Missives from My Locked-Down Friends, From Siberia to Samarkand

On a rainy day in November I dropped a postcard into the “international” slot outside the post office in Greymouth, a quiet town on the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It was perhaps the most ambitious of the 145 postcards I sent in 2019, not because of its content, but because of how it would test the global postal system.

It was addressed to Sergey Yeremeev, who lives on the top of a hill near a blue and white church on Olkhon Island, a sliver of land in Lake Baikal in Russia’s Siberian region. As I walked back to my rental car, I wondered not when it would arrive, but if it ever would, or if it would be forgotten in a dusty pile at some mail relay station somewhere along the way.

On March 10, three-and-a-half months after sending the postcard, and two-and-a-half months after returning to New York from my yearlong trip around the world as the 52 Places Traveler, I received a WhatsApp message from Sergey: a photo of the postcard on a desk in the guesthouse where I had stayed in October. He sent other images, too: close-ups of the thick, long cracks on Lake Baikal’s frozen surface; a video of him, wild-haired and bearded, submerging himself in a metal tub of cold water, snow on the ground around him, as part of the Epiphany festival, when Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ. In between dunks, he screamed, shivered and made the sign of the cross.

By then, much of what had been a surreal, momentous and exhausting year had retreated into the haze of memory. Days after receiving his messages, I, like many New Yorkers, began self-isolating at home as Covid-19 spread through the state and the country. It made those memories feel more like dreams.

When I heard from Sergey again two weeks later, the situation had worsened. The winter tourist season, when travelers come to Lake Baikal to ride ATVs over the ice, was over and it had been a struggle for the many people who depend on tourism: The majority of international tourists usually come from China, which had been on lockdown for months.

Of the 51 places I visited last year (I never made it to the 52nd, Iran, because of security concerns), Olkhon Island felt the farthest away, a place where the light filtered through the sky like the sun was running out of fuel, casting everything in the glow of firelight through a door left ajar. Yet the virus had still made its way there, Sergey told me, with seven confirmed cases in a population of 1,500 people. Schools had closed and the price of vegetables was going up.

“We have the advantage to walk around as there are not many people in the neighborhood,” he wrote.

“I wish you a creative and enlightening quarantine,” Sergey wrote as a signoff.

I looked at my phone and found myself smiling, thinking of late nights talking to Sergey, the Siberian wind rattling the windows. Sometimes, he would close his eyes as he spoke, searching for each word with intense concentration. I wondered if, every Sunday, he still rang the bells outside the church he takes care of despite orders to stay home. I wondered if the wooden poles scattered across the island, totems of the indigenous Buryat religion, were even more covered in colorful prayer ribbons during this time of global desperation.

Buoyed by my conversation with Sergey, I started reaching out to others who had welcomed me during my year of traveling when I showed up to their cities, alone and lost. From inside my apartment, they suddenly were just as close — and just as far — as my friends down the street in New York.

During my year of travel, uprooted from the friends and family of home, I found a sense of community in strangers-turned-friends. When I think back to the places I visited, it is rare that my first image is of a landmark, a waterfall or a restaurant. It is the people that come to mind first and it’s those people I am most grateful for.

I dug through pages of scribbled notes and started reaching out, by email, WhatsApp and Instagram. I asked them variations of “How are you?”, a pleasantry that has taken on a newfound gravitas around the world. The replies flooded in.

From Aalborg, a town in northern Denmark, I heard from Kit Sorensen, a woman with big blue eyes who took days off work to explore Cold War bunkers and get inducted into a secret society with me. She lives alone and misses her parents, who live just a few minutes outside of the city; I had a rare home-cooked meal there last spring. She has had to call off her 50th birthday party in April, a celebration I had been invited to and had strongly considered attending. She told me her solace comes from her morning walks, when she buys a coffee to-go and smokes a cigarette on a quiet, cobblestone street corner.

In Santa Catalina, a tiny town on Panama’s Pacific Coast, Carolina Barberena’s cafe has been closed for weeks. I remember how we sat there and talked for hours, waiting for the punishing sun to lower in the sky so that I could take a languorous stroll to the beach to do even more nothing. The beaches, usually full of surfers chasing the region’s famous breaks, are empty, she said.

“One day, the buses just stopped arriving,” she said.

She has found one silver lining though: a new addition to her family of three. Just two days before the Panamanian government announced a nationwide lockdown, a scruffy, black squirrel fell from a tree and into the river in front of their house. Carolina and her daughter nursed the animal back to health. It hasn’t left their side since.

In every correspondence I rekindled, my friends began with optimism, the little moments that are getting them through. Maybe they could tell that my initial message was a call for help. Davide Piero Runcini, a composer who was temporarily in charge of his father’s B&B when I arrived in the Italian town of Sori, spoke of his garden, where he, his wife, Arianna, and their daughter, Maria, spend the sunny days. It reminded me of one of my last nights in the area, last summer, when Arianna prepared a feast of pastas bought from the factory across the street and we stayed up late, eating in that garden, fighting a protracted war against penny-size bugs that flew into the patio’s lights and landed on our plates.

A composer, Davide can’t even get to his studio one village over without the proper documentation needed to travel under Italy’s strict lockdown rules. He has been working on a shabby upright piano that he has at home, in-between coercing his daughter into “attending” her classes by iPad. Over the course of a week, my first in self-isolation in New York City, Davide sent me videos of his latest work, made up of long, slow pieces that build over time. In one, 6-year-old Maria joins in, carving into a violin like she’s trying to break it.

Jon Reid, an arts organizer in Aberdeen who showed me a city that thrums with creativity once you break past its uniformly gray buildings and oil town reputation, has taken to Instagram to curate playlists based on his vinyl collection.

“It’s nice to see so many people exploring their own creativity during this time, using art as a way to cope with the strangeness,” he said.

I heard about the solace found in nature around the world, something that keeps me going, too. Hurshid Narimov, a tour guide-turned-friend in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, has plenty to be worried about. The country entered lockdown the last week of March and tourism is at a total standstill. People diagnosed with Covid-19 are being put under two-week quarantines, with their phones and bank cards confiscated in case the items are shedding the virus. People found outside their homes without masks risk steep fines. Still, at 4:30 in the morning Samarkand time, Hurshid wrote me on WhatsApp. He had heard a nightingale singing in the streets.

“It’s a sound I’ve only heard in the mountain villages,” he wrote.

Hurshid is using the time to reconnect with family and read up on historical figures like Timur (or Tamerlane, as he’s sometimes referred to in English) and Genghis Khan, so he can be even more informed when his tours start up again. He has been reading the work of Persian poets like Omar Khayyam and Hafiz, who wrote, among other things, “If, like the prophet Noah, you have patience in the distress of the flood, Calamity turns aside, and the desire of a thousand years comes forth.”

As I made my way around the world through phone calls and text messages, I caught glimpses of the places that changed me and the people who inhabit them. From the Falkland Islands, I heard about the handful of people in the hospital and the struggles of Covid-19 testing when every sample needs to go on a 16-hour flight back to Britain. But I also heard about family strolls in sunny weather. “Lots of wild berries to be picked,” wrote Tom Chater, a helicopter pilot who I got to know very well while stranded in the dead of winter, waiting for the winds to calm down.

From Gambia, under a national state of emergency since March 27, I heard about the buckets set up outside grocery stores and pharmacies, for customers to wash their hands in; about the worries of the country’s rural population who live amid the forgotten foreign aid projects I saw while driving deep into the country. “My family and I are safe,” wrote Kemo Manjang, a driver and guide, “but they are not.”

From Tunis, I received a long and meandering email, evidence of someone suddenly having the time to write long and meandering emails.

It was from Amina El Abed, a communications consultant I met serendipitously and who turned into my de facto guide to the city, showing me its thriving nightlife, music and street food scenes. She wrote of many things: how her work was supposed to take her to Morocco, but instead she was sheltered in place at her family’s house, having not fully moved into her own apartment in time for the lockdown; how she had taken to online yoga classes but struggled with some of the positions because they made her feel old; how she stayed up until 2 a.m. every night watching the Spanish television series “Money Heist” with her brother and her dad because, as she put it, “nobody has plans tomorrow.”

I remembered talking to her at length about her life in Tunisia, how she had moved so frequently in and out of the country, following the trends of economic and political upheaval, but had finally started feeling at home. I remembered her telling me about an idyllic vision she had of an undefined future, out in the country and far away from the buzz of the capital city. Now she struck a different tone, a clear result of weeks with nothing but her thoughts.

“There is some solace in feeling that the whole world is in pause mode so you can breathe without FOMO,” she wrote. “But that’s a bit naïve, because most people around me don’t want the pause, they don’t need the soul searching and they can’t afford to spend days looking at the ceiling wondering if they’d be happier as a date farmer.”

There were others I heard back from, too: the family I stayed with on Orcas Island described a quieter — but still busy — life on their farm; a chef in Puerto Rico is taking the time at home to get to know his new daughter; a retired architect who I met on the train from Berlin to Dessau is painting more than he ever has. I’m left wondering about the people whose email addresses and What’s App accounts I didn’t manage to get. The boy in Bulungur, outside Samarkand, who devoted his day to protecting me from a scrum of horseback riders battling over a dead goat in a traditional game of kopkari. The roadside restaurateur somewhere in Georgia’s Adjara mountains who plied me with chacha, a local grappa, and raised toasts to “U.S.-Georgia relations.” The ferry operator on a fjord in Norway who pointed me toward an empty, one-way road and recommended I “just go.” I hope they are well.

Whiplash. Going cold turkey. Zero to 60 except reversed. I have relied on a host of metaphors to think about my transition from perpetual motion to stillness, my world the size of a city block in many ways. It feels trivial to bemoan a temporary end to travel, but there’s more at stake than joy rides to a distant beach. We risk losing the connections we have spent centuries building with the world around us. With airplane fleets grounded and hotels shuttered, when travel resumes, there is no doubt it will look different.

In the meantime, I will be reminding myself, through every intercontinental message I send, and every missive from the world that I get back, why I ever traveled in the first place.

Sebastian Modak was the 2019 52 Places Traveler for The New York Times.

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