7 Important Lessons I Learned From My Travels That Are Helping Me During the Coronavirus Lockdown
Travel teaches plenty of lessons you can use long after you've returned home.
Self-quarantining and social distancing are rough. I’ve been doing it for about a month now, due to a trip I took in early February to the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Thailand. At first, things were fine — and I even wrote a guide to surviving self-quarantine. But then, as New York City became the epicenter of the American COVID-19 outbreak, I realized I am most likely looking at a minimum of another month alone in my apartment. While I’ve had some days where I find myself staring at the ceiling of my small one bedroom for hours, the majority of my confinement has not been that bad. Of course, I miss being on the road, and keeping confined has always been a huge fear of mine, but I’ve found that the lessons I learned from years of traveling the world have sustained me through this tough time.
1. Lesson: Use endless hours to learn something new.
Way back in the day, I took a six-month journey across India. It was after college and I was broke. With $1,500, I had to go home when the money ran out, so I went on the super-cheap. We’re talking no planes, a lot of trains, and very few automobiles. On the 17-hour train and crowded bus rides, I had to learn to amuse myself to fill endless hours of boredom. This was before smartphones or Kindles, and my bag couldn’t handle more than one book at a time (which was the "Lonely Planet India"). So, I bought a portable travel chess set and taught myself how to play with (very patient) strangers. These days, I am using my time in between work to play chess online (with very patient strangers) and learn Spanish. It helps the hours go by in a productive way, and I even feel like I’ve accomplished something — without noticing the clock ticking.
2. Lesson: Don’t lose your cool and remain calm.
Trip: Southeast Asia
The thing about Southeast Asia is if you lose your cool, you lose face. I’ve traveled in the region many times and perhaps the one trip that stands out is in 2009, during a trek in Vietnam, when I lost it. I needed to get on a bus and it was “sold out” despite seats being empty. I was exhausted, frustrated, and embarrassingly, I lost my cool and let my temper get the best of me. I will never forget the look on the ticket man’s face — he shut down and no matter what I did, the second I raised my voice, the conversation was over. A kind stranger said, “you must never lose face — you embarrass yourself and no one will deal with you.” The stranger then calmly intervened, and somehow, I got on the bus. I think of this lesson every day in New York City, as I see tempers fray or witness anxiety attacks on the street. I take a deep breath, remain calm, and if I can help while maintaining a six-feet distance, I do. But otherwise, I move on. Losing it will not do me, or anyone else, any good.
3. Lesson: Keep the peace and don’t go down rabbit holes
I once took a three-and-a-half-week boat ride up the Niger River to Timbuktu with a handful of strangers. The seven of us had to get along, or at least survive together, but as it happened, there was one person who rubbed me the wrong way. I succumbed to my baser instincts one week into the trip and snapped back at this individual, saying something snippy and rude. I was immediately shot down by everyone in the group because they knew what I did not: One nasty word or pile-on can ruin a day, a week, or in this case, a trip that still had some time to go. I apologized, and over the next few weeks, I actually became friends with the person. For me, I think of this almost every day when I see what’s going on in the world on Twitter. It’s a place where opinions rule and a “conversation” can go from normal to level 11 in two hot seconds. Misplaced words in anger, frustration, or allowing yourself to get jacked up can come back to haunt you or take you to places you don’t need to go. So, go on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, learn what’s going on, and then get off it. Unless it takes you to good places, you don’t need to go there. Not right now.
4. Lesson: Practice moving meditation.
Three years ago, I took a two-week hike across the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail in Japan. It was grueling and difficult. At times, the hike was endless — constant trudging up a seemingly never-ending mountain, just putting one foot in front of the other, hoping not to fall over. To get through it, I started what I call moving meditation — listening to a meditation on my iPhone and walking to the beat of my breath. At the end of the day, sitting in a hot onsen, I felt cleansed. I think of this trip a lot, especially now in self-quarantine. I take long walks at odd hours to avoid crowds, practicing moving meditation, and it keeps my mind clear and spirits lifted.
5. Lesson: Thank the universe.
The first time I went to Zambia, I stayed at The Royal Livingstone at Victoria Falls. I was part of a small group, and there was one woman who just radiated joy. She was such a lovely human, so kind, and I asked her how she kept so positive. Her answer? A gratitude journal. I was skeptical, but I started keeping one. Every morning, I write a full page detailing what I am thankful for, and every night, I jot down things I’d like to manifest in my life. While everything I have tried to manifest may not have materialized (yet!), I find that focusing on things I am truly grateful for — even if it’s silly things — makes every day brighter and full of optimism.
6. Lesson: Connect with family and friends.
After my dog, Karl, died suddenly of melanoma last year, I fell into despair. He was my touchstone for 15 years, and I was lost without him. My sister, Sophie, lives in Sacramento and flew me out for a week to help recover and be around family. She was right. In times like these, you need family. You need friends. I have started FaceTiming with my family every day, because these relationships matter and can help you through any amount of alone time.
7. Lesson: Surround yourself with beauty and things that make you happy.
When I first started traveling, I was a serious shopaholic. I’m a gift-giver, what can I say? But over the years, my small apartment has become stuffed with knickknacks from around the world — so much so that once a year I will Marie Kondo the heck out of my place to declutter. But the things I keep — and now rarely buy — say so much. During a trip to Cuba over the New Year, I visited Fusterlandia, home of renowned artist José Rodríguez Fuster. It was a surreal, playful playground of art and it made me so happy. I am beyond thankful that I bought two colorful Fuster originals that bring me joy to look at every day and remind me of the world outside of New York that I hope to return to sooner rather than later.