“Be careful. They’ve got that virus over there.” The warning came from a family friend, of all people. It was early January, and my travel plans to visit Southeast Asia were finally coming together. The coronavirus was merely a blip on the radar of news stations and (most) governments. I had no idea I would travel during a pandemic in 2020. Or at least, an illness that would become a pandemic. None of us did. But, I was about to find out.
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Let’s rewind for just a moment.
The year was 2019. I was a novice to all things blogging, its newness both an encouragement and a challenge to my writing style. Everything I’d written to date was diary-style. My experience, insights, and voice translated into blog posts that were like an online journal, until I realized that wasn’t the name of the game. The most successful bloggers wrote informational-style posts with plenty of affiliate links and opportunities for the reader to see themselves in the destination. Naturally, I struggled with trying to fit into the industry and keep my own voice.
And along the way, my voice, my style, the very aura, or essence, of my writing fell prey to search engine bots and the intense competition for readers’ attention. One day, I woke up and didn’t recognize what it’d become. My words were a void. They had no character. I didn’t know if I could keep going like this. It didn’t feel worth all the work to look at my own writing and not hear myself.
It’s time to reclaim what this blog is about, and why I started it in the first place. So, friends, with this post, I hope to get a little bit of that girl back. The one whose fingers danced across the keyboard at 2am to get this website up and going. The one who wanted to help others with her experiences, but to do so in a way that only she could.
2020 in its madness has gifted me the opportunity to stop, reflect, and understand what this blog is about, and how it will be going forward. My intention is to write about my experiences of traveling the world solo, with loved ones, with whoever comes along. And while I won’t be throwing SEO out the window — it has made me a better writer in its challenges — I am bringing my own voice back into informational-style posts about what I recommend for your own journey in each destination. With this renewed vision in mind, I have so many exciting developments in store! I hope you’ll come along for the ride. ❤️
I hadn’t used an alarm in weeks. Not since I left the U.S. six weeks prior. It was absolutely exhilarating. With only the sun’s rays to wake me, I rolled over and checked the time. Twenty minutes later, I was on a leisurely walk to get my daily coconut coffee. Vietnamese coffee culture is unparalleled–I could only be enticed to get out of the hotel uncaffeinated by the promise of its dewy sweetness. Today would be long, and I needed to start it off on the right foot.
“Oh, Hanoi’s on lockdown.” I heard the stranger’s voice in my mind from the day prior as I sipped my coconut coffee. I’d met an Australian girl on a tour to Sun World Ba Na Hills, who’d just come from there. I knew Covid-19 existed, but its danger was not yet widely known. It became known to me in that moment. Potently.
A city, an entire capital city locked down that was not in a country where the virus originated. At the time, the coronavirus was spreading rapidly, and mercilessly, within Europe, thousands of miles away from where we sat. As it turns out, a Vietnamese socialite traveled to Italy as the virus spread there like wildfire, then boarded a Vietnam Airlines flight home to Hanoi.
She was infected, and (likely) didn’t know it.
And now, there could also be hundreds of infections tied to that Vietnam Airlines flight.
The intensity of that baffled me, that an invisible threat this great could manage to alter, and even stop, our lives as we once knew them. Little did I know, the coronavirus pandemic was only just beginning to change mine.
A leisurely stroll back to the hotel was the last bit of Hoi An I’ll see for quite some time. I knew I’d like it here, but I didn’t know I’d love it. Part of what made this so sudden and bittersweet is the slowness of life in Hoi An. People savor meals, sometimes for hours. An afternoon rest in the heat of the day is commonplace. One day, I was there writing, learning more about local life, and taking a breather after several weeks of traveling.
The next — I was on a one-way out of there.
Checking out of my adorable hotel room, complete with bright, airy lighting and a bed I could just sink into, involved not only saying goodbye to one of the best places I’ve ever stayed. It also meant saying “goodbye for now” to a new friend, who just happened to be the front desk manager.
After smiles, parting words, and a wave, I was shuttled off to Da Nang airport. Whether or not I’d end up in Nashville was anyone’s guess.
If Vietnam Airlines hasn’t cancelled this flight, maybe I’ll make it back home. Scenarios flashed across my mind, millions of them coming into play. If I couldn’t get on a transpacific in Hanoi, I guess I’d get a hotel in the city. If I did, then at least I could cover a few hundred dollars at the moment. There was a time when that certainly wasn’t the case.
I took a deep breath, collected Nicole, my little pink carry-on, from the driver, and walked into the first of many airports of this travel day.
Contrary to my expectations after the fiasco with the London flight, Vietnam Airlines was flying to Hanoi that day. It was the first time I’d gone through check-in and security without a wait in months — I shiver now to imagine what I would have dealt with had I waited even two more days to leave.
In all my years as a traveler, I have been terrible about keeping in touch with home. I know, I know. Traveling solo makes family and friends a nervous wreck sometimes, but I still am working on the fine art of enjoying where I am, keeping up with work, and checking in with family. I’ll get better at the latter with time.
My mom’s face popped up on my phone screen just minutes after I stepped off the plane. I told her I’d see her soon. Her entire face lit up.
Now, it was time to see if that was actually going to happen, or if I was just kidding myself.
A few moments later
“Hello, miss! International terminal?”
The driver greeted me, waiting for my reply before he asked another passenger. I almost went with him on his tram, but another flyer let me know the official airport bus looks like a city bus and is free. (Side note: If I were in a hurry and couldn’t wait for the airport bus, I likely would have gone with the driver. I can’t personally vouch for this service since I’ve never used it, though.)
Sure enough, just five minutes later, a large bus pulled up bound for my makeshift office of the next eight or so hours. The only missing piece was covered once I got settled on the bus, opened the American Airlines app, and paid $794.35.
HAN – NRT – DFW – BNA.
Let the games begin.
I can only check in at the Japan Airlines counter, since I bought my ticket literally minutes ago. Of course, the counter won’t open for hours. Several hours. A glance around the pre-security area of the international terminal tells me they’ll feel longer than they really are.
After wrestling with HappyCow (why, oh why is there no option to input airport codes and find vegan airport restaurants?), I finally found this spot with a stunning view. Out of the expansive space, only four or five other patrons had the same idea as me. A kind waitress led me to a table with views of the tarmac I’d only seen in the photos of airport lounges. The menu was like most airport restaurants — chock-full of meat and dairy dishes with a couple vegetarian options I could modify.
My dinner was tasty, with flavor combinations I didn’t anticipate. It sticks out in my memory as one of the best airport meals I’ve ever had! I have travel to thank for giving me a more adventurous palate, and an appreciation for when the unexpected works more in our favor than we could have dreamed.
You know, I should really quit being so cheap and get a credit card with lounge access for days just like this one. Note: Eventually, I did splurge on a card with lounge access. Eep!
I found a plug at Burger King. I bought a medium order of french fries just so I could sit at Burger King.
The fries were worth it.
IT’S TIME TO CHECK IN!
A few moments later
I wonder if customs and border patrol guards practice their poker face. They’re very good.
A few moments after that
This airport is nice. It feels like an entirely different world after security!
I found a spot on the floor next to a plug. That’s a win in my book!
*Yawns six times in a row.*
Hour Twelve and Fifteen Minutes
Oh, yay! The cabin crew is boarding. The surprise 8-hour layover is almost over.
Hour Twelve and Thirty Minutes
🇻🇳 🛫 😴 🛬 🇯🇵
There’s just something about Tokyo. Maybe I have an attachment to it since it’s the first city I visited on the continent of Asia, or maybe it’s something else.
Regardless, I always feel at ease when I land in Japan. Like I’ve been holding my breath, and I can release it now. My first stop was a bathroom that’s light years ahead of the rest of the world, complete with toilets that have built-in bidets and floor-to-ceiling doors on its stalls.
There was even a toothbrushing sink that included complimentary toothpaste.
What does it say about me that I felt so pampered by a bathroom?
After one of the best flights of my life, including impeccable service and an entire row to myself, I landed stateside for the first time in months.
“Have you been to China?”
“No, I haven’t.”
And that was it. That’s all they wanted to know then. It was the quickest and easiest U.S. customs and immigration experience I’ve ever had. Ever.
Knowing what I know now, I shudder to think how differently this could have gone if I’d waited even hours to start my journey back to Nashville.
“Welcome to Nashville, y’all…” Blake Shelton’s voice blared throughout BNA.
I was home.
Soon after I landed at Nashville airport, as I watched the news with my mom, the administration announced bans on travel from Europe. In a ripple effect on airlines and travel brands everywhere, the same itinerary I flew from Hanoi to Nashville exploded in price to over $3,000 on American Airlines and almost $6,000 on Japan Airlines.
Photos of Dallas-Fort Worth International showed hundreds of people packed into lines at customs and immigration, due to extra CDC screenings. The same room I passed through with ease was now a wait of several hours. How would people stay safe in these circumstances? It was impossible for them to socially distance in all the madness.
I still can’t believe I made it home right before pandemonium broke out, and my heart goes out to those who weren’t so fortunate.
How Travel Will Be Come 2021 and Beyond
I’m no fortune teller, and I can’t see the future. But, based upon my knowledge of the travel industry, here are my predictions.
Before visitors enter a country, they’ll be asked to prove they’ve been vaccinated. This will likely come in the format of a Proof of Vaccination card, similar to the yellow fever card nations like Brazil require already. In the beginning, proof of vaccination may not even be enough to make passengers exempt from Covid tests.
Airlines will make it easier to earn and redeem frequent flyer miles, but their ticket prices will eventually increase enough to recover from the losses of 2020.
Small tourism businesses may likely not survive this crisis. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them were to close permanently.
Hotels/hostels/Airbnb are in a unique position of still catering to domestic road trippers and those longing for a secluded holiday. I expect fewer losses for accommodation companies.
What do you think will change (or stay the same) about travel once vaccines are widely distributed?
What’s Next for Me, This Blog, and My Journey to 197
As I mentioned above, I see now that trying to be a “good” blogger and keep up with this ever-changing industry has cost me my writing voice. I can’t let that happen again. But, that being said, I love this blog. I have worked hard on it, fought for it, and never given up on it despite constant barriers to success.
The standstill of 2020 has given me the time I needed to strategize for 2021 and beyond. Where I used to focus on competing with all the noise in blogging, I’ve now made an about-face.
Here’s what I’m focusing on for the time being:
- Writing high-quality travel guides full of personality that are enjoyable to read,
- Sharing more travel stories that aren’t purely informational, and
- Creating more products, starting with the Travel Planning Spreadsheet!
How much we’ll get to travel in 2021 is anyone’s guess. All I know is I’ll never stop being a traveler, even if it currently looks more like armchair travel through historical fiction or visiting local finds I’ve never experienced before.
I’m not giving up on my Journey to 197, my goal to visit every country in the world. And I hope you’ll come with me by reading this blog and subscribing to my weekly email newsletter. Traveling the world continues to teach us more about life, and brings us closer to the people we were always meant to be.
I can’t wait to see what it has in store.