No. 22: A Yogi’s Journey

Three hundred sixty-five days of yoga stretched not only my body but my mind.

On January 1, 2020, I began a year of daily yoga. The impetus was a promise Keith made to himself, to run every single day. I thought to myself, What can I do every single day that will make me feel good, too? Yoga was the easy answer, and my first session that first day of the year was overlooking the unbelievably picture-perfect crescent-shaped beach Playa Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.  

At first it was easy. I’ve always had a pretty strong yoga practice and, as a former ballet dancer, am quite disciplined with fitness routines. My body always feels so much better when I’m moving, and so it was no struggle at all—in LA, at least. I would go to Wanderlust for classes with my favorite teacher, Rachel Jackson. I’d practice at home, on the sliver of floor available in our apartment. I had an enlightening private session packed with tweaks and tips from a sought-after yoga guru named Ann when I visited Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort. And I’d feel even more energized and powerful on the days I doubled up and did not only my own vinyasa flow but also took a sweat-soaked Pilates-inspired class at The Studio (MDR)

Traveling generally throws my personal routine into disarray, and that was definitely the case when I headed to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, in late January. Flying itself poses a bit of a conundrum when changing time zones so dramatically. In between long-haul flights I’m always searching for a quiet corner of an airport lounge or gate to do breathwork and a short standing routine so I don’t accidentally miss a day. The fact this trip was onboard a phinisi-style yacht, Prana by Atzaró, proved the biggest challenge. The boat was stocked with yoga mats, but it turns out balancing on a surface that’s constantly in motion is tough. Little did I know those slightly wobbly early-morning sessions on the top teak deck were foreshadowing sensations to come. 

I couldn’t wait to get to Bali, where I’ve always let yoga—and surfing—rule my days. It was actually on the island, one of the world’s most popular wellness destinations, back in 2014, that I discovered what yoga could be. I tucked into the back corner of packed classes at Ubud’s famed Yoga Barn, inches away from verdant jungle flora and all the scents and sounds that go along with them, and felt moved to push my body and mind into new, unexplored places. Next, in Uluwatu, I found great pleasure practicing while I watched surfers riding the swell rolling in beneath the open-air shala of Morning Light, at Uluwatu Surf Villas. Thanks to the energetic instructors, I always left sweaty and serene. On many days during my last stint at home in Padang Padang, Bali, I was attending both their early-morning vinyasa and pre-sunset yin-yasa classes, clocking up to three hours blissed out in my happy yoga zone.   

The irony, perhaps, is that due to COVID-19, I wasn’t able to reach the very place my yoga roots run deepest. And oddly enough, it wasn’t until pandemic lockdowns began that I felt most connected to my resolution. I’d discovered a silver lining.

As studios and gyms began shutting and in-person classes were canceled, some of the most inspiring teachers I’ve met around the world started using Instagram to share their gifts of engaging choreography and wisdom. As I spent the first two months of pandemic lockdown in Kenya with my sister, dad and brand-new nephew, Atlas, I happily tuned in for dynamic flows with Marley Vigdorth in Tampa, Florida, and demanding vinyasas with the contortionist-like Tracy Estefane in Beirut, Lebanon. I did an Earth Day session with my wonderful friend Khat Matias in Bali—virtually, of course. And I caught as many of Rachel’s Instagram Live classes as possible considering the time difference. Ultimately, I took every opportunity on my mat, in the grass, to breathe deeply the fresh air of my lush Nairobi environment. 

In those months, yoga helped give me perspective. It forced me to meditate more, and to spend more time appreciating the beauty around me, the sweetness of life. Even if there were scary things going on around me, I could find moments of peace through my practice. Yoga felt like a potent anti-anxiety medication—a natural salve for the creeping sense of unknown.   

But for all that it brought me in the first half of 2020, my relationship to my practice changed most dramatically in mid-June when I discovered we were having a baby! Of course, intellectually I knew growing a human being changes one’s body and movement in huge ways. But I didn’t understand how it would feel until I was actually experiencing it.

It’s not only in physical manifestations that my practice has changed as I’ve shape-shifted in weird and wonderful ways. Many times over I’ve felt like poses that once took no effort suddenly vanished from my repertoire overnight. I had always thought the best classes were the ones that were most difficult. That the most physically advanced feat was the most impressive. I worked, day after day, to perfect things like feather (pincha mayurasana), handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and monkey side plank (visvamitrasana)—the types of things that make people ooh and aah on Instagram. Forearm balances were one of my favorite challenges. As my yoga teacher friends in Bali can attest, I frequently requested core and inversions in class. I was so proud of what I perceived as the proof of my strength and flexibility.  

Years ago, on Christmas morning in New Zealand, my knee punched a hole through the wall of our Airbnb because I saw my sister do scorpion pose (vrischikasana) and I thought, I should be able to do that, too. I suppose competition is part of human nature. But I’m learning there are ways to temper that default impulse.

As we know, pride isn’t always a good quality. For me it’s been baby to the rescue. As my physical body has expanded I’ve found ever-evolving limitations in the shapes I’m able to contort into, forcing me to step back from going upside-down, from cracking open my sternum in aggressively heart-opening poses. Meanwhile, my mindset has shifted dramatically. This journey has been humbling. 

I’ve realized that actually, excelling at demanding physical poses is not the point of yoga. Being able to wrap your ankle around an inconceivable body part is not why we practice. And now that I have a watermelon-sized baby stretched across my abdomen, preventing me from folding in half, I understand that humility may have been missing from my practice. I never judged other people’s ability in a class, so why did I feel I needed to look perfect doing it myself? (My ballet training evidently fueled this pursuit.) 

For years I shunned the use of blocks—I saw them as a crutch. But I finally appreciate that using blocks is about support, and now more than ever, I need it and happily receive it. I’ve developed more patience with myself. Instead of letting ambition drive my movement, I strive for the grace to look inward and decide if what I’m about to do will make me feel good or if it’s about vanity. 

I’ve also gained an understanding of restorative yoga, thanks in big part to teacher Lauren Eckstrom’s incredibly holistic and inspiring “Initiating the Mother" prenatal series on Inner Dimension TV. Since I’ve always enjoyed deep stretching, the more intense yin style has long held appeal. But restorative classes often felt so slow and effortless that my old brain, focused on the superficial, translated that to pointless. At six-and-a-half-weeks pregnant, however, I was ordered to avoid moderate to rigorous exercise for six weeks, which threw me for a big loop. 

I imagined I’d be engaged in all my favorite activities throughout my pregnancy, until the very last moment. So unwilling to give up my daily yoga promise, I adopted a super gentle approach: seated sun salutations, yogic stretching and lots of breathing. Restraint and surrender were hard for me at first, but good for my soul. I had to be zen since there was something—someone—far more important than my ego at play. Taking it easy, as I now know, is sometimes the most beneficial thing of all (especially during a pandemic).  

I learned a lesson when I took a Zoom class focused on the splits (hanumanasana)—something I’ve done easily since I was a kid—and afterward couldn’t walk or even stand up without pain for three days, I’d so overstretched my hip flexors. At many points it has occurred to me, I can no longer do this, and it’s absolutely fine. That last part was a bit of a revelation, that doing less didn’t mean I was any less of a person. 

I never thought I’d be doing chaturanga dandasana on my knees, tree pose with my foot on my calf. But here I am, feeling mini victories when I do these modified versions without toppling over. My perspective is different. I don’t fixate on what is beyond my reach. What I can do and can feel is a brand-new life wriggling around inside me every time I settle into a heavily propped savasana, for baby seems to sense my relaxation and find it an opportune time to kick, punch and jab. I relish every single one of these sensations as my belly rolls and peaks in waves with her power. 

I certainly didn’t set out to do 365 days of yoga with the expectation that I’d be waddling around pregnant for half of them. (Embarrassingly, I’m sure I expected to be in enviable shape—six-pack abs, legs of steel—by 2021.) I also didn’t imagine that my practice would be mostly virtual. Ultimately, it couldn’t have been a better year to go deep, to peer within. I have a newfound understanding of my body, and gratitude and respect for it, too. But most significantly I see that what might feel like physical regression can actually move us forward emotionally. Kindness, to others but also to self, has proven to be the most impressive and important ability of all. That’s true out on the road and when we’re sequestered at home, too. Uncertain and frightening as the world is these days, I have no doubt that for my next journey, childbirth, this year of yoga has prepared me beautifully. 

If you’re interested in more travel stories and big ideas around interacting with other cultures and communities, please check out my new podcast, Conscious Traveler. Season one is now available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and more.

Further reading

Lise Grendene’s vibrant, female art–filled London townhouse in Architectural Digest

Explore domestic destinations with cozy cottagecore vibes in Departures

Journeys No. 21: Los Angeles, California

A series of sweet and safe staycations, from Malibu to Downtown.

Please pardon the lapse in newsletters as I’ve been hard at work these last few months with my fellow travel writer, Eric Rosen, on a brand-new podcast. We launched Conscious Traveler last week, and I’d be thrilled if you’d listen and let me know what you think! (It’s on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.) Today’s episode is about one of my favorite Southeast Asian destinations, Luang Prabang, Laos.   

Staycation, Had to Get Away

So much has happened in 2020. To many I know it feels all bad. But to me—and my soulmate, Keith—it’s actually been the most exceptional year, full of hope and love. We got engaged and are planning our dream wedding in Careyes, Mexico, for 2022 (the pandemic did affect our timing, but we won’t let it stop us). And we’re counting down the days until our daughter arrives, in February 2021! I always knew pregnancy would mean slowing down on the nonstop travel, but COVID has slowed it to way more of a snail’s crawl than I could have ever anticipated. 

In order to scratch the travel itch (and, let’s be honest, habit), we’ve been carefully embarking on a series of short staycations in a few different parts of Los Angeles, exploring other ‘hoods and assimilating for brief stints into disparate environments and yes, cultures—just as one would in another country. This may be on a smaller and less dramatic scale, but it’s offered fresh experiences all the same. 

We started our local adventures by driving a few miles to the legendary “pink palace,” aka The Beverly Hills Hotel, which ironically foreshadowed our own move into a little pink house a few weeks later. It was Keith’s first time there, and my first as an overnight guest—I’ve previously enjoyed McCarthy Salads and martinis at the legendary Polo Lounge. Any worries were quickly assuaged by perfectly PPE’ed staff and a proliferation of chic pale pink hand sanitizer dispensers. In our room, cellophane-wrapped fruit awaited us and fresh, fluffy robes awaited us. By the pool, a sea of crisp striped chaise loungers, well spaced beneath banana leaf–printed umbrellas seemed to anticipate our arrival and desire to stay far away from other guests. The aquamarine pool, a luxurious 60 feet long, assured the integrity of our personal bubbles, too.  

While there were other guests around, it wasn’t enough to make us nervous. And for this unprecedented time, the hotel has created some tailor-made options that pamper with lots of privacy. These experiences include a lush Champagne bath experience, in-suite wine and cheese tasting and DIY cocktail making session. What really spoke to us, though, was the sun-dappled Pink Palace Picnic, which we discovered set up for us down a tropical path in the Crystal Garden, a bucolic wedding venue. Sprawled on a rose-colored blanket, we were surrounded by trays heavy with gorgeous dishes bearing cheese and charcuterie, tea sandwiches, prawn cocktail skewers, a tower of decadent desserts and maybe the best hummus and naan I’ve ever tasted. A throwback playlist of New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys played over a banana leaf–print speaker, and we got lost in the romance of our slow lunch in nature. 

If success in 2020 can be measured in blissful moments you forget about the pandemic, then these staycations of ours have been off the charts. Sure, I had to put on my mask to walk to the restroom when we had the pleasure of hanging out in the adorably kitted-out Gray Malin Cabana the next day. But here I was feeling fancy in an elegant, manicured place totally unique to my home, with a waiter occasionally bringing ‘round miniature banana peach smoothies and piña colada ice cream sandwiches. I was doing yoga on a mat printed in the ubiquitous leaves that somehow never get old, and getting to relax in a luxuriously oversized bathtub. We were having breakfast delivered to our room on a white tablecloth, eating blueberry pancakes in plush robes. It’s these little things that add up to create sensations of excitement and newness so central to travel. 

I felt equally outside my usual environment when we decamped briefly downtown at Hotel Figueroa, whose story also goes back almost 100 years. The DTLA staple has since been spiffed up—with an outsized collection of local art in its soaring lobby and a Klein blue–hued exterior mural by Bella Gomez that I now wear daily in the form of a gifted mask—but originally was erected by the YWCA as a safe haven for solo female travelers in the ’20s. The bustle of a metropolis was evident as we pulled up, yet within the property and, admittedly, especially around the original coffin-shaped pool, hidden by 70-year-old cacti, things felt quite chilled out. It’s an urban jungle in the truest sense. With exceptional cleaning and safety protocols, the hotel never actually closed due to COVID, and has continued to come up with special ways to serve the SoCal community, like with a 26% discount for California residents, an under-the-stars drive-in movie series showcasing BIPOC and LGBTQ stories, and distanced outdoor yoga and Pilates classes. 

It’s of course been ages since I’ve been in a museum or gallery, but wandering through the hotel’s lofty public spaces felt a bit like that, an injection of energy and delight that comes with taking in fresh forms of expression. More recently another Downtown LA experience, at The Hoxton, gave us a splash of that cosmopolitan feeling, not only thanks to skyline views but Sunday morning church bells that had both Keith and myself momentarily questioning if we had been transported to a classic, old European city.   

In The Fig’s vivid yet sanitized urban setting we lazed, munching fish tacos and squash blossom quesadillas from perhaps the safest-feeling eatery I’ve yet experienced. To minimize contact as much as possible, Veranda restaurant has become Veranda Al Fresco, in which guests scan the QR code on their particular numbered lounge chair or seat to place orders on their smartphones, all but eliminating face to face contact until the food and cocktails (and even mocktails, with exotic ingredients that felt like a vacation) is delivered essentially to your lap. Two-hour pool sessions are also scheduled, to limit any potential for crowds. 

During COVID times, surprises aren’t exactly relished, but we got a lovely one while watching the city go by through a window in our bathrobes. This is when it pays to be vocal on Instagram about your affection for pizza. The chef knocked on our door with two pies that riffed off the Mexican theme of Veranda—one particularly dimensional with pepperoni, sweet tomatoes and jalapeños. Pizza wasn’t on the menu, and it most definitely wasn’t expected, but we savored our delicious turn of events, so often a sign that things are going right on a trip. 

For a very different kind of energy and view, we headed out to Malibu for a mellow weekday stay just across the PCH from my happy place, the ocean. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t dream of heading to Malibu without my longboard in tow, but by this point my belly was too big to think of smushing it under me to paddle into a crowded lineup filled with unintended party waves. It was hard to ignore the quiver full of fun boards The Surfrider Malibu loans out to its guests for free, but my consolation prize was a trip out on one of their stand-up paddle boards, where I happily watched the surfers dance across the green waves on repeat from a safe distance. 

The Surfrider is a special spot thanks to its talented young owners, Emma and Matt Goodwin, having taken it from rundown motel to exquisitely curated 20-room boutique hotel just three years ago. Energetically, from the minimalist wood decor (by local furniture makers Crofthouse) and breezy architecture to the friendly staff, it feels designed specifically with bliss in mind. Fragrances of bergamot and cassis drifted from the custom-made ‘Malibu’ candle in our room, setting a calming tone that extended to the large balcony’s cushy lounge chairs, pristine Pacific Ocean view and, most importantly to me, a hammock. In this minimalist bohemian wonderland, the buriti palm hammocks are each handwoven over the course of four months by Amazonian rainforest artisans. (For anyone who can’t make it there in person, I highly recommend checking out these items on their online shop.) 

A stint here is like being inside a dream world in which we’ve somehow been blessed with our very own beach house, complete with chef Jacob doling out beautiful dishes at our pleasure on the rooftop. The guests-only roof, replete with fire pit, umbrellas and chairs that invite you to sit back and sink in, is where we munched brekky burritos and avocado smash under a thick, romantic morning fog, which eventually floated away to allow sunshine to spotlight the growing swell and appreciative surfers. (I reconnected with my camera on this trip, finding inspiration everywhere.) It’s where I devoured a Farm Salad made extra delightful by spring peas and JJ’s Lone Daughter Ranch’s cara cara citrus under a brilliant blue sky. And where under the stars we primed our palettes with the most beautiful scoop of wattleseed- and wildflower-dusted butter and Gjusta bread before tucking into hand-cut spaghetti with Pacific Coast crab and Captain Ben from Wild Local Seafood’s slow-baked catch of the day, in a lobster broth with sweet corn—organic, as everything served is.    

It turns out The Surfrider isn’t only home to beach holidays but foodie ones, too. (Good thing I’m eating for two!) With a little more motivation or time perhaps we would escaped in a complimentary hybrid Mini Cooper to hike Tuna Canyon or Pt. Dume, per the helpful and cute Malibu guide given to us at check-in, or taken a market picnic to a lookout for sunset. (In non-pandemic times it’s likely I’d book an in-room massage and we’d stroll through the Getty Villa or around the Eames House.) In fact, our most ambitious feats were paddle boarding and swimming in the sea just across the street. But as I’m learning about staycations, at least these days, it’s not about how much you do, but how much you’ve let go. The beauty is not in a packed itinerary, it’s in peace—soaking up a fresh environment, reading a good book, and letting someone else do the cooking!    

Further reading:

If you’re local, read about delicious pop-up outdoor dining experiences in both Southern and Northern California

Step inside actors Anna Paquin’s and Stephen Moyer’s meaningful Venice home

Journeys No. 20: Beirut, Lebanon

The tragic explosion in Beirut brought back my eye-opening visit to the resilient city that’s so easy to love.

Habibi, My Love 

When I got a wild hair to visit my sister, Hollyn, in Beirut, Lebanon, in February 2016, the world was a very different place. 

Barack Obama was still our president, and the 2016 election was still crowded with hopefuls (including, to the amusement of many people in Lebanon, Donald Trump). There was obviously no sign of a global medical emergency that might shut down the planet. And despite featuring on many countries’ travel advisory lists, Lebanon seemed poised for, or at least worthy of, another golden moment—back in the ‘60s it was a playground for the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando. Signs of old war (bullet holes, armed military) mingled with undeniable cosmopolitan appeal for culture and history buffs, foodies, party people and even outdoor enthusiasts. 

A lot of people warned me not to go, or expressed shock that I’d willingly travel to Beirut. But truly, I have never felt more warmly welcomed in a place. When I think of Lebanon, the sweet sound of habibi rings in my ears. The Arabic word meaning “my dear” or “my love” is what I heard most, from my sister’s girlfriends, from shop owners, from waitresses. 

Hollyn, a humanitarian aid worker, rightly swooned over the country to which she’d moved the previous fall to work with the Syrian refugees on the northern border for the Irish NGO Concern Worldwide. Beirut, it seemed, had it all. Snow and surf, wineries and vegan eateries, high design and street art, not to mention people of all religions and languages. I heard French spoken as much as Arabic (in fact, it’s referred to as the Paris of the Middle East), admired mosques and cathedrals, and learned the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam, not to mention a little about many Syrian refugees who call it home. 

Stepping outside in Beirut was like stepping into a history book: Roman baths, Byzantine mosaics, underground streets, mosques, cathedrals and the ruins from a handful of eras. From the rooftop of my hotel, the exquisite Le Gray (which at the time was the most beautiful hotel I’d experienced), I could see the cerulean Mediterranean Sea and not-too-distant mountains, as well as the statuesque Blue Mosque and Roman ruins. 

This week’s horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut—the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude earthquake that, under a mushroom cloud of smoke, shattered its way through miles of homes and buildings—is a reminder of just how instantaneously things can change. Of course, thanks in part to the pandemic and an existing economic crisis, Lebanon was not exactly in good shape beforehand either. But this blow is completely devastating. 

Amid the aftermath and heartbreak, I can’t stop thinking about the five days I spent soaking up all the wonders and flavors and generosity that defined Beirut. With Alya, a local friend of Hollyn’s charmingly taking on the role of hostess and tour guide, we started with a surprising—since this was the middle of February, and Lebanon is not the tropics—beach day. The sun shone in Byblos (one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world) while we frolicked in the sand among a most diverse crowd down the coast from its historical souk and ancient seaport.  

We wishfully window-shopped our way past attractive concept shops and interior design boutiques (I’m still longing for the mother-of-pearl inlay at Nada Debs) in the ochre- and salmon-hued Saifi Village, known as Le Quartier des Arts—incense wafting with us down seemingly every cobbled street. We shop-shopped in Orient 499, an airy modern artisan craft paradise where I breathlessly collected goodies to fill every crevice of my luggage. And in a gallerylike hideaway behind an unmarked door, I found myself drooling over vibrant handbags exquisitely beaded by the female prisoners and ex-prisoners who make up the Sarah’s Bag social enterprise.   

We went for cocktails inside trendy bars with names like Black and Wunderbar, sipping mojitos within a mess of bearded Lebanese men, felt fancy toasting bubbly on the posh Four Seasons Hotel Beirut terrace, and sweatily danced for hours at one of the city’s many nightclubs (it’s infamous for its nightlife scene as well as, in the summertime, rooftop lounges). We did yoga, practicing with dynamic women whose classes I’m still taking virtually on Instagram

To this day, my obsession with Lebanese food has not dimmed. (In LA, I keep the fire alive with my local favorite, Open Sesame). Every meal in Beirut was a new sensation or adventure. We savored foul and falafel, halloumi and hommus (I’ll admit, after a few days I was firmly on the side of Lebanon in the age-old battle over who’s responsible for the chickpea creation). And feasted on everything from beef bulgogi (at Meat the Fish) and family-style Armenian dishes (don’t miss Mayrig) to smoothie bowls (at the adorable banana leaf wallpapered cafe, Eat Sunshine) and sea bream (in the just-opened, elegant La Petite Maison). 

Basically, I learned, if you have tastebuds, there are endless ways to delight them in Beirut. However diverse the city’s offering (and it effortlessly moves from Sri Lankan to Mexican), though, my favorite meal was the most purely Lebanese. We joined almost a dozen friends for an incomparable Sunday feast at Nicolas Audi à la maison d’IXSIR up in the wine country of Batroun. Inside a traditional, stone-clad Lebanese house, warmed by a raging fire, we occupied a long wooden table—a couple Sunni, some Shia, Catholics, a Jew, a Syrian and a Druze, all kind, well-educated, worldly young women, up on current events. 

The company was as excellent as the vino, and the massive spread even more delightful. I willed my stomach to continue expanding as I returned over and over to add more savory treats, dips and bold, zesty salads. The chefs grilled skewers on the open fire, baking pita and doling out cigar-shaped flaky pastries filled with cheese. I have no idea what the desserts were, but they were more delicate and gorgeous than any I’d ever seen.

In just five days, Beirut broke open my world, widening my view tremendously. It was my first time in the Middle East, yet it felt so incredibly European. It was arguably the first place I’d gone in defiance of travel advisories, yet I never felt in any danger. It was a part of the world so many think is somber, conservative, and serious. Yet there I was, wrapped up in laughter, light and love. My eyes were stimulated by the beauty and history all around, my mouth excited by new tastes, and my heart energized by warm new friends. I could not wait to spread the word, and return, and I pitched all my editors, eventually writing several stories, including one for AFAR

Tragically, this week’s events force any hopeful visits quite a bit into the future. The work that must be done may seem insurmountable, but if anyone can do it, it’s the Lebanese who in enduring so much have become so incredibly resilient. In the meantime, as the country rebuilds, I’ll be rooting from across the ocean, donating, and dreaming of beautiful Beirut.

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!  

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