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Coronavirus Has Changed the Game for Alumni Travelers

May 29, 2020
by Josh Marcus
Man playing an instrument while looking at a lake

In January of 2014, a woman in her 80s, who sometimes used a cane to walk, stood on a platform hundreds of feet up in the canopy of a Costa Rican forest, getting ready to leap into the sky.

“Nobody thought it was a good idea,” says Darek DeFreece, who was president of the Cal Alumni Association at the time. CAA was leading the trip through its Cal Discoveries Travel program. “I went and talked to her, and she said, ‘Look, I’ve got one more chance to do this in my life, and I want to go.’”

A group of people in ziplining gear
A Cal Discoveries ziplining group stops for a photo in Monte Verde, Costa Rica. // Photo courtesy of Darek DeFreece

So she jumped, racing down a zipline through the trees.

“She showed no fear,” DeFreece says. “These are all older people that go on this trip. When they saw that she was going to do it, all of a sudden everybody did it. She kind of rallied everybody just by her courage.”

A half-decade later, travelers are facing a new, global plunge into the unknown. The coronavirus pandemic is radically changing our health, culture, politics, and perhaps most fundamentally, our human instinct to move and travel. One study says over 90 percent of the world population lived under travel restrictions in April. It’s an unprecedented pause, and the travelers and staff of Cal Discoveries feel its impact deeply; for them, travel is a way of life.

Only a month ago, the outlook for travel seemed cautiously optimistic, remembers Joanna Aguiar, senior director at Cal Discoveries. She and her colleagues had been monitoring the virus since the beginning of the year, but even as late as March 11 the news didn’t seem dire enough to cancel a trip to Chile.

“We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. If we had to make a decision now, we don’t feel comfortable sending people out.” —Joanna Aguiar, Cal Discoveries

“At that time, none of the cases had really hit south of the equator,” she says. Five days later, as South American governments began making travel restrictions, they called off the trip. “Flights were being cancelled, and we needed to get out within 24 hours, or you were going to get stuck, basically.”

Since then, Cal Discoveries, which usually handles about 1,500 travelers annually, making it one of the largest alumni travel programs in North America, had to postpone its popular summer trips to London and Oxford. Travel operators who partner with Cal Discoveries aren’t generally offering refunds. Instead, travelers have been given credits toward future trips, though what that future looks like is uncertain. Now, as Cal Discoveries plans ahead, they’d rather be cautious than careless.

“We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. If we had to make a decision now, we don’t feel comfortable sending people out,” she says. Even if travel turns out to be safe and feasible in a few months, she adds, they won’t regret cancelling trips now. “If that’s our biggest problem looking back, I’m OK with dealing with that.”

Libby Albert, has been on two Cal Discoveries trips, one down the Rhine River in western Europe and another to Chile this February. (Her husband Peter, an urban planning professor who taught at Berkeley, was a featured lecturer.) She was struck by the beauty of mountainous Patagonia and by the frightening parallels between Chilean and American politics.

“When I was at the museum of human rights, I saw some parallels of what was happening between the Pinochet regime and what’s happening here now, just shutting down the press and [leaders saying], ‘You can’t believe what you’re reading in the papers,’” Albert says.

The group also learned about the contemporary protests against inequality that have been roiling Chile since 2019, and Albert saw a strong contrast between how activist-minded the Chileans were compared to Americans. This kind of new perspective is what makes alumni travel so worthwhile for Albert and other globetrotters.

“I just appreciated that [Cal Discoveries] didn’t try to take us on a trip to Disneyland where we didn’t have to think about the world’s issues,” she says.

For Michael Martinez, who’s been to Chile and Scandinavia with Cal Discoveries, life has always revolved around travel, and he’s anxious to get back on the road. His father was in the Air Force, so his family moved around a lot, and now Martinez works as corporate counsel for the Marriott hotel conglomerate.

“It’s kind of ingrained in me,” he says. “I like the adventure of seeing new places and meeting new people.”

He’s going to miss the spontaneous connections that travel allows. Once, on a trip to Paris, his family struck up a conversation with a French family at the airport. That led to dinner at the family’s house, and since then they’ve traded visits and hosted each others’ kids multiple times.

Two people pose in front of a glacier in Chile
Lenore and Michael Martinez take in the view at O’Higgins National Park in Chile. // Photo courtesy of Michael Martinez

“That’s the great thing about travel,” Martinez says. “It just expands your view of the world. You come to realize there’s good people everywhere.”

It could be years, however, until travel will be as open and freewheeling as it once was, imperilling 125 million jobs in tourism and aviation. In the U.S. alone, the airline industry says it needs a $50 billion bailout. Travel analysts expect world travel to re-open in fits and starts, with added security measures like temperature checks, thermal cameras, and digital “immunity passports.” Countries with a better handle on the virus, like New Zealand and Singapore, have talked about forming “bubble” zones, where travel will be opened to certain vetted countries.

It’s an inversion of business as usual, a redrawing of the map into empires not of politics but of public health, where America lags rather than leads.

Even if we’re not crossing any borders any time soon, there’s much to be learned by looking at our home turf with a traveler’s eyes. Legendary travel writer Paul Theroux, who experienced a previous lockdown during a 1966 coup in Uganda, recently wrote in the New York Times, “as a traveler, any great crisis — war, famine, natural disaster or outrage — ought to be an occasion to bear witness.”

Cal Discoveries’ Aguiar thinks what we’ve collectively experienced will form new bonds among travelers, wherever they find themselves.

“We’ve all been affected by this in different ways,” she says. “When we do get back out there, there’s going to be this bond and connection amongst all people of the world.”

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