In late 2019, I decided to take a hiatus from work travel to spend more time with my family. I was finally tired out by a long career of international development and global sustainability consulting that required more time in the air than on the ground. After months of catching my breath and ready to resume my hectic travel schedule, I was suddenly grounded
When COVID-19 shut down the world’s borders in early 2020, like many, I was in a state of panic and shock. Months of wondering how I could do my job from my dining room table turned into two years of improvising, reflection, and reinvention.
I worked with global clients over the phone, inspected environmental impacts using Google Earth, interviewed communities about social impacts on WhatsApp, and I also spent hours volunteering on Zoom every week with the team at GOOD Travel forging a new path into the unknown for the travel and tourism industry. We explored pathways to connect people and places without anyone actually leaving home. As sustainable travel experts, we were thrilled the planet could breathe again but we worried about what that meant for the almost 1 billion people who rely on the industry for their livelihood.
Borders Open Again
Then in mid-November 2021, I got the call. My first business trip in two years was a go. A visit to remote indigenous communities on the fringes of the Amazon rainforest to assess the social impacts of a renewable power project that would solve electricity shortages in Peru’s urban centers. At the same time, I could do a first-hand assessment for GOOD Travel on the realities of finally relaunching in Summer 2022 our sought-after Moms and Daughters Trip to Cusco. While the business side of my brain was reeling with the excitement of the world returning to usual, the rest of me was paralyzed in fear.
How could I travel during an ongoing pandemic? Many countries were still locked down. Would three vaccinations, two masks, and a lot of hand sanitizer really keep me – and the remote communities I was visiting – safe? Even though I knew no one can enter Peru without a PCR test, did the country share my worry? Was the vaccine equitably provided to all in Peru?
Gone were the decades of packing only minutes before the taxi arrives. I spent days booking in PCR tests, checking insurance rules, researching hotel safety ratings, stocking up on masks, downloading airline compliance apps, getting reassurance from colleagues in Peru, and everything in between. When I arrived at Washington DC National Airport, my anxiety level was at 30,000 feet. Never had I been so nervous to travel in my life.
The flights were uneventful and once outside of the Cusco Airport I was relieved that a two-mask mandate for any person outside of their own home (or hotel room) was law in Peru. Given the previous challenges that COVID had taken on the people of Peru before vaccines were available and mandates were in place, meant strong compliance. My anxiety level decreased the more I saw how seriously the people, and the authorities, were taking COVID safety.
I spent ten days traversing the Interoceanic Highway from Cusco to Quincemil and visiting mountainous communities some 5,000 meters above sea level. It felt strange to be with a driver for that long and only see his smile from his eyes, above his mask. As we have seen with vaccine rollouts around the world - politics, media and skepticism have impacted people's choice to be vaccinated. In Peru, this meant that the farther from the cities I went, the less vaccinated the populations – despite access.
The people in the remote indigenous communities, with whom I would interview from 12 feet away while they were tending to their alpaca or plowing their fields, didn’t feel impacted by the pandemic ravishing the rest of the world. They didn’t need to worry about masks they would tell me.
“Here – we have only the land and the animals to worry about,” one elderly woman told me. As she smiled. The first full-face smile I had seen since leaving my house almost two weeks prior. There is something so incredible about that comment, I thought. The population of her village was 24 and they never walk more than 5 km outside of their area. As the rest of us scramble to keep up with a pandemic that is shifting how we live, work, eat, travel and love, the indigenous people in Peru contently continue their symbiotic relationship with nature.
She later told me as I was departing, “I am glad you came through. I haven’t seen anyone new in a really long time.” She smiled again.
The Importance of Travel
I am glad I came too, I told her. Despite the tests, masks, shots, long lines to board planes, irritable passengers, and other new hassles that require a lot more patience than before, I appreciated this trip more than any other. I remembered why travel is important. To connect. To reflect. To learn. To take this knowledge home. It also reminded me how much responsibility I have as an outsider when entering a small, remote community. My decisions are vital in ensuring the health and safety of those communities allowing me the privilege to work alongside them.
Peru made me appreciate that we can travel again safely. Research, patience, and flexibility are the key factors to success. With the fast pace of life resuming, and a post-COVID world perhaps not too far in the future, a trip to a place like Peru can be a good reminder that there is nothing wrong with slowing down and giving yourself time to appreciate the community in which you are entering. The new and ever-changing rules and regulations for travel also give you more time to plan.
Reflect more on the “why” you are going – even if it is a business trip. And once there, learn to read smiles from behind masks.
Thank you, Peru, for teaching me how to travel again.