My 9 Top Travel Destinations During This Year+ Of Pandemic

No, this isn't a cute list of rooms in my house or a list of the three local parks I've walked in almost every week since March 2020. It's also not a list of glamorous places I traveled to despite public health guidelines. We've been locked down; I only crossed east of Stanyan Street maybe three times in 2020 once the pandemic took over. Instead, I've explored a lot of public stairs. They all look like stairs.

This list, then, is instead a somewhat conceptual view of travel. 

Last spring, when it became clear that the pandemic would be keeping us inside for the foreseeable future, we splurged and brought VR goggles. I am normally dead set against any more electronics in our life, but I saw an ad for the Wander app and abandoned all principles. I had the image of myself literally walking (in place) to Machu Picchu or other grand sites, thereby taking the sting out of pandemic life. 

The app turned out to be far less exciting. You can't walk (in place) anywhere. It's just Google Earth in 3D, controlled by the handsets, and mostly just places where cars can go. Caveats aside, being able to pop on the headset and "travel" somewhere else--anywhere else--to a world and time where people are still out, socializing pre-pandemic, has been a powerful balm. This was especially true during the long wildfire season last fall when we were locked in tight, windows shut, sweating. I looked at a lot of places with water during those weeks.

Is VR a dangerous form of escapism for the rich during a global pandemic? Absolutely. All things in moderation, or, better yet, not at all. If you have access to one, though, here are some specific and thematic places that are uniquely fun to visit in Wander. They're likely also fascinating in person, but the moment captured in Google Earth is what I'm evaluating. I've been all across the globe in the app at this point. I once spent a whole night visiting international train stations, and another gawking at fancy Japanese actual trains. (They have play areas.) My younger kid hates the app, and my older one is only into the International Space Station and the gift shop in the Star Wars section of Disney Land. Maybe your kids will have better taste. The nice thing is, you have the world in your hand, and there's everything to see. So, Wander on.

9. Places I have lived & Places where my family lives now.

One of the first things I did after we got the set was visit all the places I've ever lived. This is probably a standard move, but there's something more to the instinct during pandemic times. Yes, there's nostalgia, but there's also reassuring yourself that you and the people you love exist, that time exists and that the world you remember exists. I like staring at our house in Wander and thinking, I am here looking in there, and I am also in there, looking out at me here, in there. I also find it reassuring to Wander to another house we recently lived in and see the blanket that I am currently holding in my lap, in the window of that house in this other time. We have, indeed, lived.

8. Malta.

I stumbled into Malta last week and haven't yet left. The caves and blue water around Comino, the tiny middle island of this small island nation are frankly unreal looking. (They may in fact be unreal--it's not always clear in Wander what photos have been filtered.) I'm the kind of person who loved reading about houses with hidden rooms and staircases as a kid, so yes, let's look at beaches where you can also explore haunting caves. 

If you're not into water, you may still love the old parts of Valletta, Malta's biggest city. The town seems to be largely composed of the same stone apartment, whose main feature is a protruding window seat built out of wood. The repetition could be dull, except that residents have painted the window seats and main doors the most beautiful shades of green and blue. I like to imagine the passionate debates about the exact shade of forest green that must go down before any painting is even considered. Are there family feuds? Direct me to the novel.

7. Verona's Piazza Bra.

I Wandered into Verona early last year in an effort to stay connected to a good friend who lives in Italy. That country was seeing the worst of the pandemic at the time. (This is, yes, low on the possible actions of solidarity list.) Verona is, of course, the setting for Romeo & Juliet, so it should surprise no one that the city trades on romance. I doubt, however, that they paid the people at Google to capture such a perfectly romantic tableau of Piazza Bra, which is the city's main square. In the photo, it's dusk, there are red hearts hanging from the street lamps across from the Coliseum, people are sitting on benches kissing and a group has stopped on the brick pedestrian street to embrace and talk about a very cute dog. The scene is bursting with so much life. People are touching. No one is in a mask. It feels like the perfect romance of a time forgotten.

6. North Korea.

Is this the second place that everyone visits in Wander? I don't know. There certainly aren't a ton of photos to inhabit in North Korea, but there are more than I expected. So I went to North Korea, mostly to marvel at the idea that I was "in North Korea." The scores of scenes are ordinary and occasionally beautiful. There's nothing salacious or haunting happening, at least nothing that's visible to an uninformed voyeur. I do wonder, though, what it cost the photographers to take these images and get them onto Google. There are a lot of random people's photos uploaded into Wander. A bachelor apartment in Spain, a tiny, cluttered box of a room with a child looking at a gun somewhere in China, a mall dentist in Dubai, people's blurry vacation photos on the African coast, etc. Some of these are stories I wish I could understand better. That is never more true than in North Korea.

5. House of Slaves in Dakar, Senegal.

One of the things I appreciate most about Wander is that I can read about a place in a book and then pop on the headset and get a better--if not actual--feel for that corner of the earth. I read a book where characters got lost around the Philosopher's Walk in Kyoto, Japan, and it was fun to then go look at what it was all about in VR. Similarly, after I read Octavia E. Butler's Wild Seed and some other books that talked about the chain of historic slave ports on the west coast of Africa, I wanted to learn more. Maybe I studied the slave ports in history classes when I was a kid, but if so, I don't remember anything. And it seems really important to know about these places, so we never let them exist again. 

So, I spent a few nights trying to find different remnants of this once enormous network of slaving ports up and down the coast of west Africa. The House of Slaves in Dakar is one of the easiest to access in Wander and is as horrifically blunt and pedestrian in its evil as you'd expect. There's a museum on site which you can Wander through, but the print is too small on the exhibits to read, alas. Being able to zoom in and see the well-worn stone rooms overlooking the Atlantic where slavers separated and then trapped women, children, and men before they were forced into the middle passage, and then zoom out and notice how the particular port links up with massive international trade routes, helped me begin to appreciate the absolutely devastating scale of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There's ... a lot here.

4. The Lakes, Copenhagen.

I have a lot of love for modern Copenhagen. My brother lives just outside the city, and I've spent a fair amount of time visiting. It's a happy place. Jeg tager endda danskundervisning. I started visiting the city in Wander last August when the wildfires came and quickly zeroed in on the lakes in the north center of the city as a virtual refuge. The general area is dejlig in person, just simple human-made small lakes and swan boats with bike paths and more kissing the gentle edges. The Wander photos, though, take the experience to a whole other level. There's a sparkling golden light silhouetting people pushing prams and gliding through the summer air like fairy dust, and everyone is out, moving, chatting, and just enjoying life to the fullest. Copenhagen isn't exactly known for its amazing weather, and maybe this photo series managed to capture a rare perfect golden hour. But capture it did, and it's uplifting to visit if you're ever feeling hopeless on your well-worn pandemic couch.

3. Detroit's Heidelberg Project.

Some of my Wandering is intentional, like the above. Other times, I'm just stumbling around, letting my general curiosity/nosiness lead me around. That's more or less how I stumbled on the fascinating and beautifully quirky Heidelberg Project, which is in a part of Detroit decimated by intentional disinvestment. First I noticed some odd street signs about time, and then some more, and then a funky house and a playground of sorts, and and and. I followed the breadcrumbs and eventually, I was looking at a kind of large-scale art that is rarely seen in the US. Found materials, painted homes, landscaping, you name it. Tyree Guyton is the genius behind the work, and you can learn more about him and the artistic vision he has had to fight for over many years here. I'd love to see this installation in person someday.

2. Parade in Osaka, Japan.

If you type in Osaka, Wander drops you onto a boulevard full of seniors decked in pastel blues who are sitting in folding chairs, watching some sort of celebratory parade go by. I don't have any context for what this celebration is, whether it's civic or religious or some combination thereof. What I do know, is that it is an absolute joy to see huge numbers of seniors sitting closely together, in public, looking delighted. This past year has been a particularly scary time to be of a certain age, and I hope that part of our national COVID-19 healing process will be welcoming seniors like this back into public with glee and fanfare, and respect. Kids, too. Let's do all the parades.

1. Places I was warned not to visit.

If you were raised in the US as a white woman, chances are you were told not to ever visit all manner of places, particularly if you also grew up in Chicago. Don't cross 47th Street, don't take the Green Line, don't go out after dark on your own, that park is too dangerous for you, etc, are you sure you should go into that store? If the place had Black people or even just men--any men--it was not for you. Our white parents thought they were keeping us safe, and learning to be street-smart is certainly important; the gunshots we would occasionally hear from our apartment were certainly real. But there was a cost. 

I realize this happens in other races and cultures and genders, too, in other ways, but I'm going to speak only to my own experience here. So, yes, I remember physically shaking with fear when my family's car broke down on the "bad" side of the Dan Ryan when I was a kid, and being scared to cross the street from the YMCA where I was on the swim team to pick up the bus home--even though I took the bus to the YMCA on the other side of the street. Racial boundaries are somatic.

So, one of the reasons I appreciate Wander is that it can be a first, meager step toward undoing some of this learned fear. I've visited so many of the off-limits (aka, Black) neighborhoods in places where I've lived and just looked. It's a chance to try to adjust my eyes and see places for what they really are, and not just what I've been told to see. You can notice the physical reactions you're not having, you can notice what is legitimately different (e.g., it's high on an isolated hill) and what is absolutely ordinary and indistinguishable from where you live (it's just regular people and homes). 

The last thing I'll say is that my parents always strongly discouraged me from going west of the block where I lived on the South Side of Chicago. I never walked that way, and only drove one block in that direction if I had to. In Wander, I've now roamed all those blocks finally. It is upsetting to realize how close we lived to an elementary school and a large park and a gorgeous boulevard full of amazing historical buildings, all of which were off-limits. Was it a refuge or a cage? The answer is complex, but it needs to be spoken.


Keep holding on, everyone. This pandemic will also soon be of a specific time and world that you can only visit in VR. Hold the line.