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The privilege of travel

  • 23 July 2020
Six months grounded and I’d forgotten how to fly. I was due to take my first COVID-era flight, a brief flip from my home in Sydney to Ballina on the NSW mid-north coast for a meeting a few weeks ago. But I wasn’t ready.

It felt anathema to me, the idea of leaving my house with overnight bag in hand and mask pulled tight against my face, occupying confined spaces on public transport and then on the plane, where microbes circulate with indiscriminate ferocity. How strange, to have been transmogrified so swiftly into the opposite of the footloose, easy-going adventurer I once was: a person with a phobia of germs and people and exotic places.

Though my social media feeds were filling with friends’ stories and images of road trips and picnics and fishing jaunts in regional areas as lockdowns eased, I wasn’t yet ready to venture beyond my neighbourhood. It had become my safe place, my own ‘travel bubble’ in which I would wander around my garden and take my usual walk through my suburb’s streets and occasionally set out for the shops a few kilometres away.

But now that bubble was about to burst; in the days leading up to my flight, I’d been waking in the early hours to find a herd of horses stampeding across my chest. The pandemic had made of me a hermit. Travel’s muscle memory had grown flabby through lack of use.

The airport, when I reached it, was a mausoleum, a capacious, polished space echoing with the ghosts of harried travellers.

‘Keep a safe distance,’ warned large stickers glued to the floor.

'It dawned on me now that I hadn’t forgotten how to fly. It was quite simple, really: board the plane and trust you will arrive at your destination. And if you don’t, accept that sometimes things go wrong.'

‘To help maintain social distancing this kiosk is currently unavailable,’ announced a sign affixed to a shuttered self-service check-in booth.

‘Welcome back!’ chimed a billboard. ‘This place hasn’t been the same without you.’

But this place — which I’d passed through perhaps eight times last year — wasn’t the same now that I was back, either. I felt strangely deflated sailing through security without a minute’s wait; in ordinary times I would have killed for such speed and tranquillity. I felt oddly gloomy seeing the shuttered boutiques I would have once passed by without a second thought.

Boarding the plane and pulling