Of the lost year for travel

December 27, 2020

With 2020 drawing to a close, TNS reached out to regular contributors and travel enthusiasts to learn more about how the year affected them, as travellers. If they did manage to travel, where did they go and how was their experience? And, if they didn’t, did they rediscover their hometown in a way they wouldn’t have had it been a normal year?

Bellagio - Looking down on Lake Como. Photo Courtesy: Aliya Salahuddin

Adnan Rehmat

“I did venture out to Lahore twice in 2020 but nowhere else out of Islamabad”.

I do a fair amount of travelling, nationally and internationally, partially for work but mostly for myself because I’m perennially footloose. I annually average around four trips abroad and easily around a dozen within Pakistan. This year, though, has disrupted my peripatetic dispensation. I did venture out to Lahore twice in 2020 but nowhere else out of Islamabad. And this is the first year in two decades that I have not travelled out of Pakistan. I could have gone, if I wanted, but chose not to as a responsible citizen to keep both myself and others safe from coronavirus. Staying put – unusual for me – for virtually whole of the year has impacted me, mostly in good ways. It has helped me catch up with all the special reading I’ve been putting off for some years – several space opera stories which are often trilogies with each book easily running into 1,000 pages.

Since the year was mostly about isolating oneself for safety and health reasons, I didn’t opt to explore Islamabad, where I’m based, either. I have travelled nearly half the countries of the world on all continents (save the polar regions) but never thought the most engrossing part of the planet would be my own backyard – or shall we say ‘foreyard’. All the time NOT spent travelling within Pakistan and abroad instead I spent at home plant a small private garden from scratch (on a patch of land I bought cheaply over a decade ago on a whim adjacent to home). On the flat patch with no green cover, my wife Ismat Jabeen and I grew a garden. This has been a life goal for both of us that has been fulfilled. Growing plants and having a garden, we discovered, is much like raising children – with the same amount of patience, love and nurture required. A home library and a home garden make for a whole universe, not just a world. Now we can see so much of the Milky Way galaxy from our garden at night.

– The writer is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at [email protected]

Ali Syed

Beaches of Fujairah. Photo by author.

2020 was the first time, in over twenty years, that I did not have an international flight for more than a month. In fact, my flight last week to Lahore was the first time since March that I actually went to an airport, let alone sit on a plane. Overall the Covid-19 impact has been positive for me. Fortunately, my work did not suffer too much as technology came to the rescue in the form of Zoom and Teams.

I do not miss business travel at all. Eventually, business travel will resume but I aim to be selective in choosing my trips. I have realised many business trips are, in hindsight, entirely avoidable. Being at home in Dubai allowed me, after a long time, to focus on personal health, especially regular exercise.

I have been tracking my sleep for more than five years. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to increase my average sleep beyond five and a half hours a day. Thanks to Covid-forced better lifestyle I am now sleeping nearly seven hours on average. I have limited my wanderlust to within the borders of the UAE. I have explored areas of the Empty Quarter which is the largest sand desert in the world. The dunes are immense, in some cases several hundred metres in height. The landscape appears to be from a different planet. In the south, the beaches of Fujairah are pristine, uncrowded and lovely to dive in. Exploring and camping in the wadis of the Hajar mountains has been a revelation but a reliable 4x4 is needed. I discovered that there is more to the UAE than the glitz of Dubai’s malls and restaurants.

– The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai.  He tweets @travelutionary1

Aliya Salahuddin

Lago di Carezza, Italy. Photo by author.

Not being able to travel only meant that I couldn’t visit family in Pakistan, or my sister in the US and they couldn’t come and see me in Italy. For this reason alone, not being able to travel had a big impact on my life this year. It kept us far apart, and we were all lonelier for it.

After some short closures in the beginning of the first lockdown, Europe was mainly open to Europeans. Emerging from the very difficult first phase in Italy, I was really impressed at the way the Italians, shocked by the horrors of the pandemic, took to safety measures. There was a general adherence to the rules and I actually felt safest staying in Italy. On a brief road trip to the Swiss mountains in the summer, this became more apparent. One could spot the Italian visitors from miles away because they were the only ones wearing masks. Took two other short trips, but didn’t leave the country. At first, it seemed very strange walking along Tuscan towns with a large number of local tourists, all masked up. After a very hard two-month lockdown and having lost a devastating amount of people in the country to the virus, it seemed no less than a miracle that we were all out and about, taking in the sunshine, eating out, meeting people, breathing the fresh air. But the masks kept reminding us of what we had just endured. They also made us look suspicious of one another, as if we were still scared of humanity. In a way we all knew this was borrowed time – a short break to enjoy our freedom before we were thrown into the mess again.

The writer, a former producer with Geo TV, and now lives in Italy


Empty airports. Photo by author.

The year we are about to say goodbye to has been tough for people wanting to live lives free of restrictions, and especially for those who assert their freedom through traveling. Since March this year, governments around the globe have been actively trying to ‘save’ their citizens from the recent flu pandemic that is said to have originated in China. Stay in place, go out only for essential business; in several places these are not medical recommendations, they are official orders. But only the smart ones have been obedient. Many including yours truly are excluded. I have been availing every opportunity to travel during the pandemic.

The first one came in late March, a business-related opportunity to visit the Seattle area. How to decide if it was safe to go to Washington, I asked myself. I checked online for the flights; they were running. If the airline staff were not deterred by the pandemic why should this new flu scare me? So, I went, with my ‘essential worker’ documents — and everything worked out; I came back alive. Following the Seattle trip, there were opportunities for several road trips — I did not let go any one of them. Then came Eid-ul-Azha, which I wanted to spend with family members in Kansas. I took a flight to Vegas and drove from there to Kansas and back. Travel during the pandemic has been really smooth for me. From rental car centers to airport security lines, you just breeze through all the hurdles, people who normally crowd these places are staying at home, counting the daily corona death toll on CNN.

The writer is a social commentator and traveller

Hafsah Sarfraz

Upper kachura lake, Skardu. Photo by author.

I was finishing a working fellowship in the United States in April this year and was supposed to travel for six weeks around the US, Mexico, Europe and the United Kingdom. Not only did I have to cancel my plans, lose a lot of money and stress over cancellations, I also had to pack my entire life in two bags and fly back home on a flight I booked a few hours before it departed because of lockdowns everywhere. I got home a day before flights were suspended for three months and still thank my stars. No place like home when the world is a mad mess.

A month before the lockdown in March, I spent a weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, a small town two hours’ drive from Washington DC where I was at the time and like most things in life, I didn’t value it so much then. Now that I look back at it, I’m so glad I went. I also went to Skardu and Khaplu in August 2020 when the lockdowns were eased in Pakistan and it was a brilliant reminder of how refreshing a change of scenery can be. The experience was great; I was traveling in Pakistan after years. The places were less crowded than they’d otherwise be and it was everything I could hope for a vacation during a global pandemic; peaceful, therapeutic and memorable. I was cautious during my travels, we opted for very exclusive accommodation options and quarantined after coming home. I’m very glad I did this short trip.

Had it been a normal year, I would have traveled to Japan in late October/November to see autumn and would probably not have considered up north this year. This is not because I value international locations more than local ones; it’s because my parents are less comfortable with me going up north solo or with friends but when local travel was the only option, I convinced them too and we had the perfect family trip within Pakistan. I can’t wait to explore more of Pakistan in the coming years.

The writer is a communications professional, journalist, and photographer

Mahvish Ahmed

River Rhine, Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Photo by author.

As an expat Pakistani, the travel restrictions were most debilitating because I was not sure when I would be able to travel back home and see my family. It was the first time in my married life that I wasn’t able to spend the summer vacations in Lahore, and since the first wave was at its peak around that time in Pakistan, the uncertainty caused a lot of anxiety. During the same time, a friend lost his mother to the virus. He was in the US and wasn’t able to return home to say his goodbyes. What happened to him got stuck like a nightmare in my head for a long time.

Fortunately, the summer was much better than expected in Europe. The lockdown ended in the middle of June and many countries were free of travel restrictions. Due to the situation, we were able to spend some time in Switzerland, which was our home before moving to Holland. Meeting old friends and visiting familiar locations was calming for the nerves. Who knew by Christmas time, March-like restrictions would be back? During the lockdown months, we were free to take walks and cycle in Holland. Life had slowed down which gave me a chance to hop on the bike and discover beautiful neighborhoods in Rotterdam, the city we reside in. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have discovered those charming pockets had there been no Covid-19.

– The writer is a traveller and runs an Instagram blog called Safarnamay.

Muna Khan

“My relationship with my city of birth [Karachi] is filled with fissures.”

One of the advantages of teaching is the many breaks we get. Since I began teaching in 2017, I’ve used the opportunity to travel in March, during the summer break, and the months of October and December. This year I was in London during spring break because I didn’t really know how bad the threat of Covid was before I left. I say this to console myself because my desire to travel trumped common sense. I made it home a day before Pakistan went into lockdown and once home, I wondered how I would spend such a long period in Karachi. My relationship with my city of birth is filled with fissures and I need to leave it often to be able to live in it.

I read a quote in an essay by G. Chesterton, a British literary and cultural critic, where he said “They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind.” This struck a nerve. I realised I had the mind and means to travel during Covid, without posing a threat to others. In August I chose to travel to Hunza with my sister and a trusted guide, responsible and familiar with the area who assured us of an off-the-beaten-path experience. I was motivated to connect with nature after a few months of non-stop screen time, to break the monotony and dreariness that comes with the familiar. On my return, Karachi was once again livable. But I missed my sister and her family in New York very much so I chose to travel to the US in October. I needed this retreat for my physical and emotional wellbeing. And upon my descent into Karachi, two months later, the familiar sight of the city below at 2am, shining in all its glory, and I was again reminded of what Chesteron said.

– The writer has been a journalist since 1995, largely in Pakistan, some in Vietnam and the UAE. She teaches journalism at CEJ in Karachi and is threatening to write a book about her travels

Niaz Akbar

The Alhambra. Photo by author.

A rather frustrating year for many travellers, 2020 was a kind of stopover for me, allowing me to reflect, relive my memories of past travel and to plan future trips. Amazingly, thanks to all the Covid-related travel restrictions, I discovered that my bank account had risen to unprecedented levels by the end of 2020, something that has never happened before thanks to my irresistible urge to take off to some corner of the world or another. Time to look forward to a couple of extravagant vacations for 2021 to make up for 2020 - that is if the virus allows.

During the first three months of 2020, I was in the United Kingdom and returned to Pakistan just as Covid was taking off. April onwards, I was in Lahore. For me, 2020 was a year of discovery and rediscovery. I discovered the tombs of Princess Bamba and Gul Bahar Begum (the granddaughter and wife of the great ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh respectively). I rediscovered the bustling streets of old Lahore through my camera lens.

And, I rediscovered my own backyard which, I found, had a unique world of its own. For as air quality improved thanks to Covid restrictions on human activity, birds, butterflies and insects visited the garden in increasing numbers. I even spied some new varieties of birds in my garden. My better half meanwhile acquired the enviable ability to travel without moving a muscle and without spending a cent. For one day she would dream of roaming around the Uffizi in Florence, the next day she would be in Spain at the Alhambra.

The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at [email protected]

Rumana Husain

“We now await the vaccine that will hopefully enable us to return home [Karachi] safely.”

I live with my husband in Karachi - the city where we were both born. In March, upon the insistence of our son and daughter-in-law, we flew to Washington DC, as they were worried about us being on our own in Karachi and wanted us to spend the pandemic time in the USA with them. We left within two days of their persistent calls, as they felt that the borders would close soon. They were right, as just after two days of our arrival, they were indeed closed. It was the first time that we wore masks, in particular while traversing three different airports in three countries. We spent two weeks of quarantine in one part of our children’s house, with no physical contact with the family. However, we did go out for daily walks in the neighbourhood and admired the numerous trees laden with cherry blossoms and other beautiful flowers as it was springtime. We were initially prepared to be away from Karachi for about three months, but have continued to be here in the US, as Covid-19 cases in this country keep rising. We could never have dreamt of spending so many months together with the children, therefore this has been a big plus point. We now await the vaccine that will hopefully enable us to return home safely.

– The author is an illustrator and educator, she may be reached at [email protected]

Shueyb Gandapur:

Walking around in Chilterns Hills. Photo by author.

As I write these lines, sitting in a cafe at Abu Dhabi Airport, munching on their overpriced croissant that they squashed while trying to toast it, I think about the time elapsed since my last transit through an airport. It was 10 months ago - the longest period in the past 14 years I have spent without seeing the inside of an aeroplane. A gap so long that I forgot some of the regular airport security routines. But travel safety routines look nothing like what they used to be at the beginning of this year.

Here at Abu Dhabi Airport, announcements about precautionary measures against coronavirus are being repeated every few minutes, hands are being sanitised continuously, distancing is enforced everywhere, and noses and mouths are rarely seen naked. Back in London, as I was leaving for the airport, stricter restrictions were being announced by the British prime minister, due to come into force at midnight. I was lucky to exit in time, as travel abroad was being banned too. I asked the taxi driver how long it had been since his last trip to Heathrow. He said five months. In the olden days, he said, he used to make a minimum of one airport trip per day. Covid has hit the travel industry really hard and despite almost a year of disruptions, the end to normalcy doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.

Like many other people, I used this opportunity to explore my own backyard, travelled within the UK and took to activities like cycling, in between breaks from working from home in pyjamas. While packing my suitcases for this journey, I looked at all the formal clothes hanging in my wardrobe, whose turn to adorn my body didn’t come this year. I wonder if it will ever come, as working at office inches towards extinction.

– The writer is a freelance contributor based in London. He is an avid traveller and shares stories from his travels on his instagram @ShueybG

Of the lost year for travel