Rosita Boland: The ache for distant places remains
Only 5% of world’s population has been on a plane. Maybe we’ll cherish it more next time
‘The fallout from the current pandemic might accidentally achieve more good for the environment in the next few years than climate-change activists have managed for decades.’
When Ireland began to shut down, I was 9,000kms away, visiting friends in Zimbabwe. Our long-planned catch up began to fissure into conversations about how our respective countries were going to respond to the challenge of Covid-19. A relative began to text me late at night, every night, urging me to come home early.
I woke to the hot blue Harare mornings and felt anxious reading the texts before I even got out of bed: I have a bad habit of keeping my phone nearby when I go to sleep.
In the end, I managed to rebook my flight, and came back five days early. Changing planes at Johannesburg, I only realised on arrival that the airport – the busiest in the entire African continent – was closed to all but transit passengers. By the time I got to Heathrow, I had an inkling that it might be a long time before I saw the inside of another major airport.
I’m curious about the world; I want to see what it looks like, smell likes, tastes like; to have new experiences, and glean a little about other cultures
At the cosmetics concession stands, the lipstick samples were empty. So too were the powders, mascaras, foundations. Everything that could touch skin had been removed. There were empty holes everywhere, like socketless eyes. It was only a small detail, but somehow so surreal.
My onward flight to Dublin was cancelled; not enough passengers. This was on March 22nd. I was put on a later flight that morning, which was less than a fifth full. At a near-deserted Dublin Airport, I looked around me carefully, hungrily. I tried to imagine a time when I might be there again. I couldn’t.
During my absence of less than a fortnight, Ireland had more or less closed down. Schools, universities, shops, restaurants, bars, sporting venues, workplaces. My own colleagues at The Irish Times were now all working from home, every one of them; something that would have seemed impossible, if not unthinkable, just a couple of weeks earlier.
There were just three of us on the Aircoach going to the city; the driver, me, and one other person returning from abroad. I walked from Upper Leeson Street to my home, shut the door, and went into quarantine for two weeks. My friends in Zimbabwe followed me back to Ireland a week after my own departure, leaving behind a workplace, their home, their child’s school, three dogs, three cats, two vehicles, and less visceral things: the life and friendships they had built up there over four years.
This time last year, my book of essays based on travels over three decades was published; Elsewhere, one woman, one rucksack, one lifetime of travel. The introductory piece was called Fernweh. It’s a German word, that translates as “an ache for distant places”.
That ache for distant places has informed all the travels I’ve ever made since I was old enough to earn my own money. An ache fuelled by curiosity. The simplest reason as to why I love to travel is that I’m curious about the world; I want to see what it looks like, smell likes, tastes like; to have new experiences, and glean a little about other cultures.
When I looked around me that March day in Dublin Airport, not knowing when I would be there again, I already knew international travel would be different by then; in that future time, whenever it would be.
At 19, I bought an Inter-Rail pass and travelled around Europe for a month. I clearly remember what my budget for a month was – £170, carried in travellers cheques. Part of the trip involved staying with friends, and I took as many overnight trains as possible to avoid accommodation costs in hostel dormitories. Even so, managing my tiny budget was a challenge while trying to experience as much of Europe as much as possible.
I had other experiences I hadn’t expected during that month inter-railing, as my funds ground down and down. Not a rule-breaker in my usual life, I warily rode trams for free in Vienna, hopping off whenever I saw an inspector.
I attached myself onto the end of English-speaking, fee-paying tours in galleries and museums, desperate to understand a little about what I was seeing: I didn’t even have a guide book with me.
It’s very unlikely that anyone reading this has not, at some point, been on a flight. We are part of that highly privileged percentage of the population
I experienced a stab of deep envy while walking around San Marco in Venice, watching people pay extraordinary amounts of money for one coffee in the achingly beautiful cafes there; I very much wanted to sit in one of those cafes myself. It was the first time in my life I truly envied people who were wealthy. I ate a lot of bananas. I rarely ate anything resembling dinner. I didn’t have a single alcoholic drink.
It was all worth it. I did not have to come home early. It was the beginning of wanting to see as much of the world as I could, and an understanding that the more you travel, the bigger the world is, not the smaller. The world is vast and complicated and resists any kind of ownership. I have never failed since then to be grateful for the privilege of being able to travel, nor stopped being curious to explore.
In 1987, I went to Australia for a year. My return ticket from Shannon to Sydney, was via London and Oman on the way out. The return included an overnight in Singapore on the way back, as there was no connecting flight until the following day. It cost £1200. I had spent the entire previous summer working in London to save the airfare.
I did not fly between London and Dublin either way that summer. The then Apex flights were too expensive, costing hundreds of pounds, I took the boat train instead. Using an inflation currency convertor, my return flight to Sydney from Ireland works out now at about £2,500.
About 15 years after that journey to Australia, a multi-trip ticket I bought for Dublin to Beijing, Hong Kong to Tokyo, Tokyo to Brisbane, Brisbane to Bangkok, Bangkok to Dublin, cost only about €1,000. In those intervening years, flights had become both cheaper and more frequent. Costs had gone down, and they continued to go down and down yet more. Our expectations of travelling to faraway places cheaply, and often, had risen.
It’s a fact that only 5 per cent of the world’s population has been on a plane; a statistic I have been unable to get out of my head ever since I heard it a decade ago. That’s us. It’s very unlikely that anyone reading this has not, at some point, been on a flight.
We are part of that highly privileged percentage of the population. We love flying so much we had been doing more and more of it every year, facilitated by lower prices and what was an ever-increasing number of destinations.
That is gone for the foreseeable future, and much as I love to travel, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The fallout from the current pandemic might accidentally achieve more good for the environment in the next few years than climate-change activists have managed for decades. Helping to preserve the environment is an abstract concept in a way that spending one’s hard-earned cash is not.
It seems inevitable that flying will become more expensive again, and with that higher cost, people will think more carefully about the future travel choices they make. They won’t fly as much. Airlines will almost certainly be operating vastly reduced schedules for some time to come.
It’s not just the fact that flying less will be better for our fragile environment, but also that flying somewhere could become something special and infrequent again, not routine and something to be taken for granted.
We might choose to go away for longer, and travel onwards more slowly when we get there; via trains and buses. The trend of going somewhere abroad for weekend hen and stag parties might cease. Or it might not. Nobody knows what direction the travel industry will go in after the pandemic.
But what might happen is that we all become more thoughtful about journeys that involve getting on a plane. That we remind ourselves that travelling to countries and cultures not our own is not something to be taken for granted. It is, after all, a privilege that 95 per cent of the population have never had.
Like all of us right now, I don’t know when I’ll be on a plane again. But I do know that I will cherish that future experience even more than ever. I am still pulsing with fernweh; aching for distant places.