Traveling in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been … I don’t want to use the the word “unprecedented”, because it’s not entirely true. If you look back far enough, there are similar scenarios: SARS in 2003, while never declared a pandemic, touched many nations and set off new health protocols; the “Spanish” Influenza of 1919 that has many parallels of infection (COVID-19 has been worse at a global level) and vehement objection to health restrictions (though not quite as awful and racist as our present reactions); and even outbreaks of Cholera and Bubonic Plague showed (in historical hindsight) the limits of human understanding and compassion to disease and its victims. COVID-19 is not without parallel, though in our highly-connected and international world, it is far more accelerated that its predecessors.

Which brings me to travel, which responsible people haven’t done since the beginning of 2020 to limit the spread of a highly infectious disease that we didn’t yet understand. Irresponsible people still travelled, disease spread, and here we are two years later and what do we do?

This is the question that faced me last week as Alex and I tried to sort out our vacations. For the first time in my career, I’m having to plan it out a year in advance. Not a pleasant prospect— I’ve always been more ad hoc with my holidays — but necessary for Alex, and now for me at Venture. Which brought us to Spring Break, the week in mid-March where the Calgary Board of Education closes its doors.

To be honest, I’ve never understood what purpose Spring Break fulfills. But I digress…

I had loosely started toying with a family Surprise Week. Alex and I, before kids, used to do Surprise Weekends, where we’d whisk the other away on an adventure of some kind. With kids, it’s much more difficult: babies require support, toddlers and little kids need watching, and tweens and teens (I’m learning) need monitoring for constant TV watching that leads to forgetting that the oven is still on…

I got as far as Fairmont Hot Springs and a little faery cabin down in the Pass that looked like fun for a few days. I hadn’t told anyone, but it was clear as we discussed the time off that everyone else was D-U-N with not traveling. Proper traveling. Airplanes. Long distances. Someplace new.

Have I mentioned the painful levels of wanderlust that I’ve been experiencing?

Out of my family, I’ve had it easiest with restrictions: I worked from home, wore masks to get groceries, and that’s about it. Alex, at the other end of our spectrum, being in health care, is N95’d and goggled most of the time, and was PPE’d at the start. Monkey and Choo Choo wore masks at school, and had to try and survive online school (which was a terrible experience across the board). All of that is to say: I’m the most resistant to believing we can travel, and the most angry about the current #FluTruxKlan running amok in Canada.

However, when it comes to my family and their needs and wants, I also seem to have lost my spine. So when the excited need to go somewhere turned from an idle question over dinner into the plan for Spring Break … well, fuck, can we? Should we?

I had looked into going to Hawaii a few months ago. The kids really wanted to go there and I was curious. But I also let myself stop when I came across the $150-per-person mandatory testing. Did it apply? I know several people who have gone to Hawaii, and $600 for a family of four becomes prohibitive, so was it a real thing or did it not apply to vaccinated Canadians? My low-on-the-spectrum feeling being fed up restrictions won out and I didn’t look any further.

But London? One of my favourite places that still harbours so many wonders I’ve yet to see? (To make matters worse, I’ve spent the pandemic watching YouTube channels on British history and archeology, which really amplified things.) Well, it wouldn’t hurt to look, right?

I might as well have opened Pandora’s Box: out flew all the rampant need to see the world and there are places where it’s not a problem to travel and airline prices are pretty decent right now and hey is that a hotel deal and I’m quitting my job to do nothing but travel until the end of my days!

Deep breath.

And another.

Turns out being a pseudo-prisoner in your own home really makes you need to get out. I totally understand prison breaks.

Semi-rational me finally took back over and we got down to the specifics. There were three qualifications for this to work:

  1. Direct flights. No connections, less likely to lose luggage and less time overall. I’ve done enough long waits in airports.
  2. Must have a king-sized bed. I know that sounds like a luxury, but Alex and I don’t sleep in a double bed.
  3. Flights and hotels must be cancel-able.

That last one was a doozy. The hotel wasn’t so bad, but flights are hard. Very few airlines allow for cancellation at all and there were large notices saying COVID-19 is a pre-existing condition so insurance won’t cover anything.

This led us to find a flight with Westjet, which solved two of the problems: direct (albeit two different airports) and cancel-able (basically, the funds end up in a credit you can use later, which we would have no issue with). At that point, it was a hotel. And boy oh boy, did I find a great one: The Clermont Charing Cross! King-sized bed, really nice room, practically across the street from Trafalgar Square, and attached to a freaking train station. Ticked all the boxes. Actually, it ticked one too many: the one marked “Expensive”. Which Alex caught, looked at me, and suggested I keep looking.

I was totally ready to commit to $3000 more for the Clermont, no questions asked. I might have also been a tad desperate.

Two hours and a few hundred hotels later, I finally found the Hyatt London East, on Whitechapel Road, roughly halfway between Algate East and Whitechapel tube stations. Maybe it’s the “Jack the Ripper” thing, but it felt somehow wrong to go with that option. I suspect it was more that I was giving up on a hotel that our family would likely be uncomfortable in as we waltzed around in sweatpants and hoodies, the bulk of our attire for the last 23 months. But it’s a short walk to a great many things, and a lot closer than the last hotel I stayed in out near Earl’s Court. I had hoped for something around Paddington, but finding anything larger than a double bed is a pretty tall order, it seems.

With that squared away came the Wish List: what do we see?

Choo Choo hasn’t left North America. The closest she’s come is Costa Rica, which she only barely remembers. She’s become a bit of a history geek, having watched most of the BBC’s Horrible Histories, which covers a not-insignificant portion of British history. Oh, and she’s a bit of a Potterhead, having read the books and seen the movies at least a couple of times each. (In fact, I had planned a Harry Potter tour of the UK for when, one day, we could travel again. Sadly, this was not that time.) She had a long list.

The last time Monkey was in England, she was eight months old. She’s only able to wield “I’ve been to London!” over her sister, but without anythign else to back it up. Monkey had some overlap with Choo Choo, though her list also included the hometowns of some of her favourite YouTube stars, hoping to maybe meet them by chance.

Alex’s list was more borne of supporting the kids’ need to see things, most of which she and I had already seen and done. Which really didn’t bother me at all, since every time I’ve been to London, it’s been a different experience.

My list? Greenwich. ‘Cuz I’ve still not stood on the Prime Meridian. Yes, it’s a bucket item. I have no idea why.

Alex also wanted to a train trip somewhere. (And who am I to refuse such a request?) She felt it was important that the kids understand the British rail experience. (I offered absolutely no objection and did everything to keep from drooling.) But where? Ideally, we’d fire them up to Edinburgh, which I also love and need to spend more time in. But we’ve got a mere 10 days. Which, when you’ve never seen London before, isn’t a lot of time. York was also on that list as a “day” trip, but it’s still a fair distance. Stonehenge (Salisbury) got on the list, only to be nixed by me after realizing that I was the only one who would be interested enough. I pulled out another UK travel list (I’ve got a few) and lifted out Canterbury, which solves the train trip, my desire for more cathedrals (I love the architecture), and gets the kids a view of a medieval town.

At this point, we had a long list of things. (Well, to be fair, it was a short list, but when you start tacking on all the things you’d see walking between one thing and another, it adds up.) Out came Google Maps and a plotting job. Can we see it all in a few days? Turns out we can, only barely, and there are a couple of things that are best described as “maybe”, since … well, it’s just so darned hard to see it all.

Then Alex declared she wants to see the White Cliffs of Dover.

Given, it’s a mere 30 minutes past Canterbury. We could even go there early (it seems 10am is the National When Things Open time) and still get to hit Canterbury on the way home. But, more stuff. More planning.

This trip now feels scripted. I want it to be open and flexible and fun, but it’s the girls’ first trip across the Atlantic (where they’ll remember it) and I want them to have a good time. Which I’m sure it’ll be. And I suspect the only person who’ll be upset if we don’t see something will be me. They’ll have a great time, and that’s what I have to keep in mind.

All of this to say: I’m totally excited to travel again, and utterly terrified that we won’t be able to go or we’ll be horrifically restricted by something that happens between now and our departure date. Everyone seems to be rising out of the pandemic, but it’s like watching Choo Choo get out of bed in the morning: resistance, reluctance, oh shit it’s cold need my housecoat, daddy boil the water so I can make some tea. It’ll be awkward, I’m sure, and if we’re really lucky the conditions and restrictions will only decrease from here. Assuming another, nasty-ass variant doesn’t suddenly arise and cause another worldwide lockdown.

But we’re moving forward. Ish. It’s a step and we’re eager to take it. May we not be taking this step in vain.