn’t feel lucky.
“Avoid all non-essential travel” sounds like a pretty easy directive to follow in the middle of a global pandemic. But what is “essential”? Is joy essential? Personal growth? For many of us, travel is more than leisure, it’s something to work for, to live for.
Which means you’ll have to forgive me that this year-end blog post isn’t a cheery one. A part of me would love to write an earnest list of “things I learned from staying home in 2020″ or recap the wonders of discovering my own neighbourhoods. To be helpful. But it wouldn’t be honest. What I really want to write is a requiem for all the trips that weren’t to be.
Thinking about travel is usually good for mental health. Not this year.
Studies have shown that travelling is good for us. International travel boosts creativity and problem solving skills, for a start. Even just thinking about a trip has mental benefits. People are at their happiest when they have a vacation planned.
So it’s no mystery why I spent so much of the summer trying to plan trips. I was looking for that hit, that high that comes from imagining you are somewhere else.
I wasn’t researching some big world tour I could do when the pandemic was lifted, because it was anyone’s guess when that might be. So smaller things, that might actually be possible here in Canada. It ended up being a lot like my attempts to date in the pandemic. Many attractive candidates, but ultimately just a series of red flags and disappointments.
No, I would not be flying to hike remote trails in the Yukon (14 day self-isolation requirement for out-of-province visitors) or Newfoundland (closed to people from Ontario). This would not be the year for the great Canadian train ride (Via Rail suspended their Western Canadian sleeper car service). Or a weekend in Quebec (Canada’s Covid hot spot.)
Not even my annual camping trip was a go, as Parks Canada cancelled our group’s yurt reservations (but not until after all the regular campsites were already booked up). At one point I settled on a single day trip to Algonquin, via Parkbus – a day before they suspended all service for the month.
First, denial. Then, anger.
Pardon another dating analogy, but all these dead ends was like a series of small break-ups — having to let go of an imagined future together, me and my destination of desire.
And yet I kept doing it. I may have deleted the Hopper app and disabled my Google Flights tracking notifications, but I refreshed with great interest what countries were open to Canadian travellers. I calculated the cost of working remote in Iceland, in Vancouver…. Perhaps I’m a masochistic. More likely, I was in the first stage of grief: denial.
It wasn’t long before denial turned to anger. While I was at home scrapping one more potential fall trip idea after another, it was hard to ignore others who continued to travel.
Europeans were allowed and encouraged to vacation in Croatia and the Mediterranean. Mexico had zero quarantine protocols, so Americans poured in to party on their beaches at superspreader festivals. Canadians too, continued to back-and-forth to their cottages in more remote, vulnerable communities or Florida condos. (Some “snowbird” seniors are being rewarded for this travel by getting a vaccine sooner in America than they would here at home.)
As I type this, a prominent Ontario politician was “caught” in St. Barts over Christmas.
Browsing social media for future fantasy travel wasn’t much fun either. I had to take a break from several Facebook travel groups, I just couldn’t take one more bride-to-be looking for ways around Covid border restrictions so they could still have their dream honeymoon. And for every person too savvy to post their travel on social media at all, others humblebragged with hashtags all year long.
It’s not fair, I pouted. Those people are making it worse. I felt like my losses were their fault.
Because they are losses. The loss of life experience, of new knowledge gained, relationships forged, goals realized. A whole year we won’t be getting back. Or more.
There are no rituals for the grief of lost travel plans
You can’t say these things out loud. Not just because sometimes it’s your friends doing it and you’re not up for that fight. Not because it’s useless – adults will make their own choices about what is “essential.” More like in the middle of a global health catastrophe, the freedom to travel isn’t a right. Millions are dying.
But I’ll say it here anyway. I’m really, really sad. And there are no rituals for this grief. Nobody brings you a lasagna because you didn’t get to go to Paris.
I’ve attempted to assuage these feelings by reading articles about how travel will change for the better post-pandemic. And it’s true. If we come out of all this more respectful of the places we get to visit, paying the actual environmental costs of our leisure travel, and living wages for the millions of travel industry workers who make our dreams come true, it will have been worth it.
They say that “slow travel” will be a trend – staying put in one place and appreciating it as a local rather than hopping around to the must-sees. Sounds good to me. That cities will finally address over-tourism. I have my doubts about that one, but if there are fewer behemoth cruise ships out there after this, that’s a gift to the planet.
I’ve held on to one more idea during this pandemic. That perhaps what I’m supposed to learn from all of this is to let go of planning. As we enter a new year, and surely a new way of travelling, I shall endeavour to loosen the reigns on my bucket lists. Embrace what is available, what presents itself.
Here’s to a new way to travel: Slowly, with Respect
I truly believe that travelling makes me a better person. So wherever, whenever my next trips may be, I want to be able to say that that’s a good decision not only for me, but for the global community.
Until then, I will continue to explore and share my adventures in and around Toronto. And watch for a new series of posts about how to experience some of my favourite places in the world from home.
Thank you for reading this far, for reading Liisa Wanders at all. It was a strange thing to launch a travel blog in the year of no travel. But what isn’t strange this year? Best to you all in 2021. Let me know where you dream of going in the comments.
Stay safe. And, as always, safe travels.