Travel and Tourism During the Pandemic

As most of you know, travel is one of my favourite things. Just a few months ago, the most amazing thing I could imagine doing was to get on a plane to India, take my bicycle for a ride for several days and then tour the country. And it was as amazing as I imagined.

But what now? With all of us spending as much time as possible at home, things have changed. Google Maps sent me an email just a week or so ago telling me about the exciting month I’d had. I’d walked 5 kilometres, ridden my bike 74 kilometres and went to four places: Two grocery stores, work (essential work building a vaccine manufacturing facility), and to the pet food store to pick up food at the curb for our cats. Everything else was virtual. I rode over 400 kilometres in a virtual world, I had virtual book clubs, virtual games days with friends, virtual coffee and chat meetups. And the fact is, I don’t see this changing significantly any time soon. Two things will bring things close to “normal”: one is a vaccine (12-18 months away at best), and the other is carefully cultivated “herd immunity” likely brought about through slowly opening things up such that people get exposed and contract the virus at a rate that is manageable for health care workers to keep up with.

So what do we do in the interim? How do we satisfy our desire for travel? Last week’s trip to work gave me a bit of insight, I think.

Getting ready for the trip feels as exciting as getting ready for a long trip. I pack a bag for the trip with clothes and toiletries for showering and getting ready at work. I bring snacks and lunch and plan an interesting route – different each way for maximum variety.

My route to work is about 20 km – just over 12 miles. If I don’t stop it takes about an hour. The first 5 miles or so are off-road, following a paved path along the Don River, through the woods. On this trip I resolved to appreciate the route a bit more rather than pushing as hard as I could to get to work quickly.

The sun has just come up and when I enter the woods, the trees, now with a few leaves, block the sun and it feels noticeably cooler. Birds are singing as I coast down the hill in to the ravine where the river is. That extra wind, now without exertion to generate heat makes me feel a little chilly. As I go down the hill I pass a couple of runners, out to get their exercise in before the crowds show up.

At the bottom of the hill I hear a small stream. I know this means I have to slow down a lot because a bridge with a metal grate surface is coming up. I probably should get off my bike and walk as it feels a little unstable, pulling my wheel a little bit left and right but I make do with slowing down enough that if I do fall it won’t be too traumatic.

Now across the bridge, I’m in the park proper. A huge parking lot is here but as the park is closed to traffic to keep too many people from using it, it is completely empty. I turn toward the northbound path. A washroom building is there, lights glowing in the darkness. It’s closed and locked to prevent use but somehow looks cozy in the early morning light – like a remote cabin.

As I pass the building the sound of the river gets louder and competes with the sounds of robins and blue jays. My route will take me another couple of kilometres beside the river. Down in the ravine I can barely hear the city traffic. Only a distant freight train is loud enough to be heard down here.

There are still only 1-2 trail users, some running, some walking. But I hear lots of rustling in the bushes. Squirrels are out in force, emboldened by the fact that there are so few humans out to bother them.

On my right I see a little cluster of pine trees that I have passed every day I’ve taken this route but today, after passing it, I turn around. I don’t need to rush through every moment of my day. And so I lean my bike against the tree and spend some time watching and listening to the river go by.

The instant I stop the video, I hear quacking from above and soon a pair of ducks arrive:

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On the way to work…

A post shared by Todd (@toddtyrtle) on

After a few minutes I continue heading for work, riding through a quiet residential neighbourhood, back in to another park and then to another neighbourhood where I notice that spring really has sprung. There are so many flowers blooming it makes me feel wonderful to look at them.

Also as I ride I see many signs like this one:

And this one:

And this one:

It makes me happy to see them.

Traffic is delightfully sparse and soon I am at the 15 km mark, nearly to work. I’m riding through another suburban neighbourhood just south of Finch Avenue, a major cross-town road in North York when I see a cat a couple hundred metres ahead. It’s trotting along in the road which has been empty of vehicles other than me for several minutes now. As I get closer to it, it turns east down a street and when I get to the street myself I see that I’m wrong. It’s not a cat at all. It’s a fox and it is beautiful. We stare at each other for a few seconds before I decide to try to get my phone out of my jacket for a photo but she is having none of it. She runs off to the east and by the time I can get a photo it’s only of a tiny red blob in the distance. Clearly she did not consent to having her photo taken.

I pass a few more runners and early morning cyclists on the pathway to work and arrive in time to have a quick shower, make a coffee and get ready for my first zoom meeting. I start the day refreshed and happy.

Just a slight slowing down and a bit of extra attention turned a trip to work in to an interesting experience – even a “mini-vacation.” It made me think a lot about what the meaning of travel is and how we do it.

The biggest interest in travel for me is seeing something new or having a a new experience. We might see something we’ve never seen before, learn some history we didn’t know, try a food we’ve never had, or meet someone we never met before. Now while a few of those are less available to us as we shelter in place and live under lockdown conditions, there’s a common thread among all of them: Paying attention and looking at the world with curiousity and wonder.

Think about that for a minute. Do you require an international flight to see something new? Do you need to book a month off to see something amazing? Or do you merely have to look in your own neighbourhood in a place or in a way you’ve never looked before?

Take our own neighbourhood, for example. If you walk around Thorncliffe Park you’ll see a pretty typical Toronto neighbourhood of highrises, stores, a shopping mall, a little light industry. But my son has gone a little off the beaten path in to a nearby ravine. And there he’s found a place that is clearly an old place where people dumped bottles – in the 1930’s. After any rainstorm he can go down and find new things, old perfume bottles, cobalt glass, an old heavy Coke bottle. Since his first trip down there he has been drinking his morning coffee from a mug he found buried under a tree, a root snaking through the handle. And this place led us both down the rabbit hole of looking at the history of this neighbourhood. What did it look like in the 1930’s. Who was here? What businesses were around?

When I was about 10 I read a book called The 79 Squares in which a boy meets an old man who encourages him to divide the old man’s garden in to 79 squares and spend an hour in each one paying attention to what’s going on in each one, looking at plants, identifying them. Following ants and birds and seeing where they go. He gets fascinated by all that is happening in each six foot by six foot square as he digs deeper in to what he sees there.

It has made me decide to experiment. Now that our world has shrunk down to our neighbourhood, what happens if I take all that attention that I might spread across many destinations around the world, and concentrate it here. Going deeper in knowledge instead of broader. Sure, there were lions in the Gir jungle when I was there, but there are beavers, deer, coyotes, and clearly ducks in our own forests literally in our back yard. What will happen if I give as much attention and interest to the things just outside my window as I do to things on the other side of the world?

In the age of the pandemic, and, for that matter, of climate change where perhaps casual world travel isn’t so responsible, perhaps this is a question we all should consider exploring.

25 thoughts on “Travel and Tourism During the Pandemic

  1. You live around a place that I would pay money and travel miles to go and visit. The trip to office – the mini vacation – as you call it, is like a hiking trail for me for which i need to travel away from where I live. To see something new, to experience something new, you don’t need to travel, that’s bang on. But I don’t think I can say that for myself. I am a nature person as you know, but in the congested city I live there isn’t much scope to enjoy nature. The lockdown did bring in some opportunity though, through my tiny little balcony. Birds of various kinds and squirrels were much more noticeable because the noise all around was low.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely story. The photos and videos are lovely.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Our difference in perspective is so interesting. The things I shared are spaces I literally rushed through at top speed a few months back on the way to work. Or worse yet, I would sit on a bus or train and look at a book or phone as we passed them by. I took them totally for granted. Meanwhile, one of my favourite days in Bangalore was walking with Sage around Ulsoor lake just before the show we saw you at. It was beautiful and there was a bit of wildlife and gorgeous sun on the water.

      The question is, how much of what we’re enjoying is the beauty of a moment versus the novelty of a moment? People laughed at Sage when we were in Chhattisgarh when she was thrilled to see a cow wandering in a yard and yet for her it was new and interesting.

      So maybe that’s the answer for me: find a way to look less for the new and more for the interesting. And certainly one thing that helps me a lot in that respect is writing about it here with a worldwide audience. I can put myself in your shoes or a reader in the Netherlands’ shoes or someone in Singapore and realize that what seems totally normal to me might be amazing or outrageous for them. And then I feel a little bit of that myself.

      Thanks, as always, for your comments. I really appreciate them.

      1. Completely agree with you. We really need to be more mindful, which we know theoretically but don’t always apply. When I go to my hometown in North East India, I do feel the same. Having lived there the first 30 years of my life, I just took everything for granted. In fact when I went there after living a few months in a metro city, I was behaving like a tourist – capturing everything with my camera πŸ˜€

      2. I noticed that when I moved here as well. I would go see things and tell my boss (who lived here all his life) what I’d done – and he didn’t even know about it. Of course he also knew of many cool things *I* didn’t know so we got to see even more places.

  2. Thanks for this, Todd! We have been doing something similar, walking and cycling around familiar neighbourhoods but finding new things each time. I thought I was looking carefully before, but I am already finding so much that I had missed. I like the idea of adding an element of historical research to these adventures. That is part of travelling that I miss. It’s not the same, but I think, like you, I am trying to focus on how to keep living and growing through this time. We don’t know how long it will be. It’s a pause in so many ways, but it’s also not a pause. It is still life, and the world is still beautiful, especially in spring.

    1. There is so much to see and enjoy here – especially in our own city. And lots of it is right under our nose and so many connections (which I love). For example, I only recently learned that R. C. Harris (of water treatment plant fame) lost his infant son to a waterborne illness and that’s part of why he cared about water treatment. And one day I was on a bike ride and stopped at “Jennifer Kateryna Koval’s’kyj Park” down near Polson Pier and wondered who she was and learned of a terribly sad story of a six year old girl who was killed while trying to save her grandmother from being attacked by her father (her grandmother’s son). There are stories everywhere in this city. Just looking up the names of people on street signs and parks reveals volumes of history and takes us interesting places.

      I really love this line: “We don’t know how long it will be. It’s a pause in so many ways, but it’s also not a pause. It is still life, and the world is still beautiful, especially in spring.” It really resonates. I think it’s really important what we actually do with this pause. It will define who we are both individually and collectively for a long time to come.

      (And yes…especially in spring is so true. This attitude would be much harder for me to cultivate on, say, December 10.)

      1. Yes! I suspect next winter might be harder. But I am living in the moment these days. Thanks for the inspiration about following up on park names and street names. Great idea! That will add an extra element to our explorations of the city. Our next door neighbour works at the Toronto Archives, and has finally been given some work he can do at home (he’s been at home for a while, just not working much). I saw his wife out on the sidewalk and she told me about a photo of the closest intersection to us from around 1900. Which also makes me think that I want to ask him more questions next time I see him outside! Maybe he can direct us to some good resources.

    1. Thanks, Rupali. It’s a good reminder to us for sure. And a good reprieve from a lot of the stress and worry. And counting our blessings is so good as well. I never was one to keep a gratitude journal before but have been doing it for many weeks now. It helps keep perspective for sure – and reminds me that I also need to work to help others.

      Thanks for posting. You and your family stay safe as well.

      1. Thanks Todd.
        I know you are a trained cyclist but how much does it affect your routine when you do it in the morning and in the evening? 40km everyday is a lot I think πŸ™‚

      2. To go from zero to 40 km might be tough, but I’m riding 30-60 minutes every single day now for over a month so I’m used to it.

        It also really matters how much I push myself. If I ride those 40 km like it’s a race it would be hard to keep that up over and over. But taken leisurely, even 100-150 km isn’t too bad. In some ways it is like walking. You can’t go from not walking far to walking 10 km/day but if your school or work is 5 km away and you go there and back every day, after a while it becomes normal.

        Twice a day is a little different for me versus, say, 60 min in the morning or evening. It’s double the duration (120-140 min total) but there is a long rest in the middle. I will say this, though: A ride in followed by a shower puts me in a very good mindset for starting work. And the ride home lets me leave work concerns behind and arrive home fresh and energized.

      3. And I should also say that I’m only going in to work once in a while. I’ve only gone twice since they declared the state of emergency. But that’s not a huge distance. On tours I’ll do 80-100 km/day or more for weeks at a time. It just becomes part of one’s routine. (But the nice part is that to do, say, 100 km, you have to consume 3000-4000 more calories. So there are lots of snacks and cold drinks!)

      4. Thank you! I learned a lot from a charity bike ride (600 km over 6 days). When I first did it I was only 39 and in reasonably good shape to begin with. But I was joined by people who had only started cycling to raise money for that charity. There were people in their 70’s on the ride going faster than me and doing great. One image has stuck with me ever since that first ride. When we got to the destination after a 120 km ride one woman got off her bike and was met by someone carrying something. It turned out they were her leg braces.

        All of which is to say that I think many of us underestimate our capabilities until something pushes us to explore them. For me a good part of it was seeing that others could do it – and not only that, they seemed to enjoy it.

  3. Audubon here has encouraged kids to explore their back yards and see all the amazing activity there.(Of course this wouldn’t work in a very built up place.) In our yard right now we have a morning dove nesting in the grape vines, a little brown bird nesting in one of the kayaks, and a robin nesting under the upper deck. I loved riding with you to work.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! That’s a great idea. But even in more built up places there are still a few surprises. Just a few minutes ago a red tailed hawk flew by our window. They love the tall buildings – they’re basically cliffs where there are thermals to ride and places to nest.

      1. We have a number of hawks, osprey and occasional eagles here since we are close to the river and many wetlands. The advantage of living in a state with little growth is that wetlands still abound.

  4. So true! We can dedicate this year towards exploring the place we live in with attention to details. And there is definitely so much to see especially for a newcomer like me – so much beauty to explore in the neighbourhood…

    1. Definitely! Especially for you guys. As things ease a little you’ve got so much to explore. And as they’ll gradually be opening it up, you’ll get a little bit of cool new stuff every few weeks for months or longer!

      But really for me it’s the same. This is a big city with lots to explore. And even in our own neighbourhood there are places we haven’t seen. A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book by a man who walked a spiral out from Connaught Place in Delhi and wrote about all the interesting things he saw. Even though he’d lived there for years he saw and experienced so many interesting things. I’ve been intrigued by that idea – of exploring the detail of where I live instead of completely different places at a superficial level.

      1. We often fail to explore our local places… oh Connaught Place is a maze! Once we parked our car there and went shopping and later it took us hours to find out where we had parked it 😐 can easily get lost if you are not familiar with the place…

  5. Todd, I guess for the time being we need to adapt and change. I’m hoping things should start returning back to normal in a few months down the line. Humans have always adapted and moved on. So shall we. Stay safe and travel virtually, till then.

    1. Wow – somehow I missed this comment. Nice to hear from you! Yes, I agree. Changes like this have been happening since the dawn of time. And of course there will be more. I’m really grateful that in many ways though this is extremely difficult we have many tools we didn’t have before: ways to keep working, connecting with others, getting food and of course knowledge about how viruses work enough that we can take at least basic precautions.

      Stay safe – hope you and yours are doing well!

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