By Mary Ann Issac
It seems as though the world has come to a stop. Stepping out of our homes is scary no matter where we live and is even punishable in some countries. (India, where I’m located, is fining people who are out without what they’re referring to as a “valid” reason during a nationwide 21-day lockdown.)
Streets once packed with locals and tourists now resemble ghost towns, and the few who venture out do so masked and are riddled with paranoia. In these unprecedented times, a cough or sneeze can garner death glares from those around, incessant hand sanitizing has become the norm, racial profiling an unfortunate reality (as it has in most parts of the world), and panic buying and stockpiling of groceries the fad.
Amid all this uncertainty many of us are stuck at home wondering how to satiate the wanderlust in our souls. Yet quarantine may be just the time to holistically experience the destination of your dreams. So, I’ve listed a few tips to virtually travel and/or make good “travel use” of your time while you’re staying at home and social distancing. Putting a few into practice now might even change your entire travel experience in the future!
Learn a new language!
Wherever you travel to, it helps to know the local language. Though a few weeks is not enough time to master any language, it’s ample time to pick up a few phrases and understand the basics. People everywhere appreciate it when a foreigner is trying to speak their language, and they instantly smile and become more helpful. Duolingo is a free language learning app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. Babbel is an alternative that lets you register for free and offers the first lesson of every language for free. For one on one learning with a native speaker, sign up on Learnlight. And Rosetta Stone has been around for 25 years.
Learn to cook a new cuisine
Immerse yourself in the culinary delights of the country you eventually plan to visit. Food in a new country can be difficult to navigate. Use the time you have now to learn to cook a paella, rogan josh, sushi, massaman curry, Peking duck, egg tart, shepherd’s pie, or anything else you were waiting to dig into on your next holiday. Not only will the food transport you to your dream destination, it will give you a better understanding of the flavours of the region.
Watch travel shows
Instead of spending all day on Netflix, choose to watch travel shows or documentaries to understand the culture and history of the country you want to visit. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown have covered an incredibly wide range of countries, and are both entertaining and feel like real life. Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, in collaboration with National Geographic, sees the chef venturing into remote corners of the world, interacting with locals and attempting to recreate their food. Of course these are only two, and there’s lots, and lots of ways to access them now, including thru streaming (Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime, etc.) or via YouTube.
[Editor’s note: we also highly recommend Departures, a (Canadian-produced) travel show that saw host (and co-creator/producer) Scott Wilson explore the world with friend Justin Lukach, and do both hilarious and compelling storytelling; spectacular photography (so much a part of any travel show) from co-creator/cinematopher Andre Dupuis. Check out Amazon Prime, and their YouTube channel here.]
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Go on a virtual wildlife expedition
National Geographic online and TV, and Animal Planet, have amazing content about wildlife from around the world. Check out video on wildlife conservation in India, Africa or the Amazon Basin, before heading there on wildlife safaris. Understanding the intricacies of conservation in the particular country and animal behaviour will help a great deal when on a wildlife safari in a new country. To see Nat Geo Wild, and shows/full episodes you likely have to subscribe to a service, but their YouTube channels have cool content, too: Animal Planet YouTube and Nat Geo YouTube.
Celebrate a festival in your own home
Participating in a local festival is one of the best ways to connect with locals, and to understand the history and culture of the place you are visiting. Recreate aspects of some of the upcoming festivals around the world with your family and learn about and connect with a people you might later meet in your travels. Here’s a few in the not-to-distant future just to get you started:
Easter, Sunday (April 12/2020) Celebrated by Christians the world over, many cultures celebrate it in different ways. An easy virtual way to be experience Easter in another country is to prepare an Easter Sunday meal like they would. For example, in Kerala, India, Easter breakfast would typically be a chicken stew served with appam (a pancake made of fermented rice batter), mildly spiced meat cutlets and Kerala beef fry, among other things. In Spain, Easter delights are torrijas (similar to French toast), pestinos (deep-fried fritters flavoured with orange and star anise), and monas de pascua (Easter cakes), among other things.
Songkran Festival of Thailand (April 13-15, 2020) Basically the three-day festival that marks the beginning of the Thai New Year sees people in the streets with water guns having a blast—try this with your kids in the backyard, followed by a traditional Thai meal!
Cinco de Mayo, Mexico (May 5th). A national holiday in Mexico that commemorates its victory over France in 1862; why not celebrate at home by dancing to Mexican music, a Mexican feast, and lots of tequila!
Do a virtual museum tour
Google Arts & Culture is now partnering with more than 2,500 museums and galleries around the world to bring their exhibits online and to your home. Some of the prominent museums include: the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D. C.), Musee d’Orsay (Paris), Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam), Uffizi Gallery (Florence, Italy), National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City), and the Guggenheim Museum (New York).
Do a virtual tour of American national parks
Speaking of Google Arts & Culture, they’ve also partnered with five US national parks to provide virtual tours, so you can experience the wild outdoors from the comfort of your home. See the majestic glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, explore caverns and rock formations of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, enjoy the views from the volcanic coastal cliffs at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, fall in love with the colourful coral reef at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida, and marvel at the red-orange rock formations in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
Watch an opera
If you’ve always dreamed of going to a show at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, now is the time to make it a (virtual) reality. Though all performances have been cancelled till further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a different encore presentation from their “Live in HD” series will be streamed on the Met website, with performances available for 23 hours, from 7.30 p.m. (EST) to 6.30 p.m. the following day. The streams are also available on the Met Opera on Demand apps for Apple, Amazon, Roku and Samsung Smart TV. It’s possible to access the content without logging in by clicking “Browse & Preview” in the apps for connected TV, and “Explore the App” on mobile devices and tablets. Follow the link here to get the latest schedule.
Read to see the world through words
There’s nothing like a good book to make people forget about the woes of quarantine. Choose one that can take you to a place completely different from your home and it’ll be a transcending experience.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami is a story set in Japan and focuses on two main characters whose stories are weaved with magical realism, Japanese tradition, and keeps the reader hooked till the very end.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a story about a criminal who flees prison in Australia and finds home in the slums of Mumbai. (For more on Shantaram and other travel book picks, click here.)
40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak is a story based on the friendship of Rumi & Shams of Tabriz and takes the reader back to 13th-century Turkey.
The Ivory Throne by Manu S. Pillai is a biographical work on the royal family of Travancore in Kerala, India, and takes the reader through centuries in time giving deep insight into the lives of the rulers, British involvement and the evolution of Kerala.
The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown are based on the many conspiracy theories around Christianity and the Vatican, making it an interesting read before travelling to Italy and France. (The films based on the books are set in Italy and France too, and wonderful in the sense of just seeing the country.) It will help the reader venture off the beaten path, in search of the lesser known but historically significant churches in the country.
Travel through cinema
Get a little adventurous and try watching a foreign-language film from a destination you would like to visit. This is the best way to understand the pop culture of a country, and a great talking point to connect with locals when you finally make your trip! Here are some movies that I’ve seen and love, and that have successfully taken me on a journey into worlds completely different from mine:
Amelie (French). Follow Amelie through Paris as she helps people find happiness, and during her own quest to find love.
Kumbalangi Nights (Malayalam). Set in Kerala, India, this is a heartwarming and funny story of four brothers who, against all odds, find happiness and acceptance.
Live Twice Love Once (Spanish). A story of a man’s search for his childhood love before he loses his memories to Alzheimer’s.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Hindi). A story of three friends who go on a road trip through Spain for a bachelor’s trip.
Parasite (Korean). This Oscar award-winning film takes you into the life of class struggle in modern South Korean society in a darkly comedic way.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Mandarin). This multi award-winning martial arts tale (in the wuxia genre) is the action thriller you want to watch to be transported to 18th-century China.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Spanish). A fairytale fantasy film that’s a visual spectacle, it takes you back to Spain in 1944 as the main character comes in contact with a labyrinth and a faun.
Spirited Away (Japanese). An animated fantasy film that follows a 10-year-old girl into a world of Japanese folklore, her struggle to free herself and her parents from this fantasy world to return to reality.
Fall in love with the music of a future destination
Music needs no language, and it can instantly take you from your living room to walking the streets of Spain listening to Flamenco music, dancing in India to the tunes of Bollywood, dancing to the Samba in Brazil, or walking the cobblestone streets of Italy listening to beautiful instrumentals. Music of every genre from every culture is available on Spotify and YouTube—all you need is your imagination and you will no longer be on your living room couch!
Make a new (virtual) friend
Practicing staying at home or being in quarantine shouldn’t stop you from making new friends! Join Facebook groups from the country you want to visit, or use Meetup, a website catered for people to get together to do fun things. Get to know someone from a different country on a personal level to make your trip more meaningful.
Care for your mental well-being
During quarantine, it is extremely important to care for your mental well being. Other than picking up the phone to talk to family & friends, there are a few steps you can take to relax, yet be part of a culture from a distant land.
Meditate & practice yoga. Turn on some soothing music, meditate and be transported to Bali or India.
Try your hand at Tai Chi. This ancient Chinese form of exercise was originally created as a fighting art, and is a very calming exercise.
Work up a sweat with Zumba. Originated in Columbia, and now a worldwide phenomenon, Zumba with its latin tunes can be the best way to fight the quarantine blues.
Dance with Bollyfit. Dance your way to fitness to the sounds of fun Bollywood beats.
- Mary Ann Issac is a traveller who hopes to inspire more women to travel solo and authentically enjoy all the planet has to offer! You can find more of her stories on Instagram here @storiesfrommybackpack