It’s been nearly four years since I last stepped into this space, armed with my travel experiences. With everything that’s going on around me, around us, it feels a little frivolous to talk about happy travel times, though.
From the moment the pandemic hit, one of the biggest regrets people had was that they wouldn’t be able to travel. Greedily, they fed on memories of past adventures. Wistfully, they thought about the adventures they would be having if the ‘stupid pandemic’ hadn’t hit. I was one of them too, even though for the better part of last year, I had someone to keep me company.
Then something changed last September. I was alone again, faced with ‘getting through this’ on my own. And it was fine, for the most part. Work kept me busy. Calls from my Dad kept me busy, from my Mom, my aunts, my cousins… moving into a new home left nearly no energy for anything else. Heck, I can’t remember the last time I drew. Or created something new with all the clay I have lying around, shrivelling up, a figment of what it could be. In the midst of it all, I wondered if there would ever be a day when I would feel good about the world again.
Two months later, Dobby McDobberson wiggled his way into my life. I was on the fence about getting a cat for the longest time – I have enough responsibilities, I won’t be around to take care of it, what happens when I travel (that word again!) somewhere for days or weeks… truth be told, I wasn’t even convinced that I wanted this scraggly, Tom cat-chased, flea-infested weakling with a scratchy voice. I have to give it all the attention and care possible, I thought. I’m not ready for it.
I don’t think I’m still ready to own the moniker, but I have become a pet… parent. I understand now what people mean when they call themselves a/an (animal species to be inserted here) Mom or Dad. Taking care of Dobby has been like taking care of a child. He needs to be fed and bathed and played with. His litter needs to be cleaned. He needs to be protected from infections or medicated when he contracts something. He needs to be told “No! Stop it!” at least five times a day. He needs attention… ugh. But it’s also a very different and a very new experience. It lulled me into a sense of comfort – loneliness couldn’t touch me. I was invincible.
It’s been the same with the pandemic. Call me weird, but from the moment it began, I was fascinated with how it was spreading. How it was playing the role of an equalizer – it didn’t see you as rich or poor, young or old, developed country or third world. It didn’t care what religion you were born into or the sexual orientation you chose. It just… hit you. But! Mask on, sanitizer at the ready, judgement in place to dish out to people who were not following social distancing norms – last year, I thought that the pandemic couldn’t touch me. If it wasn’t happening to me or the people I know, I was okay. I was invincible.
That’s not true anymore.
Dad was hospitalized three weeks ago. Not because of COVID, although the first regulatory test the doctors performed came back positive, but the subsequent two were negative. He’s back home and doing good (although there’s the occasional complaining about his changed diet and the medicines and the house arrest, while the virus is spreading like wildfire). But when he was hospitalized, I was there. Day and night. And I have seen first-hand the destruction this pandemic is causing.
There were ambulances rushing in every 15-20 minutes. Distraught individuals in PPE kits clinging to the sides of stretchers as their loved ones were wheeled out of ambulances and into the emergency room by more people in PPE kits at 2 a.m., 5 a.m., 11 p.m. Time didn’t matter. Nothing mattered then, but life.
I was as close to it as possible. My 82-year old Dad was as close to it as possible. When he was in the emergency room the first day, everyone in the room had tested positive – including a 29-year old who passed away the next morning. I even saw an auto rickshaw with a teen-sized coffin tied to its roof disappear into the hospital’s parking area. It didn’t come back out the same way it entered, must have taken a back road. What must that family have gone through? I can’t even fathom a fraction of it.
Doctors are stretched, their humanity and Hippocratic Oath being put through the wringer. I’m amazed at how they’re keeping their sanity and more importantly, their patience. I wonder if they lock themselves in the bathroom during breaks and weep… It’s too much. It’s just too much for anyone to deal with.
In the last three days alone, I’ve lost four family friends, heard of friends losing loved ones… I’ve seen videos of bereaving families watch their fathers and mothers and children and spouses turn to ashes as we run out of space, air, life.
It’s all too close for comfort. And it’s reached my inner circle. My family.
I’m no longer a distant spectator. I’m no longer invincible.
Yet, in the midst of all this destruction, there are endearing moments that make me smile momentarily.
Like my Dad sending out a hand-written note in Urdu from inside the CCU because he didn’t want anybody to understand what he saying – that he didn’t want to go into surgery. Or him slipping into stories about his youth, and anecdotes from his younger days. Dobby greeting me with leg rubs and I-missed-you meows when I returned home to shower and change clothes before heading back to the hospital. Strangers helping in small ways – dishing out change for 500 rupees, clearing doubts about some random hospital paperwork, advising that “this is a bad place to stand, all the ambulances are stopping here only, you could get infected. Go inside.” Old couples shuffling out of the hospital, hand-in-hand, supporting each other.
So if you regret not being able to travel last year or this year, my friend, do this: take pleasure in trips down memory lane with your loved ones. Laugh over silly things and remember the good times you’ve had together.
Bask in the pink-orange-blue sunset from your window or your balcony and then, enjoy the delicious summer breeze and the silence of roads under lockdown. It’s even better when it’s with a loved one. Or a pet.
Those burnt bridges? Try rebuilding them if they’re worth it.
Walk through the Forest of Lost Relationships, pick on the ones that still have a glimmer of being saved, pick up the phone and ask – How are you? What’s it like where you are? I’m here if you need me.
Revisit a favorite book and travel imaginary worlds with your children. Choose your favorite show, sit on your couch with a cup of comforting (or cold) beverage and snuggle with your partner – that’s your happy place right there!
Because the one thing the pandemic has shown me is this: Places will always be there. People won’t.
Once they’re gone, you’ll no longer be able to take that journey to discovering how wonderful, how fun and awesome they were, the life they led or the adventures they had before they met you.