It’s the early days of March, and I can see the first buds of the fiery red Gulmohar tree outside my window begin to bloom. The receding winter leaves behind glorious sunny afternoons with rich blue skies. The third wave of COVID-19 too has rapidly begun to ebb, and there seems to be no better time to step outdoors. Throughout the pandemic, one spoke endlessly about an urgent need to step into the outside world. However, something about slipping out of my flip-flops and printed shorts into heavy sports shoes and pants makes me want to dive deeper under the covers. Stepping outside the door is no longer as simple as putting on acceptable clothing and heading out. It requires hefty preparation and assessment. The preparation of being masked for hours, engaging in conversations while maintaining distance, mapping out the number of people around you — going out as we once knew is no longer the same. Safe to say, my relationship status with the outdoors is, well, complicated.
I remember after the first wave of the pandemic, various groups of friends and family began carefully venturing out to have small picnics. With reports that increased ventilation can lower the chances of contracting the virus, public parks transformed into the ultimate meet-up spot. Not only public parks but also national parks, hill stations, and destinations with vast open spaces become increasingly popular. However, one had to carefully plan their dates with the outside. Elaborately planned outings with detailed menus, color-coordinated outfits, and picnic blankets were chalked out weeks in advance, as every Sunday afternoon transformed into an opportunity to host extensively curated picnic brunches.
What was missing from all these events though, was the spontaneity that once made them unique. The thrill of entering a crowded marketplace and discovering a delectable meal at new unexpected restaurants was replaced by arduous research on limited open-air eateries. Bumping into forgotten friends at gatherings was marked by questions of their vaccine status, awkward elbow bumps, and warm smiles hidden behind masks. Even with all these precautions, I could not help but be paranoid about those around me being potential virus carriers. I came to prefer being far from the crowd, alone in my corner, observing the masked faces around me.
Recent investigations from Emory University have found that the pleasure center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, reacts more strongly to unexpected events rather than expected pleasures. Human beings love being surprised. However, it seems that the pandemic has changed our ability to be surprised as often as we may like to be, which perhaps hampers how rewarding our fully pre-decided outdoor experiences may be.
There is something rewarding about being in naturalistic settings, a kind of peace and solace that no amount of Zoom conferencing with your friends and family (or therapist, in my case) can bring. Immersing yourself in nature and spending time in natural environments has been proven to yield uncountable physiological and psychological benefits such as improved cardiovascular function, enhanced energy, and reduced negative emotions. Even though the emerging conversations around mental health were a welcome addition to the discourse around the impact of Covid, for me it was my body that struggled more. After the first month of Youtube workouts and morning Surya Namaskars, I was craving stimulation from being outdoors. The unpleasant blow of stepping into muddy patches, trying to befriend a fidgety squirrel, or simply just watching the clouds change form – being in nature made me feel alive like nothing did.
Right before the nationwide lockdowns were imposed, my friends and I had grand plans of going on a week-long tour of South India and discovering new tourist attractions. After endless months of moping and anxiously pondering about what travel in the future holds for us, it’s safe to say none of us could have anticipated a travel experience as we underwent. Visits to grand hotels with international crowds were out of the question, and sitting in an airplane with layers of protective equipment did not seem like an attractive option. Our grand touring plans were reduced to a road trip around Rajasthan and short stays in AirBnbs and homestays.
This is similar to global trends of tourists flocking to Airbnbs and rented homes. Vacation homes which were a short drive from home were the go-to solution for people who were desperate for a break, but erring on the side of caution. Such short getaways with small, intimate groups align with the general idea of people wanting to invest their time in stronger relationships rather than risking their health by meeting distant acquaintances.
While staying in AirBnbs allows us to have a break from long-drawn isolation, it lacks the interaction one had with other visitors. The joy of observing new people from various parts of the world, smiling at children running around at breakfast, waving at the person at the front desk when returning after a long day- these were all crucial elements to traditional ‘vacations.’ Images of hotels being turned into quarantine centers, and management staff in protective kits, however, were enough to disconcert me from engaging in any kind of socialization.
As I write this article, one week before my university resumes fully offline operations, I cannot help but reflect on the complexity of this relationship. There is a sense of excitement, but a hint of apprehension weighing me down as well. Am I ready to share my outdoor spaces with scores of other students? Or is having completely uninhibited access to the outside world going to make me want to curl up indoors again?
Jaidev Pant is a student of Psychology and Media Studies at Ashoka University. He is interested in popular culture and its intersections with politics, gender, and behavior.
Picture Credits: Mark Cocksedge
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