Though I feel that I should be writing on some sort of Covid-related issue, such as what to read or how to be introspective, I choose to write on the complete opposite: travel.
In a world that is alarmingly leaning toward the right, starting with our leaders like Donald Trump, and where there is extreme xenophobia, arising from different circumstances such as mass migration by refugees from parts of the world that are experiencing danger, it helps to think of the joys we have in our differences, and to be grateful for the privileges many of us have had in getting to see different parts of the world.
My childhood was marked by somewhat-quadrennial trips to India that, in the earlier years before super-long-haul flights, involved multiple stops. This, perhaps, planted the seed for my curiosity about different peoples and cultures that eventually led to a degree in anthropology and a number of global homestays. My young self wondered, “Will I ever get to see those places on the ground some day?” Even the sites of different tarmacs with different airports with different landscapes was fascinating to my little eyes. I recall laundry swaying in the wind behind a house next to the airport in Manchester. Being given two little sample bottles of Courrèges cologne–glass with a round golden orb on top–at Frankfurt airport that I kept for many years. The palm trees and concrete at Kuwait Airport where we stopped to refuel. The orange sunrise over the unbelievably flat horizon at Dubai airport, and inside, the gleaming red marble interior (even in the bathroom!) and men wearing a long thobe with a red-checkered ghutra on their head. How in Delhi, passengers got off on the tarmac and were bussed to the gate. And the relief when, at 9 AM, after traveling over 20 hours, we boarded the last flight on our journey from Bombay to Madras on Indian Airlines.
When I was 15, my dream finally came true, for we stopped in London en route to- and Rome en route from India as part of our journey. And both cities did not disappoint: if anything, they were exciting beyond belief, as it was my first time in a country other than India or the border countries of Mexico and Canada. For those of us who are Indian-Americans, our sense of place and the world is shaped by these trips, for we not only lived with two cultures in the United States, but came from two cultures that spanned the globe, on vastly opposite sides of the earth.
I am fortunate to have traveled to places where many Americans don’t usually go, and to have been able to stay with friends or in ways that forced me to “go native.” I have given a talk to high school students in rural Denmark, shopped for groceries in Austria, visited Sibelius’s house Finland (where I was allowed to tinker on his piano!), bargained with shopkeepers in India, ridden a commuter boat with locals in Bangkok.
There are still so many places I want to see. Recently, I have enjoyed watching a wonderful BBC series with journalist Sadeq Saba called “A Taste of Iran” with the result being that the bug is now in me to visit that glorious country full of a variety of stunning landscapes, ancient history, and marvelous food. Perhaps because of the trips to India that were routed via Europe and over Central Asia, I have an interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures. It is interesting to see the progression of various cultural traits and histories and rituals from Europe through the Subcontinent, how certain elements have been carried through the regions. For example, some of the architecture I saw in Bulgaria is similar to that I saw in Bhutan.
It is quite heartbreaking to think that international travel may be curtailed and may not be safe for a number of years. The pandemic has, oddly, brought us together in teaching us about our shared humanity, just as travel does. The silver lining is that it has given the earth a chance to heal, reminding us that we are not the only creatures who live on this planet. But for those of us who love to see different people and places, right now we can only have empathy for our fellow human beings who are sick everywhere: in a worn hospital in Manhattan, in a dusty flat near Tehran, in a village in Lombardia, a crowded street in Wuhan. And then we can imagine we are there visiting in better times.