Keeping a date with travel in a pandemic year

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, in the summer.
Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, in the summer.PHOTO: MANDY TAY

It's been a year of almost no travel. Yet, we have discovered the joy of travel in refreshingly alternative ways, from remotely exploring countries like Serbia through the eyes of foreign friends to playing tourist at home.

Here are seven ways to keep your love of travel burning bright.

1. CONNECT WITH A FRIEND FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY

Scrolling through my list of contacts, I send a WhatsApp message to Marija Ralic, a friend from Serbia whom I had met at a work conference a few years back.

I ask her about her favourite Serbian food. "Stuffed peppers," she responds.

I immediately search for the recipe and start learning about Serbia's rich cheese tradition. Pule, among the world's most expensive cheeses, is made with the milk of Balkan donkeys.

In no time, I have read up about the Serbian city of Novi Sad, which has won the bid for next year's European Capital of Culture.

Serbia had not been on my travel wish-list, but it is now. When I visit, I will already be past the introduction phase and ready to be friends with it.

2. TEACHING TRAVEL

The last decade has seen confident parents expose children to travel much earlier and more frequently. Children now integrate travel with learning and play, with much enthusiasm.

Now that travel is not possible, keep the flame alive with subscription boxes for kids.

Ms Abigail Chee and Ms Matilda Huang, both 37, are the founders of a subscription service, EllieFun Box, which delivers creative activities in English and Chinese. Prices vary, with the latest Christmas box costing $55.

Ms Chee says: "Learning about world cultures is very much part of the Montessori curriculum and we try to bring that aspect into our boxes and online programme."

For instance, children learn about the four seasons, the countries that experience them and the way people live in these places.

3. TELEVISION, FILM AND BOOKS

For the last few months, I have gravitated towards television shows and films where the geography is almost like a main character.

Bowled over by the movie Parasite (2019) and television series Crash Landing On You (2020), I want to know more about life in South Korea. This leads me to the book Understanding Everyday Life In Korea by Kim Young-hoon. It goes beyond cliches like kimchi and K-pop, which is how I want my travel to be.

Meanwhile, the scripted reality show Made In Chelsea has made me miss London. In the award-winning show, affluent millennials jet off to exotic locales.

I am also glued to Netflix's mystery drama Trapped (2015 to present), set in Iceland. I am captivated as much by the whodunit as the Nordic snow-capped mountain magic.

4. RECHARGE WITH NATURE

Many of us are using this pandemic season to recharge. Some have been evaluating career choices, while others are discovering new talents. We have seen enough Instagram evidence of the chefs, artists and fitness enthusiasts created by lockdowns around the world.

Ms Fern Goh, 46, investor, mother and traveller, used to go on 10-to 12-day vacations every two months, interspersed with two-night trips.

She says: "Since we have travelled so much, we do not feel short-changed in these no-travel days. It is a great opportunity to reset our lives, which were on auto-pilot mode before 2020." She is pleased that her pilates reformer machine is being used every day now.

I don't own fitness equipment, but have been walking around the many green spaces in Singapore. Like many, I have rekindled a relationship with nature.

5. TRY GLOBAL CUISINES

Travel and tantalising our taste buds are linked intrinsically.

Indeed, food was the focal point of my trip to Taipei in January. Seeking out the city's culinary offerings provided tranquillity on an anxiety-filled trip. The pandemic had not been declared, yet dark clouds of an impending calamity seemed omnipresent.

It was nourishing too, for Taipei, with its meat-free options, spoils vegetarians like me in a way few Asian cities can. I delighted in Dreamers Coffee Roasters, a Taiwanese coffee chain that is 100 per cent vegetarian. Din Tai Fung also offers vegetarian and vegan menus in its homeland.

These days, I reminisce about the tastes of travel and am grateful to be living in Singapore with its many delicious possibilities, allowing me to continue "food travel".

6. ORGANISE TRAVEL PHOTOS

In our obsession with capturing every single moment digitally, we seem to have an abundant amount of memories to document, not necessarily savour.

The pause caused by the pandemic is a good time to reflect on and rejoice in journeys we were fortunate to have experienced.

I laugh at how overzealous I was in not wanting to miss anything, which even led me to take photos of signposts to read later.

It has been fun going down the travel memory lane - selecting and sorting images, and reminding myself to live in the moment.

7.  BE A TOURIST AT HOME

Singapore is a treasure trove of hidden gems. Be it adventure, history, luxury, cuisine or just an old-fashioned walk in the park - this year has helped us appreciate our little red dot more.

Ms Tan Su-Lyn, an entrepreneur in her 40s and a mother of three, says: "There are many opportunities for taking children out of their everyday lives without having to leave the country."

Her top tip is jumping on a double-decker bus and taking her children to a mystery destination.

I have resumed my travel ritual of chatting with strangers in Singapore as well.

I am now always eager to exchange a few words with taxi drivers, coffee shop servers or people in a queue.

Just a sense of what they had for lunch, or an anecdote of a haircut gone wrong, brightens my day. My reaction is echoed by a twinkle in their eyes.

In that fleeting moment, we acknowledge each other's smile behind our masks and have made a connection.

For me, that will always be the true essence of travel.

• India-born Vidhu Aul, a Singapore permanent resident, is a travel writer and mother of two.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2020, with the headline 'Keeping a date with travel in a pandemic year'. Print Edition | Subscribe