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Carpe Diem: 5 Lessons from travel in a pandemic

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Travel is a privilege. Especially travel in a pandemic. Before “unprecedented” Covid border restrictions, testing requirements and quarantines, Canadians like me with a passport, financial means and a dream could hop on a plane and visit almost any country in the world without so much as a visa. It was easy to forget what a golden age we lived in, and how lucky we were.

Things are different now.

My travels in 2021 were not like any before. They required more planning — and more patience when those plans had to change. The only thing I’m sure won’t change in 2022 is that things are going to keep changing. Here in Canada, the end of the year has brought news of more closures and cancellations, and a renewed government advisory against “non-essential travel.”

As I look back at 2021, I am incredibly grateful for every adventure I’ve had. These journeys – from day trips around Toronto to a marvelous first visit to Italy – all had one thing in common. They happened because a window of opportunity opened, and I jumped through whatever safety hoops were necessary to take advantage of it.

Travel in a pandemic is not impossible. But it does require a shift in thinking, away from one’s own “bucket lists” and towards a more open-minded and communal experience.

I started this blog to share lessons I’ve learned travelling the world. The lessons I’ve learned from travel in a pandemic I feel are essential for these crazy times but also good advice for anytime.

And so whether you are trying to make a big trip happen right now, looking to travel closer to home, or just planning for a post-pandemic future, here are 5 things I’ve learned in 2021.

Liisa Wanders at the Rideau Canal during the pandemic in 2021
Happiness is finally skating Ottawa’s Rideau Canal!

Seize the moment

More than once I have fantastized about booking a flight to Paris for the weekend at the last minute just because the City of Light was calling. No, I didn’t get to do that this year. But I did on very short notice decide to catch a train to Ottawa to go skating on the Rideau Canal.

The Rideau Canal is billed as the world’s largest skating rink. I’ve always wanted to skate it, but it’s completely weather dependent. You can’t really predict the exact date it will open or close, and the wrong weather (either too warm or too stormy) can close the thing at short notice.

So in the darkest, coldest days of a February winter, when I noticed the forecast for Ottawa was optimum skating weather for the next two days – coinciding with the fact that museums could open again after months of lockdown – I dashed off on solo weekend getaway. I skated the canal’s entire 7.8km and back, warmed up with take-out hot chocolate from the Byward Market and had the National Gallery of Canada practically to myself.

After such a long time in my apartment, it might as well have been Paris – I felt rejuvenated, and alive.

The National Gallery in Ottawa is empty during the pandemic of 2021
The pleasures of wandering an empty art gallery

The morning I left Ottawa for home, they closed the Rideau Canal to skating for the season. Had I not gone exactly when I did, my dream to skate there would have been put off for another year at least. It was a reminder that when you have a chance to do something cool on the weekend, when the weather or the price is right, just do it.

Two friends on the empty ski slopes in Whistler BC
TFW you’re on a the ski hill without any skiiers.

Low Season is High Value

Whistler is known as a world-class ski resort, and a great place to mountain bike. So why did I go in November, when neither of those two activities are happening?

To be honest it was just the most convenient time to visit my friend in BC. But what I learned from our weekend getaway was that Whistler is an expensive destination, with a “village” design that packs guests into a small walkable space.  By going at low season, we had Whistler on a budget, and – almost – to ourselves.

Whether you’re being Covid-cautious or just hate crowds all the time, it was so easy to find personal space, both in the village itself and the surrounding walking trails. We still got to hang out at the happening bars, shop in local boutiques and enjoy the famous mountain views without feeling overwhelmed by other visitors.

I’ve long been a fan of travelling during “shoulder” seasons, but I think it’s time to explore more places during their true off seasons too.

Flying with N95 masks during the pandemic of 2021
Preparing for unknown adventures

Things will change. Stay calm.

A week before I left for Italy this summer, the country announced it would be implementing its “green pass” app, to ensure that only vaccinated people could enter museums, restaurants and other inside attractions. It would come into effect the day after we landed. My friends and I had planned to visit many museums and restaurants  – but coming from Canada we had no digital vaccination pass. We had a simple paper print-out, without even a QR code.

When we heard the news, we worried. Of course, we agreed with limiting indoor spaces to the vaccinated and felt safer with this mandate in place. But would we be shut out of seeing Michelangelo’s David and Galileo’s mummified fingers? Could we still enjoy thermal spas? Should we cancel?

Sign for Italy's green pass vaccine app in a restaurant window

We had to make a decision whether to go or not on faith. Either our non-digital vaccine proof would be accepted and we could see the things on our wish list. Or we’d be turned away, “forced” to spend two weeks sitting on outdoor patios in piazzas and going for long walks around Tuscany. Sounded like a win either way, so off we went.

And not once did we get turned away with our paper print-outs. There was literally nothing to worry about, but we emotionally prepared ourselves for that let down in case it happened.

Travelling during the pandemic, I’m often reminded of the many times in my past that an attraction had closed, a show sold-out, or some other thing outside of my control changed my plans once I’d arrived. And I realized this year that Bucket Lists are so 2019. This idea that there are a handful of perfect destinations or experiences that will make your life complete is over. You can plop down on a curb in the dirt tearing up about it (as I have done) or you see it as an opportunity for discovery. Stay calm. Choose discovery.

Four friends having drinks on a road trip to Niagara Falls
Fake band photo. Real friends. Hard Rock Cafe, Niagara Falls.

Road trips forge friendships

During the many months of lockdowns here, some friends and I kept ourselves mentally and physically well with small outdoor dance parties in the park. Those nights with a portable speaker, a playlist of jams, some sparklers, and good company really helped me get through. So when restrictions lifted in the summer, one of us – I can’t remember if I can claim credit for it or not – suggested we have a dance party at Niagara Falls.

That’s how I ended up in car with one of my closest friends of 20+ years, a good pal who became a best friend during the pandemic, and one of her favourite people who had quickly become one of mine too. Our little pandemic bubble was going on our first trip together!

Silly poses with the Hershey's chocolate kiss in Niagara Falls

It’s only a two-hour drive to Niagara Falls from Toronto, and we only spent one overnight there, but even a short road trip can be a bonding experience that lasts a lifetime. Get to know each other’s tastes for music and snacks, pitstops based on highway signs (oh hello, Spirit Halloween store!), share embarrassing stories sitting around one person’s hotel room late into the night….

I honestly don’t think you’re ever too old or too seasoned a traveller for a simple girl gang road trip.

Bike with totem poles in Stanley Park Vancouver

We’re all connected

The most important new thing I learned from travel in a pandemic this year is to accept that the world doesn’t owe me a trip. It never has, of course. But now, that reality screams from every headline about new shut-downs, cancelled flight chaos, or rising case counts. How many dream trips have you postponed since March 2020, not because you were too scared to travel but because of the greater good? I fear we must all get used to that, how to defray our dreams.

There’s a slight bright side though. If you’re like me, perhaps you like to imagine being an explorer. “A traveller, not a tourist.”  Right now, all trips require the spirit of exploration. A willingness to go at the last minute, keep your ear to the ground, and adapt to fast-moving conditions. You say you like to learn local culture? Well, it’s time to learn about local vaccine rates and how your visit will impact the community. “Do no harm” is now much more than packing out your garbage when you camp; it’s prioritizing the safety and security of those around you.

I truly believe these drags about travel in a pandemic are not a burden, they are a duty.

Statue of David, Florence Italy

We, as privileged travellers, are long overdue to consider all the ramifications of our footprints. Time to put carbon offsets into our budgets. To choose only tour companies that align with our supposed values. To not take photos of “colourful” locals without asking. Let’s let go of haggling over the equivalent of 1 of our dollars. Let’s actually consider the lives of the people who are making our dreams come true.

When I’m asked to wear a mask to protect the health of the flight attendant, or not go to Hawaii right now, or respect a city’s curfew hours, I’m being tested. Am I truly a global citizen?

Travel in a pandemic is a chance to learn how to travel better.

By embracing that travel is not only about me, my desires, my wish list, (or yes, my Instagram selfies), but instead about bringing me closer to the places I’m visiting, about connecting me to the world, I feel much better about going anywhere right now.

Because I’ve always believed that travel is good for the individual soul but also for our entire civilization. And my hope for 2022 is that vaccine equity will make it easier for me to do those big adventures on my list, but that I never forget what I’ve learned during this time when I can’t.

What have you learned from travelling in a pandemic? As always, I’d love to hear from you so that the comments feature isn’t only for a million Russian spam bots!  

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