As a travel writer and overall travel enthusiast, it’s always been really difficult for me to be homebound- even in terms of simply not being able to go abroad. When COVID-19 hit, among other worries, I was worried about my sanity. I was worried about how hard it would be for me to stay home as much as possible, and if I were to travel, to only travel places I could drive to safely (and whose hospitals weren’t overrun, just in case). That seems like such a trivial complaint, considering the nature of the crisis at hand. But the fact is that exploration is good for the soul, and while it may not be the biggest concern one should have during a global pandemic, it’s valid to be preoccupied with it. It’s valid to miss traveling, and to feel a bit drained when it’s not possible to do so.
So I decided early on that while I wouldn’t jeopardize others’ health to feed my travel bug, I would integrate travel into my daily life in order to introduce some joy and wonder into staying home (something I already did on a smaller scale as a travel professional). I was critical of whether or not it would help, but I didn’t know what else to do. It turned out to really feed my soul, and while I do miss country hopping, I feel extremely connected to faraway places still. I still feel like an explorer.
Something I’ve always done, that I just made sure to continue doing, was to read about other cultures. When I felt a desire to visit, say, Peru, instead of planning a trip for it and reading about it, I spent some time reading about the history of the country, the culture, the music, the indigenous languages, and landmarks. I even made some veganized traditional dishes, and utilized my Spanish by listening to some music from the region. I also made sure to look up photos of everything I was learning about, and even add some beautiful places in the country to my Pinterest boards for future reference. It helped me grow a lot to learn about different places and cultures, and it helped me feel connected to new places even if I couldn’t physically travel to them. Even when I only did it for five minutes, or only read about one festival the country holds, it still felt really enriching. I found that travel documentaries (like No Reservations) and YouTube helped be a lot with all of this.
On YouTube, I started diversifying the sources of the creators to whom I subscribed. I’ve always been a huge believer in diversity, and in making sure I am getting a lot of perspectives on my social media platforms, but on YouTube, I noticed that while I was following diverse people in terms of race, sexuality, gender, and background, I wasn’t following many people from other countries. These people offer first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live and be in these places, and they’re a valuable source of information because of that. I ended up stumbling upon Jonna Jinton’s channel. I had never felt so spiritually touched by a stranger before, but her odes to nature and love for the northern Swedish wilderness really spoke to my heart. Her videos ranged from instructions on how to drink Birch sap, to vlogs of her running through the woods, to two hour long videos of ice-song recordings (it’s a real thing that happens on frozen lakes—something she taught me). I literally binged most all of her videos, because not only were they so peaceful and insightful, but they gave me a better look at Swedish life. I had seen Sweden before (from the air—my partner and I took a little plane over it to see the wilderness areas in the winter), but I didn’t know a lot about the culture, the life of those outside the cities, or the nature (short of it being cold and forested). I’ve always felt very passionately about the arctic reaches of the world, since my ancestors are from there, but this just deepened my connection to it, and I feel as if I have explored Sweden.
Something else I’ve always tried to practice, but have increased the practice of since COVID-19, is learning new languages. This doesn’t always mean sitting down and becoming an expert in one (although I am trying to learn Icelandic currently), but has always meant that I try to every so often learn a phrase or two, or even just a word, in a new language. It’s resulted in me learning how to speak five languages, but I know tidbits and phrases and words of many others simply because I integrate it into my routines. I’ve started to do it more often thanks to staying home, and even if all I know are random words from a language, it still increases my connection to the culture (and gives me an edge as a travel writer, where being multilingual in any capacity is pretty essential). It gives me insight into what’s valuable to them (for example, many South Pacific languages have a lot of words for water, ocean, and marine animals), and it makes me feel closer to the people of that region.
I’ve also gotten better about turning on my international news alerts, rather than just U.S. based sources. I read now from a variety of international news sources, and try to stay updated on what’s happening around the world- whether that be tragedies, victories, or otherwise. Countries that I’m especially interested are ones that I seek out information on weekly in more depth.
Since I was a kid, I used to memorize maps and learned the names and locations of every country in the world. This year I have brushed up on that, and like to play geography games on my phone, learn the flags of the world, look up random areas of countries I’m interested in and learn about their geography, and learn the capitals of different countries. This may sound like a lot, but I don’t do it all at once. I do it as it sounds fun. Some days I feel like pulling up a map of Jakarta and studying its layout and taking virtual tours of it. Some days I feel like just looking up the flag of a country I know little about. Some days I feel like looking up the best drives in Switzerland, and spending hours looking up which towns would be fun to stay in along the way. I do what feels good, and as with all things in my life, I do so intuitively. I love learning on my own, because there aren’t tests or things others are forcing me to learn about. It’s my choice, and I can educate myself on whatever I want without any pressure, and if all I take away is the name of a city I had never heard of previously, that’s time well spent.
So while I haven’t gone abroad since COVID-19 struck, I have still felt very connected to the world during it all. I still feel like myself—like a traveler. I am very excited for the days when traveling will be safe again, but until then I feel content and excited about exploring through education. So if you are feeling like you miss discovering new places, consider popping in a documentary about Madagascar’s animals or an international film. Maybe learn a word in Swahili, cook something from another country, or learn what the capitals are of the five countries at the top of your bucket list. It all brings the world a little closer, and in that way, you can still explore.
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Photo: Emily Degn