How I explore now: The travel writers who can’t leave home
Take virtual train trips, learn on Duolingo, and plan for when they can travel again
Manchán Magan in Ethiopia. Photograph: Florent Mason
Shilpa Ganatra: ‘Oaxaca in Mexico, Madagascar and Belize are now at the top of the list’
This weekend, I was meant to be soaking in the sun in the Dominican Republic, reviewing the Grand Palladium Hotel. Instead, I find myself locked down in Harrow, the London suburb that’s become the epicentre of the UK coronavirus crisis. Not quite the break I had in mind. I wish I could say I’ve used this time to practice the art of “zen that I learned in China, or employ the philosophy that makes Costa Rica one of the happiest countries on the planet. But I’ve mostly been working on my siestas and they’re coming along nicely.
In the coming weeks though, two things are on the agenda: first I’ll get busy on Duolingo and learn the basics of more languages, because even being able to say simple phrases such as thank you, excuse me and the boy likes apples shows respect to the host country. Second and most importantly, I’m going to swot up on all the world history I can. It’s only from travelling to starkly different places that I fully grasp how much a nation’s history shapes its psyche, and that however well-taught I thought I was, the western education system comes with its own biases. Basically, that will mean reading about suppressed cultures and the injustice of territory domination, and trying not to get mad about it.
Once rules are eased, I’ll continue exploring my locale, because the benefits of travel aren’t only found in far-flung destinations. And once the airline industry returns to operation? In all honesty, this pandemic won’t teach me anything that the death of a loved one five years ago hasn’t already taught me. I stopped putting off my bucket list, I prioritised travel, and I’m pathetically grateful every time I experience a little more of this wonderful world. Oaxaca in Mexico, Madagascar, Belize, New Zealand and Vancouver are now at the top of the list, and the only question is the order in which I’ll visit.
Margaret Ward: ‘I’m travelling without leaving my armchair’
The furthest I’ve travelled lately is from the end of my small back garden to my own front door. My window on the world has shrunk to the view of my budding wisteria and my neighbours’ houses across the street. As someone who loves to travel, I’d have expected to be feeling like a caged animal, but I don’t.
In a strange way I feel more connected to the world than ever. Last week I took down a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a present from a trip to Emilia-Romagna in Italy last autumn. It made me wonder how the people I met there were doing, so I emailed those for whom I had contacts. The replies came back, heartfelt thanks, messages of solidarity, a brief moment of connection during an otherwise unimaginably tough period for the people of northern Italy.
Over the past few weeks I’ve whatsapped, tweeted and emailed more than a dozen people I know from China, New York, France, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Jordan and Zambia. Some of these have been voice calls, the sound of a human voice across the miles bringing us together at a time of great upheaval and fear, in a way a quick message never can. So I’m travelling without leaving my armchair.
We often focus on places when we travel, but for me people have always been the most interesting part of the story. And when it comes to place, it is novelty and difference that absorbs us when we are away. We look at the world with fresh eyes, take things in with all our senses. We can do that without ever leaving our own gardens. Right now I’m paying close attention to the buds on my camellia, the blackbirds in a nearby apple tree, how my tulips are doing. And getting to know far more of my neighbours, some from different parts of the world.
When this is over, the furthest I’ll be going for a while is to one of the Irish islands, Turk, Bofin or Blasket. For a swim and a session, when hopefully we get through this as best we can. I’m sure I will travel further afield again but right now I’m happy to wrap myself up in Ireland’s arms and stay put.
Fionn Davenport: ‘Florence . . . is where I’ll go first when all this is over’
The first flight restrictions came into effect a few days after I’d come home from Orlando, where I’d spent a month researching for a new Lonely Planet guide to Florida. At first, I was relieved that my timing had been so good but as the days rolled on, I realised that all of my upcoming trips for the next few months would be cancelled. Two trips to Dublin, a holiday in Greece and two more trips to the United States: to Las Vegas at the end of May and then California in mid-June. Also mothballed was a jaunt around England for another Lonely Planet guide. That’s my next six months kiboshed.
So far, I’ve used my time to tidy up my office, which now looks exactly the way I always want it to look: neat, minimal and soothingly free of scraps of paper, dog-eared notebooks and empty coffee mugs. I take a lot of photos when I travel, so I’ve spent a few days editing, tagging and backing them up on to two separate drives. Twenty years’ worth of photos is a lot of terabytes.
And a lot of memories. I’ve gone back in time to the mid-1990s, when I made my first trips to Southeast Asia and China. I was young then, and thought little of roughing it in barns while rats the size of cats enviously eyed up my stale biscuits.
I’ve a photographic archive of almost every trip I’ve made since then but looking through them doesn’t make me sad about not being able to travel. It’s a reminder of how much travel has shaped my life and that I’d still go places even if it wasn’t for work.
I’m half-Italian, so Italy – and Florence, in particular – is a major character in this bit of nostalgic visual theatre. It’s where I’ll go first when all this is over, to my mum who’s been in lockdown since the start of it all. I just want to give her a hug – and then go out for a nice bistecca Fiorentina.
Manchán Magan: ‘I’ve become an avid watcher of in-cab railway videos’
Spring 2020 was due to be the beginning of my new life as an earth-bound traveller. Having resolved to avoid taking flights for holidays I was eager to start exploring Europe by rail and ferry. In February, I travelled north from Spain by train, watching Chinese fellow travellers anxiously reading news about a strange new virus that was decimating their land. I could never had imagined that the same high-speed trains I took through France would be used, as they now are, as ambulances to ferry infected patients to less busy hospitals, complete with intensive care doctors and anaesthetists on board.
This month I was supposed to be heading to Germany by train, as soon as I had written up my account of the Spanish trip. But no editor is going to want that article now and I haven’t a chance in hell of getting to Germany. Nonetheless, I am getting to explore entire new swathes of Europe by rail these days, just not in the way I thought. I’ve become an avid watcher of in-cab railway videos: films of the world’s great train journeys, as seen through the lens of a camera positioned alongside the driver in the cab.
It was the Trondheim to Bodø route through Norway that first got me hooked. This 10-hour video made by the Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK, is as close as you’ll get to a Vipassana meditation in these locked-down times. (You’ll find it on YouTube). Once you’ve made it through the full 10 hours, know that there are three other versions to go, as NRK has recorded the journey in spring, autumn, winter and summer.
Public reaction to these films was so positive that NRK later released a 134-hour film of the Hurtigruten ferry voyage along the Norwegian coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes. The resulting TV programme has some of the finest footage of fjords and Norwegian wilderness basking in the midnight sun that you’ll ever see. You can watch a speeded-up version on Youtube or the whole lot from the NRK website - nrk.no.
If you develop a taste for watching train journeys online, consider embarking on the full 9,000km journey of the TransSiberian Railway. A decade ago Russian Railways and Google teamed up to cover the entire thing and you can follow it, section by section, on Youtube. You’ll see some of the most beautiful parts of Siberia, including the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal, the Barguzin mountain range and, the Yenisei river, all without ever leaving your house.
The more of these I watch, the more I appreciate the freedom I’ve always taken for granted to be able to just head off on a whim. Once this is all over, I plan to get back on the rails, and to experience some of these trips for myself.
Darragh Geraghty: ‘There is one destination I want to revisit more than any other: Rome’
It will take us a long time to comprehend what we are all now going through. Although life goes on, that sense of forward motion we all took for granted is no longer there. Up until very recently freedom of movement was the concern of a very unfortunate few. Now travel is a luxury nobody can afford.
How much will be changed by the pandemic? Who knows. A lot, probably. It’s a question that occupies my mind more than any other: how will we be changed? Normalcy will eventually be resumed. Flights and holidays will be booked; first as a trickle, then as a flood. But will it be different than it was before?
Much of the pleasure of travel comes both in the planning, and the memory. And so that’s what we do; we think of trips we enjoyed before, and imagine where we’ll go when all this passes. We flick through photos on our phone and marvel at how quickly everything changed. We read books, look at videos online, watch films; anything that can bring us closer in our minds to the destination.
There is one destination I want to revisit more than any other: Rome. There is no pleasure greater than getting lost in that eternal city. Stepping into the cool dark of an ancient church; walking the leafy cloisters of a stumbled-upon courtyard; sitting down with a carafe of wine and fresh bread in a run-down yet perfect trattoria; these are treasured memories of a place I love and can’t wait to return to. God knows when that will be, but we’ll bring our children and tell them about how the world stood still in 2020, and how Italy was hit harder than most.
Jamie Ball: ‘Submerge yourself among the greats of travel literature’
Being a travel writer who can’t travel sounds like an owl who couldn’t give a hoot. But it really isn’t so bad: we both still have wings. Besides, I’ve had a damn good innings these last two or three years, and while I hold out little hope for travel in 2020, there’s lots to look forward to beyond.
For me, so much of the worth and meaning of travel isn’t just in the experience, but the anticipation and preparation before the trip (often a mix of excitement, hope and healthy apprehension) in combination with a more nuanced reflection stretching out several years after the experience; a storied, slow-release recall that can, like some Coelho-esque spirit guide, travel with you – enriching and contextualising your own story.
But for now, I am warmly recollecting long-forgotten clips from my last 25 years of travel, and look forward to the coming years, to hopefully making it to the Ukraine, Greece or Turkey, or even Denmark, Sweden or St Petersburg, or trekking the Amalfi coast, or road cycling the Dolomites. And then there’s Morocco and Mali – oh, and Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zanzibar. And did I mention Sri Lanka or Tibet or Bhutan? Then what of Mexico, Cuba or Columbia? Whether I ever get to any of these isn’t the point: I will be filled with wonder, curiosity and excitement just thinking about the prospect.
Until then, my own locked-down world is consumed with the day job (I’m lucky to still have one), as well as edging my way through a backlog of travel commissions I’ve yet to write up (bad Jamie!), and hugely needed home renovations (we just moved in two weeks ago to our new, long-vacant, home). Oh, and the small matter of trying to keep the family healthy and happy. You could say I’ve never been busier.
But for the travel reader also confined to their home, the pandemic has forced us to come full circle, to when our more curious, bookish ancestors – from the 18th century right up until within the last half century – read with wonder, awe, dread and inspiration of locations they had no means of ever being able to visit, so they travelled in the mind instead.
So, if I do have any travel advice during this lockdown it is this: submerge yourself among the greats of travel literature over the last century. If unsure where to begin, simply Google the term and go from there. Whether you’re 18 or 80, read and recalibrate what it is you hope to get from your travels in a recalibrated, post-Covid-19 planet, for the recalibrated post-Covid-19 you.
Sandra O’Connell: ‘I’m busy Googling hotels in Rome’
To my mind, returning somewhere is always a bad idea. Not alone does the repeat performance never quite match the one viewed through fresh eyes but there are just too many other places to see. There is also, as is being made sadly and abundantly clear, so little time in which to see it all.
Rome is my only exception. It’s where I got married. It’s where my sister got married a few years later. It’s where we all had a big reunion again a few years later. As a result the only place I’m determined to head to, when all this is over, is Rome.
We’re already done the pilgrimages, children in tow, to St Patrick’s Church on Boncompagni, just off the Via Veneto, and to the beautiful Sala Rossa off Piazza del Campidoglio. In both cases happy couples were emerging into sunshine and ice cream-eating tourists, just as we did.
I got back there again the year before last and found every turn wasn’t just its beautiful ochre-hued self – into the Piazza de Navona, for example, up to the Quirinal, or over to Trastevere – but a palimpsest of wonderful occasions with loved ones, not all of whom are still with us.
Seeing the people of Italy, just two weeks ahead of us on this horrible path, standing out on their balconies and expressing their indomitable spirit fired up a desire to get back as soon as is humanly – and virally – possible.
I spent the early days of the travel restrictions telling anyone who’d listen that if we have to stop travelling, Ireland is at least the most beautiful country to be stopped in. Now that we’re all under house arrest, I’m busy Googling hotels in Rome.