Has Covid ended my travel freedom
I often recall gazing at a stock picture of the Golden Gate bridge on an old calendar on a cracked wall in our tiny apartment in Bombay at age 16 when I suddenly developed an urge to travel the world. I yearned to expand my limited view of the world and daydreamed of visiting distant places and cultures. I started exploring the world through old copies of National Geographic on loan for a quarter rupee (5 cents US in those days) from the corner second hand book store that served as the local library.
I have relentessly pursued that dream and have been fortunate to satisfy that hunger as my wife and I have travelled to over 40 countries over the past 50 years. Each year I patiently plan all the trips for the year and make elaborate preparations for guides, hotels and transport. Our 2020 planned trips to Spain and the Canadian Rockies vanished quickly when Covid arrived with a bang. For a while I continued making plans for the end of the end of the travel moratorium but I am sadly realizing that Covid may have drastically reduced our freedom to travel freely for the rest of our lives. It is likely that even after an effective and safe vaccine is developed the fear of contracting it may result in a drastically reduced travel range for folks in my age group.
As I mourn the loss of the unlimited freedom to travel I find it cathartic to relive the most memorable scenes and indulge in nostalgia while discovering the reasons for this enduring fascination with travel. My most memorable impressions follow in no particular order.
Scene 1 — Magical is the only way I can describe flying across the face of Mount Everest in Nepal in a 20 passenger jet and staring directly at the peak. It inspired in me a reverence and a profound spiritual experience. If I had the ability to travel again this is the only trip I would repeat. The pilot called each person to the front where you could stare directly at the peak of Mt. Everest as if the plane was headed right into it. It seems I had glimpsed heaven (a surprising admission from a non believer).
Scene 2 — A sudden parting of the clouds and a view of K2 from the terrace of the Tiger Mountain Lodge in Pokhara, Nepal. We sat in the cold and fog for an hour with cups of hot tea, wrapped in blankets when the mountain suddenly appeared right in front of us like we were sitting at its feet. It filled the entire scene and left all of us with a tranquil and peaceful feeling. The owner of the lodge said the fog and clouds do not lift every day so we were fortunate at having been there on that day.
Scene 3- Buddhist monks in saffron robes walking at 6 am in a straight line down every major street in Luang Prabang, Laos. This is a precious little UNESCO world heritage town with hundreds of Wats and thousands of Buddhist monks. The bald monks each with a single piece of cloth draped around the body walk the streets of the city collecting food in their begging bowls for their sole meal of the day. The streets are lined with people on their knees with containers of boiled rice and each one puts a few grains of rice in each of the monks’ bowls. The images of reverence of the people and the piety of the monks in huge contrast to the indulgent and wasteful lifestyle seen elsewhere are humbling.
Scene 4- Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. A mesmerizing combination of green, blue, yellow, brown,purple and other colors with the mist slowly rising. Along with the Morning Glory pool, Old Faithful and the Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone made me feel insignificant before the forces of nature. Our species is so full of itself and yet it can be felled by nature in an instant. A huge volcanic eruption like the one that created Yellowstone would wipe out half the nation.
Scene 5- Walking the streets of Cordoba, Spain and entering private courtyards full of flowers during the Fiesta de los patios. Several neighborhoods in the city participate by decorating their courtyards with thousands of flower pots and arrangements all over the walls and the floors of the courtyard during the first two weeks of May each year. These courtyards are the patios in the center of a cluster of small homes. This is a one of a kind fiesta in Spain which is known for its fiestas. Cordoba is an ancient city that boasts a mosque-cathedral or a cathedral within a 10th century mosque which was the largest in the ancient world with a capacity of 25000 persons. Cordoba was the most populated and prosperous city in Europe 1000 years ago. The Jewish quarter is a maze of narrow streets with shops and restuarants at each plaza. Cordoba is an eclectic mix of Jewish, Muslim and Christian relics with modern day conveniences.
Scene 6- Walking along the 100 foot wall carving of the churning of the ocean at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. How the stone cutters of that era carved the scene of the Ramayana into the long corridors while maintaning the right proportions is an astounding feat of geometry and art. With many temples dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries, Siem Reap, Cambodia stands out as a must visit city. The intricately carved bas relief images depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are a testament to the power of Hindu mythology and its influence throughout Southeast Asia.
Scene 7- Ocean kayaking among the mangroves in Ao Thalane in Krabi Thailand. My wife and I got stuck in our two person kayak between rocks going around in circles until being rescued by our adult children in their separate kayaks. We managed to master the art of kayaking and continued on further into a lagoon surrounded by towering rocks. The utter silence amidst the towering rocks around the lagoon rendered us speechless.
Scene 8- Arriving in a dusty Datsun van with the top open we walked softly through the trees to the shore of Lake Nakuru where hundreds of deer, giraffe, zebra, black rhinos, white rhinos, baboons and warthogs were standing in absolute silence. As we arrived it seemed like they all turned their heads to look at us while thousands of flamingos suddenly took flight and the sky turned pink. This was their land and we were clearly the intruders. We were all speechless as we watched this magnificent spectacle.
Scene 9- Riding a camel in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan to a desert camp to be entertained by folk music singers under the stars. Jaisalmer is known for its intricately carved lace walls and balconies of old havelis. The pink sandstone carved porticos and windows of the heritage houses provided a glimpse into the past of this magical city.
Scene 10- Standing among 5000 year old columns and statues of Pharoahs at the temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. These are the perhaps the oldest and best preserved monuments of human achievement of an ancient civilization. We stared in wonder at how such huge structures with perfect proportions were carved from granite and installed at this site in 3000 BCE. No other civilization has left such a huge treasure of monuments from that time.
Scene 11- Snorkeling in the Maldives along a sheer underwater cliff watching the reef fish and deep sea coral. A private boat and guide took us from our hotel to a location where we could get off the boat and stand on rocks before embarking on a snorkeling trip along the side of an abrupt drop off. While we were swimming in relatively shallow waters we could look down and over the drop off at the teeming fish and coral life in the deeper waters. The palpable feeling of danger and the awesome sight beneath us was an unforgettable experience.
Scene 12- Seated in the basement lounge of a hotel in Cordoba, Spain our group of 10 awaited the start of a flamenco show by Javier Navarro and his troupe. Our earlier skepticism about a private show evaporated as we sat mesmerized by the soulful singing and the incredible dancing. Being just a few feet from the stage which was just a foot above the ground level we could see every expression on the faces of the singers and dancers. They sang and danced with a passion and exuberance that we had never seen before. These were true performers and loved their art. For the incredibly low ticket price and with just a few paying customers they each earned a few euros per hour. But they were performing for the love of their art and they touched our souls.
Scene 13- Looking down at Machu Picchu from the watch tower. The ruins of Macchu Picchu clearly surpass any other ancient ruins we have visited. The Incas built this mountain top estate of an Inca king in the 15th century with unimaginable technical skill for that period of human civilization. There is a rhythm to the layout and the careful use of space to create an environmental balance is awe inspiring.
Scene 14- Seated on lawn chairs outside the lounge of the Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla, Sri Lanka listening to the live performance of a flute bansuri master performer while looking at the 5th century rock fortress of Sigiraya. The heritage hotel is built around a rock and is a superb example of environmentally superb design. The rock was not cut and the hotel wraps around it with the rock protruding in several places in the hotel. The hotel blends into the natural setting in complete harmony with the contours of the site. The ancient rock fortress of Sigiraya was also known as an early example of urban planning. The king built the palace of top of a large rock and the entire structure is in harmony with the natural setting. Buddhist monks painted frescoes on the rock walls 10 centuries later that have withstood time and preserved the original colors.
In revisiting these memories I had an epiphany that what I cherish most are the experiences while traveling to different lands. None of the palaces, cathedrals, museums and boulevards of the major cities in the world we have visited have made sticky memories like these ones. I can continue to see new places through on YouTube and I can virtually tour every museum of the world on Google Arts and Culture but I will miss the experience of the magic of a moment of oneness with the universe, a feeling of awe at the beauty and forces of nature. an appreciation for the extraordinary achievements of a mysterious lost civilization and a respect for other cultures.
I bemoan the loss of my freedom to experience such moments of joy and wonder and fervently hope that the combination of vaccines and therapeutics will render Covid to relative insignificance. But if not I will continue to relive these memories and sing in my mind “ I think to myself — what a wonderfuld world”.