After a year of Covid, Melissa Biggs Bradley reflects on the way we think about travel now and the positive impact of embracing the (unknown) road ahead.
How does travel make us resilient? This is something I have thought a lot about this year. I tend to look for the positives in any situation—which may be a survival skill, but I have come to think that it is part of the traveler’s mindset. Because travel requires survival skills. No matter how buttoned-up or well-planned your itinerary, once you leave home you’re in the real world, in real time, where real things, good and bad, can happen. And I believe that how you approach them imparts lessons that can improve your life anywhere, anytime—in fact, all the time, whether you’re on the road or not.
Last spring when I realized that I—and the rest of the world—would be grounded for weeks, if not months, I thought about what I would miss the most about not getting on a plane and being able to immerse myself in distant places. Yes, I would miss the sights and the sounds and tastes of foreign cities that I love, like Marrakech and Istanbul, but as much as those thrill me, when I thought back on my travels and what has left the greatest impression, I came back again and again to the people. I thought of people I had met who had shifted my perspective and opened my eyes to different points of view and who had shown me in their choices how many ways there are to live in the world.
Fortunately—very fortunately—I realized, thanks to Zoom, there was a way to continue the global exchange. So back in April I started having one-hour live global conversations open to our members (and anyone interested in joining) with some of the most interesting and inspiring people that I had met in my travels—conservationists from Africa, diplomats and writers. These became the basis of our Indagare Global Conversations podcast, as we compared notes about lockdown and coping methods, but we also discussed past travels, dream travels, epiphanies on the road and what travel has taught us and what its greatest gifts are.
The French fashion designer Stephan Janson said that for him it was: “The sensation of being lost and finding my way. Meeting things and situations that we’re not supposed to get past. To me, that’s the best thing about traveling.”
The restaurateur Camilla Marcus said, “Travel helps me realize that there’s no one way to do anything. There’s no right or wrong way to live. There’s no one way to be happy. Being able to see how the rest of the world lives in such different ways helps you in your own daily life not be so tied to one thing and to start to listen…You know, challenging yourself to do it differently and, and find some sense of peace within that.”
The writer Mary Morris said that she thinks the greatest gift of travel is tolerance. “If you’re on the road, you realize that everyone’s trying to survive. Everyone’s trying to get by and live their lives. And if you see that in other people, you can be patient. There’s a quote from Plato that can be summed up as: Be kind, because we’re all dealing with something. I think tolerance has been probably the greatest gift and also not just thinking about myself anymore. Travel makes you think about other people.”
The writer Paul Theroux offered something similar. “The greatest gift of travel,” he said, “is the realization that there are other people in the world. People less fortunate, people who are smarter than me, people who have figured things out, people who have not. Flaubert said that travel teaches you how small you are.” It does. I really agree with that, and I think Covid has taught us that, too, and as we get back out into the vast world, I believe that we will re-enter it with more humility than we had before and a much greater appreciation for what it offers.
I have had a peak at that world and what travel in the future may look like because I have traveled internationally three times now since borders began to reopen. Most recently, in January, I hosted Indagare’s Insider Journey to Kenya, which has handled the Covid outbreak incredibly well, with one of the lowest number of cases per capita in the world. Tourism is vital to Kenya’s economy, the employment of its people and the conservation of its wildlife. Undertourism, which is a real risk that we are facing post-Covid, may mean that I was able to enjoy the Masai Mara with 85 percent fewer tourists than normal, but it has also meant that many girls in the local communities have had to drop out of school to help put food on the table as their parents have lost jobs. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), developing countries could see the steepest GDP losses. Kenya, Egypt and Malaysia could lose over three percent of their GDP. Around the globe the results are also devastating. In its worst case scenario forecast of a 12-month break in international tourism, UNCTAD projects losses of up to $3.3 trillion (or 4.2 percent) of global GDP. The benefits of tourism to help sustain conservation and vulnerable communities will be lost if people don’t choose to get back out into the world once it is safe and open.
And the benefits of honing our traveler’s mindset will also be lost. If I had to sum up that mindset, I would say it is an openness to making the best out of whatever happens and an acceptance that little on the road—or in life—can be expected to go according to plan. You have to be flexible and adapt and find beauty or truth in whatever situation you are faced with. The alternative is to rage at the missed train or lost opportunity and become blind to what is possible. I think travel rewards us for being adaptable and not being too attached to specific outcomes but instead for making the most of the moment at hand. I know that even though I have created a company focused on travel-planning, many of my best travel days have been the unscripted ones, where, for example, the restaurant I had hoped to go to was closed on the day I arrived, but the one around the corner that I stumbled onto became a favorite.
So while the future of travel will look different—maybe more costly and cumbersome but also more conscious and considered—my hope is that we will find ways to adapt. I have already changed my travel habits in that my trips have become longer and less rushed. On my first trip out of the country after lockdown, I found myself overwhelmed by the joy meeting new people in person for the first time in months and sharing gratitude for the beauty of an African night sky. In a way it was like traveling back in time to the first time I ever went on safari with my grandmother when I was 12, but it reinforced what a privilege it is to enter other worlds and maybe that was something that we had taken for granted. Maybe we forgot just how sacred and astonishing it is that you can ride in a metal tube with wings across an ocean or across the country and be immersed in a new world. Maybe we also didn’t realize just how interdependent and interconnected we are.
Traveling reminds us that, no matter what we have already learned, there is so little that we really know of the world, that no matter how many people we have already met, there are so many others out there who have something to teach us. It reminds me to wake up with wonder and curiosity and an appreciation for the choices we do have, instead of with regret or frustration for the options that we don’t have. I admit, carrying those qualities into living at home this year, which for me was the longest stretch of domestic living in 25 years, probably irked my family slightly. “Really, Mom,” my kids said, “You, of all people, think it’s a treat to be trapped at home—and now you love cooking!”
But it was my traveler’s mindset kicking in. When else had I had the chance to watch the seasons change leaf by leaf or to learn the morning habits of the raft of turkeys that live on our property and see how their three-clawed tracks in the snow look like a line of hastily drawn arrows pointing toward the direction they have traveled? There was no point mourning the trips we had to cancel—no Japan in May or Italy in June—instead this year I slowed down and took stock of so many of the trips that I had had to rush through in recent years and broke them down into their delicious memorable parts. Riding around Paris at night in vintage Deux Chevaux while the Eiffel Tower twinkled. Sitting around a camp fire under a full moon as a lion roared in the distance. Sailing on the Mediterranean from Byblos to Beirut on a spring afternoon. Those were moments to replay and to relish. As Mary Morris told me about what she has learned from her travels, “I think we have to be surprised in life. We have to be willing to be surprised.”
Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for more information on coronavirus travel safety, including the destinations that are open to travel, new COVID-19 hotel policies, future trip-planning advice, inspiration and ideas.
Indagare Members can also see our curated list of Indagare’s favorite destinations open to U.S. passport holders now: Coronavirus Travel Information: What’s Open To Americans
This essay is modified from the keynote address Melissa gave for the annual Art & Design luncheon at The Gibbes Museum in Charleston on March 5, 2021.