‘Somehow, I felt more connected to the rest of the world…’
Nadia El Ferdaoussi
Travel, wine and lifestyle writer
It’s 42 weeks since I last set foot on a plane. Before that, I hadn’t been grounded for even 42 days in years. The thing about travelling for a living, though, is that you learn to adapt to new situations fast. So the “new normal” really didn’t feel all that odd to me. We (travel writers) are used to the feeling of, ‘This is all a bit mad, isn’t it?’ It’s strangely familiar to us.
I arrived back into Dublin Airport on March 13 knowing I was heading straight into a two-week isolation period. How nice to have time to catch my breath, I mused on the way home. Up to then, it had been constant go — so a bit of time off actually seemed refreshing.
Like everyone else, of course, I had no idea then just how long that would end up being.
Seeing trips cleared from my calendar — three weeks travelling around Costa Rica, climbing the highest peak in North Africa, a fitness camp in Spain — didn’t have the same feeling it normally would if something was cancelled. No one else in the world was travelling, so I had no fear of missing out. I had no attachment to those things. I was home and I was safe, as were my family. Sure, my career was going down the drain, but nothing else mattered.
My Instagram feed wasn’t filled with images of tanned bodies and glamorous sundowners; instead we were watching seedlings shoot from the earth in a collective attempt to grow our first tomato. We were sharing lists of podcast recommendations and books to read, and bonding over our love/hate relationship with Tiger King.
Somehow, I felt more connected to the rest of the world sitting alone in my apartment in Dublin then I ever did while actually being out there.
I surprised myself at just how much I was enjoying the downtime, if truth be told, not really missing anyone or anything. There was FaceTime to see my young niece and nephew, and Zoom quizzes for everyone else, after all.
At the start, I just didn’t think about travel. I didn’t want to watch travel shows on television or look back at my old photos. I ignored the countless invites to virtual travel events; I had no interest.
I understood that travel PRs were just doing their job, but I also knew that no one, including me, wanted to hear it. Since a lot of my readers are on Instagram, I was able to get instant, direct feedback on their thoughts surrounding travel. Through polls and question boxes, I quickly gathered they didn’t want to see content from past trips and they weren’t ready to start talking about travel again; it just wasn’t the right time, and I agreed.
Then a strange thing happened. Actual press-trip invites started landing in my email inbox. The Seychelles, Dubai, the Canary Islands, Barbados, Poland.
On receiving the first one, I’ll admit I considered it. This was my job, wasn’t it? In the end, it wasn’t that the risks were too high; I just remembered the reasons I chose this career in the first place, and that’s because I truly enjoy travel. Tests and isolation and wearing masks didn’t sound like fun. For me, travel was about the people, meeting locals and visiting packed markets and busy cities.
More importantly, though, it just didn’t feel right. If other people couldn’t travel, why should I get a special pass? Aren’t we all supposed to be in this together?
Of course, once travel restrictions lifted at home, I spent what was left of the summer visiting and revisiting some of my favourite corners of Ireland. And now I finally miss something and it’s that — being able to explore our own little island. I can say with confidence that right now, I’d choose that over travelling the world again.
As soon as this pandemic hit, I was sure travel would never be the same. Will I travel again? Definitely. To the extent I used to? No. Not just because things have changed, but also because I don’t want to. Everything was too fast, too rushed. I was trying to do too much and probably not giving any one place the time it deserved.
If nothing else, 2020 has taught me to slow down. While I still want to get to Antarctica, list-ticking isn’t as much of a drive anymore. Big, once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list-style trips will be more important (I’m hosting a trip to climb Kilimanjaro in 2021), but so will revisiting old favourites and seeing family overseas.
Travel for me will be a mix of exotic trips to far-flung places and the familiar comforts of the same place in Spain I’ve been visiting for 20 years. One thing is for sure, it’ll definitely be more mindful.
‘It’s a historic story we’re telling, and there’s more to come…’
Pól Ó Conghaile
Travel Editor, Irish Independent
On March 7, 2020, I was sitting in a football stadium with over 53,000 other people. One of them was my 10-year-old son. He’s a huge Liverpool fan, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime birthday trip, a chance to go elbow to elbow with singing and dancing fans, to see his favourite players in the flesh, to step inside soccer. It oozed atmosphere — the loud, electric, messy, shared, salty-mouthed magic of a moment you only really get in a crowd. The streets around Anfield were thronged with fans, stalls, pie shops and programme sellers.
Of course, Covid was on our radar. The horror was unfolding in Italy at that point, and I remember using anti-bac wipes to clean the armrests on our Ryanair flight, and sanitising our hands after taxis. But borders were open, public health advice had yet to clamp down on travel, and social distancing decals were nowhere to be seen.
It felt a little strange but was a super trip.
Ten days later, I’d left the Irish Independent newsroom for the last time. There was a parade of St Patrick’s Day home videos online, and Leo Varadkar told us superheroes don’t always wear capes, noting the emergency “is likely to go on well beyond March 29”.
I haven’t taken a flight since.
Today, with Zoom and Microsoft Teams icons pinned on my desktop, with a small laundry bag for face masks by the washing machine, and our kids having gone nine months without hugging their grandparents, I look back on those Liverpool photos with sadness. The notion of cheering in a packed stadium feels so alien, even the thought makes me take a step back. It really was another world.
What the hell happened? We’ll be figuring that out not just for months, but generations to come.
Of course, I miss travelling. It’s my life. As the planet shut down, I cancelled trips to the Seychelles and Puglia. In our fleeting summer months, I was like a dog off the leash, visiting Irish places I’d never seen — the Saltee Islands, the boreens of Mayo’s Céide Coast and Lough Ouler, Wicklow’s heart-shaped lake. But those were snatches of exploration, nothing like my normal schedule. I missed the adrenaline of landing in totally new places, thinking on my feet, tasting foreign food, interacting with new people, and writing about it. Twenty-five years since I first got paid to write about travel, that remains the drug for me.
I’ve got perspective: 2020 didn’t bring me a road-to-Damascus moment. I didn’t give up drink, buy a Dryrobe or make dates with Joe Wicks. But my mind was blown by micro-trips within our #2km — birdwatching with my son, playing music with my daughter, learning about the hidden history of that old house around the corner.
I like being busy, but putting travel on pause showed me that I can be a busy fool, too. I haven’t had to commute into the city, deal with jet lag or file stories over patchy Wi-Fi in kooky time zones. We’ve had two Covid tests in our family, both thankfully negative. Unlike many freelance writers and service staff, I have my job. All of this has underlined for me who and what I love, how much I take for granted, and how lucky I am.
Those cancelled trips were just trips, after all.
And yet, I end this year absolutely exhausted. “I’m grateful, but fed up,” is my go-to line (that, and “You’re on mute!”). I find the uncertainty and inability to plan ahead gruelling; those daily coronavirus updates are like a thousand paper cuts. I want to hug my mum, to watch a match with my dad. There are days when, after weeks of lockdown, of writing from the same room, cooking the same dinners, walking the same loops and wearing the same clothes, I just want to fly.
2020 has crawled, but flown.
Ironically for a travel editor, work has never been busier. We’ve had green lists, traffic lights, testing regimes. Borders closed; cancellation floodgates opened. Irish tourism and hospitality have been eviscerated. Think not just of the airlines, hotels and restaurants, but the tour guides, adventure companies, souvenir shops and chauffeurs — all smashed like bugs on Covid’s windscreen.
There’s been a LOT of bad news. But I’ve also been gob-smacked at the endlessly creative ways these people have picked themselves up and gone again… and again. I’ve ordered restaurant meal kits, joined virtual tours and online storytelling, watched whole new safety guidelines, booking systems, activities and experiences introduced from scratch. I see a duty and purpose in reporting that, in keeping travel front of mind for when we holiday again. This horrible year has given me a new sense of just how hard, and how much of a vocation, tourism is. It’s a historic story we’re telling, and there’s more to come.
Where do we go from here?
“The further I walk, the less I know why,” as artist Ma Jian wrote in his book Red Dust — A Path Through China. I feel similar. I just don’t know.
The next holiday I take probably won’t involve a football stadium. I’ll be out and about in Ireland as lockdown restrictions allow. But I also can’t wait to have the sun on my back, to watch my family and friends tick over with the smell of fresh food and the sound of foreign accents in the air. Amid the confusion, I’ve got some clarity. Travel allows me to get out and be curious, to keep the windows open and the fresh air blowing in my head, to learn how others do things — and what that tells me about myself.
Covid is a black swan trashing our ecosystem, disruption is off the chain, and we have no idea how the debris will fall. But I want to be there to write about it.
‘It gifted me one of those ‘pause’ moments that I always felt just existed in Facebook motivational quotes…’
I almost bolted before the stable door was shut. But when Donald Trump announced on March 15 that Ireland would be joining the nations from which travel to the United States was banned, I knew that the jig was up.
Like most travel writers, business travellers and indeed tourists, my plans were upended. I was to fly to Los Angeles the following week to work on a dream conservation project in California. But instead of examining the Instagram effect on America’s national parks, I found myself stranded at home in East Cork wondering if my griselinia hedging might need a clipping. My travel was grounded, my writing assignments had tanked and, to use Dublin-to-LAX parlance, I was in it for the long haul.
While there was some fist-punching at the universe, however — initially for those missed work opportunities — the travel advisories and Ireland’s subsequent lockdown were pretty painless for me to reconcile.
As a travel writer, I’m always on the run — either physically, with road trips, flights and time zones, or mentally, with pitching, writing and deadlines. I wouldn’t change any of it, but I rarely find my off switch. Life on a laptop, as it is with many careers nowadays, can become a hamster wheel. To have all that choice, all that scheduling (and all those petrol expenses) pulled from me felt like a refreshing novelty, too.
As a freelancer, there was some financial trepidation with little income on the horizon. But the regular PUP payment of €350 a week became an income security blanket that many writers rarely know. In fact, for the first time in my career, I felt like I was on paid leave!
Lockdown itself gifted me one of those “pause” moments which I always felt just existed in Facebook motivational quotes. My daily grind became grounding days. Or you might say, Groundhog Days — only waking up to the sound of Pat Kenny speaking to Professor Luke O’Neill rather than Sonny & Cher. I also got to spend more time with my elderly father and my ageing golden retriever, Vipp; an overnight trip to A&E for both of them this summer had me thankful that I was home and not away. And spending more time with nature was a highlight. From observing the local cygnet count to monitoring the magpie fledglings in the garden and watching buzzards soaring through the skies, birding became a daily pursuit for myself and Vipp.
When the country saw its fast-forwarded reopening in June, it was massively exciting to hit the road again. I opted to stay on home turf rather than jetting off on any foreign press trips and, as a result, took a deep dive into our ultimate staycation season. I was able to practise my cúpla focal in the Gaeltacht, went island hopping and wild camping with Vipp and even spotted fin whales on a sea safari. And that was literally just in Cork!
In fact, this year really showed me that our little island in the North Atlantic isn’t so little after all, and every county I visited — from Wexford to Down — was a destination highlight in its own right.
In broader terms, for me, the pandemic put the brakes on what was becoming the rat race of mass tourism. It stalled the fast-tourism trends of colonising countries, passport stamping and reaching the “50 before 50” (countries) for social media kudos. And it offered a circuit breaker to us 1.4bn global travellers who perhaps took it all for granted.
I’ve always been mindful that travel is a privilege; it’s estimated that 80pc of the world’s population has never been on an airplane. So while travel and living overseas has shaped my character, complaining about not being able to gallivant abroad for the bones of a year feels like being irked if a surf-and-turf restaurant is out of lobster. Ultimately, there’s still plenty to choose from.
That’s not to say that my longest run in Ireland as an adult hasn’t stirred the wanderlust like never before. Looking ahead to 2021, I’m longing for every aspect of travel, from the freedom of an American highway to the stressy tailbacks at Dublin Airport security.
A year is still precious and, returning to travel, I may carry more of a carpe diem attitude. A few of those bucket-list adventures may well jostle their way to the top of my agenda. Perhaps that backpacking trip to Greenland or that epic road trip to Alaska?
Right now, I just can’t wait for that 3am Aircoach.
‘I’m going to be pelting out that door as fast as my legs can carry me…’
On the first day of 2020, I bumped into an acquaintance as I walked through the Phoenix Park. As we caught up on events of the previous year, it quickly became clear that she deemed my life to be a bit of a disappointing mess. When I finally made my escape, she clutched my shoulders, looked unflinchingly into my eyes and said, with patronising glee, “This is going to be your year.”
Spoiler alert: 2020 was not my year.
I mean, I don’t think it was anyone’s year, really (unless you own shares in Zoom or Disney Plus). As a travel writer, I saw a year’s worth of plans and work disintegrate before my eyes. I saw publications that I adored collapse, and colleagues I admire lose their jobs. I worried that the career I’d worked so hard for was slipping away from me. And it wasn’t just the travel associated with work. A lot of the people I love live an ocean away, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see them for the foreseeable future.
And it’s not just the travel-related woes — 2020 has been a pretty spectacular mess on the home front, too. There have been times where I’ve stood sobbing in the street, telling a friend on the other end of the phone that I couldn’t take much more. One particularly fun week saw me trying to find a new place to live, as I lay in bed with Covid-19.
That’s right — I had personal experience with the troublemaking virus that turned our world upside down.
I became sick in early April, back when isolation was a novelty and our innocent ears had not yet heard the phrase “wet pub”. I’m exceptionally lucky: my symptoms were nowhere near as bad as they could have been and, for that, I am grateful.
I wish I could say that “surviving” Covid-19 gave me some kind of renewed zeal for life, or an appreciation of the little things. In some ways, it did — as I lay in bed, I dreamt of the first walk I would take when I was able, down through the Georgian redbrick houses of Dublin 8 to the canal. The reality was a little different — I was so knackered just five minutes from my door that I had to turn back. But those few moments were enough.
To be honest, though, I think I always have appreciated the little things. The joy of a really hot bath and a brand-new magazine. The feeling of fresh bedsheets and clean pyjamas, or the smell of roast chicken resting on the kitchen counter.
Really, what the whole experience did was amplify my yearning to get back out there and travel again. I’d lie in my bed, dreaming of the places I want to go and the experiences I want to have. I’d fantasise about sunkissed balconies, of glasses of wine in piazzas, of the smashing of waves on a tropical shore. In my darker hours, I’d worry that those moments would never come again.
There’s an odd personality trait that befalls some travel writers, wherein they become blasé and disenchanted with every new experience. Their zest for travel becomes muted and tired, and their lives become a series of complaints and churlish grumbles. I feel very lucky that I never tired of the new experiences that travel afforded me.
I’ve had a lot of time to think back over the trips that I’ve been exceptionally lucky to take (I was also frequently reminded of the incredible places I’d been in previous years, thanks to a particularly heart-wrenching feature on my Photos app). I don’t think that I ever lost the feeling of giddiness when I set out to discover a new place, to walk around a city I’d never seen and get lost in a tangled web of streets with names I didn’t recognise. It’s not something I’ve ever grown tired of. And it’s something that I’ve missed more than I ever could have expected.
God, how I have longed to travel. After weeks imprisoned in my bedroom, and months within my house, the lure of foreign lands has been tugging me, at times so strongly that it feels like a physical pull.
I know some people have appreciated the slower pace of life this year, but I’m not one of them. I have all the energy of a pent-up puppy after a long drive in the car. As soon as I am able, I’m going to be pelting out of that door as fast as my legs can carry me.
And when I walk through the Phoenix Park on New Year’s Day, I’ll be sure to avoid that aforementioned acquaintance. There’s no way I’m going to let her curse 2021, too.