This past year was like no other. Along with most of the world, my husband Barry’s and my life slowed down. But in spite of — or maybe because of — all the restrictions, it was an opportunity for extended reflection, and as a result, I’ve learned nine lessons about travel.
1. Travel Is A Privilege, Not A Right
Before 2020, I took travel for granted. But during the time Barry and I stayed close to home, I thought about other limitations on travel — from political to safety reasons, economic to environmental. For example, Japan and South Korea don’t permit North Koreans to enter their countries, nor does Ukraine allow male Russians between 16 and 60 entry. Israel permits Palestinians only through militarized checkpoints.
Then there are people who can’t afford to travel. I’ve never forgotten what Barry and I heard in the Republic of Georgia, when we visited Tbilisi, the capital, in 2000, a year after the country became independent from the former USSR. “Before, we had money, but no freedom to travel,” we were told. (During the Soviet era, Odessa, a resort on the Black Sea, was a domestic tourist destination that brought in lots of cash). “Now,” people said poignantly, “we have the freedom, but no money,” because their currency was worth very little on the world markets.
And sometimes it’s dangerous to travel, like in Sarajevo after the Bosnian Civil War, when even wandering slightly out of the city limits, you could step on a landmine. Or during the narcotrafico years in Colombia, where, we were told, residents of Medellin couldn’t leave the city for fear of being kidnapped or shot. And in our own country, the Black Lives Matter movement has heightened our awareness that just moving around, let alone travel, can be high risk for people of color.
2. Local Travel Rocks!
Barry and I tend to travel to faraway places like Europe and Latin America. Since last year, this was not possible, so we stayed local — we had no choice. I was grateful our camper van offered us the freedom to explore, and that living in a rural county we were not as circumscribed as friends who lived in cities, who during part of the year could not legally travel more than 5 miles from home.
We live in Eureka, on the north coast of California, a region with areas of natural beauty in every direction. During the year, we’d explore Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, an hour north of Eureka, and a half-hour beyond that, we’d overnight right next to the Pacific Ocean, minutes from a four-mile section of the California Coastal Trail. South of Eureka, we visit the pastoral, misty Lost Coast Headlands and the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, especially Grieg-French-Bell Grove, with its beautiful carpet of sorrel.
Even closer to home, my friend Robbie and I would get together and cycle along Eureka’s recently completed Hikshari’ Trail.
3. Brief Is Beautiful
I discovered I don’t have to spend a long time in a place to be nourished. Within 20 minutes of where we live, I visited areas I’d never really explored, which I could enjoy for just an hour or less. I got to know Eureka’s urban park, Sequoia Park, along with the new trail system called the McKay Community Forest, a riparian birdwatchers’ haven, Fay Slough, and the Humboldt Botanical Garden.
4. Remember The Nurturing Power of Nature
In the last year, nature brought me a deep sense of comfort. Though only a small percentage are left, the ancient coastal redwoods near where we live have survived up to 1,500 years, despite urban development, droughts, logging, and wildfires. If they can survive, I remind myself, so can we.
And not just green spaces, but “blue spaces,” or water. We live 1½ blocks from Humboldt Bay and on calm days, Barry and I head out on the water, he in his kayak, me on my paddleboard, to watch the seals; check out (from a careful distance!) our local sea lion, Charlie, who lounges on one of the marina docks; and paddle into the Eureka Slough, where I love wandering along the narrow passageways that remind me of tiny lanes I’ve bicycled on in rural England. I never tire of exploring the bay’s derelict beauties, its bridges, sagging docks, pilings, jetties, marinas, and faded fishermen’s boats. Water is another world.
5. Meeting Strangers Is Part Of The Joy Of Travel
During the last year, Barry’s and my conversations with people we met were limited to only a few waitresses and cashiers. Last month, though, while on a road trip through southern Oregon, I noticed something unexpected on the beautiful Whaleshead Beach, part of the Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor. I had three conversations within half an hour with strangers: the first with a British woman, who, like Barry, had moved to the U.S. almost 50 years ago; the second with a hairdresser from Utah, with whom I discussed the geological beauties of southern Utah; and the third with a couple from central California, who were grateful that I alerted them to roadwork on Highway 101 that could cause a long wait if they didn’t time their trip accordingly. Afterward, I remembered how much fun it is to meet people on the road, and to chat freely and close up, unencumbered by external restrictions or internal anxiety. For me, it’s one of the deep pleasures of travel.
6. Travel And Home Are A Dance
While I love to explore the world, this year also deepened my appreciation for the sanctuary of home. After a trip, we’d come back to our cozy apartment, with its partial view of the bay, its small, comfortable size, and our mini hot tub. While we own a home in Guanajuato, a city in central Mexico, we’ve rented this flat for 20 years. When we moved in, I told a friend that it reminded me of the second-story Russian apartment where Lara in the movie Dr. Zhivago lived, complete with a big pot of comforting soup on the stove. Our place is far from elegant, but it feels very safe … a place to stay dry and warm, where we can eat, sleep, read, laugh, and cry.
7. Expect The Unexpected
In April 2020, we thought we were going to Portugal — which, of course, never happened, and is still not in our plans. Instead we took 10 road trips in our van between April and November, never going further than 200 miles from home. Yet it was one of the richest travel years of my life.
8. Giving Back Is Where It’s At
Because travel depends on the health of the earth, Barry and I have committed to doing our bit to protect the planet. We do this by contributing to environmental organizations, by carbon offsetting for flights, and by planting trees in Eureka and cleaning up a riverbed in Guanajuato.
9. Travel With Humility
More than anything, this year reminded me to be sensitive and kind to other people and creatures, and to respect the communities I visit, even if they are only a few miles away. How fragile we all are! How easy it is for me to forget, and how grateful I am to be reminded of this simple truth.