A bogey called Covid-19

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on October 30, 2020

Grounded by a virus: “For a travel writer, I’ve travelled unusually little this year.”   -  ISTOCK.COM

A travel writer who has hardly stepped out this year on how the virus has changed both reality and fantasy

* In Australia, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, habitual tourists have such fierce withdrawal symptoms that airlines offer trips to nowhere

* Cyber-tourism is taking off too

* But virtual isn’t my thing and I’m anyway too truthful to morph selfies into other people’s Mount Everest conquests

For the first time ever, just before Halloween, I visit a palmist who answers vital questions — love-life, afterlife — at ₹101 a pop. My query? When will I again travel the world? I’m desperate, for I have strange dreams about eating my camera. But I don’t tell that to the chiromantic practitioner, in case he thinks I’m weirder than his usual clientèle.

After studying my palm, he instructs me to shake cowries while praying to any god of my choice (“editor, please publish this”), and then chuck the shells on the tabletop. He lectures me about what a good man I am. Unfortunately, envious sorcerers in my immediate social circle engineered a black magic spell 11 months ago, which is why I haven’t gone abroad all this while. The time frame stuns me: I returned from Copenhagen a year ago and haven’t travelled since.

Unless I hire him to search my home for hidden hoodoo jujus, there’s no prospect of journeys. At that moment I snap back to reality, because a year ago I lived in a different house, which was demolished months back, so any jinxed hex would be in some landfill now. Yet my problem remains — for a travel writer, I’ve travelled unusually little this year.

With a bogey called Covid-19 in my path, I’ve been lustily reading about other people’s outings across our co-morbid planet: Like that dutiful son from Karnataka who took his aged mother on a three-year scooter pilgrimage across India — during lockdown they sheltered in a tea plantation near Darjeeling — before returning to Mysuru recently.

Meanwhile in Australia, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, habitual tourists have such fierce withdrawal symptoms that airlines offer trips to nowhere. A day-long scenic flight, airline grub, bad coffee, get offloaded where you started. No visa hassles, border crossings, or hotel bookings. And these nowhere-flights sell out! Other airlines (for example, in Thailand) open cafés in stationary airplane cabins where air hostesses serve dainty meals on plastic trays, while Finland’s national carrier supplies business-class grub as ready-to-eat “Taste of Finnair” €10-airfare-boxes in supermarkets — buy the meal and drag your armchair to the balcony and stare at the sky while nibbling foil-packaged reindeer and salad in a plastic bowl, and pour wine into a single-use cup.

Escape pod: In several countries, airlines are offering flights to nowhere to habitual tourists who are experiencing fierce withdrawal symptoms   -  REUTERS/JANIS LAIZANS


Cyber-tourism is taking off too. App- or webcasting guides walk you through sightseeing itineraries for $30-40 and you don’t even have to put on hiking boots. Foodies can learn to fry okonomiyaki from a Japanese chef while a Dharavi dweller will show how to make perfect vada pav.

But virtual isn’t my thing and I’m anyway too truthful to morph selfies into other people’s Mount Everest conquests. Instead, to relive adventures from the past, I’ve surfed travel sites such as the optimal train survival page and air ditto, not to mention the guide to sleeping in airports (, as well as devouring hope-inducing newsletters from travel operators. The other day, RARE (run by Shoba Mohan, who promotes India’s small, independent boutique lodges) sent what sounds like a great step-by-step plan — “travel first out of the house, then out of town, out of state and finally out of the country” — along with a newsletter on adventure tourism. I’m ready for step #2, maybe #3... soon.

I would love to do #4 so as to ferret out classic travelogues by Alexandre Dumas in Parisian antiquarian shops or excavate Manhattan’s bookstalls for Mark Twain’s descriptions of 100-year-old round-the-world journeys. But instead I’ve been reading even older tales to put travel in perspective — such as Res Gestae of Ammianus, a Roman-era war tourist of sorts who survived scary plagues in what is now Turkey (explaining to readers that “pandemic; this causes those who live in dry places to be attacked by frequent heats” though it luckily starts raining and he cools down and survives). The whiny Horace’s catalogue of grievances in the poem A Journey to Brundisium (a 500-km crossing of the Italian peninsula in 38 BCE) includes untrustworthy innkeepers, stomach upsets, malarial mosquitoes, drunk boatmen, roads that get worse by the mile, and one host who burns down a kitchen while roasting meatless thrushes. Then there’s Odysseus’s trip featuring cannibals, sirens and a foul, loathsome pestilence (the term epidemic was coined in Homer’s epic almost three millennia before modern pandemics).

Out of the box: Finland’s national carrier is selling business-class grub as ready-to-eat “Taste of Finnair” €10-airfare-boxes in supermarkets   -  REUTERS/ATTILA CSER



Contemporary literature, too, can whet a daring tourist’s appetite for thrilling places, such as Transylvania of Dracula or nightmares of a Colorado holiday in room #217 at Stanley Hotel (fictionalised as the Overlook) that inspired Stephen King to write the ultimate horror-hotel bestseller The Shining.

Envying these escapades, I meanwhile seek comfort in Seneca who, in his stoic epistles, discussed the pointlessness of travel — “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you?” — and suggested that “You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” Crowded popular places, he said, were outright “pestilential” for the mind. Later thinkers like Immanuel Kant might’ve concurred: After turning 30, Kant never left his home town again and saw leisure trips as empty longing.

It’s perhaps no surprise that local papers are reporting the trend as hyperlocal holidaying (holiday@home) like Kashmiris trekking in tourist-free hills mere hours from Srinagar. As go-near-staycations are becoming the new norm, I bin my bucket list (if you must know, I was planning on touring Central Africa, then Southeast Asia overland, cruise Indonesia and, lifespan permitting, do Machu Picchu and the Galapagos) and instead surf to to see what’s within a day trip from Bengaluru.

The website has a reassuring section with relevant SOPs regarding disinfection of hotels and socially distanced dining (staff wear face shields, hair nets, gloves), while feverish, sneezing, coughing tourists “shall be moved to a containment area or isolation room for further action” and if “suspected guests flee/not traceable, inform the police immediately”. It isn’t hard to see why hotels find it tricky to get back into business, but, on the other hand, booking a nice room should be no problem as tourism in Karnataka is down by 95 per cent, travel agencies have seen a 100 per cent dip in revenues and scores of restaurants have downed shutters.


For me, travel has always been about exploring cuisines. After having munched on alligators in Louisiana and kangaroos in Australia, I’ve been looking to expand my horizons with the aid of books like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (which includes must-eat foods such as Awadhi cuisine, high tea in Darjeeling, and dining at Taj Mahal Hotel), They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from Around the World and Among the Cannibals.

While other foodies in Bengaluru convene on Zoom to gorge on home-delivery biryanis, I, having read in one of the above books about Japanese fish markets, head to Punjab Stores (on Coles Road) to pick up DIY sushi ingredients — way cheaper than flying to Tokyo — and maki-rolling turns out to be unexpected fun.

But eating out, I hope, will not become a past memory, though across the world there’s a proliferation of museums dedicated to edibles — such as the Instant Ramen Noodle Museum in Japan, two Museums of Pasta in Italy, and Mustard Museum in Wisconsin that should perhaps be combined with a visit to the Spam Museum of Minnesota. The Americans have naturally made heritage memorials of their oldest McDonald’s burger joints. Then there’s a Curry Museum in... wait... Yokohama? Drooling, I discover it shut years ago, but was dedicated to reinterpretations of Indian dishes that arrived when British colonialists sailed to Japan in the late-1800s.

The museum had a food court that attracted a million visitors per year to sample idiosyncratic variations such as karei raisu (curried rice with seaweed), curried noodles, blowfish curry (potentially lethal due to nerve poison contained in fugu organs), Chinese curry dumplings and Thai curry. For the record, although Japanese curry officially is milder and sweeter than its Indian ancestor, the museum did offer authentic Indian-style curries as well.

The Currywurst Museum in Germany, dedicated to Berlin’s curry-ketchup-spiced bratwurst-sausages, which were a favourite snack amongst the labourers who rebuilt the city after WWII (even today two lakh currywursts are sold daily in town), has shut down too. There’s no curry museum in India yet, since here curry firmly belongs on dining tables... And this last thought calls for stringent action: I must travel in a hurry to where my next curry awaits, or I’ll be damned for real!



Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; Email:

Published on October 30, 2020

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