“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
~Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
We had just returned home from our Middle East travels last November when our daughter texted that she needed to talk. Right away. We knew it must be important because 1) she didn’t mind that we were incredibly jet lagged; 2) her husband also wanted to be on the call; and 3) she wanted to FaceTime rather than speak on the phone. Within seconds – and with a clever announcement Emily had made for us – we learned we would become grandparents. July 2020! We were over the moon.
But back here on earth, we had some plans to change. Herb and I were due to board a ship bound for Norway in mid-June, returning precariously close to Emily’s due date. Our 2020 vacation could easily be moved. But missing our grandchild’s birth? That was one risk we couldn’t possibly consider.
By the beginning of January, our new plans were taking shape. British Air exchanged our tickets for travel vouchers with a generously long expiration date, requiring us to provide a letter from Emily’s doctor. The hotel I had booked at the end of the voyage in Copenhagen – the “world’s smallest hotel” called Central Hotel & Café – kindly overruled their nonrefundable policy and returned our entire advanced payment when we explained the reason for the cancellation. And on the cruise front, it was smooth sailing as well. We applied the deposit for the Norway voyage to a December itinerary in Southeast Asia, another part of the world where we have never traveled.
February found us dealing with another change in plans – this one of the medical kind. Herb learned that the defective heart valve he had been monitoring since it was discovered in his mid-twenties was getting precariously close to the surgical stage. He had been doing research on the procedure for a long time and contacted the specialist who he hoped would perform the surgery.
The week before Valentine’s Day, we traveled to Cleveland to meet with Dr. Lars Svensson, world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon and Chairman of the Heart & Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “We were thinking that August might be a good time to schedule the surgery,” Herb explained rather confidently, citing Emily’s due date and our travel plans later in the year. Without missing a beat and after reviewing the plethora of tests the Clinic had taken, Dr. Svensson looked at both of us and simply said, “I would do it soon.”
“Soon” became March 4th, a date that will live forever in that sacred place deep inside ourselves where love and gratitude reside. We arrived in Cleveland on March 1st, and in what seemed like a hundred moments of time-lapse images, we made it through an incredibly challenging time. Two weeks and one successful surgery later, we were heading home to San Diego.
And then came the pandemic. While we had been living in the laser-focused cocoon of Herb’s surgery and recovery, Covid-19 was building up speed, tearing through the world like an undetected hurricane. Like everyone else, we kept close to home, vigilantly trying to figure out how to navigate the murky waters of this “new normal.” Herb was especially vulnerable – the first six weeks after heart surgery are a critical time – and knowing he wouldn’t be fully healed for three months, I transformed myself into his great protector, refusing to let even a pandemic get in the way of this final leg of his recovery journey.
As the weeks went by, we began noticing a trend in the various travel forums we follow. People were asking questions. Lots of questions. Which countries are open to foreign visitors? How are airlines, hotels and cruise lines dealing with the pandemic? What about train travel? When will ships be able to sail?
Suddenly, having rescheduled our travel plans from June to December seemed like a fortuitous decision. Herb, however, was convinced that even far-away December wouldn’t happen. I tend to see the glass as half full – sometimes too full for my own good – and I had a hard time wrapping my head around not being able to travel at the end of the year. But by mid-June, two weeks before our final payment for the Southeast Asia cruise was due, we cancelled our plans. A month later, the cruise line cancelled all remaining 2020 voyages. My magical thinking had evaporated, replaced by the stark reality that we wouldn’t be traveling anywhere for a long time.
Except to San Francisco. Even though Emily’s hospital would not be allowing visitors, we couldn’t bear the thought of not being there for our grandchild’s birth. We came up with a plan to drive from San Diego, arriving just as the new family would be coming home from the hospital. We were nervous to venture out on the road during the pandemic, but we armed ourselves with every precaution we could think of, even researching rest areas that would be open along the route. Seven-and-a-half hours later, we arrived in San Francisco, and the next morning, we held our beautiful new grandson in our arms.
July also brought an unexpected delight for the blog. A post I had written about our visit to Salalah, Oman, had caught the attention of an editor at CNN Arabic. She was interested in writing a story about my experience at the ancient lost city of Sumhuram and the Khor Rorī Archaeological Site and also wanted to include some of my photos from that day. It was a real treat to answer her thoughtful questions and revisit a place from a trip that has been such a touchstone in my travel life – especially at a time when travel was on an indefinite hold. And in the most remarkable way the universe sometimes spins, the story ran on the day I met my grandson.
August Until Now
We’ve left some well-worn tracks on the route from San Diego to San Francisco the past few months. Our precautionary radar is always with us, like a new-found passenger in the back seat, a sign of the times we have come to accept. These road trips have caused me to reevaluate how much I’m willing to compromise when it comes to travel. With family visits, there is almost nothing I wouldn’t do to be there. But what about vacations? What about all those bucket lists and world experiences that dance in our future travel dreams?
The thought of wearing a mask while on an airplane or when touring a city or far-away site seemed unappealing to me at first. But now I’m not so sure. It’s far from ideal compared with the way we used to travel just a short time ago. But what if the only alternative is not to travel? What if the travel regulations in 2020 evolve into a new normal, just as the airlines’ three-ounce carry-on liquid rule and TSA inspections did?
How can we play by these new rules and not lose the magic that caused us to fall in love with the idea of exploring the world in the first place?
2021 And Beyond
January will mark the five-year anniversary of The Modern Postcard. This milestone year has been a rather quiet one, a time of retrospection rather than roving. When I began the blog in 2016, my intention was to put meaningful stories and beautiful pictures out into the world, with the hope that sharing my travel experiences might inspire others as well. But it turns out that I have gained far more than anything I could possibly have imagined.
I’m incredibly grateful to all of you for reading and sharing your thoughts and stories here. Some of you are long-time dear friends. Others are newer in the fold, friends we’ve made while traveling, sharing memories forever etched in time and place. And some of you are friends I’ve never met in person, but through our conversations here, I feel as if we’ve always known each other. Kindred spirits in the world of travel.
Several years ago, I took a photo at California’s Mission San Juan Capistrano that has stayed with me ever since. I turned it into our family’s Christmas card that year – with a little poetic help from the great Leonard Cohen – and I think it resonates even more today, as 2020 folds into 2021.
Happy Holidays to all of you. May 2021 bring an abundance of happiness, health and hope and the chance to keep exploring this wonderful world of ours.