Long Read: Seeing the world in a grain of sand

Dubai - Grounded travellers are finding ways to relive past journeys and plan future ones: creating music playlists and artworks, learning new languages, watching birds and planes, and cooking up country-themed lunches

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Sat 3 Apr 2021, 9:22 PM

Last updated: Sun 4 Apr 2021, 7:39 AM

An Emirates A380 approaches the runway. From a distance, with a cup of coffee in my hands, I watch it ready for takeoff. Suddenly, the engines roar. My heart begins to race. The anticipation… the excitement… it’s all there. The giant bird shoots down the tarmac, points its nose at the skies and takes off into the blue… soon, it is out of sight.

It is going somewhere, this plane. I wish I was on it. Somewhere seems like a destination… I sip my coffee and console myself. The sight of a plane is comforting. And for some unexplained reason, I am wishing that the plane is bound for Italy. Somedays, of course, I wish differently. Before it becomes a dot in the sky, my heart launches into Nessun dorma. I push my hands into the pockets of a salvaged US military jacket I found in Ercolano, Naples, and sing along. It is the sound of travel.

Driving to the airport to watch flights arrive or leave is a habit I have developed during lockdown. It brings a sense of satisfaction to my travel-less existence. The world is reeling from a problem that doesn’t have a solution yet. Staying at home might be the best thing to do, but can you imagine the life of a traveller who survives on the sights and sounds of faraway places? The Germans even have a word for such a feeling. Fernweh, they call it, or far-sickness. And that, I realise, is real.

Someone once asked me why I didn’t join the #travelfromhome movement that allowed people to lose themselves in ten-second home videos of “make-believe travel” with toilet-seats and bed sheets. My heart sank at the suggestion.

Horror has a new face, I suppose. And it is comforting to know the world of travelers is more innovative than given credit for.

Ladles and spoons to the rescue

“For me, the one most effective way to satiate the urge to travel over the past year has been to cook meals from different countries. Every two weeks, I virtually take my family to a new country — through a combination of food and music,” says Madhulika Liddle, a writer based in Noida, India. “I research online to build a menu that works for me and which is representative of the country I’m thinking of. Then, on (usually) a Saturday, I cook our meal while my husband, who is in charge of the music, creates a playlist of music from that country — often, very eclectic and informative [I hadn’t known about Mongolian throat singing, for instance, until my husband put it on our playlist].”

“Often, we show our seven-year-old daughter photographs of the country so she can get a feel of it. We talk about it, too, over lunch, telling her interesting aspects of the country’s culture or history.”

Madhulika once organised a Kenyan lunch — it was the last place they visited before the lockdown. “Our lunch was a way of revisiting Kenya and remembering all the fun we had. I made some dishes, like githeri and sauteed cabbage, which we’d eaten in Kenya. We danced to Jambo Bwana, a song we’d fallen in love with while at Masai Mara. And we looked through, once again, all our safari photos. While eating dessert (Coupe Mount Kenya), I told our daughter about Mt Kenya and how, in World War II, some Italian PoWs escaped their prison camp and climbed it for the sheer joy of climbing.”

Deconstructing and reconstructing

UAE-based traveller and textile artist Aditi Patwari’s works are inspired by travels to new places: deconstructing and reconstructing architectural and cultural languages of these places on felt and upcycled foam. “My last trip was in 2019, a few months before the lockdown, and I have been yearning for a new adventure ever since. One of the ways I dealt with not being able to travel was by delving into a new collection of wall artworks inspired by this trip to Indonesia. Since the collection was made mostly during lockdown, I decided to call it Bali Bohemia.”

Immersing herself in this collection allowed her to relive her experiences and integrate them into her work. “My artworks are an extension of my travels. Each collection is inspired by a trip to new city, its cultural and architectural styles, and the ways in which people live together. Channeling my travel experiences into this collection has allowed my art to reach new depths that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Since I cannot physically explore new places, I continue exploring Balinese culture through my work.”

Aditi is currently exploring new ways to stay stimulated. “As Covid restrictions are still on, I continue experimenting with the idea of travelling within. I am finding ways to stimulate this exploration of my inner world by connecting with new people online through artist residencies, online exhibitions and creative communities.”

Brewing magic in the wilderness

After a bike journey of 10,300km through Europe in 2019, Australian couple John and Shirley Lee found themselves unable to travel as planned and were locked down in Wayanad, Kerala, where they have a home on a coffee plantation.

“Our trips around the world are nearly always about coffee and coffee-based desserts,” they say. “But when we found ourselves cut off from the world in our little coffee plantation, we decided to bring the flavours home — and this doesn’t include Dalgona coffee, an experience in South Korea yet to be explored.”

“We try to re-create the affogato we’d had on the balcony of the Monaco Grand Canal Hotel in Venice and the authentic Turkish short black we’d had after a walk from Portarose to Piran in Slovenia. Sometimes we drink out of coffee mugs we’ve collected from around the world and somehow that brings us closer to the travel we’ve been on. Every sip of coffee we drink brings a reminder of our travels. We’d always find a story in the cup and even the more local Indian filter coffee became our favourite ally.”

The duo put in their best efforts to learn the coffee-making process as well — the lockdown lasted long enough to see them through the entire coffee season — from flowering to picking and drying to roasting and blending their very own coffee. John and Shirley ended up being decent baristas and, if put to the test, can identify different blends, notes, roasts and the origins of coffee. “So, until the next flight, it’s cheers from us.”

A playlist of airport announcements

Fourteen months of no-travel made London-based globetrotter Lavinia Dsouza do things she never thought she would — like creating a playlist of airport announcements from different countries to give her a sense of going somewhere. “I connect with places through their people, food and music. So, in addition to making dishes from around the world, I created a playlist of local songs from places I’d visited before lockdown. But what really worked to lift my spirits was throwing in the airport announcements — that simply changed an otherwise monotonous lockdown into something alive and exciting.”

These announcements became thrilling they created nostalgia mixed with a sense of urgency and excitement, just as if Lavinia was about to board the flight. Few things trigger memories as announcements and songs do and those memories coupled with looking through pictures keeps her going.

And because the sunset in Mykonos and Paris are her prized memories, she is learning new languages to understand the local culture better. “I have learnt that some of the most famous children’s fairytales like La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) and Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) were originally written in French and no word in French stars with the letter ‘w’.”

Back to the backyard

“This lockdown, Hungary gave us a moment of reckoning. In a way, it started a movement which sent us all exploring our backyard, something we’d never done before,” says Andrea Wurumb, a traveller and travel guide based in Budapest.

To satisfy her travel pangs, she strapped on her boots and went hiking. And just like that everything fell into place. Here she was, learning more about her own country through its back alleys and mountains and, of course, getting fitter and stronger for future travels.

“As somebody who feels deeply connected to the outdoors and to the world through travel, I miss it dearly, but I know that this isn’t going to be forever. So, in this time where I couldn’t travel physically, I saw it as an opportunity to turn inward. And before I knew it, it also unleashed a creative side: I picked up the brush and gave in to my artistic talent, humming along as I sketched. What an absolute serendipitous moment of self-discovery it was!”

Stories from feathered friends

After almost 15 months of no-travel, Hemant Albert Soreng, who runs an experiential company called Rustik Travel in India, feels he is better equipped to deal with travel when it starts again. As soon as the lockdown started, he took to bird watching, something, he says, that helped him bring calm back into his life in the initial days.

“Watching them was like hearing their stories from faraway lands. It brought comfort. It was a sign that while we were shut out from the world, some things hadn’t changed. Like the birds, we would fly again. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, ‘We travel with our minds, not our bodies’.”

The downtime and travel restrictions gave Hemant an opportunity to revise travel projects (some of them personal), allowing him the time to interact with existing customers and forging a deeper relationship with his staff. “In addition to that, I took on new partnerships and added more destinations to our itineraries, besides chalking out new places to visit personally. Podcasting made me connect with other travellers and I lived, even if for a few moments, in their experiences. I can’t say I am not considering writing a book now…”

But most of all, it gave him the push to learn a new language — Spanish — in preparation for his South American trip that had to be postponed. “I also ended up learning a lot more of the region I will soon visit… I often feel as if I am already there and what is even more strange is that I feel more knowledgeable about various aspects of travel than I ever did before.”

Building a travel community, virtually

Oregon-based Kelly Lewis, a traveller and travel entrepreneur didn’t let a lockdown put a stop to her travel plans. “I was in NYC for the Women’s Travel Fest in March 2020. Little did we know that it would be the last trip to anywhere for a long time. Although I live in the US, even travel within the country was out of the question. So, when the global lockdown started, I turned my focus on other travel-related activities. It was the only way to stay sane and connected.”

Kelly began working towards building a community for women travellers called Women’s Travel Collective (and eventually launched it on Women’s Day this year). “Building this community has helped satiate my desire for travel by bringing together my tribe of solo female travellers. It was an idea born out of quarantine and was launched to help my community of travellers feel supported and united during a time when it felt like our very identity was taken from us. Through live events (taking place on virtual stages) twice a month we get to ‘travel’. It is a virtual extension of my physical stage at Women’s Travel Fest, and the amazing stories told there makes me feel quite on the move.”

Back home…

Meanwhile for those wander-lusters stuck in Dubai, there are plenty of opportunities to “feel the wind in the hair” again. Plenty of staycations are on offer (including those with private pools and adventure park tickets), and there is always that feeling of being on a safari at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve with uninterrupted views of the Arabian desert — all with safe social distancing of course. Or what about a movie staycation at Rove Downtown? Yes, that is quite the thing to make you feel as if the world is at your feet.

Some local travel companies are giving out discounted packages on videos and images for past guests on desert safaris, so you can now have more than just an Instagram photo or video to help you relive all those memories, whilst museums worldwide are providing you an option for more sustainable tourism, like virtual tours, if you aren’t keen on taking on the new hiking, biking trails and luxury mountain retreats.

I might not be fit for the biking trails, but frequent trips into my pantry is a positive outcome of the lockdown. It is my refuge.

In it, I look for memories in the form of soaps from Karlovy Vary, olive oil and tortellini from Italy, sambals and sauces from Asia, cheese and chocolates from Switzerland and compliment my obsession to hoard.

Who knew one day they would be the constant source of encouragement to live?

The aroma of Gruyère melting away into the French onion soup is a reminder that as long as there is cheese to have, travel-lockdown is bearable.

(Anjaly Thomas is an author and travel writer. She may be contacted at anjaly@anjalythomas.com)

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