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How to see the world when you’re stuck at home

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                When you are quarantined or cancel your trip, you can still go on a journey. The secret? The author Reif Larsen says it’s Google Street View.

    THE NEW YORK TIMES

    When you are quarantined or cancel your trip, you can still go on a journey. The secret? The author Reif Larsen says it’s Google Street View.

THE other day, anxious in my desk chair, I became a virtual traveler, staring at photos of public spaces abandoned in the wake of the coronavirus global pandemic: a soccer game in Germany, played in front of thousands of empty seats, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, vacant save for a few confused pigeons, the huge empty courtyard at the Great Mosque of Mecca, usually filled to the brim with worshipers circumnavigating the Ka’bah.

These are places built for humans, but there were no humans. It was like peering into what a future might look like after we are gone, a disaster movie without the movie part.

Our country is slowly wrapping its head around this disaster in slow motion. It is clear that life cannot go on as normal, at least for the foreseeable future. We are entering a wartime of solitude. All must do their part. A friend canceled a lunch meeting with me a few days ago, writing, “I am practicing active social distancing at this time. No offense.”

None taken. We are all learning a new vocabulary of inoculation: self-quarantine, shedding period, flattening the curve, inflection point. We are learning the exact dimensions of close contact. We are shaking elbows; we are singing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing our hands (I can’t actually get through the first verse); we are working remotely; we are awkwardly conducting our classes online; we are (for reasons I still don’t quite understand) buying ridiculous amounts of toilet paper. By the time you read this, a whole new reality may have set in.

We are also canceling our travel plans, at rates not seen since 9/11. Hence the photos of empty places. Our family was supposed to travel to Charleston, South Carolina, in mid-March for a short break, but we made the wise decision not to go. Like many U.S. families with young children, we are hunkering down in a voluntary quarantine cocoon, with a pantry full of beans, a shelf full of Roald Dahl, the Hungry Hungry Hippos board game and a whole bunch of uncertainty.

My wife and I are also attempting to ration our intake of online news about COVID-19, as we’re finding that the particular cocktail of anecdotes from Italian hospitals, charts of exponential infection rates, and general worry for every older person we know does not do good things for our blood pressure. How does Twitter manage to give you so much and so little at the same time? Needless to say, I have been stress-eating a lot of Cheetos.

Also, I was really looking forward to our trip! It’s been a long, slushy winter. We were craving the break, away from our regularly scheduled programming, away from the tedium of our breakfast routines and Rice Krispies welded to sweatshirts. This is why we travel: to force ourselves to take a breath, to bend space and time, even if just for a moment. We go there so we can come back and appreciate the here.

OVER THE past year, as the climate crisis has consumed my head and most of my writing projects, I’ve been traveling less and less to there. I’ve been forced to wrestle with the question of whether flying for pleasure can really be ethically justified anymore. As you can imagine, this is deep existential territory for a travel writer.

After much fretting, weighing the culpability of the fossil fuel industry versus that of the individual, I’ve ended up at a tenuous philosophical balance point where I will minimize my air travel, choosing my trips carefully, but I won’t categorically say no to all travel. I will try to plan more trips locally, and I will look for alternate ways to find the magic.

Such a mindset, it turns out, is also useful in the time of pandemics and self-quarantines. Right after we canceled our trip to South Carolina, Max, my 3-year-old, and I took a break from Hungry Hungry Hippos and attempted to re-create the trip virtually, using one of my favorite tools in the world: Google Street View.

On my computer screen, we pretended to land at the Charleston airport. I provided the narration. We rented our car, which smelled like Twizzlers and a damp pack of cigarettes. On our way out of the airport, Max spotted a TSA agent dangerously reading and walking by the side of the road. (I like to think she was reading Albert Camus.)

We grabbed some fresh grouper at Crosby’s Fish & Shrimp Co., to be grilled later. Max threw stones into the water. After a bit of wandering, we stumbled across a crazy dance party on the beach. We gazed at Morris Island Lighthouse from the shores of Rat Island. Then we got sidetracked looking at people’s weirdly long walkways to their personal piers and wondered: How long was too long? Soon Max got bored and left the room. I hung out with this guy for a while, and though we may have disagreed on more than a few things politically, we bonded on being fathers, the riches-to-rags fate of the Red Sox and our childhood love of the movie “Adventures in Babysitting.”

In short, I was traveling, discovering. Maybe not in the flesh, but I was an explorer nonetheless. I’ve been fascinated with the beguiling world of Google Street View for a decade now. I often turn to it as a research tool when I’m writing a novel, but more often than not, I simply use it to practice being a curious human. What an unbelievable resource! An endless fountain for little details. You can traipse down almost any street in the world, unbothered by snow or rain or gloom of night, completely safe, eating your Cheetos, and if you grow weary of your traipsing you can teleport to a completely new place on a new continent.

WHAT I find particularly seductive about Google Street View is that it purports to be an objective document of our world. It is simply the product of a driver (or hiker) going down a street taking pictures. But, of course, it is far from an objective document. Humans get in the way, as they always do, filling each scene with stories. We dress up in horse costumes. We leave babies unattended in front of Gucci stores. We see the Google Car go by while we are mowing the lawn and feel compelled to show the world our nipples. That’s how we roll.

Google Street View also reveals something regular travel cannot: how a place has changed over time. Each time the Google Car passes by, a new collective memory is created. The palimpsest grows. Like this block in front of what is now the 9/11 Memorial, recorded in 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2019. A wound heals in slow motion.

Try it with your own block. Street View has an uncanny way of making the familiar unfamiliar. How many times have I gone and viewed my childhood home from various angles? Or my old school? Or the site of my first kiss, now obliterated into a new shopping mall?

There is something tantalizing about being there but not being there, about being everywhere and nowhere at once. The geospatial distance leaves us wanting, hungry for more. I’m enamored of the glitchiness of these human landscapes, the way people’s legs are sometimes separated from their bodies, the way everyone’s faces are blurred out, as if they no longer exist (sometimes they no longer do). This is our world, but it is not our world.

In 2015, London-based publisher Visual Editions approached me to make a digital book for its series “Editions at Play.” The idea was to make a “book” that could be read only on a smartphone. With coding assistance from Google Creative Lab in Australia, I composed “Entrances and Exits,” a short story told through Google Street View, about a lovesick man who possesses a key that could open any door in the world. The story, like Street View itself, has no end.

But I will also be the first to tell you that Google Street View is no replacement for the real thing. Traveling in the real world is about contact: body contact, surface contact, contact with new foods, with new waters, new smells, new light, new languages. Strange that at this moment in time, surrounded by the invisible threat of infection, we are supposed to be denying all contact, to retreat, to barricade our bodies from the world.

So then what to do? When we cannot travel ourselves, when we cannot lay our hands upon the there, how can we virtually re-create that sense of wonder and discovery?

PART OF the answer, perhaps, lies in the model of the travel writer working with the great toolbox of technology. What we often hunger for is a mind meeting a place, to follow a curious person as she processes a foreign landscape, making discoveries, missteps, leaps of faith. And then, at a certain point, we want to peel off and do our own seeing, make our own missteps, take our own leaps. As Camus once wrote, “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.”

There are some models out there for such curated, immersive exploration, like the now-defunct “Night Walk,” a hauntingly beautiful nocturnal tour of street art in Marseille, or the tragically divine “Welcome to Pine Point,” an “interactive documentary” about a mining community in Canada’s Northwest Territories that lasted just long enough for its inhabitants to form a world of memories about the place. These are wonderful pieces of online art but they aren’t quite the same as true travel.

RECENTLY, with the advent of virtual reality headsets that don’t make you throw up everywhere, there has been an explosion in VR travel apps. Google Earth VR has its own version, while others claim to take you to the Grand Canyon or swim with sharks. Not to diminish the educational value of some of these experiences, but strapping a contraption to your head still seems like a form of retreat, not a form of contact. I still prefer meditative videos of people simply walking through cities. As this field grows, maybe we will see more examples of beautiful curation that still leave us room to wander off the path.

In the meantime, maybe the answer is simply to read more books, still the most beautifully curated art form and an activity that is perfectly suited for small group quarantines. I just read C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” to my 6-year-old son, Holt. Reading such books aloud and sharing in the story-contact seems important in a time like this.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a bonkers sea expedition in the tradition of the Old Norse sagas, following the good ship Dawn Treader as it navigates magical archipelagos filled with slave traders and dragons and merpeople on the way to the edge of the world. Holt and I had many discussions about whether there was an edge to our own world. It was a journey I will remember more vividly than most of the real trips I’ve ever taken.

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