Travelling in the Times of COVID-19: Erstwhile Joys and Present Fears

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Photo: weforum.org

By Rashi Bhargava and Richa Chilana 

Once upon a time, there were families like ours, who would save up an entire year or avail their LTCs (Leave Travel Concession) whenever they could, to travel across the country. We would meticulously plan our trips for the summer vacations (which would mostly be to pilgrimage centres or to Nanihaal), book rail tickets and spend days in the train to reach our destinations. Post 1990s, we could think of travelling differently. The Indian economy opened itself to the (in)famous Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation (LPG) paradigm and the middle class dream of travelling got its wings. The economic liberalisation in India brought with it new and varied employment opportunities that resulted in the expansion of the group referred to as the middle class with a considerable amount of disposable income. In addition to this, the expansion of the aviation industry with many private service operators entering the fray ended the monopoly of Indian Airlines in India’s domestic airline industry, making flying affordable. The newly structured tourism and hospitality industry too made travelling easier than before, also making it possible for us to consider international trips. Much has changed since then especially with regard to the notion, purpose, mode, time, destination and documentation of travelling. The same can be said for the composition of travellers where in the last decade, the growing young population sans their families was possibly the most ardent consumer of the tourism industry.

Notwithstanding the many transformations, nothing could have ever prepared us to be locked down during our eagerly awaited long weekends, end-semester breaks or as we fondly remember the summer vacations. The only outing that we now undertake is to buy groceries or to avail essential services. Some of us had made traveling to a new place, our life’s purpose. Remember the news in 2019 of the couple from Kochi (also called the travelling chaiwala couple Vijayan and Mohana) who saved money for 40 long years by selling tea and coffee only to travel the world together.  For some, it is a window to some peace and relaxation after the pressures of a corporate or a fast paced life while for some, a way to experience the new and the exciting beyond the banality of the everyday. The mushrooming of various travelling/tourist agencies/online portals, budget inns, guest houses, hotels and Airbnb had made traveling well within their reach.

Although the lockdown has been lifted or as we can say that the ‘unlock’ phase has started, the questions that haunt us are: how many of us will be able to travel post-lockdown? Or how will travelling as an individual and social activity transform post-lockdown or till the vaccine is found? Along with a looming threat of an economic collapse which will have serious ramifications on the way we imagine and undertake many activities during our life course, there are regular advisories for physical distancing and zero social contact from various national and international agencies. Consequently, the airlines will have to function, keeping in sync with government guidelines with regard to physical distancing which might lead to fewer passengers on board and a substantial surge in the fares. Individual and family decisions will be made not only under the fear of contagion but also under that of uncertainty and unpredictability.

The act of travelling is also an economic affair. Given that there are massive layoffs in every sector leading to a precarious financial situation, many who would find it difficult to meet their deadlines for EMIs and bills might have to forgo their intent to travel anytime soon and safeguard that money for an uncertain future that might await them. Will the act of saving for a long time for that one vacation return? Will the carefree attitude of the young people change to being a bit more careful and calculated when the situation changes in the post-Covid period, hoping that there is one. The answers to these questions are many and, at times, contradictory and much remains to be seen in days to come.

Yet here we are, thinking about travelling from the confines of our homes, itching to go out and just wander about in a new place. There is comfort in a ticket, in the possibility of leaving everything and going away to escape, rejuvenate or to revel in the luxury of anonymity – the pleasure of being a stranger in a strange land. The threat of contagion has made even the ability to meet friends or socialize a luxury. How then do we look at travelling which entails proximity in a bus/train/plane to many and later staying at a place which may or may not be rigorous in its adherence to hygiene and the basic protocols of physical distancing, as is evident in recent news? Till then, many of us are revisiting places by browsing through some old images and videos of the times when we could travel physically. Some of us are also devouring food and travel shows to derive vicarious/proxy pleasure when we are confined to the presumably safe space of our homes.

In most homes, we find pictures of family trips when the family dressed in the local, traditional clothing as a visible reminder of having ‘been there, done that.’ Those pictures which Pierre Bourdieu calls “monuments to leisure” (Photography: A Middle Brow Art, 1990) are slightly clichéd, possibly embarrassing but adorable reminders of places we visited with our families. David MacDougall in “Photo Hierarchicus: Signs and Mirrors in Indian Photography” (Film, Ethnography and the Senses: The Corporeal Image. 2006) talks of this phenomenon as a diversion which is almost like a party game but has the “formulaic toughness of ritual.” The photographers who know the lay of the land and the poses that would look good are almost like priests guiding the tourists throughout this ritual. When there is a rampant fear of infection, will we be able to participate in this ‘ritual’ by wearing something or holding props that have been touched by umpteen number of travellers before us?

As women travellers a lot of precious time and energy goes into planning a ‘safe’ trip. While choosing our mode of transport or accommodation or local tourist guide it is only after reading a plethora of reviews and recommendations that we zero down on the details of the journey and our destination. The weapons in our arsenal have ranged from umbrellas to pepper sprays to knives sometimes. Corona is yet another fear and danger that we need to guard ourselves against by carrying more ‘weapons’ such as a disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.  Recently when we went to Shillong for a conference, we sampled practically everything offered by street food vendors at Police Bazaar. When we are shrinking from ordering in food through Zomato or Swiggy, how comfortable will we be in trying the local cuisine especially if it is offered at a tapri? Even if we brave the ‘danger’ that travelling might be, the masks which are here to stay are the most visible reminder of the fear lurking within of being infected and worse infecting our ageing parents. What about those who are staying away from their families? If and when they travel to go ‘home’ will they hesitate in indulging in spontaneous displays of affection? Has COVID-19 sounded the death knell for the days of hugs, handshakes or touching feet?

The conventional wisdom of our society, as pointed out by Shilpa Ranade, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Phadke in their book, Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011) is that “a loitering woman is up to no good. She is either mad, bad or dangerous to society.” Who would have thought that we will be living in a time when a loitering anybody is “mad, bad or dangerous to society.”

Bio:
Dr. Rashi Bhargava, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi.
Ms. Richa Chilana, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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