Journeys No. 19: Central Coast, California

Low-exposure pandemic travel is possible, especially via an old-fashioned road trip.

On the Road Again 

For a travel writer, I’ve been pretty stationary lately. Yes, I’ve hopped across the Atlantic twice in the three-plus months since the Covid-19 pandemic took over all our lives. But as someone accustomed to surveying half a dozen countries per season, it doesn’t feel like I’ve actually traveled for quite some time. Quarantines, lockdowns and curfews will do that. 

But cabin fever was not what inspired me to change that, though I imagine many people are feeling it by now. It was a simple desire to see something new, which is often what drives me to explore far-flung places. I was up for anywhere, as long as it was somewhere that I’d never been before—and an easy drive from LA. I just wanted a little something new.  

So Keith and I decided to ease back into travel in the safest and most comfortable way possible: a short road trip up California’s Central Coast. We didn’t have to go too far—two-and-a-half hours to be exact—to discover Los Alamos, a quaint Old West destination with lovely food and wine, cool design, and a supremely relaxing vibe. 

In the spirit of new-to-us-ness, we stopped at Santa Barbara institution La Super-Rica Taqueria for a late breakfast on the way up, and found a socially distanced waiting area and masked, gloved cooks preparing our tacos. (This doubled as a much-needed restroom stop, since it seems many gas stations have closed their toilets during the pandemic—something to consider when embarking on a road trip!) 

Discovery is one of the best parts of heading to a new place. But during a global health emergency that can also feel like the scariest. In California at least, masks are required in all public places, and we were happy to observe everyone following the rule to a T in pocket-sized Los Alamos, just off the 101. Not that there were many people around at all. Early in the week when we visited, the antique shops along the main drag, Bell Street, were closed, and the handful of restaurants and wine tasting rooms kept pared-back hours. In other words, social distancing takes zero effort in the mellow Santa Ynez Valley town. 

It’s easy at Skyview Los Alamos, too. This is the 1950s roadside motel that in 2018 was reimagined as a luxury boutique hotel, retaining its original low-profile midcentury architecture but zhooshed up with marble, leather, and velvet, divine bedding, fire pits, outdoor showers, and dreamy fine art photography. Among the many details that caught my eye were rows of distressed straw Teressa Foglia hats in the intimate lobby-slash-shop, an army green Quonset hut, and restored quirky green cactus columns—complete with a wooden woodpecker—that hold up the porte-cochère. 

I was thrilled for all these stimulating new visuals evident immediately upon arrival, just after we savored sandwiches outside the delectable Bob’s Well Bread Bakery (well choreographed, I might add, since they close Mondays at 3 p.m. and don’t open again until Thursday morning). And bucolic views to boot—we looked out over rolling pastures and counted horses in the distance under blue skies. 

Because of Covid-19, there are many rules in place at Skyview, and we felt grateful for all of them. Only one party was allowed inside the lobby at a time, for example, and we were asked what time we’d like our complimentary breakfast (overnight oats, granola and Greek yogurt, fruit, hardboiled eggs, coffee and OJ) delivered contact-free at our door. The room wouldn’t be cleaned during our stay, but we could request extra towels. To ensure social distancing at the sunny blue pool—in which I was so ready to indulge—they were giving each party one two-hour slot per day. (Lucky us, Tuesday was slow enough to finagle both a morning and late-afternoon window.) And we got not only welcome peanut butter cookies, but a glass bottle of cucumber-scented Clean Freak hand sanitizer. 

The hotel’s chic restaurant, Norman, was open with a limited seasonal menu and spaced tables, though we opted to have our locally sourced seafood dinner delivered in takeout containers so we could enjoy it in the fluffy bed, wearing waffle-weave bathrobes we requested via text message. To reduce contact, guests are being asked to send queries or desires via text message, and we got prompt, polite replies. 

As it turned out, every meal we ate in Los Alamos was excellent, and came with its own unique ambience. Apart from dining in bed, we chowed down on BLTs and pulled pork with chilled local vino under an umbrella at Plenty on Bell, and ventured into an actual indoor dining room for our first date-night dinner in a restaurant since March. That apparent milestone took place at the acclaimed, female-helmed Bell’s, where we’d poked our masked faces in the door earlier to see about a reservation, since it’s currently strictly reservation only. 

After so much time, the excitement of getting a bit dressed up—putting on makeup, even!—to go out felt like embarking on a wild, new experience. Ultimately though, the attentive staff of Bell’s made it feel nostalgically normal. Normal with masks, that is (our waiter wore one that said “Keep calm and wear a mask”), and hand sanitizer hanging out with a bucket of sunflowers and another holding bottles of bubbly and white wine. Social distancing mandates meant our table beside a big potted palm felt wonderfully intimate, more private and romantic than is typical when restaurants pack people into banquette seating mere inches apart. It was the perfect setting for a delicate and flavorful five-course, prix fixe French-meets–coastal Californian meal. My favorite part? Melt-in-your-mouth Parisian gnocchi served with Branden’s mushrooms from a small urban mushroom farm 20 minutes up the highway. (Keith’s Motley Crew Ranch rabbit pâté en croûte blew him away.) I forgot what a difference it makes being served straight from the open kitchen.

It’s amazing how many novel sensations one can fit into 48 hours, especially when seeking something fresh. A holiday doesn’t have to be far away, or lengthy, as we proved with our petite road trip up the coast. If done consciously it also, even in a frightening time, can be quite low risk, for you and your hosts. Outdoor spaces will always be my favorites, and fortunately they’re the safest right now. When a brilliant stroke of pink swept across the sky, Adirondack chairs on the hilltop perch were the ideal place to enjoy the expansive show. It was my first sunset since before the pandemic began, and it felt invigorating. That simple sight felt like a valid reason—or maybe even reward—for venturing out, masks and all. 

No. 18: Flying in a Covid-19 World

My 40-hour voyage from Nairobi to Los Angeles

The Long Way Home 

Air travel these days is an emotional doozy. 

It only took a devastating pandemic to turn flying into a totally foreign act. I should know, as someone who once—in what now seems like another lifetime—took part quite freely and frequently, and has now felt the seismic shift of moving from one continent to another in this strange, scary time. What used to be rather fun is now, honestly, a bit frightening. 

After a month of defeat, booking flights that over and over again were canceled due to mysterious extensions to Kenya’s travel ban, I caved and grabbed a spot on the next repatriation flight announced by the U.S. Embassy, from Nairobi to London’s Heathrow Airport. It was a specially arranged trip operated by Kenya Airways, and subject to sufficient demand—and a medical certificate confirming I was coronavirus-free, included in the inflated ticket price. 

I spent the next week preparing under the assumption there would be enough people to justify the flight and, most importantly, that my test would be negative. A little voice in my head kept nagging, though, What if I have it and I’m just asymptomatic!? I was admittedly a little frantic, trying to get every last cuddle in with my six-week-old nephew, Atlas, while worrying about what the journey home could possibly entail. The world was on lockdown, it was not a hospitable destination. 

Just to make this voyage more challenging, the best connection I could find required a 19-hour layover. I’d emailed the surprisingly helpful Heathrow Airport customer service only to find out that all lounges and airport hotels were closed, and only four total cafes and convenience shops were operating. After much research I found a single nearby hotel that was open. At the same time, PM Boris Johnson made a confusing proclamation about all travelers into the UK being subject to mandatory 14-day quarantine. Did that apply to transit passengers? I had no idea, and could not for the life of me find out for sure.  

The coronavirus test had to happen close to departure, at a particular lab not too far from my sister’s house. With the flight Thursday morning, I went before lunch on Tuesday, and she came along as moral support, holding my hand as the male nurse explained he was going to insert an impossibly long Q-tip deep into my nose and hold it there for 20 seconds. “Will it hurt?” I asked. He paused before replying, “It is not nice.” He was right. It felt like it reached my brain and, though it wasn’t painful, my sister was traumatized. My results were due back in 24 hours, and the packing continued. 

One last blissful walk in a damp Karura Forest (where our temperatures were taken before being allowed in) was an antidote to my rising travel anxiety until I realized it had been more than 24 hours and still no result. I called the lab and, after repeating my name and date of birth a couple times, was assured I’d find the certificate in my email within 30 minutes. What arrived belonged to a man named Joseph, who was apparently also born in 1983. I won’t waste more time explaining the next few frustrating calls (or the conspiracy theory I worked up in my head meanwhile, when the Kenya Airways website was down and phone wasn’t working, that the airline must have suddenly gone under). Ultimately, it was 8 p.m. when I discovered that SARS-CoV-2 was not detected in my sample and thus I would in fact be heading to the airport 10 hours later. 

On the tearful yet shockingly efficient drive (Nairobi’s legendarily terrible traffic has benefited from movement restrictions), something large and black hit the windshield then bounced off—a bird. Was it a bad omen, I wondered? I watched the huge and fiery African sun rise over the horizon through the glass. The outside of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport looked like a highly guarded laboratory, staff in full PPE (masks, plastic aprons, goggles, hairnets and gloves) wielding digital thermometers and even a soldier with a large rifle. Tears were rolling from my red eyes down into my mask (great for hiding ugly crying, as it turns out) when my temperature was first clocked at 34.6 degrees Celsius in the distanced line. A few minutes later it was 35.5. Eventually, I was allowed inside the somber, sparsely populated check-in area. 

I will say this, it may be scary to fly right now, but it sure is efficient. The standard tasks are performed quickly, as everyone wants to minimize contact and time spent within spraying distance of others. Hand sanitizer was everywhere (though I didn’t see any cleaning staff in the act), and people moved out of the way for each other as if we all had Ebola. There was an unnatural quiet as we streamed through a single lane of security. I gingerly picked up a few bottles of water for the trip with my gloved hands at Duty Free, wondering who else had touched them and what they had. (I skipped treats since I'd packed snacks.) Fortunately, the checkout guy lathered up with sanitizer before scanning, bagging and sealing my purchase, and I breathed a sigh of relief. 

The biggest difference between being in an airport during pre-Covid times and post-, I realized as I walked, was the mood. It was missing that buzz of excitement that is signature to a place that’s routinely the gateway to holidays and adventure. Instead, a palpable dread loomed. No one was having any fun at all. 

As I looked around the terminal, at silent people well spaced in rows of chairs, I began feeling uneasy about just how full this flight was looking. I peeked into the tiny, lone coffee shop to find folks packed like sardines—at least from a social distancing perspective. What would have been a perfectly normal scene three months ago now seemed dangerous. I stuck with my water. We began filing into the waiting room (fortunately I wasn’t chosen for more potentially germ-filled bag checks) to continue waiting, in closer quarters. There, the number of bodies combined with a lack of air flow and my mask, latex gloves and socks to create a bit of panic and, I wondered, maybe even a fever. I was unsettled, and my feet were burning up.

I stood there, sweating, as the scheduled boarding time came and went. Forty-five minutes later they called priority boarding and, armed with disinfectant wipes, I headed to my business class seat. It was a splurge I’d made for several reasons: because it was just $240 more than economy (for a nine-hour flight!) and guaranteed me quite a bit more personal, hopefully virus-free space. Still, I was admittedly shocked when a masked man settled into the aisle seat beside me. It was far closer than I’d been with any stranger for months, and I was not into it. But it wasn’t until I used the restroom that I realized how fortunate I was for snagging that spot early: Every seat in that Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner was occupied.

Save the extensive protective gear on passengers and crew, it almost felt like a normal flight, with real (and quite delicious) food and full beverage service and the standard disinfectant spray parade before takeoff. The service—by Kenya Airways staff who before every repatriation and medical supply drop flight had been tested, and after each quarantined for 14 days—was gracious and friendly even with a bit more physical distance. The standard noise-canceling headphones were nowhere to be found, and when I inquired, a flight attendant explained they’d done away with anything people touched frequently that could not be sufficiently sterilized. Blankets were also conspicuously absent. Does that give anyone else serious heebie-jeebies in retrospect? It felt like a being a subject in a great big experiment. 

I wore my mask the entire time, and kept a little bottle of sanitizer in the cupholder beside me, which I used hourly. I did indulge in the fluffy pillow, which I topped with a sweatshirt as an extra layer of protection. Toward the end of what I have to admit was quite a comfortable flight, there was a public health announcement with instructions for how to “stop the spread of coronavirus.” 

I was frightened to enter the U.K, which at the time had the fourth highest coronavirus caseload in the world. So I changed into a medical-grade mask and fresh gloves to disembark, and entered a Terminal 2 devoid of people—gate after gate deserted. It was a ghost town, every shop shut. I felt certain the arrival wouldn’t be smooth, that I’d be told I had to quarantine for two weeks, or at least be questioned about my plans. But as it turned out, the only person who spoke to me was the staffer who reminded me to remove my mask for the camera at the electronic immigration system. There was no temperature check, no query about my departure date, no stamp in my passport. It was unnerving. 

I collected my bags and walked outside thinking, Really? No one wants to know what I’m doing here? A massive queue snaked around the exterior for a flight to Shanghai, some passengers in full hazmat suits. Meanwhile, I stepped right into a taxi that apparently doubled as a time machine, because there was no sign of Covid-19. Five minutes later when we pulled up to the Ibis Styles, I felt a collection of eyes on me—a group of smokers scanned my masked face and gloved hands like I was an alien stepping off a spaceship. 

A pump of hand sanitizer did not greet me at the door, like at all Kenyan businesses. The check-in staff weren’t wearing masks, nor were the other guests. I used a package of Dettol wipes to disinfect all surfaces in my room, and when I discovered a short brown hair on the bed, it was far more disturbing than usual. 

I passed the night as a shut-in, only emerging (mask on, of course) to order takeaway dinner from the bar, where everyone ordered from the same germy menu and some sat drinking pints at tables that were supposed to be out of use. Early in the morning I hopped in the elevator with my luggage and laughed at the sign asking people to social distance—the metallic box was way smaller than six feet, and I found myself irritated when a man presumed to enter on the second floor. Downstairs, a cheerful taxi driver offered to take my bags, but I demurred, saying I’d carry them myself—I was trying to minimize risky contact, after all. He thought I was crazy. I asked him about the lack of temperature checks at Heathrow, and he told me, “No, we don’t do that in England.” 

Terminal 5 was dead when we pulled up, but that didn’t stop him from commenting that by unloading my own luggage I was making it look like he wasn’t doing his job. Inside, it was so quiet the machines had taken over—all I heard was the whirr of motors. The silence was deafening. British Airways, fortunately, was in fine form when it came to distanced check-in lines and counters. I was amazed, though that only two-thirds of the silent, unsmiling passengers were wearing masks. Didn’t these people know where they were? 

After 45 minutes, I made it to the ticket counter and, as I usually do, asked if it’s a full flight. “Yeah, pretty full,” the PPE-free agent told me. “Nooo!” I screamed silently to myself. “Are you blocking off middle seats?” “No.” I was kind of freaking out. There are enough people in line to make this very uncomfortable, and none of them, most likely, were tested for Covid-19 three days ago like I was. Sensing my worry, the agent switched me to an aisle seat in the center section where he promised there would be no one around me, and added that my Los Angeles flight was just one of four that morning. Phew! 

At security, I was relieved to see masks, gloves and hand sanitizer being used by TSA agents, plus disinfectant wipes for the bins. Ironically they were being extra strict about liquids, unpacking and repacking many bags, and I was forced to throw some of my sanitizer stash in the garbage when everything wouldn’t fit in a single plastic bag. When an older man beside me whinged about having to remove his watch and shoes, a stocky agent said politely, “It’s a brand new dawn, isn’t it, sir? And if we want to travel, we all must adapt.” Her words stuck with me, as she’s surely right about the future of going places. 

Word to the wise: Pack plenty of food if you’re flying through Heathrow anytime soon. Nothing was open inside Terminal B, nothing at all. There were so few people milling about before boarding that I worried I was in the wrong place. What full flight? About two dozen passengers, some wearing masks, some not, eventually filed on. The first flight attendant I saw looked completely normal in that pre-corona kind of way, but a colleague quickly asked her to “pop on a mask in case you need to assist anybody.” When I asked a young flight attendant, James, for permission to move rows, he laughed, “There are no full flights these days.”  

I told him about my journey from Kenya the previous day, how everybody had been tested. James was flabbergasted. “What? Everybody?! How is Kenya doing that and not us?” It made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one who found this whole thing totally nuts. 

Naturally, I wiped down my row thoroughly, while wondering if these strangers in front of and behind me healthy. But my anxiety plummeted after takeoff—I was actually finally heading home to Keith, who in advance had asked if I preferred to wait until we were in the car to kiss or if I was comfortable with a quick mask removal in the airport. 

The first announcement alerted me to the fact that I was going to be pretty hungry when I landed 11 hours later. After apparently consulting with food and health experts, British Airways was serving only prepackaged snacks, soft drinks and water. (If you’re someone who likes a bit of alcohol while flying, you’re out of luck!) But we were welcome to eat what we brought. (In my case that meant Double Stuf Oreos.) We were asked to remain in our seats, not visit the galleys, and to press the call bell and raise our hand if we needed anything. 

The food was memorable for all the wrong reasons. There was a half cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich on something called “malted brown bloomer,” served with cheddar crackers, shortbread cookies and a mini Twix. I hoped a cup of tomato juice might serve as nutritional value. Before landing, flight attendants essentially tossed us each a knotted plastic bag holding more shortbread cookies, chocolate and water, plus a warm broccoli leek pastry. It was pretty clear they hoped we would place all our rubbish inside. There were short health screening forms and masks passed out to anyone who didn’t have their own (an LAX requirement). The announcement before landing alerted us we would be asked to stay home for 14 days and monitor our own temperature. 

We exited the gangway one at a time for a “medical check.” When it was my turn, a man with a mask and face shield asked me if I had a fever. He didn’t scan my forehead with one of those ubiquitous-in-Africa infrared thermometers, and I didn’t pass through a thermal screening portal. He simply asked if I had a fever. I said no, and was given a postcard with a CDC website for help with self-monitoring symptoms.

Global Entry, baggage claim and customs were dead—I wouldn’t have been surprised if a zombie walked by. The surreal emptiness of LAX’s Tom Bradley Terminal was actually the best part of the trip, however. I walked up the ramp to arrivals, as I’ve done countless times, and instead of the mass of humanity waiting day and night for their loved ones, I saw a single face over the wall. Keith was there, black mask over his big smile, green eyes twinkling like he’d called in a favor and closed the terminal just for us. Without a soul in sight we went for it, throwing our arms around each other, pulling down our masks and smooching, like lovers reunited in a post-apocalyptic romantic movie. Adapting indeed!  

Journeys No. 17: The Animal Kingdom

A photo essay with a very simple goal: to make you smile, aww and forget your troubles.

For the Love of Baby Animals 

Even from Kenya I feel a weariness setting in for many of us, a sort of exhaustion of ever-changing restrictions and rules, loss, monotony, sadness, isolation and disappointment. Each and every day, travel in the manner to which we’re accustomed seems further and further off. It’s tough to see the light. Opinions—expressed feverishly—differ dramatically on just about everything relating to our collective and individual futures, even on topics as benign as mask wearing (come on, people!). But if there’s one topic on which almost all humans can likely find common ground it’s how adorable baby anything is. 

Newborn people, certainly, are irresistible, as I know firsthand here with my almost six-week-old nephew, Atlas. A two-year-old neighbor named Amelia practically hyperventilates from enthusiasm each time we cross paths on our morning walks as she squeezes her little fists and squats up and down squealing, “baby, baby, baby!! BABY!!!!!” (Admittedly, I do it on the inside, too, every time I look at Atlas.)    

Even more universally beloved, however, are baby animals. It’s nearly impossible to deny the joy derived from a puppy or kitten. And as majestic as we find elephants, the miniature version is infinitely more exciting. The same goes for virtually everything in the African bush: giraffes, zebras, lions, leopards and gorillas, all so fluffy and cuddly in their infancy, even if they’re not exactly small. I remember a safari drive in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park during which we spied litters of pocket-sized warthog piglets, so teeny we’d have missed them without antenna-like tails giving away their location in the tall grass. In the ocean—which I dearly miss, by the way—I always thrill at the sight of a little dolphin swimming among the adults past my surfboard, dorsal fin noticeably petite as it surfaces. And I was happily close to tears the first time I released newborn sea turtles at Careyes on Mexico’s bucolic Pacific coast.   

Every few days from my sister’s backyard in Nairobi I’m lucky to encounter baby vervet monkeys clinging to their mamas through adventures around the neighborhood’s FernGully-like flora, and fuzzy Egyptian goose goslings catching rides on their mom’s back in the lake. I know for me, these little critters—alongside Atlas, of course, who is sweetly sleeping beside me as I write this—have brought much-needed lightness to my days. As silly as it may sound, it’s like they scamper away with my stress and worries. Now it seems, life has an asterisk beside it. The fact of impermanence has never been so obvious. For the first time in years, I can’t say when I’ll be traveling again (much less when you will). But images can be quite transportive, and I have quite the archive. This is my go at a mood board meant to induce—even momentarily—a happier outlook through a feel-good collection of baby animals at their cutest. Here goes! 

The greatest reward after trekking through Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was spending an hour with this three-month-old baby boy mountain gorilla, sucking his thumb and playfully climbing about in the clutch of his mama

On the beaches of Careyes—a dreamy enclave on the Pacific Coast of Mexico in Jalisco— thousands of sea turtles now lay their eggs each year. (When the Sea Turtle Protection & Conservation Center opened in 1983 there were just 10 doing so.) Staffers patrol and keep the eggs safe until they hatch, just before sunset, at which point sea turtle enthusiasts—like myself!—can help unleash them onto rosy sand and watch them scoot to the sea.

Watching an elephant mom and her baby cross a rushing river in Zambia was completely nerve-racking. The water level was well over the little one’s head, but fortunately trunks double as little snorkels! And talk about intelligent—mama stays upstream to ensure her mass keeps him from getting washed away.    

Anyone who’s been to Morocco knows it’s heaven for (stray) cat lovers. This box of kittens in the darling blue and white beach town of Essaouira was too sweet to pass by.

I won’t deny that a voluminously maned male lion is a very cool sight, but my fascination always lies with the cubs. When we spotted these three siblings in Magashi Camp’s private concession inside Rwanda’s Akagera National Park (where I slept cocooned in romantic rose-colored mosquito netting) I was overjoyed, since we had them all to ourselves for their leisurely romp through the savanna.

I hardly slept my last night at Botswana’s Abu Camp, in the prolific Okavango Delta—and not only because I was sad about my imminent departure. I was kept awake by the loudest hippo party ever happening just beyond my tent, or at least that’s what I thought until the sun began to rise and I spied this newborn being protectively watched over by its mother. I was terrified it wasn’t moving, and ran for my guide. By the time we returned, happily, baby was moving and breathing visibly. Appropriately enough, a flock of storks flew overhead a bit later.

Rule of thumb in the bush: The fuzzier something is, the newer. Botswana, so lush and green in the off-season, was ripe with infants of all species—to my delight. Baby zebra fur, I learned, starts off brown and white, and darkens as they age into that slick, iconic motif.

In Time + Tide Miavana’s candy-striped helicopter we landed at Daraina on the mainland of Madagascar, seeking lemurs—and adventure. We got both when we came across a conspiracy (yep, that’s the name for a group of lemurs!) of golden-crowned sifakas, with this little one in tow. The plush critter’s most striking feature was most definitely its long legs, which helped it cling to mom, scratch an itch, and fly from tree to tree.

While on an otherworldly journey through Namibia I was so fortunate to meet Hope, the largest 10-day-old I’ve ever seen. This big baby was a white rhinoceros whose mother had died. Fortunately the N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary took her in, and thanks to special access from Edenic safari camp Omaanda next door, I was one of her first visitors. She squeezed her hornless head through the enclosure and sucked on my fingers, an intense gummy sort of vacuum I hadn’t felt again until Atlas got ahold of my pinkie one late night.

One windy day in Maasai Mara National Reserve! Hairy horn-like ossicones aside, you probably wouldn’t recognize this giraffe as a baby unless you knew they drop to the earth feet first (after 15 months in utero) already standing a towering six feet tall and weighing around 150 pounds. Incredible, huh?

You know you’ve been somewhere too long when you can tell wild animals apart as they traipse through your garden, steal your guavas and treat your roof like a trampoline. Over the last couple months in Nairobi, this particular baby vervet monkey captured me with its constantly startled expressions and kangaroo-like hop.

No. 16: Taketomi Island, Japan

I soak up longevity lessons from active, elderly locals in the famed Blue Zone

6 Secrets of A Long Life from Taketomi Island 

The fabled fountain of youth so many seek may not exist—or maybe it’s dried up thanks to climate change. But I can testify firsthand, those seeking to live well and long can find major inspiration on islands and in corners of the world dubbed Blue Zones. And it’s safe to say these have nothing to do with Botox or fad diets. There are five geographical longevity hotspots with a high incidence of centenarians and low rate of chronic disease: Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; and Okinawa, Japan. 

Fascinated with this concept and curious to understand the genesis, I made a point to visit the latter’s tiny Taketomi Island, one of the most traditional of the prefecture’s isles, on a recent trip to Japan. Okinawa is actually closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan, and on Taketomi there are less than 350 locals, around two dozen cars, one small ferry port and zero police, not even locks on doors. Forget coffee shops or yoga studios. Decidedly raw, it’s alive with flowering hibiscus, flitting butterflies and even a beach with star-shaped sand (the latter is such a wonder!). Stress seems a foreign concept on this laid-back paradise.

Here, life hasn’t changed all that much in the last couple hundred years. There’s electricity, but they could do without it, and cell phones and WiFi, but again, they don’t seem critical. Instead, structures are still built to the same enduring standards they always have been, down to the ubiquitous red roof–topping shisa, a protective toothy lion believed to ward off evil spirits. It’s this way at the single hotel, too, Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, which honors tradition with classical architecture, undulating coral walls and white sand lanes. 

On Taketomi, natives don’t follow Shintoism or Buddhism; they march to the beat of their own drum—a form of animism imbued with familiar aspects of many other beliefs. It’s just one of many ways their lifestyles stray. I watched, listened, and questioned anyone I could to learn why locals are so vibrant at such advanced ages, and came up with a few ideas, below, as to what they’re doing so incredibly right. 

Working with their hands.

I spent my first morning at Hoshinoya with Shosuke Matsutake, whose shock of thick white hair and knobby yet powerful hands, flip-flops and Levi Strauss trucker hat belied his age: 91. The agility and flexibility with which he moved while teaching my mother and me to tightly weave a mat from shell ginger rope would have been impressive for any middle-aged American man. He squatted, cutting dried reeds with a razor blade, for more than 10 minutes, which even my quite healthy 36-year-old knees cannot handle. Shosuke actually invented this method of weaving while working on a rice farm when he was just 20 as means to store food, eventually moving onto pillows and bags. In observing island life I realized handiwork gets the utmost respect (women still weave a specifically patterned minsa belt as their answer to a marriage proposal), and that every person’s livelihood involves some kind of physical activity, not backbreaking, simply active. How could that not improve lifespan? 

Not working toward retirement.

This might be the biggest thing I observed—on Taketomi there’s no such thing as working to a certain age and then sailing off into the sunset aboard a cruise ship, or plodding away in anticipation of that moment when you can finally forget it all and live out your days on a golf course. Here, everyone works, and they work until they expire, so to speak. But it doesn’t rule their lives. They’re not working to get rich, or to reach some magic age when their brain no longer needs to be sharp, and I can’t help but think this difference in intention is massively relevant to their healthy minds and bodies. 

Eating only the freshest food, ideally as they pick or gather it. 

When I asked him why he felt his fellow islanders lived to such ripe ages, Shosuke told me he thinks it’s the food they eat. Seaweed is his favorite (a superfood, it’s stuffed with protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber) and a significant part of the Okinawan diet, eaten fresh in March and April and pickled for the remaining months. Furthermore, refrigeration was not commonly used until recently (there’s no supermarket to be found on Taketomi), meaning most elements were picked, foraged or caught fresh—all local. “When we were farming we eat little pieces of the plant as we go,” said Shosuke. Forget farm to table, it’s farm to mouth on Taketomi!  

Maintaining order, but in a mellow way.

As I plodded along in the long cart pulled by a shockingly large buffalo one morning on a village tour I noticed an islander in gloves, a towel turban and earbuds sweeping the white sand road with a homemade broom. Another day I saw old men leisurely clearing bundles of branches over their shoulders. Nitta-Kankou, the 75-year-old buffalo cart driver, told me each islander must clean his or her home and property every single day; inspections are on Saturdays, and punishment is meted out by announcing whose homes were not up to snuff. Along with keeping clean, their daily ritual approach ensures there’s no stress, only a regular flow of movement. 

Replacing medicine and chemicals with garlic and herbs. 

Instead of taking medicine there are locally grown herbs used for every ailment, I’m told when questioning an 80-something weaver about Taketomi’s reputation. There’s no pharmacy or doctor, they believe the Earth holds cures in its flora—think shell ginger, rosemary, holy basil, lemongrass. Instead of relying on chemicals, everything’s natural, from the herbs flavoring miso soup to the plant dyes used to color fibers and paper for crafts (while they dry in the sun, I’m told, it’s customary to relax and enjoy the fresh air). Garlic is an extremely important and prevalent plant here, a key element in the major fall festival featuring singing and dancing for bountiful harvests, many children and gratitude to nature. 

Appreciating the simple things. 

Shosuke told me (through a translator) soon after meeting, “I’m very happy, I live perfect life.” His idea of perfection is living in a modest home with his wife, children and grandchildren, growing vegetables, and spending time outside making things with materials he gathers himself, smelling their sweet, woody aroma appreciatively as he goes. Two women played a spirited concert at Hoshinoya, harmonizing as one picked at an Okinawan guitar and the other clicked castanet-style wooden instruments, looking more genuinely joyous than I’ve ever seen anyone. I asked 34-year-old Taketomi native and schoolteacher Akira—with whom we cruised around the sea on an entirely handmade-in-cedar sabani boat, one of few still made the traditional analog way—his favorite thing about life here. Akira’s answer? “Freedom. As islanders we swim in the sea when we want, we pray when we want.” 

The allure of this lifestyle is strong. I felt its pull intensely while in Japan, and for weeks after. And now, considering the harsh new realities of an earth in pandemic, I’m especially conscious of the merits in adopting Okinawans’ beautiful naturalism, their uncomplicated satisfaction with life—as long as we’re so fortunate to have it.

No. 15: Nairobi, Kenya

The greatest adventure of all: my sister's home birth in Kenya

The Journey of a Lifetime

The last five years, my life has revolved around going places—the more Edenic, off-the-beaten-track and unknown the better. Setting off for a long trip amid a new landscape thrills me, each surprise encountered or uncovered brings me joy. But bliss, I’ve recently found, is not only attainable on a so-called adventure. Knowledge is not only gained on the road. 

What this time of forced hibernation is teaching me is that experiences are not only results of traditional journeys. Days ago I had the most extraordinary experience of my 36 years, watching a new life enter this world—all without leaving the house. 

I’ve been sheltering in place and social distancing in Nairobi, Kenya, since the middle of March. I’d rushed here early, under looming travel bans, when my sister was 38 weeks pregnant. For the foreseeable, I’m not going anywhere. In fact, for the longest period in my entire life, I’ve not traveled in a motorized vehicle of any kind. These days I’m propelled only by my two feet—and it feels good. (When I finally did have to drive a car this week, in pursuit of supplies, it actually felt unnatural, and oddly serene given Nairobi’s normally nightmarish traffic.)  

Our days have been human-powered. Our legs propelled us on 5km walks through the neighborhood as we waited for baby boy to join us. Walks so beautifully monotonous that they became incredibly the opposite. With enough time and quiet, one can find magic in the mundane. As a journalist I pride myself on noticing tiny details, and that skill has become so honed I now inspect the architecture of new growth on different types of palms, rejoice when surprising flowers burst from a plant barren just 12 hours earlier, and feel mildly intoxicated when each fresh bloom folds open on the sweet-smelling angel’s tears trees. I research species, photograph everything, study, observe. In the mornings I relish the water droplets on leaves; during golden hour I appreciate how everything seems lit from within. Repeating the same route over and over has opened my eyes. I should know every inch of this environment, but as is true with everything natural, living and breathing, it’s changing too quickly.  

Because actually, while the size of my world may have physically shrunk in recent weeks, measured not in thousands of miles now but square feet, it’s expanded tremendously thanks to new life. Time has also become quite elastic. After anticipating any little sign of the start of labor for days (and being tricked on several of them by mellow contractions), things kind of sped by when it actually began. As part of my sister’s birth team, I’d helped prep the living room—fresh tuberose stems, scented candles and tea lights surrounded the birthing pool for which our dad spent six straight hours boiling water in the kitchen when the water heater failed. 

Childbirth is the most natural process in the world, but truly appeared supernatural from my point of view. My slightly type-A, ultra-athletic sister, who can swim miles and walk clear across a gym upside-down in handstand, gave up control and slipped into a state of Zen I’ve never seen from her. Even as active labor kicked off with vomiting, she stayed calm and cool as a cucumber, coached beautifully by her Kenyan midwife and doula, encouraged along by her partner and myself. As much as one can without feeling it firsthand, I understand now why it’s called labor. Through the fatigue, sweat, pain and pushing, she embodied serenity. As she said later, she’s coachable. Shockingly uncomplaining. I’ve never witnessed so intimately how the female body shape-shifts. I was in awe, pride swelling in my heart. She requested for water with a “please” up to the end and, in unintentional moments of levity, asked the midwife occasionally if we could take a break. 

I think she felt the pushing was infinite. “You’re so close!” we promised, hour after hour. Not intentionally lying, but feeling for sure it must happen soon. As I discovered, it is not like you see in the movies. Progress is slow—very slow. (Even as it was fast, compared to most first-time moms.) Finally, with every last ounce of her remaining shaky-legged strength, he emerged underwater, shrouded in his amniotic sac. For a baby who’d hidden his face in each ultrasound, he kept the mystery up as long as he could. Breaking through and clinging to his mama’s chest, he looked truly alien—a shocking shade of blue that, like magic, morphed before our eyes into one perfectly creamy complexion. Eyes searching, curious and open to the world. Miniature toenails on long feet, and ears that seemed to unfold like a flower. 

I know this isn’t a new revelation to anyone who’s had a child, but I am still astonished at how instantly and completely his presence changed everything. Atlas, as he was named a couple days later, doesn’t even feel new. It’s tough to imagine a time he wasn’t here. In the blink of an eye Atlas secured his place in the universe, choosing what I think is the most perfect moment to grace us with his luminous spirit, his pure loving light. He’s everything, and I’m love struck. 

We called him Mr. Baby for the first two and a half days, but I think Atlas is far more appropriate. The Greek titan who held the world on his shoulders. The oversized books of maps we studied as kids, helping navigate around the East Coast on family road trips. He’s already strong (the kicks in utero foreshadowed it), worldly (he’ll hold U.S. and Australian passports, plus have residency in Kenya), unflappable and handsome. A true original. An actual bundle of joy. I see him growing into a curious, outdoorsy soul who garners and gives respect and easily belongs everywhere he goes. Not just carrying the weight of the world, but bettering it.   

But I’m not in a hurry for him to grow. We are all savoring every hour—every minute. Each coo and giggle, smile and smirk, that new baby smell and unimaginable softness of his skin and the almost imperceptible fuzz on it. Now is our time to be present, swaddled like Atlas in our private little universe inside the fence. 

Now I’m taking him on “nature walks” in the yard, my dad—aka babu, Swahili for grandfather—identifying the multitude of vibrant trees and flowers via iPhone app. I’m learning the ways of Kenyans, slowly, by spending hours with my sister’s midwife and doula. They are like encyclopedias. I’m essentially in baby bootcamp, soaking up decades of tips, tricks and knowledge, burps and diaper changes and coconut oil baths. I’ll certainly be prepared when it’s my turn! 

These days I’m counting my blessings not by the number of exotic trips on my calendar, but by the time I get to spend staring into Atlas’ eyes, awed by his exquisite cupid’s bow. In this house, enveloped by lush, electric green; hugging a glittering pond and protected (I like to think) by a troop of monkeys and loud, squawking birds, I’m able to squeeze not only my sister and Atlas, but my dad. Not since I was a teenager—when I by no means appreciated anyone or anything as much as I do now—have I lived in a house with my family, let alone spent so much quality time cooking and eating, laughing, playing games and walking with them. We are missing two important people, however: My mother is home in Georgia, and my boyfriend is sheltering and working from home in LA, with our jungle of plants and video dates as company. 

I call myself a world traveler, even now. Merriam-Webster defines “world” in more than a dozen ways, actually. My favorite in this moment is “the sphere or scene of one’s life and action.” For now, it’s here. And no matter how small, how intimate physically, it’s still possible to feel an expansiveness, whether created by a person or streaming video from halfway around the planet. I believe I’ve learned as much if not more in recent weeks than I would flying around to new places. And this knowledge—and hope—I’ve gained feels very important indeed.

Escape… 

If you’re feeling your sphere is currently too small, you can broaden it virtually with some pretty cool streaming and IG Live opportunities provided by hotels and conservation companies. So many are embracing the chance to share their unique programming with people who previously might never have the chance to experience it firsthand. In this way the hospitality industry is striving to stay alive through generosity. The first I discovered was Singita, who’s sharing safari game drives on Instagram that feel incredibly like the real thing and are simultaneously adventurous and calming. I’m loving that I can revisit Nihi Sumba, a gorgeous property on Indonesia’s Sumba Island, via streaming everything from tarot card readings to arts and crafts and authentic looks at the local culture. Wilderness Safaris, with whom I’ve had indelible encounters in Botswana and Rwanda, is offering up recipes and cooking sessions from their camps. Napa’s Round Pond Estate is hosting virtual sommelier-led wine tastings; Victoria, Australia, has a plethora of tours from art galleries to penguin burrow cams; Rosewood Mayakoba in Mexico is bringing their kids club and spa to virtual life; and Arizona’s Mii Amo is producing guided meditation videos every Monday on Instagram. Some are even offering very generous deals for those already eagerly planning for the future. Casa Palopó, for example, a dreamy boutique hotel with incomparable views of Lake Atitlán, is supporting its staff with an “act now, travel later” initiative of one free night for every paid night booked, plus two massages. If you can swing it, I’d also recommend the optional $20 donation for Pintando Santa Catarina—you can read all about the inspiring project here…and daydream of your next colorful trip. 

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