Christmas 2020 means most of us will not be traveling, or perhaps even carrying on with our typical traditions. It’s Christmas 2020, and we have to accept the situation as it is, not as we’d like it to be. In matters of public health, we do have some control. It requires us to act in a mature, thoughtful, empathetic, and unselfish manner, traits that are useful and can be honed with international travel.
When traveling, so often it “goes wrong,” and the situation changes beyond our control. We have two choices, throw a temper tantrum like a child and likely make the situation worse, or accept things as they are, control our response and let things flow. I’ve done both and the second approach is far more useful and dignified.
Travel is unpredictable, and indeed, that is part of the appeal, if not the main focus, of independent travel. Those who want everything to be controlled can try a group tour, but even then, things happen.
Some typical examples I’ve experienced personally: the bus in Honduras is eight hours late, and we’re out of local currency, and there are no working ATMs; the directions in Nicaragua aren’t clear because the streets lack signs and we are perpetually lost; we don’t speak the language and are having trouble communicating and must rely on a series of mimes and hand gestures in Slovakia, one tempting one being the middle finger after I’m ripped off yet again by a taxi driver in Bratislava; there’s a strike in Buenos Aries and the trains are not running; thus our planned day-trip out of the city must be postponed; our flight was canceled due to a mechanical issue with the plane, and now we have to spend another night in Accra Ghana rather than go home as planned after 36 hours of no sleep; the people with the Airbnb in Kyiv I booked are not picking up their phone, and I’m locked out in the cold in the middle of winter and no one around that can help… the list goes on and on and on.
When this happens during travel, it’s exceedingly frustrating… and predictable. Yes, after a while, I have learned to expect these things. While it doesn’t make enduring them more pleasant, I am reassured that, in the past, things turned out ok, if not better than I had initially planned. Let’s face it “travel gone wrong” creates the best stories when we’re a few days, months or years removed.
We hopefully learn to adjust and roll with the punches and use that experience when things really go wrong, as in 2020. Not to minimize the suffering of those who’ve lost their lives, livelihood, or loved ones. On the contrary, I respect and empathize greatly what they’ve been through. I recognize how fortunate I have been (so far – knock on wood). I TRY to greet each day with gratitude, not bitterness over what relatively small inconveniences this has caused me. I’m not always successful. Sometimes, more often than I care to admit, I succumb to hopelessness, despair and depression. But then, eventually, the lessons learned from traveling serve as a reminder to “buck up,” “grow up,” and “mask up,” understanding this is next to NOTHING compared to the misery faced by countless ancestors and countless beings on this planet right now.
Wearing a mask is a small ask compared to the relative good it does. Staying home for a few months can be a welcomed change of pace, if we know we’ll eventually be back out in the world again. And let’s face it, this experience has reminded many of us of our relative smallness and unimportance compared to the vast universe and the realization that time will march on, with or without the human race. Perhaps this will inspire a collective shift in how we measure success and our relationships with each other and our mother earth.
A friend of mine typically visits New York City this time of year. She was doing the smart thing and staying home this year, so I volunteered to send her some photos of the Christmas lights in New York City.
I realized that I had never taken in these sights on my own, in my own neighborhood. The reason? The crowds. After living in NYC for a while, I had become anti-crowd. I went to a Rockefeller Christmas Tree lighting only once when I first arrived in New York in the late 90s and have never gone again.
This might be the only Christmas where I can roam, relatively crowd-free, and appreciate the festive beauty that so many millions of people come great distances to see.
As I strolled around last night on an appropriately chilly, wintry evening taking photos, there was still a festive atmosphere in New York City. Yes, there were definitely pockets of people and crowds, especially near Rockefeller Center, the Bloomingdales’ Window Display, and Radio City Music Hall. Yet, the crowds seemed somehow local. They were mostly families with kids, almost all with masks, trying to social distance, and all making the best of a situation they could not control but refusing to let it keep them from enjoying the holidays.
No, we can’t (or shouldn’t) shop till we drop at big department stores, nor can we (or should we) hit big Holiday parties. At least not this year.
We can instead celebrate the silver lining of this moment in our lives. We can rise to the moment to revel in Christmas’s true meaning by giving to others and practicing goodwill towards all our fellow humans.
I’m sure there are many websites with great photos of the New York City Holiday Lights out there, but I’m uploading mine as a gift to you. 2020 was a gift to me that I probably won’t realize until I’ve had a few months or likely years to appreciate. Life changed. Priorities changed. My mortality, which I thought I was all too aware of previously, was cast front and center for a couple of scary months. This usually only happens when one is faced with a life-threatening disease or a near-death experience. For me, it was just another, yet more intense, in a line of (so far) near-misses.
I’ve had my share of close calls throughout my life. I barely made it out of my teens and young adulthood alive, and indeed too many of my friends and family did not. Car accidents, disease, plane crashes, suicide, murder, and in the case of most of my family, old age.
Amid the sadness is a small, joyful cue that I am yet alive and their dying gift to me was this reminder. I have again been reminded that I, and only I, can do with this life what can be done. Will I reach my full potential or fall short? I will most assuredly fall short because I am all too human and I have already wasted so much precious time. While I can’t control or change the past, I can impact the future.
I will undoubtedly waste more time and some things will still happen beyond my control, but there are so many things that will occur within it and I will try to waste less of it.
The future is unwritten, and we don’t know what challenges await, but we know there will be some. But we also don’t see what good things await, and this, we also know, will be coming as well. How we react can determine how much of each is in store for each of us.
With that in mind, I say a silent prayer of gratitude for 2020, and yes, I hope 2021 will be better, and I believe it will. Meanwhile, I’m going to seek the light shining through the darkness of this time because, as you can see from the photos, there is plenty of light… if we will just avoid the crowd, go out and seek it.