It’s not quite three weeks since I got my second COVID-19 shot. This is how it’s going.
About a week after my first shot, I felt the lifting of my lingering long-haul symptoms. So that was great.
I had no aftereffects from either shot. My arm was sore after the first shot, but I barely felt the second injection at all.
As soon as I had my appointments, I booked a plane ticket. I would be flying on the first day I was considered fully vaccinated.
The week we got our second shot, our county changed the rules. It’s now allowed for people who have had both their shots to walk outside and go to the park without a mask. We took advantage of that fact! Nobody got within ten feet of us anyway. It felt like such a luxury to be outdoors, something that we never used to give a second thought.
We went to the grocery store to buy ice cream. Another activity that used to be completely normal but that we had given up for a year. It was nice to go to the store without a face shield and not break into a flop sweat.
I prepared for my flight with trepidation.
It’s one thing to walk around the neighborhood and go to the park, knowing there are no other people within several yards. It’s something else to go to the store, where max occupancy is enforced.
It’s an entirely different category to go to an airport with thousands of other people traveling from who knows where.
As much as I want things to go back to normal, my tolerance for personal risk is basically zero. I knew there would have to be a way to go on my trip without being exposed to every type of pathogen from every region under the sun. I bought a special helmet.
Much to my disappointment, I was required to take off my mask in the security line. Everyone has to. When you show your ID, they want to make sure it’s really you, so you can have the correct name on your headstone after they give you COVID.
I put my helmet back on after I got on the plane, hoping it wasn’t too late.
This is the important part. Despite all my planning, I was exposed to roughly two hundred people with my helmet off. Not only that, I had to take off my cloth mask in a spot only a few feet away from the line, where one person after another had also stood with a bare face.
Nothing about that felt safe at all. I strongly doubt the CDC got any say in the TSA regulations.
For my purposes, while I’m definitely still worried about COVID-19, I want to avoid any and all respiratory illnesses. I don’t even want the common cold, much less influenza or, worse, any emerging thing that doesn’t even have a name yet. I’m definitely a convert to the mask life.
I had a good time wearing my helmet and realizing how much of the world was now reopened to me. I would feel safe wearing my helmet on the bus or the subway, and that means I can basically go anywhere I want.
I got to my destination, where about half of the people I came to see are fully vaccinated, while the other half have only had their first shot.
If you haven’t had to manage this yet, it’s not all that complicated. The fully vaccinated can hug in one room, and those who aren’t there yet can keep their masks on in another room. When everyone is together, we all just put our masks back on.
Now it’s been five days since I was at the airport with my mask off.
I’ve been nervous, I’ll admit it. I sneezed a couple of times and had to ask myself:
WHAT WAS THAT???
Reaction to pet dander?
I sneeze in bright sunlight, and I also sneeze if I taste strong peppermint, which is probably why it has “pepper” in its name, but it still seems like a corny joke.
Culturally, our natural reaction is going to be, “Wow, this person is really a hypochondriac.” Getting worked up over a sneeze? Get over yourself.
Yet my first symptoms of COVID were a sneezing fit and itchy eyes.
At the time that I got sick, these were not recognized as potential coronavirus symptoms. I was feeling very weird, and I had gone to a social outing five days before, so my husband and I Googled and read through several lists of COVID symptoms, just to be safe.
I didn’t have a single symptom on the list, and not a single one of my symptoms were on the list.
Two weeks later, I was gasping for air like a trout on a riverbank and having tachycardia several times a day.
This is why I still pay careful attention to my state of health every time I sneeze.
I keep hearing of local cases - cases in my area, cases of people in my industry, cases of people who are one or two degrees of separation from me - where half a dozen or more people got the coronavirus at work because one individual thought they had “mild allergy symptoms.”
It’s high time people quit going out or going to work in person when they are sneezing or coughing or having a runny nose. Yet I fear it’s never going to change. Our Puritan work ethic is too deep in the bone, even though nothing destroys productivity more than a global pandemic.
The good news is, in spite of a couple of sneezes, I appear to be fine. I appear to have escaped the TSA plague gauntlet with no repercussions.
That sorta supports the idea that the shot worked. Or at least it doesn’t refute it.
Soon I will have been on my visit long enough to pass through a quarantine period. Then none of us will have to wear masks around each other and it will be just like the old days, sitting at home like normal.
I have become average.
I am now average at something I used to be good at.
I used to be an experienced, one-bag, minimalist traveler. Now, apparently, I have lost those skills. Therefore I make the claim that travel is only like riding a bike if you are actually riding upon a bicycle. You don’t pick up where you left off.
Or maybe COVID did more to my brain than I realized.
Let me start off with a confession. I have apparently brought a hundred pounds of luggage on this trip.
For many years, I would bring my little blue roller bag, the one that fits so neatly under the seat and never gave me a bit of trouble.
How is it, then, that I have found myself pulling items out of one bag and putting them into another so that I don’t have to pay $75 for an overweight bag??
“Jeans, towels,” shares the baggage clerk, offering examples of heavy things that might be quick to grab.
Towels?? Who the heck packs a towel?? Where are people going? What destinations do not include towels? If you’re staying with family, and they have no towels, perhaps then it would make sense to bring a few. If you’re staying at a towel-free hotel then I simply hope it is not at a nudist colony.
I realized that if my bag was overweight, then my suitcase must have weighed 54 pounds. The other bag weighed 40. (Ish?) Therefore, my checked bags weighed a combined total of 94 pounds. Added to my laptop bag and my carryon, it was quite likely I was dragging at least a full hundred pounds onto my flight.
I should have realized this earlier, when I was staging the bags in our minuscule hallway and I tripped over the duffle bag and almost went flying.
This is the amateur traveler I have become: tripping and stumbling over my own oversized, overweight luggage.
I had to repack my suitcase because I had trouble zipping it closed, and then I realized that I hadn’t put in my shower kit. I had dropped in some nicely folded stacks of clothes straight out of the laundry basket.
My usual method is to lay everything in flat, lining up the shoulder seams or waistbands with the top edge of the suitcase, and then flipping in all the sleeves and hanging hems. It’s fast, has fewer wrinkles, and seems to fit more stuff.
That was probably where I got myself into trouble. Those additional four overweight pounds got crammed in during that second pass.
“I’m packing like this is a road trip,” I realized, “and I have the trunk and the back seat all to myself.”
I actually did all right with my carryon bags. The work laptop is what it is. All I had in there was the laptop itself, my fob, noise-canceling headphones, my work bullet journal, charging cables, and a pen.
The other carryon was mostly for the benefit of the MicroClimate helmet, just in case someone forced me to stow it. Otherwise, all it had was my wallet, keys, lip balm, sunglasses, iPad, and a Band-Aid. I probably could have carried most of those things in my pants pockets.
It surprised me, as I passed through various airports, how heavy and cumbersome those two bags were. I’m just not as fit as I used to be. Remind me to weigh these bags - but I suspect I would have been a bit tired just from standing in line and walking from one gate to another.
I saw someone lifting a carryon into the overhead bin, something that used to be a negligible task on my own trips. I realized I would have struggled to do this for myself if I had packed a larger bag.
Something else that I noticed, as I dragged my unwieldy pile of detritus hither and thither, is that my heart was beating very hard. While I certainly need to get back in shape, I have never in my life struggled so much with the physical act of hauling my own stuff.
Or, rather, the last time I felt this way was as a 26-year-old, moving my stuff into my fourth-floor walk-up college dorm. I thought I would black out. I was having a harder time than my hugely pregnant friend who was helping me.
A couple months later, I was running up and down those same stairs. All I can do is hope that a similar opportunity to rebound is presenting itself. Carrying luggage is functional fitness.
Something else that I did during my trip, that is very average, is that I underestimated how long it would take a rideshare driver to pick me up, and I also underestimated traffic time, and I also underestimated how long it would take to check my bags, and I also underestimated how long it would take to go through security.
I gave myself two hours to get from my apartment to my gate at the airport, and wound up twenty minutes behind schedule.
When I arrive, I will be tested. I will unpack and go about my business, and I will find out whether I misjudged anything else. Namely, did I bring everything I actually needed?
It’s woefully common for people to get very distressed about what outfits to wear on their trip, only to forget something truly important like their ID or their glasses or their inhaler.
Have I done this? Not sure yet.
As the world starts to return to normal, and the statistical picture starts to improve, I suppose I will start feeling as normal as everyone else again. That probably means I will return to traveling at least a bit. This experience has shown me how rusty I am. What that means is more work for myself, more hassle and inconvenience, and an inevitable ripple effect as other people are forced to deal with my big heavy bags.
Time to remember who I am and start getting my act together. Make it simple, make it easy, and make sure not to stumble on it.
I went to the airport for the first time in a year and a half, and I bought a new MicroClimate helmet for the trip. This is my experience.
My itinerary began at LAX, with a layover at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, and continued on to PDX. This is a trip I have made many times, and I have spent untold hours at each of these airports over the past 15 years.
I’m a pretty experienced traveler - or at least I used to be, in the before-times. Things are different now.
I figured that the form factor of my MicroClimate helmet would advertise itself pretty clearly. This is a serious piece of equipment. I had read up on the corporate website, and it looked like other users were experiencing friction from various airport personnel. I assumed that I would get different responses depending on where I went and who I interacted with, and I was right about that.
TSA and my airline, Southwest, were both pretty clear that a mask “covers the mouth and nose” and that it loops behind the ears.
Obviously my MicroClimate helmet covers the mouth and nose, correct? But my mouth and nose are visible!
This is where I recall all the cartoons I ever saw of confused computers and robots with steam blasting out of their vents, going all swirly-eyed and then exploding.
My first issue was at the baggage check counter in LAX. I had been in the airport just long enough to check in and print out my baggage claim stickers. The agent told me that she understood, but TSA was going to make me take off the helmet and they weren’t going to let me wear it on the plane.
I turned away, took off the helmet, and pulled out the double-layer fabric mask that I had in my pocket. “I apologize for making you uncomfortable,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not me, I’m here to help *you*,” she said.
I put the helmet back on for the short walk down the hallway and into the public restroom. I saw nobody, and thus no one said anything. I had felt anxious about being in the enclosed area of an airport restroom during the pandemic, and wearing the helmet definitely helped me feel better.
When I emerged, I realized that swapping out the helmet for a cloth mask in the security line was not an experience I wanted to have. It was a cattle call. Nobody was distancing more than about 18 inches and there were at least 100 people packed together.
I stepped to the side and put on my fabric mask and zipped my helmet back into my bag. This was very disappointing because this 1000-square-foot area was the precise reason I wanted the helmet in the first place.
Hundreds of thousands of people a day pass through LAX from all over the world. I have gotten respiratory illnesses probably more than half the time that I have traveled through this airport. I don’t care what the statistics are about being onboard an airplane, or how their filtration systems are rated. I care about standing in line at the airport itself so the TSA can examine my internal organs.
When it was my turn to hand over my ID, the TSA agent asked me to remove my fabric face mask.
There ya go. My exact worst nightmare. Standing in the filthiest place on Earth with a bare face, where another dude was standing doing the same thing five seconds earlier. Buy any mask or filtration system or biohazard suit you like, and TSA will interfere with you and insist that you participate in equal-opportunity disease exposure.
I made it to my flight on time, boarded, waited until takeoff, and put my helmet back on. Not a single person said a thing. My seatmates on either side glanced at me and went back to whatever they were doing, clearly unfazed.
We landed, and I decided I would just push it as far as I could go. I would leave the helmet on as we disembarked. A few of the flight attendants and gate agents made eye contact with me and said nothing. Cool.
As I walked into McCarran, it was immediately obvious that we were in Vegas, for two reasons. First, the slot machines, and second, the anything-goes atmosphere. A lady walked up to me, all smiles, and asked where I got the helmet. A man gave me a thumbs-up. People were checking me out as I walked to my gate. I sat for an hour, texting with my family and my husband.
Someone sitting directly behind me coughed, and I didn’t have to worry.
The performance of the helmet itself is, as far as I can tell, flawless. The fan does a good job of unobtrusively tuning out most background sounds, like a white noise generator. I was a bit hot, but probably because I tried to dress for Oregon, not Nevada or California, and I would have been more comfortable in short sleeves.
Face ID recognized me on my iPhone, but not on my iPad. Go figure. I was able to pair my AirPods and listen to a show, although I did have to turn up the volume higher than normal.
I don’t really like the chin strap - I wear a XXS bike helmet and the MicroClimate helmet is one-size-fits-all. It took a lot of finagling to adjust it so it would stay in place on my tiny little head. As a competent costumer married to an engineer, I will probably go in and rig a more customized strap setup for myself. And then send a drawing and photos to MicroClimate.
We boarded our connecting flight. The ticket agent greeted me but said nothing about the helmet. The flight attendant at the end of the jetway greeted me and said nothing. The flight attendants doing the safety presentation said nothing.
Then another flight attendant came over and handed me a surgical mask, making eye contact but saying nothing. I put it in my lap.
We took off. After the safety presentation, a different flight attendant came over and firmly told me that I needed to wear the surgical mask.
I understand how this works, because I also work on a team in which we sometimes take turns being “the enforcer” or “good cop” or “bad cop.”
Having no desire to give any hard-working safety professional a bad day, I indeed put the mask on underneath my helmet and obediently wore it over my mouth and nose throughout the flight.
Is this all they want from me? That I check the box for their baseline instructions and pointlessly wear the paper mask, even though I am wearing a helmet that literally covers my entire head and has its own air filtration system?
All right, fine.
Get used to it, though. Given another pandemic of a respiratory virus, and/or heavy wildfire smoke or a volcanic eruption, and/or any kind of chemical spill, and/or [insert nameless dread here], more and more people are going to decide to get themselves a helmet just like this.
The reception of the crowd to this device was either positive or neutral. Almost everyone completely ignored me. Not a single person gave me a dirty look or appeared scared or annoyed. A little girl waved at me - and I waved back and smiled - and it may have been one of the few times she saw a stranger’s actual smiling face in well over a year.
A couple of women came up to me and asked me where I bought the helmet, looking very intrigued. It would have been a great opportunity for MicroClimate to include a bunch of business cards, or even put a QR code on the back of the helmet. I wouldn’t really mind if people wanted to take pictures of me wearing it. I am a photo-shy person but I feel somehow anonymous in my helmet, like a person from the future.
Which I am, now.
This is a story about planning and procrastination, a story about simplification and about complication.
This is a story of how it can take two weeks to plan a trip and twenty minutes to pack for it.
In ordinary circumstances, I’m a one-bag traveler. The more I have traveled this way, the better I have liked it. It argues for itself. I always know where my stuff is, I don’t have to go anywhere near the baggage claim, and in extraordinary circumstances I can dig out important items from my seat on the plane.
I’ve been flying on my own for over 35 years. I’ve tried so many different combinations of luggage and packing styles. I’ve got it down to a science: I open the suitcase, lay out everything I’m going to wear one on top of the other, matching the top seams to the edge of the suitcase, and then fold in the arms and legs and zip it closed.
I have literally made a video of this process and demonstrated that it takes less than five minutes.
Why do people get so worked up about packing? I ask myself. It has to be one of two reasons: worry about what people will think when they see you, about which I care not a fig, or worry about What Will Happen.
What if it gets cold?? What if it gets hot?? What if it rains?? What if Henry Cavill asks me on a date?
I will admit that I do worry about that first one, because I despise being cold and it has become a non-trivial problem in my life. The other three, eh, who cares.
I no longer attempt to pack a ball gown just in case I find myself in a simulation modeled after a romance novel. If I have to choose, I’m taking the thermal underwear, and I doubt there’s room after that for a crinoline.
Have I traveled through multiple countries with just a backpack? Yes I have.
This is why it is such a conundrum: why does it take so long, for someone who packs so quickly, to get ready for a trip of any duration?
For a vacation, surely anyone can understand that the more planning goes into the trip, the more fun it can be. I will never forget the day we arrived at a museum that we wanted to see - the entire reason we had stopped in this particular city - only to discover that it had been razed to the ground. All that was left was a flat gravel patch. Whoops.
Normally I will spend days or weeks researching restaurants - and double-checking that they are still there in the same location, with the same hours and the same menu. I will book shows and plot out grocery stores and pharmacies, and check the annual weather forecast and read blogs to find out what kind of bugs live there. All that good stuff.
This is part of why I can pack so quickly. By the time I get to the stage of hauling out my suitcase, which is an obstacle for daily life in a tiny apartment, I have a very strong sense of what the weather will be like and how I will be spending my time.
(The other secret is to only have clothes that you like to wear, stuff that you rate at least a 4 out of 5, so it doesn’t matter which ones you bring).
There is more to the planning of a trip than the activities that one does on the trip, though. That’s the future forecast part.
The real work is in getting ready to leave the apartment.
One of the bummers of travel is that such a large part of the trip involves re-packing, the return trip, and then walking in the door to resume normal life. Jet-lagged, perhaps sunburned, most likely dehydrated. With a suitcase full of dirty clothes to wash and put away.
And a messy apartment to clean?
This is the gift that I give to Future Me. After too many bummer weekends and road trips that ended in weird smells - ask me about the green juice I left on the bookcase by the front door one summer weekend - I decided that I needed to, at minimum, take out the trash before I left.
And clean out the fridge.
And make sure there was nothing damp in the laundry hamper.
And check for wasp nests in the bedroom.
Each, one by one, added to the list after bitter experience.
Trip planning has started to push itself further and further back into the timeline. Now, it involves making sure we don’t overbuy groceries, starting the week before the trip. It involves timing the laundry for optimal packing and minimal scariness. Ideally, it involves putting clean sheets on the bed the morning of travel.
There are other things that need to be arranged. Putting a hold on our produce delivery. Making sure I don’t have any appointments that need to be rescheduled. Perhaps putting a stop on the snail mail. Ensuring no packages are going to show up and sit inconveniently on the doorstep while nobody is there. What else, what else, what else am I forgetting?
On this particular trip, I ordered a box of supplies to be there on arrival. My special matcha, a case of soy milk, a bottle of mouthwash, and what else will I need? Hmm...
The biggest thing that I needed to arrange in advance was the ordering of my new MicroClimate helmet. I am hearing mixed things about how cooperative the various airline personnel will be in actually allowing me to wear my helmet through the whole trip. This is something I will have to write up. In the meantime, it seems possible that it might free me to ride the city bus once again, if I no longer have to worry about picking up every cold and flu the way I did in 2018.
There is one other important thing that I arranged in advance - over a month in advance, in fact - and that was getting my COVID-19 vaccines. I will be officially “fully vaccinated” the day of my trip.
I used to like to joke that all you really need is a bikini and a tiara. Now I think you don’t even need that much, just antibodies and a smile.
An icebreaker question came up recently, one of those “getting to know you” things. It was, Which people have traveled to ten countries or more? Out of all the questions, like “Who can type over 50 words a minute?” this was the one with the most people who answered yes.
I was one of them, although just barely.
It made me think about travel, and how much I miss it. But then those images of travel come from a world that has essentially vanished.
The point of travel is to see the world, learn about other cultures, and connect with people.
Right now, what I’m learning about other cultures is that most of them are doing a far better job managing the pandemic than we are here in the US.
The way I’m connecting with those other countries now is in shared adversity, knowing they have just as much reason to fear this issue as I do.
It’s different than something like an earthquake, hurricane, volcanic eruption, or wildfire, because those events are regional. Two of those are highly relevant to Californians, and two we just have to imagine if we want to try to share those emotions.
We probably don’t have to imagine the feeling that others are having under current conditions, of wishing everything would go back to the way it used to be. I’m sure almost every person on Earth feels that way every day.
I wish I could go outside and not have to avoid other people or see them as a threat or an infection risk.
I wish I could go to the airport with nothing on my face and hang out with nothing more stressful than making sure I board my flight on time.
I wish I could walk around downtown in any city, sightseeing and people-watching and going to museums.
I wish I could have a long conversation with some random person I met somewhere.
I wish I could strap on my backpack and go climb something and see the view.
I wish I could be with my family, a thousand miles away.
It’s legal for me to go visit my family. I could rent a car or I could book a ticket and fly there in a plane. There are two reasons I am not doing those things. One, it’s far enough that there is no way to get there without person-facing transactions, either at the airport or at a gas station. Two, I live in a hot zone and they don’t.
I feel that it is extremely unfair to travel even a short distance from a hot zone to an area that has been more insulated from the pandemic.
The farther the trip, the worse.
Basically, it’s just rude!
So I miss my family and I insist on traveling a thousand miles to be with them. Maybe I pick up the coronavirus along the way. (Again). I breathe this airborne virus all over the place, in every restroom stall and at every countertop along the way. I will never know, until I cross over into the next world and collect my karmic debts, how many people I might have infected.
Then I spread it to my own personal family?
And everyone they interact with?
Everyone in my family is still working. That is both a blessing and a curse. While my husband and I are our only cubicle mates, my other family members all have to go in person. Maybe they’re distancing, but so are most people in the country, and the pandemic is still spreading. There is obviously something we still don’t know that we aren’t getting right.
How can I waltz in and breathe into all that with my possibly tainted breath?
Like a super-villain?
I look at the records of some of the countries I visited in the past, and how they are doing with COVID-19. The first country I ever visited was New Zealand, and they’ve just eradicated it from their borders for the second time. Another country I visited was Iceland, which was doing pretty well for quite a while, and now maybe not so much. Neither of those island nations really needs someone flying there from Southern California right now.
It’s a moot point, because Americans can’t travel to those countries right now. Or most other countries. Most of those that are available require two weeks of quarantine, and who has that much vacation time?
This is the real question. How long will it be until the world is “normal” enough that it’s considered safe for people to go from here to there?
I live near one of the world’s busiest international airports. If I’m traveling, that’s where I’m going first. No matter where I’m trying to go, that’s what I have to consider. At this time last year, over three quarters of a million people passed through there every day. It’s hard for some people to remember, but this debate is not about COVID-19 and whether it is or is not dangerous. (I had it, and it is).
This debate is about whether mixing and mingling at international airports is a contagion risk of any kind. Obviously the answer to that is yes.
Technology is going to hit the market before this problem is solved. There’s already a helmet-thingy in the $200 range that might help. I have no problem whatsoever in wearing weird costumes in public. When results start coming back on this thing, such as how long it can be worn, I might buy one. I can wear it in the airport and I can wear it on the plane.
Is our future as a collective group of humans going to include leisure travel at all? Are we all going to be wearing goldfish bowls over our heads? Or are we going to be in AR goggles, wandering around our own living rooms while pretending to be somewhere else?
What is travel going to look like in 2025?
We’re quaranteaming, which means we’ve been seeing each other in person an average of three times a month. Our quaranteam buddy, QT, has been getting a lot of flak about this from her other friends. Not because they’re worried about her exposure risk - on the contrary. They’re jealous and they think she should be open to hanging out with them as well.
Most people in our community think we should be 100% open and back to “normal.”
The rationales behind these opinions are interesting and worth looking at.
On the one hand, our friends say, they are immune to COVID-19 and therefore safe. On the other hand, since they got tests and we didn’t, we shouldn’t assume that we actually had it. (We must have been sick with something with identical symptoms, for an identical time period, that was definitely NOT COVID. Which, if true, means they should be afraid of getting that as well, just as they want us to fear that we could still pick up COVID from the community).
This is a really weird mix of beliefs. I definitely had it, which means if an infected person sneezes on me, it will magically evaporate on contact and can never scientifically smear onto anyone else. Since you did not get a test, you have to assume you are at risk - from anyone *except* me, because I now have mystical virus-elimination powers. I’m like... human Lysol!
Others in our community, like on Nextdoor, are fixated on the problem of why they aren’t allowed to go to the salon and get more nail art. All they have to do is disinfect the surfaces before they reopen! Everything is fine!
Completely absent seems to be any understanding of what “airborne” means.
These are the reasons why I feel no urge to go out. The people who would be at stores or restaurants are people who seem to be lacking in even the most basic grasp of how viral transmission works. Even now.
It’s not that this is scary - I’m afraid of far fewer things since facing death.
It’s not scary.
I read that something like 1/3 of women and nearly 2/3 of men in the US never wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Not sure how much that changed, but I’m willing to bet every single one of them intellectually knows we’re supposed to wash our hands. I bet they could demonstrate, for the chance at winning $50, that they have the technical competence of washing their hands thoroughly. They just don’t think it affects them or anyone around them. Why waste 20 seconds half a dozen times a day? That’s like... minutes!
Every now and then I imagine going back to the world that once was. I imagine going out to do things I was doing earlier this year. The first things that come to mind are the long lines, the trash and wet drink rings that people leave behind at their tables, the overflowing trash cans, the shrieking kids, the various people who kick the back of my seat.
Being home for a few months has reminded me of the peace and tranquility of my own living room.
I think about driving somewhere, and I remember what it’s like to be stuck in traffic, the people who head for the exit across three or four lanes without signaling, the tailgaters, the honking, the time we saw a car pulled over on the freeway with three-foot flames coming from under the hood. Where am I going in this fantasy? Work? The airport?
Ah, the airport. More long lines, having my bag searched, the security pat-downs, the last-minute gate changes, the interminable waits at the restroom, the inevitable bare dirty foot stuck between the seats and propped up on my armrest.
It’ll have to happen eventually. At some point, “things will go back to normal” and I’ll have to start readjusting to the epic noise, filth, and inconsiderate behavior that used to be a routine part of all our days.
When will I venture forth to hang out in my community?
I’ll go out like everything is normal when we’re at zero cases.
Zero cases would actually indicate to me that things were under control and that I had nothing to worry about from getting a second case of maybe a different strain of COVID-19.
Honestly, right now I’m worried about picking up anything, the common cold or the flu or *any* respiratory illness. Staying home, and wearing my N95 mask plus a face shield on the rare occasions when I’m forced to go out, seems hugely preferable to being sick in bed again any time soon.
When will I go out and travel again? When would I fly on a plane?
When both my continent and the other continent are at zero cases.
I have it in mind that there will eventually - soon, within a year or two - be some sort of personal air filtration device that can be worn for up to 12 hours without recharging. Hopefully more like 18 or 24. I picture a helmet or perhaps an entire flight suit. If I had something like this, I would consider flying sooner. I might even rent or lease one if I felt like they had a realistic way of being cleaned between uses.
Until then, I really can’t see being at an airport in any city or getting on any plane for the near future.
It’s not entirely COVID that I’m worried about, although having had it, I’d really prefer not to die that way, thanks. How depressing. What I’m worried about is that my nearest airport had around 700,000 individual human beings per day passing through it, not including the occasional companion animal. If there’s any respiratory illness anywhere on the planet, chances are it will appear at LAX within a day.
I started flying alone at age seven, a time when I was still learning to write in cursive and memorizing my multiplication tables. When I think back, I probably picked up a cold or some other bug as often as 1 in 3 flights. I was sick for three weeks after my first international trip. I was sick after the trip when my husband proposed. I was sick as recently as our wedding anniversary last year. Now that I recognize the pattern, there is no “back to normal” for me. At *minimum* I will never fly again without safety glasses and an N95 mask.
I’ll go out again, eventually. I’ll wear more PPE when I fly. I’ll probably be more avoidant when I go out in public, like the movie theater (and I might wear a mask there, too).
Will I start socializing with friends and acquaintances? If they can demonstrate that they understand the basic fundamentals of public health, yeah, probably. When we’re down to zero cases.
I’ll go out when I feel like going out is more fun or relaxing than staying right here, in my nice clean comfortable peer-pressure-free living room.
Ten Years a Nomad is an honest account of what it is like to travel full-time, passing through over 90 countries over a decade. Nomadic Matt, as he is known, took off to live the dream. Anyone who is considering the same would do well to read his story.
The travel bug caught him the way it catches so many of us. Work a boring job and commute in the snow and it doesn’t take long to want something different. (It’s somewhat the opposite when you live in a sunny beach community; you know that every resort area and vacation destination is full of obnoxious drunks leaving trash and breaking glass). The guy who was not yet Nomadic Matt booked a two-week vacation, a temporary escape from dissatisfaction.
What he discovered was that travel allowed him to assume a persona who was more confident and adventurous than he was at home. Nobody knew him and he was free to behave however he liked. It wasn’t just an external but an internal adventure.
Ten Years a Nomad is full of practical details that can really help a wannabe nomad figure out how to get started. He talks about meeting people on the road, breaking the news to his family that he quit his job to travel full time, and how he built his business. He shares some savings strategies, such as living off PBJ sandwiches and then cutting out even the jelly. He describes dealing with scams and the frustrating, boring parts of travel.
(It really helps when you assume from the very beginning that you’ll spend hours standing in line, that something traumatizing will happen in security, that something will leak in your luggage, your flight will be delayed, and that’s before you even leave! Then, whenever something actually goes smoothly you can feel excited and lucky).
Matthew Kepnes offers a fascinating, compelling, and achievable vision of the nomadic life. He also makes a convincing case that maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Try it if you like, you can do it if you want to, but remember that you bring yourself with you. Also remember that other people travel from “over there” to wherever you live. Pack a copy of Ten Years a Nomad to read on your next trip.
When I planned the trip, there was no sense that I was also planning to change my life, that my trip would be the first step to a rejection of nearly everything and everyone I had ever known.
I don’t know if who we are on the road is closer to our real self than who we are at home—having changed so much in my life, I’m not sure if the idea of a real self is all that useful, honestly.
It was on the road that I felt most at ease, most alive, and, most importantly, happy.
HERE’S ONE THING THAT IS CERTAIN about travel: All your plans will go out the window.
I finally tried flying on a Basic Economy fare. It was easier than I thought, but still I’d probably do it differently next time. Here’s what it was like.
I planned a last-minute trip with a friend. Because of the time of year and the location, not only was I able to fly on the same days that she did, I was even able to get on the same flights! This is particularly interesting because I booked my trip with reward points.
(The points came from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and we flew United. This is relevant because apparently United is the strictest with the special rules of Basic Economy).
A regular fare was double the number of points as the Basic Economy fare, or an extra $200+ in cash. This matters to me, and in fact I felt excited that no-frills travel is so much cheaper. I’m an ideal candidate because:
I did my research before packing. I knew from travel scuttlebutt that airlines are strict about this type of fare, that not all carriers offer it, and that the rules vary and change over time. Any deviation was likely to cost me money and possibly also time.
I hate spending more money than I have to, but I also tend to cut my arrival time to the wire. I’m rarely in a situation when I can afford to add even fifteen or twenty minutes to my time cushion. In nearly forty years of flying, I’ve never missed a flight, and I don’t intend to start now.
Especially not due to my luggage, of all things!
My research indicated that under Basic Economy, I couldn’t choose my seat. I literally do not care. I’m that rare creature, a middle seat person, anyway.
I couldn’t choose to sit next to my travel partner(s). Eh. We planned to sleep on the way east, so it didn't matter. We are currently sitting side by side on the return trip, which either says something about boarding last or about the enduring niceness of American Midwesterners. Either way, this restriction doesn’t bother me much because when I’m traveling with someone, we’re already planning to be together on the trip. What’s a brief break when we’re likely napping, reading, or watching a movie anyway?
I wouldn’t get a meal. Eh. Again, I was planning to sleep one way, and we never get fed during the westward leg regardless. I know what types of food travel well.
Most importantly in the list of restrictions that made this fare half-price, my fare would not include any bags! No checked bag (yawn) and no carry-on either! I could bring one solitary personal item, smaller than the original dimensions that were allowed when this type of fare debuted.
If this personal item was too large, I would have to pay not only the $30 checked bag charge, but a $25 handling fee on top. Bags are routinely weighed and measured.
This part interested me. I texted my friend about it and she utterly did not believe me! We went back and forth over it for a while. I offered to pay the $30 to check one large suitcase that we could both share, and that settled the matter.
Under these conditions, paying to check a bag was a good deal.
I’m not in love with the idea of paying $60 round-trip for luggage, but it was significantly cheaper than paying the extra $200 for a regular economy ticket. It was also cheaper than buying new outfits and paying to ship them home.
Some friends, roommates, or siblings might split the cost, sharing the bag and each paying for one leg of the trip. I covered the whole thing, partly because it was mostly my stuff and partly because my friend was covering the rental car. Obviously a romantic couple is likely to be sharing expenses, or figuring out how to do so in a way that makes sense, which fighting over money does not.
The suitcase that I brought was the only piece of luggage that I own that was large enough to share. My husband bought it for a three-week work trip, and it physically holds his entire work wardrobe. It is comically vast and its geometry is such that it comes up to my waist. At its fullest, it weighed 45 pounds, only a bit less than the weight limit for one bag.
This is the main reason why I would avoid paying to check a bag the next time I fly Basic Economy. The bag itself was a monster, an annoying burden that had to be hauled on and off the shuttle twice and hoisted into the back of the rental vehicle.
Going any smaller raises the question of why I couldn’t just make it happen with the personal item.
The current dimensions of the Basic Economy personal item are those of a daypack, a typical school backpack for a high school or college student. I found that packing it too full and putting too much in the front pocket made it expand past the allowed dimensions. Risky!
Depending on the weather and the length of the trip, I’m quite sure I could make this type of bag work for, say, three days. Then I’d have to do laundry. I’d make it work by bringing only one pair of shoes and being very spare with my toiletries, electronics, and snacks. I probably would not pack workout clothes, although if the hotel had a pool I would cram in a swimsuit and flip flops.
Having access to half a large checked suitcase caused me to go a bit nuts. I brought hairstyling implements that I didn't use. I completely forgot sneakers, making my workout clothes pointless. I haven't counted how many points I cost myself for bringing things I didn't use (a personal game), but I believe I set a new record. Not my best showing.
This was a good exercise for me. Ultimately I met all the requirements of the restrictive Basic Economy fare, and saved over $140. That almost pays for a round trip to visit my family. It’s worth it. This was also a good exercise because it reminded me why I despise dragging big heavy bags around, and how distracting and confusing it can be to pack so many items that you lose track of what you do and don’t have.
In sum, I’m likely to be found in the near future, sitting in a middle seat, with my sparse and austere personal item at my feet, counting a thick wad of cash.
You try to prepare for anything when you travel, but you don’t really count on coming down with a cold. My hubby woke up ill on vacation. Later in the day, we determined that we should go out and find some cold medicine.
That’s when it got complicated.
Objectively, I feel that we are very lucky this is the only thing to have befallen us. All sorts of things can go wrong on holiday.
In fact, our first night out, we had just sat down to dinner when an elderly man fell on the pavement. He was alone. The waiters of our restaurant ran out to help him, offered him a seat (which he refused) and probably would have brought him water, called him a doctor, or anything else he needed. We’re right down the block from a hospital, after all.
He did what a betting person would assume an elderly British gentleman would do. He waved off all offers of help and limped off on his own. He probably would have done the same even if he had a crocodile attached to his leg.
Fortunately, all we had was one case of common cold and one case of man-cold.
We walked to the closest pharmacy to see what they had in stock and test my language skills.
This is one of the toughest parts of travel. Not only do you not have the terminology for anything you didn’t explicitly study, but your cultural and commercial assumptions only apply sporadically.
At home, we knew exactly where we would go to buy our preferred cold medicines and how to take them. We’d just go to a large grocery store and buy some NyQuil. Maybe they have the same brands?
Answer: No they do not.
At this pharmacy, even the vitamins were kept behind the counter. Almost the entire store revolved around skincare, shampoo, and baby stuff. We checked the grocery store later, and they don’t even sell bandages or aspirin.
We didn’t recognize ANY brand names or packaging.
Cover me, I’m going in.
My Spanish is pathetic. I mean, I have successfully bought train tickets, gotten directions, ordered food, and made change, okay sure. But there are probably junior high school kids who have covered more than that in their first term. I feel that as an adult person who has spent weeks in Spanish-speaking countries, I have no excuse for not trying harder, studying more. Practicing with my many Spanish-speaking friends. Preparing.
It doesn’t help that I am shy, and my embarrassment at my sloppy efforts makes this worse.
I’m going to leave out punctuation and accent marks here, because if you heard me talking, that is how it would sound.
Hola, mi hombre esta enfermo.
The pharmacist looked extremely professional and intelligent. She raised her eyebrows.
I nudged my husband and had him hold up his phone, where we had looked up “translate Spanish common cold.”
‘Resfriado comun,’ it said.
“Ah,” said the pharmacist, and gestured, holding her hand in front of her nose and mouth. She had two drugs to offer, one for cold symptoms and one for dry cough. That certainly simplified things. She told him (me) to take it three times a day.
We bought the cold medicine, and then it got slightly more complicated.
We were only a couple minutes from our hotel. I started reading the package of the medicine, looking for instructions. While I realized that this would be a powder to mix with liquid, there were literally no instructions on how much to mix it with.
This has got to be one of those vernacular things. Like when we buy tablets or capsules and we know that you just swallow it with whatever helps you wash it down, unless you are a chaos magician and you dry-swallow. A lot of countries sell their over-the-counter medicines in this powder form, and people probably figure out their preferred delivery method in childhood.
Like, don’t mash up headache tabs and put them in jelly. To this day I think raspberry jam tastes like aspirin.
My husband, an engineer, shrugged and poured the powder into a glass of water while I was still puzzling over the instructions.
My reading comprehension is really pretty good when it comes to jargon like this. Most of the key words are Latinate and medical terminology is similar everywhere. I was able to read through the list of contraindications. “Be careful if you’re lactating,” I tell him, and he replies, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The one thing we couldn’t figure out was whether this would be a wired-and-tired drug or a knockout drug like our friendly neighborhood NyQuil. The answer to that came a short time later, when he descended into a two-hour nap.
The next day, the maid came in. I had waved her off the previous day. “Mi marido es... sick.” (I haven’t been feeling that well either). She cleaned around us. After she left, I realized that she had brought us a pack of tissues, a very thoughtful gesture and not on the regular checklist.
Then I realized that she was checking IN, making sure that these strangers to her country were alive and kicking. I have no doubt whatsoever that, if she found us passed out or in distress, she would have taken the appropriate steps. She unlocked our door with purpose.
We had all sorts of plans when we came here to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. They definitely did not include lying around feeling ill or testing our language skills at the pharmacy.
You know what, though? Like most shared adversity, this is helping us feel closer. We’re taking care of each other, somehow throwing together hot meals, pouring juice and tea, knowing that everything could certainly be worse. We’re safe and friendly people are looking out for us.
Here’s hoping we’re over the worst of it before our dinner reservations, or at least our flight home...
Here we go again. We’re planning a trip and that means certain assumptions. The more we do it, the truer it becomes.
I will deal with my travel anxiety by trying to add even more to my task list than I usually do, rather than less
My husband will deal with his travel anxiety by waking up two hours early
Traffic on the way to the airport will be incredibly heavy
But we’ll arrive with plenty of time anyway
I will be “randomly” selected for secondary search even though I’m a Trusted Traveler
People will constantly get between my husband and me in line or in crowds
Our gate will be changed at least once
Maybe our type of plane will change too, and suddenly we’re both in middle seats
Or our seats will be changed without notice so we aren’t even sitting together
There may be a five-hour delay some time on the trip
We are probably going to be hungry, like crazy hungry
It will rain, no matter where we go or what time of year
I will always be freezing in a hotel room and he will be hot
One of us will get a working key card and the other won’t
Whenever I leave any room, I will turn the wrong way and head the wrong direction
A lot of people will take these opportunities, and more, as reasons to complain. Complainers have no idea they’re doing it. It’s like sports commentary, like a golf announcer only less interesting.
Experienced travelers will accept that there are natural constraints, and work around them.
Because I know that my travel anxiety makes me delusional about how much I can or should get done, I acknowledge that I will always try to do a deep clean of my house or revamp my filing system, and I work around it. I have started leaving myself notes in my reminder app that pop up a few days before a trip.
Dear Future Me, quit wigging out. Love, Past Self.
Because I know my husband can only be happy if we’re at least a few minutes early, we talk through our agenda together. In the world of engineering, they may literally bill their time in 7.5-minute increments. “When you say ‘leave by,’ do you mean we’re walking out our front door or do you expect us to be driving away in the Lyft?”
We know our trips are always subject to constant gate changes, seat changes, and inexplicable delays, so we plan around it. Bring extra food and backup batteries, and shrug.
We know to check the map constantly, because I have the directional sense of a fig beetle.
We also have rules about how many attractions we try to see in a day, how often we stop to eat, and how many days we spend in a city. There is a constant temptation to try to fit in too much, and then feel frantic instead of relaxed. If we let FoMO take over, it will destroy any sense of fun. Any anti-anxiety policy is a good policy.
At this point, we’re getting it down. We do the one-minute perimeter check when we leave a room, so we aren’t forgetting stuff. We check the map so we aren’t going in the wrong direction. We help each other cross-check our luggage so we don’t forget anything.
Probably the most important thing we do is to pause and make eye contact and smile at each other. We remind ourselves that THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!
We travel under the assumption that travel itself is inherently annoying and exhausting. The better we get at anticipating these minor annoyances, the more we can avoid them. The better we get at monitoring our energy level and emotional responses to whatever situation, the better we get at knowing when to take a break.
When we come home, it will be the fascinating stuff that we remember, not the petty complaints. We also recognize that the biggest hassles make for the most interesting traveler’s tales. We never know when it will be our last trip together and it’s our job to make the most of it.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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