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Rediscovering the Meaning of Travel During Covid

On August 1, Kenya became one of the first countries to re-open its borders to Americans, and, in September, I made my first international trip post-lockdown, spending almost three weeks there. To arrive, I had to face new travel anxieties and entry requirements, which some might not feel comfortable accepting, but the rewards for traveling in these unusual times extended far beyond crowd-free airports. In fact, for me, the true meaning of travel—what it sometimes can show you about the world and about yourself—came more clearly into focus.

Early in lockdown someone asked me where I would go first when the world reopened. I immediately said Africa, because I know how much the continent relies on tourism—for employment, conservation and community empowerment. Over the past 20 years, I have witnessed the incredibly positive impact of travelers in supporting livelihoods and improved health and education to communities all over east and southern Africa, as well as making strides to save endangered animals like rhinos and gorillas. In the first three months of lockdown, however, it is estimated that the safari industry lost $50 billion in revenue. Thousands of rangers have lost their jobs and poaching is on the rise once again across east and southern Africa. 

Since those early days of the pandemic, one of the things that has struck me is how quickly we can adapt—to urban silence, to hearing the birds, to noticing the spaces between us, but also to staying put and having our mobility restricted. As the holder of two of the most powerful passports in the world (U.S. and Australia), I had always assumed that I could choose to go somewhere—to visit or to live. This year, I had to accept that loss. Suddenly, since March, we have been shut out of countries that we had always assumed were ours to visit. We went from being welcome in almost every country (last year Indagare sent members to 122 different countries; the UN recognizes 193) to being permitted to enter only 11 in June. The numbers have since increased—Americans can now travel to 49, if we’re willing to accept new rules and restrictions (and adopt a measure of courage).

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Despite years of traveling up to 100 days annually, I confess I did feel nervous preparing for this trip. I spoke to the head of travel medicine at NYU Langone in New York City about health precautions. I reassured myself by reviewing the facts on air quality in planes (they have the same HEPA filters used in operating rooms, I was informed) and stocked up on masks, wipes, sanitizer and every possible medicine I might need. I spent almost three full days packing and preparing. Still, I knew that the rules had changed since my last airport visit. Countries have sealed their borders overnight. Flights are now commonly cancelled. Boarding was dependent on showing a negative Covid test within 96 hours of arrival. Catching Covid could make me sick and land me in a quarantine facility or in need of medical evacuation. I traveled with more paperwork (UK Travel Locator forms for transit and Health Declarations for Kenya), but also a new awareness that, even with preparation, much about my itinerary lay beyond my control. So I summoned a sanitized car to get to the airport—and my bravery.  

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Yet the actual travel was smoother than usual. The biggest change at JFK was the lack of crowds and the closed lounges and shops. I wore a KN95 mask and had brought a face shield, in case social distancing was impossible when boarding. Seating turned out to be 10 rows at a time and all of my flights were less than one-third full. Adapting to a mask for sleeping was easier than I imagined, too. 

We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta airport to temperature checks and health screeners who reviewed our Covid Tests. Over the course of the next two-and-a-half weeks, I would see another country’s approach to battling Covid, one that is starkly different from our own. In September in Kenya, my temperature was taken every time I entered a public place, from a coffee shop or a mall to a hotel or restaurant. Every door, it seemed, had a sanitizing station that you were required to use before entering, and free dispensers are plentiful, so everyone cleaned their hands after every transaction. Masks were required in public (including when in cars with more than two passengers); police lined the roads, ensuring compliance. The result: despite dire warnings that Covid would decimate sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya, with a population of 53 million, has reported only 784 Covid deaths. As of mid-October, the strict curfew and lockdown instituted since March, are gradually being eased.

The country’s uniform compliance and adoption gave me comfort, though on my second day, I learned that one of the safari camps we planned to visit on our scouting trip had to shut down after a worker tested positive. (Abrupt closures are part of the new travel reality.) Since most tourism is still domestic, not all hotels have reopened and some only on the weekends, but we were able to make spontaneous visits to some of the country’s top conservancies and, as our plans changed on the ground, we snagged last-minute rooms at normally impossible-to-book places like Sasaab, Segera, Angama Mara and Giraffe Manor.

As I went to bed on my first night, I started ticking off the regained joys of travel: The sound of foreign languages (Swahili greetings at the airport). Exotic nighttime smells (acacia fires). The novelty of an alien popular culture (local radio). Warm welcomes (hot soup on arrival). Remembered rituals (a hot-water bottle between the sheets). Missed sights (the Southern Cross) and beloved habits (falling asleep far from home, ready to awaken in discovery mode). 

And the lost pleasures kept returning as the days went on. We hiked along the ridge of the Great Rift Valley and the Laikipia plains, spotting elephants, giraffes and buffalo and relishing the return to Africa’s bush. Deep in Samburu country, we had sundowners around an impromptu fire. Kenya’s landscapes, with its forever views, made me feel miniscule and filled with humility, awe and wonder; they also emphasized the brevity of time. This year has seemed to drag on forever, but in the cradle of mankind, where our ancestors first walked upright, time stretched. Of course, at home I could have shifted my perspective, seen the current crisis as one in a long series, but distance itself provided a vantage point that had eluded me. Here, on a remote rock at sunset, I felt that urgency had been swallowed by eternity.

Related Ask Indagare: Coronavirus Travel Safety & What is Being Done as the World Reopens

Discussing the pandemic, politics as well as family and work challenges with others in person was another gift of the trip. For six months at home with my family, I had not met anyone new in the flesh, only on Zoom calls, and one night, as a new Kenyan friend and I marveled over the similarities of our daughters and our mothering trials, it hit me that this delicious exchange was something that I had been starved for. Places have always come alive, for me, because of the people I have met and their shared stories, and being part of a global community once again nourished me, like water to parched earth.

Contact Indagare to plan your trip to Kenya and our best advice on safari-planning in Africa and what you need to know while traveling during Covid. If you are interested in learning more about Melissa’s upcoming Insider Journey to Kenya in January 2021, please email insiderjourneys@indagare.com.

I have often found that epiphanies strike, not when something is taken away or given up, but when it is restored—then I realize what I had been missing. Like the proverbial frog that doesn’t jump out of hot water when it is slowly boiled, we’ve adapted and accepted global deprivation. At one of the lodges, when it was time to leave, my guide Elvis asked when I would be coming back again. “Soon I hope,” I said, with uncharacteristic hesitation. 

My return to Kenya had become a reality, but in that moment it struck me that the ability to travel internationally had always represented not just physical freedom but intellectual, emotional, soul freedom. Ever since I had lived in France in high school, travel had revealed how different life could be if we chose to make it so. From breakfast to bathing, daily rituals and deeper ones could be exchanged. I could wake up in Paris or New York or Sydney and step into a different way of being. We, as passport-empowered citizens, could radically shift our stories—and having access to such a spectrum of possibilities expanded my overall concept of choice and empowerment. That is why for the past several months, with travel restricted, I had felt so claustrophobic and confined—but in Kenya again, I felt revived. I had come back to support the individuals and the lodges and to highlight how interconnected we are, and yet Kenya was also rescuing me. Travel is a metaphor in motion for changing our lives, broadening our scope. “Who knows, Elvis?” I said, suddenly inspired. “Maybe I will come back in January—and bring a few more of us.” 

Contact Indagare to plan your trip to Kenya and our best advice on safari-planning in Africa and what you need to know while traveling during Covid. If you are interested in learning more about Melissa’s upcoming Insider Journey to Kenya in January 2021, please email insiderjourneys@indagare.com.

– Melissa Biggs Bradley on October 16, 2020

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Quotable

Kenya’s landscapes, with its forever views, made me feel miniscule and filled with humility, awe and wonder; they also emphasized the brevity of time. This year has seemed to drag on forever, but in the cradle of mankind, where our ancestors first walked upright, time stretched.

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