After 9/11, people wondered whether anyone would still travel. How could anyone take to the skies after such a hideous tragedy? For a while, it felt risky, though I was back on a plane even before carry-on items were allowed, for a flight to London that seemed to take a lifetime without even a book. Security amped up (really? my shoes? my belt?) and so did anxiety.
Yet international travel did not wither, but burgeoned. Many travelers grew accustomed to the risk, which felt on par with the health risks of fast food, the firetrap perils of living in tall buildings, or the risk of crossing urban streets against the light. New York remained an obvious target for terrorism, but it was not abandoned, and neither were the hubs at J.F.K. and Newark.
In a world battered by the pandemic, anxiety about travel has reached a similar peak. Necessary business trips are undertaken with considerable apprehension. Journeys people once took for sheer pleasure now look threatening and dangerous, even irresponsible.
Travelers tend to be both restless and self-protective, and while some have historically tended toward adventure, more have looked for relaxation and a pleasant change of pace. It is usually safest to stay home, but that safety can feel deadening. Wary after a year of dealing with an airborne virus, many people are wondering when it will be possible to plan a week in Paris or the Caribbean without worrying whether the pandemic will overshadow the fun. Will a cruise ship ever again seem like a pleasure vessel rather than a deathtrap?
Most adult would-be travelers in the United States enjoy relative privilege and are gaining access to the vaccine, and while herd immunity remains elusive in the country at large, it is higher among more socioeconomically privileged populations, and therefore, perhaps, among fliers, the anti-vaxxers notwithstanding. The cycle of modernization dictates that new dangers emerge in one area as new safety measures pop up in another: cars are faster, but they have seatbelts; more people visit the Grand Canyon, but there are guard rails where visitors congregate. Will we continue to wear masks at 5,000 feet? Given how many ordinary colds I contracted after flights in the old days, the idea of exposing myself to shared, recycled, compressed air has become distasteful as a matter more of general hygiene than of mortal terror, though most airlines are employing advanced filtration systems.
What will travelers find?
The pandemic is under better control in developed locations than in developing ones. This is not only a moral outrage, but also a problematic one for less wealthy countries where local economies depend on tourism. Americans who fear Covid may prioritize travel to Britain or Europe. But what will they find there? Covid has closed down restaurants and museums, and they are reopening only very gradually, even in London, Vienna, Sardinia and Prague.
In a time of celebrating the non-European ancestry of a near-majority of Americans, the urgency of visiting Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East is self-evident. Decisions must be made country by country. Many travelers across the years have assessed reports of possible unrest, or considered whether particular places are welcoming to women, to LGBTQ people, to members of religious minorities. We will continue to follow those Covid numbers as if they were both revelatory and predictive. It’s comforting to be vaccinated and to go where everyone else is vaccinated, too; but there are ways to regulate trips to places where vaccines are less available and still stay safe while ensuring you don’t become a superspreader yourself. Travelers can avoid crowded settings, wear masks and dine outside in places where the climate allows them to do so.
Tennyson’s Ulysses says, I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees. Many inveterate travelers share this brave impatience, the sense that the world is full of adventures and excitements begging for exploration. I have visited about half of the world’s nearly 200 countries, and my favorites are an odd assortment: England, because I live there part-time: Mongolia, for its wild beauty and unbounded authenticity; Russia, for the streak of idealism that informs its intelligentsia even under the yoke of oppression; Afghanistan, for a quality of hospitality I have not encountered anywhere else; Namibia, because no other landscape is as arresting as the desert at Sossuvlei; Peru, for the food and history; Brazil, for its ecstatic parties and ineffable melancholy.
The list could go on and on; I have written about dancing with a friend under the full moon for the denizens of a highland village in the Solomon Islands; about getting stuck in the ice as I ventured to Antarctica; about the solemn tragedy of the people and the astonishing humanity of the gorillas in Rwanda; and about the most dangerous trip I ever took, which was to Australia, where I spent half a day floating in scuba gear after the boat that had taken me out into the Pacific motored away without me. To imagine a world where such adventures are impossible is to imagine a world much less vibrant than the one where I’ve lived.
Reclaiming the skies.
In early May, I took my first commercial flight since travel restrictions have eased and my vaccination reached full potency, to visit my daughter in Texas. I didn’t feel wildly unsafe; it was psychologically uncomfortable, but I have always disliked airports and planes. I ate and drank nothing onboard, and my mask was tightly fixed on my face.
Still, there was also a feeling of festive nostalgia attached to reclaiming the skies, a feeling I usually associate with returning to a university where I once studied, or revisiting the scene of childhood summers. As we broke through the clouds into that stratosphere of private sunshine that is so familiar to jet travelers, I felt the uneasy joy I discovered when I first hugged friends after being vaccinated. The quarantine had given me extra time with my husband and son, days to write, and the comforting patterns of repetition. But breaking out of it was a relief, nonetheless.
Even with the dread that may accompany it, travel is a liberation. The things and places and people I have loved and will love have been out there all this time and I am no longer chained to New York with a leg-iron. In September, I intend to return to London for a friend’s 50th birthday and see my seven English godchildren. I’ve currently been away from Britain, where I have citizenship, for longer than I have at any time since I was 12.
Travel’s realms of possibilities.
The question of travel is not merely a matter of fun. Travel is a necessary part of our continuing education. The 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “There is no worldview so dangerous as the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” Much as the boundaries of our bubbles drove many of us slightly mad during quarantine, so being locked in our own country has been devastating for many of us. Every country’s success depends on the inquisitiveness of its citizens. If we lose that, we lose our moral compass.
Equally, much as I yearn to go elsewhere, I am eager to welcome people to these shores. It’s eerie to walk through the great New York City museums and not hear the din of 100 languages. Travel is a two-way street, and let us hope that it will soon be bumper-to-bumper in both directions.
At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, and John Milton makes no bones about their anguish at being cast out. But he does not end on that sour note, because banishment from one place meant an opportunity to find another, however tentatively that process was undertaken:
Some natural tears they dropd, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
That will be how we return to the pre-Covid realms of possibility. As the virus comes under control, we will set forth with renewed vigor. The world is all before us. We may start with wandering steps and slow, cautiously and uncertainly. But think of it. A year ago, many of us feared to venture farther than the grocery store; now we are given back a whole planet to explore, however gingerly.