San Francisco: You read that right. I am not writing this story from Karachi. I am writing this as I sit nearly 13,000 miles away from home in a different city, country and continent. You might have been able to guess how I got myself in this situation. I visited a different country during a pandemic. Surprisingly, this has not been my first experience travelling during COVID-19. Before you jump to any conclusions about my life choices, hear me out.
The first time I travelled during a pandemic, I wasn’t even aware of its existence. It was the beginning of March 2020 and Coronavirus had only just begun to make its way to our part of the world. I was going to surprise my nieces in Dubai. I remember my flying experience being the same as usual. No masks, no social distancing, no restrictions. Someone texted me to ask about the COVID situation in Dubai, especially at the airport, and I remember responding with “nothing here”.
10 days later, some of the tourist spots in Dubai began to shut down, I received news about my hometown going under lockdown. I was set to go back to Karachi on 15th March and this time, the airports were empty. We wore masks and gloves on the plane, sanitized every inch of surface we could, you know the drill. As fate might have it, my flight was the last one to land before international borders were closed by the local government. We all know what happened after that.
Fast forward to 2021, and the situation has improved by a margin. The virus is still around but the presence of vaccines has been a ray of hope. Some countries have been doing much better than others, with better access to resources and fewer COVID-19 cases. Last month, I decided to accompany my mother on her trip to the US. I would stay for a few days and then head back home, is what I had planned. Things looked good, especially in California, our final destination. We were all set to leave when four days before our departure, our flight was cancelled. My mind was in utter chaos. I had already applied for leaves at work, our bags were nearly packed, my mother was ready to travel after months of convincing. I posted about my situation on a travel group on Facebook, one which was flooded with panicked queries like mine. Someone suggested I call up my airline and ask them to assign me another flight. Luckily, we found one and were able to fly a day earlier than initially planned. Fast forward three weeks and my flight back home was cancelled as well.
Travelling during COVID-19 has definitely been anxiety-inducing. I hesitate for a moment every time I receive an email from my airline. The uncertainty is also not a plus for a person like me who likes to stick to the plan. It took me a while to accept the fact that I was going to stay in the US a little longer than I had intended. It’s like being sent on a vacation without you needing one. It’s the realisation of how things are always going to span out the way God wants, regardless of what you had planned.
It’s like living in an alternate reality. It feels like I’m in a different world, and not a different time zone. The very virus that has resulted in me being stuck in a different continent has allowed me to experience a different reality, a different normal. Half of the states in the US, including California, no longer have a mask mandate since most of the population has been vaccinated. It’s looking around at bare faces and breathing a sigh of relief while knowing that the same virus won’t let me go back home. While my airline wouldn’t operate more than once a week to Karachi, I can choose from more than 10 flights per day to travel anywhere in the US. The virus has restricted my movement while also making me more mobile than before. It’s like I can travel to any city I want except my own.
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Every time I narrate my story to someone, I am told to make the best out of the situation. I’m stuck in the US, for crying out loud, what could possibly be a downside of that? I have the luxury of working remotely, I have the support of family in both countries, each of them equally willing to welcome me into their homes. I have health. I have the chance of living in the moment and hoping that eventually, my own country will be able to lift COVID restrictions as well.
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Most importantly, travelling during COVID-19 has reminded me of my privilege. It is a privilege to be able to travel, with or without COVID, and it is a privilege to have choices. I am blessed to be able to work even when I’m in a different continent, and I am blessed to be ‘stuck’ in a place where I have family, food and money. I look forward to going back home, but I also look forward to holding on to the patience, optimism and gratitude that my trip has taught me.