How Travel Has Prepared Us for Social Isolation

This is an unprecedented time in the world and as people struggle to face the new challenges of social isolation, quarantine and physical distancing, it suddenly occurred to us just how inadvertently ready for this we are. While different people are facing a wide range of seclusion-related experiences – from merely inconvenient to disastrous – I think it is fair to say that everyone is finding the whole situation extremely strange, and in some cases also extremely depressing and emotionally difficult, and I sympathize with people in those situations.

See also:

23 Ways the Coronavirus Will Change Travel

Following our 10-day Rota Vicentina trek, thankfully, we are in a fairly good situation right now. We have a comfortable apartment, plenty of well-stocked grocery stores and lots of good walking trails and beaches with hardly any other people on them. More surprisingly, though, we are starting to realize that all these years of travel have also done more for us than simply provide some cool photos and keep us driving 20-year-old cars. It would also seem that travel has prepared us for social isolation more thoroughly than we could have imagined. Who knew that all those months we spent not making any friends would eventually qualify as “training”?

Here in the Algarve we are living under a very similar soft lockdown to that in place in Saskatchewan. Only essential businesses open, a few restaurants offering takeout and delivery, walking still allowed but no groups, no mingling, no wrestling in the Turkish baths. 13 days into our own self-imposed Portuguese exile (here’s to new milestones!), we’ve found a shocking number of parallels to long-term travel:

Lack of Crowds

The streets, parks, malls and pretty much everywhere except the grocery stores are empty. In the town we’re in right now, outside of a couple hours in the morning when people seem to head out for their daily exercise, the place is a ghost town. We’ve got in the habit of walking down the middle of the street just because we can. However, while this clearly isn’t the norm on our travels, we generally try to avoid high season crowds and have often found ourselves in similar surroundings when we’ve pushed “shoulder season” a little too close to “off season”.

Separation from Friends and Family

Sure, it’s not ideal, but we do it for months at a time every year. Laynni still keeps in touch through compulsive SnapChatting and periodically – and extremely loudly – talking via video Messenger. I’m not much of a talking on the phone guy (I’m a firm believer that phones should only be used for maps, Google Translate and checking sports scores) so have continued to cultivate the idea that “out of country” also means “out of service range”. I’m not sure they’re buying it anymore but, of course, they do have this delightful blog to fall back on. I suspect the most difficult part of family separation back home is the devastating loss of grandparent babysitting services.

Social Distancing

While I know that for many of my friends it is a dream come true to be celebrated for staying home and drinking alone, a lack of social interaction can eventually become depressing. Travel can be a mixed bag in that department. There have been some trips where we met lots of people, others where we met one or two, a few times where friends have come to meet us along the way, and a few times we’ve availed ourselves of the hospitality of friends around the world. Most of the time, though, it’s just the two of us and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone even remotely interested in spending time within 2 metres of us, restrictions or not. While many of you probably still find it strange and difficult not having daily social interaction and feedback, we’ve been completely and utterly ignored in a minimum of 60 countries.

Quality Time with Your Spouse

Which brings us to this one. While single people have had to learn how to deal with quarantine alone, which has many challenges of its own, most couples see each other briefly in the morning before heading off to work all day, reconvene for dinner, if they’re lucky, before hurrying off again to the myriad evening commitments (i.e. whatever their kids are into). Weekends are for errands and yet more kid stuff. At most, they might get a few hours Sunday afternoon to jockey for position on the couch and annoy each other with their fidgeting or leaving dirty socks on the table (that’s a normal thing, right?). When we’re travelling, though, we enjoy the luxury of each other’s company 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And, not only do we get the pleasure of constant, uninterrupted shared experience, we don’t even have to worry about having real conversations because, you know, there isn’t a single thing we’ve done or said or wondered out loud that the other one hasn’t already heard. I’ve heard people call it sad and depressing when they see a couple in a restaurant staring at their phones and ignoring each other. I call it self-preservation. Besides, what am I going to do, tell her about my day? Describe all the photos I took, the ones she’s actually in? Tell her about what I had for lunch, the one she made for me? Exactly. But at least we’ve had years to get used to it, something that probably can’t be said for those of you currently on day 6 working from home across the kitchen table from your spouse while your kids continue attempting to methodically break every toy in the house.

Time to Fill

The biggest adjustment when we first started travelling long-term was getting used to just how long a day can feel when you don’t have any commitments or schedule. Let’s see, you have to eat 3 times (or 5, or 6, I’m not judging), have a shower (a gentle suggestion), maybe go for a walk, spend some time on your phone catching up on the latest developments in Armageddon, watch a TV show or two in the evening like usual. What’s all of that take, like, 4 hours? What are you supposed to do the rest of the time? A puzzle? I suppose, if that’s your thing. Work out? Yeah, right. Fix all those things around the house you’ve been meaning to get to? Um, sure, but not right now, obviously. So, what’s our secret, you’re probably wondering. Sorry, I honestly have no clue. Reading, writing, watching, walking, shopping now and then, I guess. But, really, all I can tell you is that it usually takes a few weeks and then, magically, the days start flying by. I don’t know how or why, just that at some point you suddenly need to start blocking off time to clip your toenails, just so you can fit it in.

Self-Motivation

With Laynni’s grant writing and my, well, “other” kinds of writing, we’ve become reasonably adept at motivating ourselves to get things done on our own. Laynni still requires a deadline of some sort, and I need to know that at least part of my article can be point-form, but usually we manage to be productive when we need to. For most of you, though, this working at home thing is new and weird and confusing and exciting and, well, maybe, just a little hard to manage. Some jobs will involve tasks that force you into action, but others leave you to get things done on your own time and at your own pace. Which, for some, is about as likely as me whipping up some fresh guacamole for my afternoon snack. If it helps, I can tell you that it does get easier. Although it may take until you’ve exhausted every single interesting activity, internet article or enticing bit of junk food in the house. You just need to hope that is only a matter of days, not weeks.

Uncertainty

Generally speaking, people’s lives follow a very structured routine with only occasional room for variation (Watch a movie or curling? Groceries then beer, or beer then groceries? Golden Tee or VLTs?). You know where you’re working, you know where you’re sleeping, you know who you’ll see this week and you absolutely know you can wash your clothes anytime you want. This global pandemic has robbed people of that routine and, more importantly, the comfort of certainty, and it is going to be really hard to deal with for some people. Whereas, even though we tend to book ahead a lot more now than we used to, travelling still involves substantial uncertainty on a daily basis. Where to go, what to do, how to get there, where to stay, for how long, where to eat, what to eat, one beer with dinner or two, what the hell is on the bottom of my shoe this time? At this point, we eat uncertainty for breakfast. I mean, if it’s available, we’re never sure.

Dealing with Change

This is pretty similar to uncertainty, with one or two key differences. Let’s say you haven’t necessarily added much freedom, just are working from a different location. Still, most people have certain ways they like to do things, certain methods they use to get things done. And now, here we are, suddenly you’re wearing a dress shirt and sweat pants at your kitchen table while trying to close a big deal over Zoom, and your kids are running past playing Nerf guns (buck-naked for some reason) and you’re desperately hoping they at least stay outside the range of the camera. Having trouble concentrating, by chance? On the other hand, we are used to changing locations, restaurants, food types, activities, hotels, beds, pillows, showers, hell, even currencies, from one day to the next. Travel is all about constantly adjusting to a new norm. Mind you, I’d still be way too afraid to play Nerf guns in the nude.

Availability of Resources

At home we’ve become accustomed to knowing exactly where to get anything we want or need, and then accumulating so much stuff that we almost never need anything anyway. Here in Armacão de Pera, so far, the grocery stores here are not crowded and have plenty of food for everyone. Obviously, we would prefer if it stayed that way. On other trips when we’re moving around a lot, however, availability is a constant guessing game. How many buses will still be running in the afternoon? Will our hotel have decent heat or enough blankets? Do you think the grocery store will have the kind of milk that needs to be refrigerated or just that powdered crap in a box? These are some of the things that keep us up at night. The other things tend to bite.

No Sports to Watch

It is surely very bizarre for everyone at home to turn on TSN or Sportsnet right now and to see, instead of NHL, NBA, MLB, PGA and some vague tennis tournament, only repetitive blooper loops and insanely dull talk shows that assume we’re somehow interested in the personal thoughts and lives of professional athletes. Classic games can be fun but ultimately just make you miss live sports even more, like the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can’t. Luckily for me (in only an extremely specific aspect of this particular situation), almost every time we travel I’m completely cut off from watching North American professional sports. That’s because in 90% of the world, they seemed to think it over, shrug, and say “Nah, I think soccer is enough, let’s not overcomplicate things. Except with the name, I suggest most of you stick with football but the rest keep using soccer just so it’s never quite clear.” And I can assure you, if there is one thing less compelling than watching a regular season Edmonton Oiler game from 20 years ago, it’s a meaningless second division Portuguese futebol match from 20 years ago. That ends in a 0-0 draw, naturally.

Exercising Alone

A lot of people rely on the gym to stay in shape, burn calories and clear their head. Others rely on walking to McDonald’s instead of driving. Still, being forced to move your regular workout regimen into the house, almost certainly with at least a child or two constantly in the way, presents yet another challenge. Our transient lifestyle, on the other hand, has taught us to get our exercise where it’s available, and to be creative if need be. We walk a lot, swim in certain places, Laynni does solo yoga every morning and I, well, I lift chairs. Internationally.

Hygiene

At one time we were still pretty casual about germs while travelling. We hadn’t had many problems, which we liked to think was because we made good decisions and have decently strong stomachs full of useful antibodies from around the world. Kind of like my mom’s junk drawer – just a huge pile of odds and ends collected over the years – you just assume that whenever you encounter a problem there is something in there that will come in handy. Of course, this virus is something completely new, like a futuristic tablet or something that is riddled with malware, and the old drawer is mostly full of string and plastic clips and lots of different kinds of tape, and none of that stuff seems to fix the tablet at all, no matter how much tape you use.

Either way, despite the fact we were probably just lucky to not get sick most of the time, there was a time when we had begun to develop slightly unrealistic feelings of invincibility. Then India came along. And everything changed. Don’t get me wrong, we loved India, and fully plan to go back someday. But it’s a filthy place. Even before I got sick (which was horrendous and painful and, worst of all, so damned cliché) we were doing our best not to touch, well, anything, really, and trying (and failing miserably) to avoid all the limp, damp handshakes seemingly every man in India thinks you’ll be excited about. We’ve dialed back since leaving the Subcontinent but still make hygiene a big priority when we travel (I’ve practically washed the skin off my hands in hundreds of different airports and counting) so we feel unusually prepared to handle the intense cleanliness regime required in the time of COVID-19. And the paranoia? Bring it on. I basically work on the assumption that everyone I sit next to in an airport lounge is 3 seconds away from coughing at my face, mainly because it is true way more often than makes sense.

For people at home, though – in clean, orderly Canada – all this focus on germs must feel absurd. Washing your groceries when you get home? We’ve been doing that in Guatemala for years. And all the incessant hand washing? I know people that haven’t washed their hands independent of a shower since the Blue Jays were good. And now they’re supposed to do it every time they touch a door handle? Or pick up a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos? Or put their finger in somebody’s mouth? Fat chance. On the bright side, this might be the final death knell for our archaic obsession with shaking hands. Not to mention double-kissing, and probably even hugging, especially those awkward ones where you clearly can’t agree on how many points of contact there should be, or how long is too long to linger with your groins touching.

Wearing the same clothes every day

Strictly from a packing standpoint, we have to limit our clothing choices when we travel. 4 shirts, 2 pants, enough underwear to last a week. But how does that apply to normal people with homes and closets and washing machines, you ask? Yes, I understand that you still have access to your entire wardrobe, that you can change 5 times a day if you want. Yet, somehow you’ve been wearing those same sweatpants since last Monday, haven’t you?

Summary

While most of this whole COVID-19 disaster is still just as much as mystery to us as it is to everyone else, at least we’ve got the social isolation part very well in hand, if I do say so myself. Which works out well, because no one else wants to talk to me anyway.

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4 thoughts on “How Travel Has Prepared Us for Social Isolation”

  1. A thank you Dean, coming from you live from my kitchen, dressed in my Ecuadorian pants and Vietnamese non matching t-shirt. Cyberabrazos to you both!

  2. I agree with all of these points 100%! We were thinking more or less the same thing. And not only has travel prepared us for COVID, so has our regular life at home. During any given summer at home, we are isolated in the country-side with me working from home and Marc taking care of the vast amounts of house and yard work that pile up after 6 mos away. Sure, we normally get out once in awhile but Walter doesn’t like to be left home alone and most activities – outside of the farmer’s market, walking/hiking and getting ice cream or coffee on patios – aren’t dog friendly so we don’t get out a lot. Currently, we’re in quarantine and do miss getting out for walks every day but other than that – not a lot has changed. Sad but true!

    1. Our home life in SK isn’t quite so secluded as yours, although it gets a little quieter with every year of age. I expect the quarantine is a bit restrictive but it’ll fly by like the weeks always do. Interestingly, there are 30-35 campers/campervans still living in a lot just out of the town we’re in. Odd, because all the hotels have shut down and even the long-term places look about 10% full. Just surprised that many people chose not to race home when they could have. There must be hundreds along this coast, considering Armacao de Pera isn’t even close to the most popular spot. We’re monitoring the situation. Also bracing for a backlash against people from Lisbon who are apparently trying to ignore the no travel suggestions to visit the Algarve for Easter.

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