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How to See the World When You’re Stuck at Home

By Reif Larsen

Nathan Asplund

Travel and travel planning are being disrupted by the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. For the latest updates, read The New York Times’s Covid-19 coverage here.

The other day, anxious in my desk chair, I became a virtual traveller, staring at photos of public spaces abandoned in the wake of the coronavirus global pandemic: a soccer game in Germany, played in front of thousands of empty seats, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, vacant save for a few confused pigeons, the huge empty courtyard at the Great Mosque in Mecca, usually filled to the brim with worshipers circumnavigating the Ka’bah. These are places built for humans, but there were no humans. It was like peering into what a future might look like after we are gone, a disaster movie without the movie part.

Our country is slowly wrapping its head around this disaster in slow motion. It is clear that life cannot go on as normal, at least for the foreseeable future. We are entering a wartime of solitude. Everyone must do their part. A friend cancelled a lunch meeting with me a few days ago, writing, “I am practising active social distancing at this time. No offence.”

None taken. We are all learning a new vocabulary of inoculation: self-quarantine, shedding period, flattening the curve, inflection point. We are learning the exact dimensions of close contact. We are shaking elbows; we are singing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing our hands (I can’t actually get through the first verse); we are working remotely; we are awkwardly conducting our classes online; we are (for reasons I still don’t quite understand) buying ridiculous amounts of toilet paper. By the time you read this, a whole new reality may have set in.

We are also cancelling our travel plans, in rates not seen since 9/11. Hence, the photos of empty places. Our family was supposed to travel to Charleston, S.C., in mid-March for a short break, but we made the wise decision not to go. Like many American families with young children, we are hunkering down in a voluntary quarantine cocoon, with a pantry full of beans, a shelf full of Roald Dahl, the Hungry Hungry Hippos board game and a whole bunch of uncertainty.

My wife and I are also attempting to ration our intake of online news around Covid-19, as we’re finding the particular cocktail of anecdotes from Italian hospitals, charts of exponential infection rates, and general worry for every older person we know does not do good things for our blood pressure. How does Twitter manage to give you so much and so little at the same time? Needless to say, I have been stress-eating a lot of Cheetos.

Also, I was really looking forward to our trip! It’s been a long, slushy winter. We were craving the break, away from our regularly scheduled programming, away from the tedium of our breakfast routines and Rice Krispies welded to sweatshirts. This is why we travel: to force ourselves to take a breath, to bend space and time, even if just for a moment. We go there so we can come back and appreciate the here.

Over the past year, as the climate crisis has consumed my head and most of my writing projects, I’ve been traveling less and less to there. I’ve been forced to wrestle with the question of whether flying for pleasure can really be ethically justified anymore. As you can imagine, this is deep existential territory for a travel writer.

After much fretting, weighing the culpability of the fossil fuel industry versus that of the individual, I’ve ended up at a tenuous philosophical balance point where I will minimise my air travel, choosing my trips carefully, but I won’t categorically say no to all travel. I will try to plan more trips locally, and I will look for alternate ways to find the magic.

Such a mindset, it turns out, is also useful in the time of pandemics and self-quarantines. Right after we cancelled our trip to South Carolina, Max, my 3-year-old, and I took a break from Hungry Hungry Hippos and attempted to recreate the trip virtually, using one of my favourite tools in the world: Google Street View.

On my computer screen, we pretended to land at the Charleston airport. I provided the narration. We rented our car, which smelled like Twizzlers and a damp pack of cigarettes. On our way out of the airport, Max spotted this T.S.A. Agent dangerously reading and walking by the side of the road. (I like to think she was reading Albert Camus.)

We grabbed some fresh grouper at Crosby’s Fish and Shrimp Co, to be grilled later. Max threw stones into the water. After a bit of wandering, we stumbled across a crazy dance party on the beach. We gazed at Morris Island Lighthouse from the shores of Rat Island. Then we got sidetracked looking at people’s weirdly long walkways to their personal piers and we wondered: How long was too long? Soon Max got bored and left the room and I hung out with this guy for awhile, and though we may have disagreed on more than a few things politically, we bonded on being fathers and the riches-to-rags fate of the Red Sox and our childhood love of the movie “Adventures in Babysitting.”

In short, I was travelling, discovering. Maybe not in the flesh, but I was an explorer nonetheless. I’ve been fascinated with the beguiling world of Google Street View for a decade now. I often turn to it as a research tool when I’m writing a novel but more often than not, I simply use it to practice being a curious human. What an unbelievable resource! An endless fountain for little details. You can traipse down almost any street in the world, unbothered by snow or rain or gloom of night, completely safe, eating your Cheetos, and if you grow weary of your traipsing you can teleport to a completely new place on a new continent.

What I find particularly seductive about Google Street View is that it purports to be a very objective document of our world. It is simply the product of a car (or a motorbike or a hiker) driving down a street taking pictures. But, of course, it is far from an objective document. Humans get in the way, as they always do, filling each scene with stories. We dress up in horse costumes. We leave babies unattended in front of Gucci stores. We see the Google Car go by while we are mowing the lawn and we feel compelled to show the world our nipples. That’s how we roll.

Google Street View also reveals something regular travel cannot: How a place has changed over time. Each time the Google Car passes by, a new collective memory is created. The palimpsest grows. Like this block in front of what is now the 9/11 Memorial, recorded in 200920112014 and 2019. A wound heals in slow motion.

Try it with your own block. Street View has an uncanny way of making the familiar unfamiliar. How many times have I gone and viewed my childhood home from various angles? Or my old school? Or the site of my first kiss, now obliterated into a new shopping mall?