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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Grounded by the pandemic, a once-busy traveler finds a new way to see the world

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With her passport collecting dust, a travel writer turns to friends to help illuminate a globe weathering the storm together.

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In the early days of the pandemic, as Americans were engulfed in a frenzy of panic-buying, toilet paper was the holy grail. But different countries had other obsessions, I soon learned: In Melbourne, toothpaste was mysteriously in short supply; in New Zealand, logs were a hot commodity.

“The day before the lockdown, I saw people driving trucks and trailers all over town loaded with firewood,” said American travel writer Stirling Kelso, who was stuck with her family in Wanaka, New Zealand, as the world began to shut down. “Houses are not very insulated, and we’re going into winter.”

A few weeks into lockdown in my own New York apartment and confronted with a wide-open schedule for the first time in years — turns out, travel writing isn’t in great demand these days — I was consuming way more news than should be legal. Yet I still felt like I had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world.

US news can be narcissistic even in the best of times; as we found ourselves the global hot spot, little airtime was dedicated to sharing how other countries were managing the crisis. Curious about how lockdown looked in far-flung corners of the globe, I did what seemingly any sentient person with an Instagram handle and a surfeit of free time was doing this spring: I launched a series of Instagram Live interviews. Through these conversations, I’ve chronicled regional quirks and differences — and seen how this global crisis has bridged hemispheres and time zones in remarkably similar ways.

Travel writer Sarah Khan launched an Instagram Live interview series to highlight how people around the world have been coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

I kick off each installment of “Where in the World Are Sarah Khan’s Friends? (a nod to the hashtag #WhereInTheWorldIsSarahKhan I usually deploy on my travels), by asking friends grounded everywhere from New York to New Zealand, Mumbai to Melbourne, Paris to Tunis to share clues to their locations for viewers to guess.

Even though I know exactly where they are, it’s a fun exercise for me as well. They’ve asked followers to name the European capital that was known as Lutetia in medieval times (Paris), the city where World War I began (Sarajevo), and the place where you’ll find the world’s most expensive house (Mumbai); hints can range from the newsy, such as the country where the Arab Spring began (Tunisia), to the linguistic, such as the island nation whose Maori name is Aotearoa (New Zealand), to the obvious: the country whose prime minister has had coronavirus (the UK).

For the last few months, my passport has been collecting dust in my desk drawer, but through my friends I’ve managed to travel vicariously — gazing longingly at the mountains of Sarajevo from the window of Bosnian actor Reshad Strik’s apartment; taking a walk through Hyderabad’s iconic Charminar monument, completely devoid of humans, with journalist Yunus Lasania, whose press credentials allowed him access; envying Kelso’s gorgeous vantage point over New Zealand’s natural vistas from her Airbnb in the South Island; taking in the Parisian rooftops from journalist Lindsey Tramuta’s apartment in the 11th arrondissement; peering out at Bangkok’s jagged skyline from singer Belinda Carlisle’s aerie; and basking in a golden Cape Town sunset on writer Seth Shezi’s balcony.

It’s not the same as being there, but these intimate glimpses will have to satisfy my travel cravings until I’m able to venture out again.

Between bouts of virtual sightseeing, I’ve had friends shed light on governments’ varied measures during the pandemic: Countries like Tunisia and Thailand have had curfews; France required signed statements to leave homes for any reason; Bosnia banned children and the elderly from stepping outside their homes; and countries such as South Africa took strict measures in light of their significant HIV and TB populations. Some of the US expats I spoke to still saw an upshot to living through the pandemic far from home.

“I purposely don’t watch the news coming from the States because I can’t stand it—you’re not getting news, but getting hysteria,” said Carlisle, who lives in Bangkok with her husband. “That’s one thing you don’t have here. You have facts, and you get on with it.”

France’s lockdown sounded fairly strict — if you wanted to step outside for your permitted daily hour of exercise or errands, Tramuta said, you needed to print, sign, and carry a “permission slip” that outlined your reason for leaving home. (After weeks of this, a smartphone version was eventually made available.) Many people did not respond well to having their movements so closely monitored by the government. “Ultimately, I think France went about it in the way that they felt was most appropriate,” Tramuta said. “I think you also have a population that is very reluctant to have their rights infringed upon, their liberties infringed upon.”

Kelso was on a months-long adventure around the world with her husband and two small children, which is how she came to be living in New Zealand as the country began shutting down. “We’re thankful to be here during the lockdown as opposed to elsewhere,” said Kelso, and rightly so — New Zealand is a rare coronavirus-battling success story. Plus, she had concerns to work through before returning to the States: Her house was rented for the duration of what was meant to be a six-month trip, and, in a uniquely American conundrum, she had to figure out what to do about the fact that she’d given up her health insurance before hitting the road.

“What is the best decision for me and my family? At the end of the day we’re going to try to go home, it makes sense to us.” About a week after our chat, Kelso and her family made their way safely back to Texas.

No matter where in the world they are, most have lost major work opportunities as a result of the crisis. Carlisle has canceled shows all over the world. Australian comedian Nazeem Hussain was one week into a new season of live stand-up shows when his entire calendar suddenly was wiped clean. Tramuta has had to delay the launch of her second book, The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris, from April to July. Sebastian Modak, the 2019 New York Times 52 Places traveler, had just emerged from a whirlwind year on the road when he found himself facing the other extreme, being grounded in New York. And even though we’re just a few miles from each other, lockdown means he’s no more accessible than friends in other time zones.

Much like my own Instagram Live experiment, others have found that connecting with people online has helped give meaning to the unexpected time off. Hussain has a podcast, Survivor’s Guide to Coronavirus, where fellow comedians muse on pandemic life.

When I lamented that I wished my neighbors would burst out into spontaneous concerts like the ones I was seeing unfold in viral videos in Spain and Italy — instead of the awful piano lessons I’ve been subjected to every day — he reminded me that maybe it’s a time to temper expectations. “Those viral videos of people singing to each other — that’s not real, that’s not the world, right? Most of the world is normal; we don’t just sing to strangers in other houses. So I just think, set the bar low, manage your expectations of the world. You aren’t having a subpar pandemic experience because you and your neighborhood aren’t coming together to sing.”

Tunisian chef Malek Labidi is experimenting with Instagram cooking tutorials, showing her followers how to make dishes such as masfouf, a sweet couscous, and tajine, a baked-egg frittata. “It was really hard for me to go on Instagram, actually, just to talk on camera,” she told me. “I started with the lockdown to share what I like, and it’s completely relaxing. When you cook you have to be here and now. This is what it’s all about when you meditate — to be here and now.”

Carlisle dons colorful masks she picks up from a vendor across the street for her “Saturday Serenades,” belting out songs by Jeannie C. Riley, Lesley Gore, and Linda Ronstadt. “It’s the one excuse I have to put makeup on during the week,” she said with a laugh. “It started as a joke — at least when this whole thing is over with, I can take the mask off and sing without the mask.”

I even checked in with my inspiring 6-year-old niece, Zainab, in San Diego (“I am near an international border and some great beaches,” she teased at the beginning). A leukemia survivor who’s been actively helping to raise more than $10,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in between distance-learning kindergarten and Zoom play dates, she’s also used her time on lockdown to master bike-riding.

Last month, as I began to struggle with observing Ramadan in isolation, I was also curious to see how other Muslims are approaching the holy month around the world. British comedian Tez Ilyas delivered his mum’s home-cooked meals to relatives in his hometown of Blackburn for remote potlucks.

Strik, who usually spends long stretches of time on the road as the host of Turkish travel show Ailenin Yeni Üyesi, was grateful to enjoy iftars at home in Sarajevo with his wife and children. And while the social aspect of Ramadan has been curbed by the pandemic, some focused on one of Ramadan’s other core tenets instead: community service. Aghast at how India’s poor have been abandoned during the country’s strict lockdown, Indian journalist Rana Ayyub has raised 8 million rupees ($105,000) for relief efforts. She spent long days in the slums of Mumbai with a team of volunteers, handing out rice, dal, sugar, flour, oil, and other supplies — all while fasting.

Aside from giving me a way to see the world from the confines of my Manhattan apartment, these conversations have made me marvel at how universal this crisis was at its height, bonding us together in a way the world has never seen before.

“We’re all really going through this global moment together,” Hussain said. “Strangely, we’re all on the same page for once.”

Sarah Khan is a travel writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur, and Food & Wine.


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