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Most of us probably didn’t realize it, but we were already travelling virtually much before covid cast its worldwide tangled web
Most of us probably didn’t realize it, but we were already travelling virtually much before covid cast its worldwide tangled web

Get out and about the world without having to budge

People stuck at home are doing what they best can to go on holiday, virtually, but staycations are only a facsimile of those tours of the Swiss Alps that Hindi films have long been taking Indians on

Most of us probably didn’t realize it, but we were already travelling virtually much before covid cast its worldwide tangled web. It struck me a couple of years ago, when a (then) colleague put on Google Maps to drive from the rear parking area of our workplace all the way to the front entrance of the same building. “Wait," I interjected. “Why do you need an online aid to take you down a short pathway you know like the back of your hand?"

“It’s reflex," she shrugged. “These days, I cannot seem to get from point A to point B without Google Maps."

For the life of me, I couldn’t get a handle on why one needed to take a virtual tour of roads and neighbourhoods that had, once upon a time, been wired into our brains but were now connected to an electronic highway we navigated by the click of buttons. Just like we forgot how to spell easy words or remember phone numbers and birthdays/anniversaries, we had lost sight of ordinary places—and ways to get there.

When we drive, our eyes are in deep focus on virtual reality. Roads, highways, alleys—these pass in transit, all architectural constructs that have stopped leaving a lasting impression.

I used to wonder: How long before cities, countries, continents, water bodies, rain forests, mountain ranges, et al, ceased to exist as distinctive entities and converged onscreen as digital zones, to be “reached" and “seen" at the tap of a handset?

I recently read a Foreign Policy piece titled ‘The Future of Travel After the Coronavirus Pandemic’. Seven writers in know of the sector—including Pico Iyer and James Crabtree—had been invited to pitch in with their thoughts and projections. A section by Vivek Wadhwa jumped out at me straightaway. He wrote, “The next leap forward will come from virtual reality, which is advancing at breakneck speed and will take us by surprise. Our business meetings, family vacations, and leisure activities will increasingly move into virtual worlds. A trip to Tahiti or Mars, perhaps? The holodecks from Star Trek are on their way."

Amped up by enhanced acoustics, fortified by 4D in living rooms and easy restroom breaks, we could be dashing around the world in 80 minutes—yes, I see that turning out to be a projection of the present… and future. Who’s to know, we could get to espy angles of Michelangelo’s cornerstone high Renaissance art at the Sistine Chapel we never thought existed. Or a “morphed" look at Mona Lisa’s eyebrows at the Louvre in Paris. Or get to sing along with Maria von Trapp in the rolling hills of Salzburg. Or order dimsums while trekking along the Great Wall of China.

Taking a break from my globe trot, I have to say something about currently-in-the-dock Bollywood here. The industry—most notably director Yash Chopra—spotted a trend way back in the 70s and 80s. Long-distance travel had not yet taken off in India, so vignettes from Switzerland (preceded by Kashmir) and other “exotic/foreign" locales would routinely be inserted into films using that wild card called “dream sequence". And audiences would be transported, passport-less, to Alpine splendour, and emerge out of theatres feeling like they’d just tasted Lindt chocolates.

In the current pandemic-induced better-stay-at-home-than-be-sorry scenario, most people I know have taken to showcasing photos and videos of earlier travels on social media. They claim they are re-living their travels “virtually" and feeling like they’re on the move. Someone said, “I was feeling low imagining I may not be able to travel for a long time—and then this Facebook ‘challenge’ started. You know, the one where you have to post shots from prior outings. Now it feels like I’m back in the game."

To be fair, we had become semi-converts even before the virus entered our lives. How many of us watched the perfect sunrise (perfect sunset in my case, since I’m never awake early enough to catch the crack of dawn) sentiently? We were only intent on clicking the perfect photo, using gadgets with the best visual resolution and most filters. For a long time, that precise moment of the sun’s emergence wasn’t being savoured with the deep breath of mesmerized awe. Instead, everyone scrambled around, smartphone placed at eye-level vantage, fretting about missing the best shot if one even dared gasp in wonder. A camera would be pointless because it doesn’t enable online posts.

I know a gang of friends who are planning a “virtual" tour of Europe even as I write this. A bunch of professed hodophiles from all over the planet will be huddled around a video call, playing out videos and photos from signature tourism spots, talking about what they’d like to do, what they’d like to eat and drink, and so on. When “in France", for instance, they plan to listen to Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien and tuck into profiteroles, while the women examine Louis Vuitton’s latest handbags and the men discuss Mbappé’s soccer techniques. “Damn, methinks this will be better than the real deal… may be my best trip ever," one of them told me excitedly.

I believe him.

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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