Last year, when I wrote my usual “end of year” wrap-up blog, I called it “Roaring into the 20s”. In it, I expressed a fair amount of hope and optimism for the year and decade ahead.
I posted that blog on 31 December 2019. That just happened to be the same day that a mysterious new virus, spreading in an obscure part of China, was first reported in the Western media. A brief three-liner on Reuters that, I suspect in common with most of you, I didn’t have the faintest inkling of at the time; a rather innocuous, unbeknownst heralding of the greatest crisis to befall humanity in our lifetime, which read as follows:
BEIJING – Chinese health authorities said they are investigating 27 cases of viral pneumonia in the central city of Wuhan, after rumors on social media suggested the outbreak could be linked to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). (Source: REUTERS)
The night after posting my blog, I ushered in the 2020 New Year on the shores of the Dead Sea in Israel. Six days later I was in Jerusalem to celebrate a milestone event: my son’s Bar-Mitzvah, where, to note his passage into adulthood, he read from the Torah in a gorgeous 500-year-old Sephardic synagogue, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.
We were joined by family and friends who had come to be with us from all over the world – from Australia, Israel, South Africa, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and The Bahamas.
Before the ceremony we had traveled as a group around Israel, visiting many of the country’s ancient sites; touring the Dead Sea and Masada; riding camels in the desert; enjoying a food walk through Tel Aviv’s bustling produce market and a history walk through Jerusalem; eating one banquet after another.
And on the day of the Bar-Mitzvah itself – a blindingly sunny Thursday morning in the midst of what had otherwise been dull and drizzly Jerusalem winter weather – we made our way through the streets of the Old City in joyous procession, roping in complete strangers to join us in singing and dancing. Oblivious to the fact that in less than three short months, doing that same thing would have become virtually unthinkable.
The merriment continued in the immediate aftermath of the Bar-Mitzvah, when my children and I traveled to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. It was a special treat I had arranged for my son (and his older sisters) whose deepest wish as far back as I can remember had always been to see wildlife in Africa. Thus, we spent three glorious weeks on safari in three different game parks, toured the Victoria Falls, and went diving with sharks off the coast near Cape Town.
I returned the kids to Australia toward the end of January, 2021. We landed on the very day that Australia reported its first four cases of the novel coronavirus. The lockdown in Wuhan was two days old, and a lockdown in Hong Kong had begun that day as well. Nonetheless, I was generally clueless: having been more or less off the grid in Africa the previous few weeks, reading the papers on return to Australia was the first time I heard about what was going on.
And I guess I kind of ignored it all as being something remote and ‘unreal’; a media beat-up that would eventually pass. I mean, how was I to know any better? After all, it was not until January 30th that the WHO first described it as a “public emergency”; it wasn’t until February 11th that the hitherto “novel coronavirus” was officially named “Covid-19”; it wasn’t until March 12th that a global pandemic was first declared.
No, at the end of January 2020 my life was still in “continue as usual” mode. Which meant I was on planes.
In mid-February 2020 I thus flew to join some friends for a ski trip in Japan. Tokyo seemed a bit weird what with everyone in masks, and a lot of usually busy tourist attractions were shut on account of the virus. But the trip was great, and we had lots of fun. Asia, I surmised at the time, was obviously just over-reacting to another disease outbreak (ho-hum) in the OTT way that Asia always reacts to such things. No real need for concern.
From Japan I traveled back to Australia, and a few days later on to the U.K. I spent a week working in London, then flew for the weekend to Nice, France, to meet my girlfriend and her son. Our visit was timed to coincide with the annual two-week-long Nice Carnavale, which kicked off on the Friday night. That first evening of Carnavale we joined thousands of people, packed in cheek-to-jowl along the length of the Promenade des Anglais, watching floats, dancing to the music of marching bands, and eating hot crepes. By the third night, the balance of Nice’s 2020 Carnavale had been canceled.
From France I returned to Australia, landing at the end of February 2020. My father, visiting from Israel since early February, was still there. He was meant to leave while I was away, but his flight back home had been canceled. More than that, almost all flights into Israel had been canceled, so there was no practical way he could return. In any case, even if he could have, Israel had imposed a complete nationwide lockdown, so there was not much for him to go back to.
Meanwhile my brother, visiting Sydney from Los Angeles, had at the last minute brought with him an extra suitcase stuffed full of toilet paper, because my dad had told him that Sydney’s supermarkets were suddenly being rushed for this “vital commodity” (read my post about the toilet paper crisis here). I didn’t even get a chance to see him before he left – impending flight cancellations meant he had decided to shorten his trip, heading home early while I was on route back to Sydney, lest he get “stuck” Down Under.
Despite all this, it still felt to me like something weird was happening “somewhere else”. Something that apart from now being a pain in the butt, and requiring a bit of extra planning and hassle, was never going to affect me or my globe-trotting ways.
Thus, in early March, determined to carry on as normal, I flew to The Bahamas, and then for work purposes to Houston. By now, Covid-19 was dominating the news, and the situation had blown up dramatically across Asia, Italy and Iran, and was worsening rapidly everywhere else as well.
And, once it had dawned on me that this was going to be a lot more serious than I’d previously thought, it also fast became clear to me that the United States was going to be a bona-fide Covid-19 fuck up. Just from talking to random people in Houston it seemed obvious to me that the individualist spirit so definitive of Americans meant that implementing collective preventative measures would be really hard. Not to mention securing compliance near impossible.
So, I cut my US trip short, and hot-footed it across the Atlantic, to London. My cunning plan was to hunker down there for the next couple of months, make a side-trip to Australia during that period to see the kids, and otherwise keep working while things blew over.
But by then the virus was moving faster than I was. In the time it took for me to fly from Houston to London, Italy went into complete lockdown. Not long after that the stock market crashed, and a nationwide lockdown across the U.K. was on the cards. Flights back to Australia were being canceled faster than I could rebook them. A few days later, when I was in Aberdeen for discussions with a drilling rig company, the Australian Government decreed that all incoming international passengers would now need to undertake two weeks of mandatory self-isolation at their home.
For me, that was the last straw – the moment when I realized that I could no longer stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the inevitable. I thus rapidly changed plans, and the next day I flew from Aberdeen to London, went for one last stroll around Covent Garden, spent a final night in a hotel, and then headed out to Heathrow Airport in the morning, for my flight back to Australia.
I remember the shock I felt walking onto the platform of the Paddington Underground Station. Because in the middle of what would otherwise have been a busy rush hour, the place was completely, utterly deserted. Instead of being packed in tight with thousands of other commuters, I was literally the only person there. It felt eerie, and scary – like I had wound up on the set of a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.
Half an hour later, the scene at Heathrow was equally confronting. Unlike the empty Paddington Tube, the airport was packed and chaotic, a mess of frantic people all scrambling to get on whatever flights they could. Worried looking travelers were everywhere, airport staff looked overwhelmed and helpless, and the air felt heavy with a sense of urgency, and naked panic.
The image I remember most of all, however, was that of a group of young Spanish backpackers. Their budget flight back to Barcelona had just been canceled, but they had absolutely zero clout with the airlines to demand an alternative. No other flights were available in any case, and besides that they were students with limited funds, so even if alternative flights had been available, they didn’t have the means to get on them.
Devoid of options, the group had set up a makeshift camp on the floor, off to the side of a check-in desk. They had spread out a blanket on the tiles, and on that had arranged their stuff, like they were going to be there for the long-haul. They all looked deeply shell-shocked; a few of them were in tears.
And all the while I couldn’t help feeling like what I was seeing, gathered there in front of me on the floor of the Heathrow Terminal 5 airport departure hall, were not the familiar faces of fellow air travelers. Rather, they were the harried faces of desperate refugees, fleeing in the face of an advancing war.
24 hours later I was back in Sydney, where I commenced my two weeks of home isolation. Just in time, because five days later the rules were changed, such that all international arrivals into Australia were required to spend the two weeks of mandatory isolation not at home, but in dedicated, secured hotels, with police stationed at every exit. And a few days after that, a nationwide lockdown commenced, essentially keeping me inside of my apartment for the next eight weeks.
In less than three months, I had gone from dancing with abandon in the Old City of Jerusalem, to being confined to an apartment, only allowed out to buy groceries or to exercise for one hour a day. An experience made all the more extraordinary by the knowledge that, more or less, it was an experience that I was sharing, in real-time, with just about every other human being on earth.
Talk about “Roaring into the 20s”….
In any event, as a result of Covid-19, this past year has been a bit of a split one for me (no different to everyone else).
In 2019 BC – that is, Before Corona – I had clocked up a total of 356,741 kilometers in the air (across 503 hours of flying time). I went to 20 countries, made use of 37 airports, flew on 16 different airlines, and took 111 individual flights. And in the first 3 months of 2020 BC, I clocked up a further 131,102 kilometers in the air (across 162 hours of flying time), traveling to 12 countries, making use of 21 airports, flying on 7 different airlines, and taking 26 individual flights.
But then, in 2020 AD – After Corona, from April to November – I clocked up precisely 0 kilometers in the air (across 0 hours of flying time). I remained in 1 country, made use of 0 airports, flew on 0 different airlines, and took 0 individual flights.
Indeed, my first flight in more than eight months came only recently, when I flew from Sydney to Byron Bay, in regional New South Wales, Australia. A flight of less than 1 hour, that brought to an end the longest period of time – exactly 255 days – that I had not been on a plane since I was in my penultimate year of high school, more than 32 years ago….
Still, at least the first three months of 2020 were pretty special. I had an amazing Bar-Mitzvah trip with my kids to Israel and Africa. I managed to sneak in repeat visits to the United States (Houston, Miami and Los Angeles), Bahamas, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, the UK (England and Scotland) and France (Nice and Provence), before the world shut.
And I even got the opportunity to visit some new countries, which, as regular readers of this blog will know is my catnip – I am a junkie for ticking countries off of an imaginary list in my head. It therefore makes me insanely (and frankly quite irrationally) happy to know that despite the limited travel time I had available in 2020, I was still able to 3 new countries – Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia – to my list of “places been”.
This increased the total number of countries I have visited in my life to 75. Still a long way short of the 245 countries, territories and dependencies that make up our world, although I remain hopeful that once some semblance of “normal” returns, I can get back to knocking off a few more.
A “tradition” has developed via this blog whereby at year’s end I seem to find myself on a random beach, somewhere in the world, from where I look back on the year gone by.
This year is no different. But it is also vastly, incomparably different.
What is the same is that I will be closing out the year by a beach – in this case, I plan to wake up early and watch the sunrise over a new year at Bondi Beach, in Sydney. But what is different is that I will be at Bondi Beach in extraordinary circumstances – Sydney is having a Covid-19 outbreak, so my kids have had to return to their home in Melbourne early; New Year’s Eve parties and plans across Sydney have been curtailed or canceled; everyone is being encouraged to wear masks. The beach is likely to be not nearly as full as it usually is at this time of the year.
Even so, I count myself as incredibly lucky.
As I say farewell to 2020, I am completing my ninth full year of writing this blog. And whilst 2020 has posed an enormous challenge to my love of travel, my love of writing has continued unabated. I have used the “downtime” to make made good progress on my next two books, and I hope to see at least one of these in print by the end of 2021.
I also count myself lucky because I happen to be from Australia, where I have been holed-up during the worst of the pandemic. And which, if I have to be honest, has been a blessing. Australia seems to have done a magnificent job of navigating a way through this crisis: cases have been ridiculously low compared to other countries, and the economic consequences have been well cushioned by aggressive Government support policies. After the first lockdown, life in Sydney has been able to continue more or less uninterrupted, and whilst international and interstate borders have been firmly shut, local and regional travel has not only been possible, but encouraged.
As a result of which, I have made several road trips in my home state of New South Wales these past ten months. I bought an electric bike, and drove it and myself north, stopping to explore remote bike trails in areas of untouched wilderness (read about some of those adventure here). I also made several forays south of Sydney, riding in magnificent national parks, and completely falling for the wonderful coastal region around Kiama.
Plus, I had an opportunity to get to know Sydney in a way I have never known it before. With a friend, I undertook a five-day, 150 kilometer walk from the far south of Sydney (at a spot called Hungry Point) to the far north of Sydney (ending in Palm Beach), hugging the coastline and Sydney’s extraordinarily beautiful harbor the whole way. Meanwhile on my bike I have now basically crisscrossed the entirety of the city, making use of a vast network of wonderful cycle paths, and getting to know Sydney’s many beaches and parks and its vast patchwork of diverse ethnic neighborhoods. In the process, I’ve had a mid-life love affair with the town I grew up in.
Most of all though, I count myself lucky because despite three decades of constant travel and living all over the world, I have somehow managed to maintain and grow a strong, abiding network of family and friends in Sydney. People I love, and who despite the passage of time and the tyranny of distance have been there for me, no questions asked, through the highs and lows of this crazy last ten months. Thank you to you all, and I hope I have been able to be there for you, too.
The pandemic has also had strange, unpredictable, but weirdly positive impacts on my work and personal life.
In January 2020, I did not even know what a “zoom call” was, much less had I ever participated in one. Today, I run my entire life on zoom calls. I have discovered that physical presence is not actually required to be able to work effectively, and in many respects, zoom is better: meetings start on time, no-one has to sit in traffic, mindless chitchat is kept to a minimum. Nowadays I compress what used to be 8 hours of work into 4, and I have been perfectly able to get stuff done remotely – without ever needing to get out of my pajamas. So, while I look forward to travel coming back, I know that the way in which I work will never go back to how it was.
I entered lockdown in a relatively new relationship. Ten months later, having been forced to spend huge amounts of concentrated time alone together, it is like we have known each other for years. As a result, we are in a stronger place than we ever should have been after such a short time.
Last year, in 2019, I traveled for more than eight months of the year, and saw my kids in between trips, often and for extended periods of time. This year, 2020, I was compelled to be in Sydney for most of the time, yet I saw my kids only once, because they were in lockdown in Melbourne, and interstate borders in Australia were largely shut. But, thanks to zoom movie nights, long phone conversations, and a heightened level of daily communication to compensate for the lack of physical contact, our relationship was sustained, and even blossomed in a most wonderful way.
And last year, in July 2019, I lost my mother to cancer. But in 2020, bizarrely enough thanks to coronavirus, I found my father. Unexpectedly he has been in Sydney the whole time I have, living in an apartment 100 meters away from me. The result being that we have spent more time together this past year than we did in the preceding twenty.
So, in summary, the year gone by has been a complete mindfuck for me. On the one-hand, a forced grounding in Sydney that represented a complete change to my way of life, while the world around me seemed to fall apart. And on the other hand, a real grounding in Sydney, where I have been forced to reconsider so many things I previously considered “normal”. Along the way finding a lot of joy and happiness in the place I grew up in, with the people I know there.
As the year 2020 closes – a year unlike any other, that I am sure none of us will ever forget, and all of us will be happy to see the back of – I again thank you for your ongoing support and readership. I remain deeply amazed, honored and humbled that people all around the world, most of whom I have never met, continue to be interested in the things I have to say.
I want to thank you for another year of reading my blog. And I want to wish you, wherever you may be, a very Happy New Year.
At the start of this year, I wrote: “I hope that in 2020 you enjoy good health, and have many opportunities to feel blessed and grateful. And I hope that whatever it is you most love to do, you are afforded ample opportunity to do it, to be happy, and to spend time with loved ones.”
Well, I repeat that wish for 2021, a thousand times over. May the year ahead be all that, and more. God knows we need it.