New Travel Column

 

Here’s my latest travel column at 3QuarksDaily, Needing a Rest in Dakar.

New 3QD Column

Here’s my latest travel column as it ran at 3 Quarks Daily last week: 

On The Road: Fighting Your Way To Holiday

by Bill Murray

It wasn’t effortless but we managed to mollify, sidestep and defy enough authorities to be legally resident in Finland for the month of July. Never mind shoes and belts off and toothpaste in a plastic bag. No, do mind; do that too. But add PCR test results, Covid vaccination cards and popup, improvised airport queues. And a novel Coronavirus variant: marriage certificates on demand. 

The pandemic shines stark light down into the engine room, onto the unoiled grinding of international gears. A year and a half in, the lack of coordination between countries is everywhere on woeful display.

The Finnish parliament, unambiguously and unanimously, declared that “Anyone who has proof of being fully vaccinated or having recovered from Covid within the previous six months will be able to travel to Finland without having to undergo a Covid test.”

But then a Delta Airlines official peered into her screen and told us, “it says here no one is allowed to go to Finland, period.” Whereupon the haggling began, and it turns out production of a Finnish passport and our marriage license was sufficient qualification for access to our seats, payment for which was happily accepted with no questions long ago.

Claire Bushey writes “There are some things too stupid to humour, and that includes spending time and money hunting down a Covid-19 test while I’m on vacation, even though I am already fully vaccinated.”

Both her complaint and my grousing are problems for the fortunate, it’s true, but she is still right. The TSA has had us putting liquids in clear plastic bags since 2006, though, so I’m afraid we might be in for a long haul on this Covid testing thing.

It has been striking how some governments start out more xenophobic than others, and how detached that is from political ideology. All along, clearly, the British Tory government just hasn’t wanted its citizens to travel abroad. But neither does the center-left Trudeau government in Canada want its citizens mixing with us damned foreigners. The Aussie conservatives, the center-left in New Zealand, ditto.

Barriers to entry and overdone testing regimes are frustrating for those of us who are lucky enough to be fully vaccinated, but they are transitory measures and they will change. I think, though, that this virus has changed the world more deeply than all that and more profoundly than we realize.

You can read economic scholars who argue that the pandemic “spurred businesses in practically every sector to radically rethink their operations, often accelerating plans for technological and organizational innovation that were already in the works. Overwhelmingly, firms adopted new digital technologies….” You can read social scientists who have decided that  promoting positive societal response to pandemics depends on “aligning the message with recipients’ values or highlighting social approval….”

Increased productivity, social approval, economic adjustments, progress over time. It’s all sturdy scholar talk, abstract and incremental and reassuring. But maybe what we have here is less a ripple on a Nordic lake than a rip ‘em up convolution of space-time, a gravitational wave of change.

“Hammerson (a shopping centre operator) said on Tuesday it has submitted plans to convert a former Debenhams store into new homes for rent, amid a steep fall in valuation of properties focused on the retail sector due to the COVID-19 crisis.” 

Suddenly housing prices are very high; office and retail prices are very low. That languishing suburban strip mall surrounded by a square mile of asphalt out on the highway? Maybe it’s soon to be a live/work community with a post office in Spencer’s Gifts and a cluster of Pelotons up on the second floor of Macy’s. What we have here is a 33 trillion dollar perturbation of the commercial real estate field. For one.

Generations hand off their collective knowledge one to the next in a wobbly relay of progress. The World War II fighting generation may not have had it exactly in mind, but received wisdom for would-be hippies was, after all that overseas death and dying, give peace a chance. (Sometimes there are happy side effects, like nationalism being left by the wayside, but only, as it turns out, for a time.)

There hasn’t been a pandemic in living memory. Here, we don’t have a generational passing of the baton. We have Camus’s The Plague and John Barry’s The Great Influenza, but we have no actual, living, breathing people to pass on their visceral knowledge of how the 1918 pandemic changed things. We jump ahead now without the tempering wisdom of living memory. It’s not generational change.

There is the obvious parallel of the uninhibited, roaring 1920s, and many are predicting it, but I don’t buy it. Look around and these 2020s don’t feel like letting their shoulders down about anything anytime soon. More accurate predictions call for bigger thinking.

Adam Tooze has written that after the Great War “It took geostrategic and historical imagination to comprehend the scale and significance of (World War One’s) power transition.”

The radical reordering of land use and the vast capital attached to it, the continuing legacy of the 2008 economic crash, ever increasing inequality and proliferating, widespread displays of climate change. All are conspiring to make untenable the way we’ve lived the 21st century so far, and sooner than we think. The status quo holds, until it doesn’t.

•••••

The Nordic countries have been grappling with a heat wave this summer like in western Canada:

“Extreme heat in the Arctic Finland,” FMI researcher Mika Rantanen tweeted two Mondays ago, “Utsjoki Kevo just recorded 33.5°C (92.3°F), which is not only the station’s new all-time heat record, but also the highest reliably measured temperature ever in the whole Finnish Lapland.”

For two weeks, four latitudinal degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, we’ve enjoyed an astonishing unbroken string of brilliant, dry, 30C/86F or warmer days. Lake Saimaa is warm enough that you can jump off the dock without scrambling right back out. Looking around, it makes sense to wonder when people will begin to migrate north to live among these quiet lakes and boundless spruce, birch and pine forests. It’s perfect up here this summer.

And don’t tell anybody, but even better, this summer’s heat seems to have chased away most of the mosquitoes, the brawny ones, the ones with actual weight, the ones you can feel when they land on your shoulder. The bane of Nordic summer seem to have gone north for the summer.

Praise climate change for its small favors. But pity the Lapps.

Best Books

The folks at Shepherd.com are developing an extensive new series of book recommendations that you might want to have a look at. I’ve contributed The Best Books about African Adventure.

 

New Column at 3QD

Here is my latest monthly column, published today at 3 Quarks Daily, titled Fighting Your Way to Holiday.

You Can Make It if You Try. Maybe.

It wasn’t effortless but we managed to sidestep, defy and satisfy enough bureaucracy to find ourselves stamped into the Schengen zone and legally resident in Finland for the month of July. Forget about taking off your shoes, belts and putting liquids in a zip lock bag. No, do that too. But add to the travel shakedown PCR test results, Covid cards (Whoever cautioned against laminating them, that was an error. They are much more resilient when laminated.) and extra, improvised popup queues at airports. In one case, add the required production of a marriage certificate. 

Now we’re back in the Schengen zone after being barred in 2021. We needn’t quarantine on the strength of our two jabs plus two weeks, so we’re in and we have been granted a one month holiday at our Mökki on Lake Saimaa. We are open for business as usual although subject as always to having to juke around the seven hour time difference. Let me hear from you. 

We’re still in Uusimaa tonight but Finland makes the trains run on time and one of them will deliver us here tomorrow. Where I will await hearing from you.

Bill

What a Mess

Friday morning the UK Guardian reports that  “Germany has removed several countries and regions including the US, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and some regions in Greece from its coronavirus travel risk list, the Robert Koch Institute … for infectious diseases has said. The new classifications apply from Sunday, the RKI said. Earlier this week, the US also eased its warning against travel to a number of the most developed nations including Germany.”

Yet the German government advises “Entry into Germany remains restricted and is possible only in exceptional cases. This applies regardless of whether the traveler is fully vaccinated or not.”

If you are American and want to travel to Germany: the American government says “Germany will currently only allow EU citizens, EU residents, and residents of certain other specific countries to enter. The United States is not one of those countries. U.S. citizens traveling to Germany from the United States will not be permitted to enter unless they meet one of only a few narrow exceptions.”  

The US State Department is easing recommendations for outbound travel, but as of today, if you are German and want to travel to the US: “The U.S. government does not allow entry if a foreign traveler does not have U.S. citizenship and has stayed in one of the following countries within 14 days before its planned entry into the United States: 26 countries of the Schengen Area: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.”

Could the governments of the world maybe do a little bit better job of making themselves clear?

New 3QD Column

Here’s my monthly travel column for 3QuarksDaily, published there last week:

On the Road: In Myanmar Part One

Aye Chan Zin, a 22 year old competitive cyclist, once raced from Yangon to Mandalay and back. He fell and lost both incisors to gold teeth.

“Road very bad out there,” he grinned, goldly.

Aye Chan was a child of privilege, a third-year vet school student with parents with government jobs. His dad was Chinese, a doctor working on a leprosy project, his mom a philosophy teacher at Yangon University. A family album they kept in the family car was chock full of smiling brothers and sisters.

He had his dad’s tan Toyota with tinted windows. He would be our guide and driver, and on Tuesday the seventh of February or, as The New Light of Myanmar newspaper called it, the eighth waxing of Tabodwe, 1356 ME, we set out from Yangon for a drive into the country.

•••••

They must yearn in Burma just now for the good old days of six months ago when Aung San Suu Kyi’s political fig leaf, the National League for Democracy, stood between the people and the army, called the Tatmadaw. Seven hundred people have since died in street protests.

I’ve been reading this week about Burmese banks running out of money. People “if they are lucky” try to withdraw their savings, but they can’t get all of their own money. Banks “have imposed fees of 8%-9% to withdraw funds.”

Six months ago I had a plan to spend a month in Yangon. We even found a place to stay. Now, not a chance. The time we did visit, when we met Aye Chan, came after the coup that led to Aung San Suu Kyi’s years-long house arrest.

•••••

First on Aye Chan’s tour of Yangon hotspots, “That’s military headquarters.”

Did the leadership live there?

“Not live just work.”

There was the parliament building far across a lawn. It was not possible to visit the parliament building. You can tour the White House, the Kremlin and the Great Hall of the People, but you may not tour the Myanmar parliament. Up next came Myanmar Television and Radio, and then, “ice factory.”

Guides have their peculiarities. Aye Chan was a factory enthusiast. Before the end of the day we saw ice factory, milk factory, brick factory (“you want to take picture?”), rice factory and garment factory.

Beyond Yangon, beyond the airport, the road went full African. Benevolent open spaces countered an atrocity of broken asphalt. People, mostly barefoot, carried baskets on their heads or raised parasols. Up here people really lived outdoors more than in. Houses were mostly thatch, with open rooms. It was the vast Mississippi flood plain with banana trees.

At the World War II allied cemetery, the names of some 27,000 war dead under British crown command in the British Burma and Assam campaigns were inscribed in stone alongside endless well-manicured rows of graves. Names like Wrigley and Hicks, Collins and Stark, and also Singh and Gurung and Pun.

Local folks worked the road all the way to Bago. Barefoot women carried rocks in wicker baskets on their heads for crushing by big rolling machines. Road work conscripts made 100 kyats (“chots”) a day for six hours of carrying rocks on their heads, a meal included. That was a dollar. I read that up in Mandalay, the public was made to build infrastructure for no pay. Not even a dollar.

One time we became friends with a young couple on a trip to Albania. This road work made me think of how they remembered life under Enver Hoxha. The Albanian Revolutionary Triangle included physical labor as part of schooling.

In Burma, pagodas sprouted like the concrete military pillboxes Hoxha scattered across the Albanian countryside. And there was not a single military or para-military or renegade-teens-on-the-prowl-for-extorted-cigarettes roadblock. Driving was free and easy.

Out in the middle of rubber farms in the middle of nowhere, suddenly, just before noon, the world exploded before us. The whole earth went splintery and kaleidoscopic with a terrific bang.

Aye Chan kept a lead foot on the gas, the tan Toyota flew down the road, and all three of us were blinded until slowly we realized the windshield had shattered. We couldn’t see a thing in the billowing dust and finally Chan coasted to a halt.

He anguished for a long time. Maybe it was rocks from the construction work, but whatever caused it, there’d be hell to pay for busting his Dad’s windshield. We all pulled big glass chunks out of the windshield frame, cutting our hands a little and scraping the glass off the seats and wiping the sweat off our brows. A bird cawed a curious tune. Two men wandered out to look.

There was no choice but to bounce on the last 25 minutes to Bago. Little by little, shards and chunks fell and flew, with the dust and never-emission-inspected exhaust, straight into our faces.

•••••

From farther back into historical mists than anyone can see, a tangled mass of feuding tribes extended from the Indian Manipur plain to the southeast, here to Bago and on to the Irrawaddy delta. They’re still tangled and feuding today, with more or less formidable militias, often ethnically-based, operating just about all over the country.

(A new militia called the Chinland Defense Force skirmished with the Tatmadaw recently, briefly holding a town called Mindat in a four-day battle last month. Chin State, in the west, had been the last ethnic state in Myanmar without a Tatmadaw-challenging insurgency.)

In the eighteenth century rebellion spread like summer grassfire north from the Kingdom of Bago. A  once great fortress at Ava near Mandalay quickly fell, the royal family taken captive. An unlikely unifier, a canny farmer named Aung Zeyya, then 36, drew a line in the pine forests and made a stand.

He defeated wave after wave of Mon fighters from the south. His army and territory grew with his successes and by the time he took the pagoda town of Dagon in May 1755 his followers called him Alaungpaya, “the Future Bhudda.”

The history, and to some lingering extent the present of Myanmar, is a story of these warring tribes, ethnicities and ideologies. Dagon, the “Future Buddha’s” conquest, known to British colonials as Rangoon, is now Yangon.

•••••

In Bago, teak and jasmine trees dropped ivory blossoms before us. There were tablets of stone they said predated Buddhism. Competing Buddhist evangels shouted into microphones soliciting money for improvements, an arcade of religious carnival barkers that threw a slant on Buddhism I’ve never seen before. One little independent fellow farther down the road just solicited in general, under a sort of Burmese revival tent.

The atmosphere at Bago’s pagoda was musty amusement park, a languorous, sleepy one, with gaily colored pavilions ringing the main pagoda like the different countries’ pavilions around a really tiny Epcot Center. All of them were different.

The Great Golden God pagoda, Shwemawdaw, stood deserted, making today a good day for laymen like us to dust up the bottoms of our feet with a few rounds of  circumnavigation. An earthquake in 1917 sent this pagoda’s pinnacle tumbling. Not to be outdone by nature, they built a tiny pagoda right on top of the fallen bit and put up a commemorative placard.

The monastery revealed monks as pack rats – icons of Buddhas and pagodas occupied every inch of space. Seemed to me the impact of any one was diminished among others. The more the merrier, I guess.

The holy word had been inscribed on long stacks of leaves – for centuries, I guess. Monks’ austere sleeping rolls and a wood floor comprised the entirety of their accommodations. Kids chiseled new wood adornments for the grounds. A woman sauntered by offering watermelon – by the slice, pre-sliced – from a tray on her head. And chomping on one herself.

Aye Chan decided, yep, his Dad was gonna kill him. His only hope – stay with a friend and work all night to figure out how to fix the windshield. Said he knew a guy with a glass shop.

•••••

Back in Yangon Aye Chan turned down University Avenue. Aung San Suu Kyi lived here. Born in 1945, she was the third child of Aung San and Khin Kyi, a nurse (We’ll talk about Aung San in part two).

At 14, in 1957, Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma with her mother and lived abroad for thirty years. She married a British academic, a Tibet scholar named Michael Aris, and lived in Bhutan and Oxford.

Her National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, the SLORC, admitted the results but wouldn’t hand over power. In the run-up to the election whole Burmese towns were dislocated in an attempt to untrack the NLD steamroller. Still, the NLD won a convincing victory.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy was a coincidence (bringing to mind another unintentional president, Belarus’s Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, currently exiled to Lithuania). Suu Kyi didn’t mean to be in Myanmar for politics, but only to tend to her mother, who was in hospital after a severe stroke at the time of the 8.8.88 student uprising.

When that rebellion was suppressed, Suu Kyi switched roles from nurse to revolutionary. She won but couldn’t hold office, barred by the SLORC. Now she had a choice: return to London, to her husband and sons, in the certainty she could never come back, or personify the resistance, live alone, surrounded by military at #54 University Avenue, across Inya Lake from the military leader. Which is what she did.

The next summer the SLORC confined her to her house. During her six years of house arrest, “Every Saturday afternoon at four she stood up on a little box and spoke from behind the gates of her house, and hundreds of people came to listen….”

Aye Chan pointed out there was no military outside. “Inside the gate,” he said.

•••••

Just before sunset I crossed Strand Road to the ferry dock, tried to determine what vessel went where, and finally just picked one and climbed aboard. Darkness crept up.

People stared, benevolently. The “Autobus 1” had three bare bulbs strung overhead and a pile of eight-inch tall wooden seats that you grabbed and sat down low on, which I did. Pretty soon I was surrounded by boys, say seventeen, fifteen and eight years old. We hadn’t a common language. They just wanted to hang out with the foreigner. So we sat and smoked. What the hell.

Maybe 150 of us plowed through the water hyacinths for an eight-minute trip to the village across the way, and maybe 40 people came back. On the far side I saw that my new friend the eight year old was no passenger. He might have been working this thing all day, gathering the stools in a big pile for retrieval by the next batch of passengers.

One of my other new friends hopped off the ferry and strode toward a man with an ice chest by the light of two candles on the dock, who sold him a drink. Directly across the river, line of sight from the heart of Myanmar’s capital city, no electricity. Just candles.

•••••

Aye Chan was back the next day and brought his friend Kyaw Win Maung. I rushed outside and around the corner and found that he had done it! Between dusk and this morning Aye Chan had got a brand new Toyota windshield installed. In Myanmar!

He didn’t understand high-fives, but backslapping was good enough.

“How did you do it?”

“My friend has a glass shop,” He said, swelled with pride. “We finished last night nine o’clock.”

This was the greatest news. His dad wouldn’t kill him.

The plan today was to get out on the Irrawaddy, and while Aye Chann headed for the lower Pazundaung jetty, we got to know his friend (call him “Chaw”).

Kyaw finished school in ’77 as a geologist but had always been a tour guide. Clear-eyed and soft-spoken with an open face, Kyaw was easy to like, and it didn’t take much prodding to hear his whole story.

When he started his tour guide job they posted him to Pagan, optimistically eight hours drive to the northwest and full of ancient pagodas.

He met and married a country girl, built a house himself, and settled back, he thought, to live out his life there. The sunsets were beautiful. They had a daughter.

Then a man he’d met in his tour guide job invited him to visit the U.S. After saving enough to care for his family in his absence, off he went. For six months he stayed in the U.S. He saw his first snow in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

One day in 1988 he heard on Christian Science Monitor radio that his entire village had to move. The military government was trying to disrupt the elections the National League for Democracy won.

A week later he got a letter from his wife saying she had a week to tear down the house he’d built and move, along with everybody else in town, ten kilometers away.

He went back to Myanmar, gathered his wife and baby and moved in with his father in Yangon. His brother died at 32 leaving two nieces for Kyaw to care for, along with his wife, daughter and now, his elderly dad too.

His wife was a simple country girl. She had a small business selling candy to kids, cheroots, that kind of thing, when they met in Pagan and he didn’t know how she’d do in the big city. So although he hoped to visit the U.S. again and had a standing invitation, it would be some time before he got his nieces off to college and saved enough (at $15 a day) to provide for his dad, wife and child in his absence.

END PART ONE

World’s Shortest Flight

Here’s the entire flight between Westray and Papa Westray, Orkney islands. It’s 1.7 miles, shorter than Heathrow runways.

New 3QD Column Today

My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily went up today. Read it there for now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W in a few days. Subject this time: Burma/Myanmar.

Pandemic Scorecard

Here’s my most recent monthly travel column, as it was published at 3QuarksDaily.com:

 

On The Road: Pandemic Scorecard

POSTED ON SUNDAY, APR 25, 2021 6:14PM BY BILL MURRAY

By Bill Murray

They call it the Sargasso, this grass. It is the bane of Belize, an invasive floating weed that keeps pitchforks flailing along the waterfront. The Sargasso Sea, we know where that is. But this grass is from Brazil, Réné says. It’s a new challenge from a new place. It isn’t challenge enough just to weather a pandemic, he says. Now there’s this, too.

The hotel receptionist tries to convince a lady on the phone the grass isn’t so bad here. It’s worse other places, he suggests carefully, not to cast aspersions. Réné, a  snorkel boat pilot, might wonder where as he tends his Honda outboards like a Mekong longtail runner clearing water hyacinth.

Réné has a less sales brochure-oriented assessment: we’ve done this to ourselves. This nasty bit of seaweed is from Brazil, human caused, product of fertilizer, effluent from the Amazon. Look at this, he scoops a random handful into the boat. These are seeds, it breeds right here just floating on the water.

Welcome to other people’s problems.

We just returned from our first trip abroad in 14 months. Belize is feeling the strain of the lack-of-tourism, as I sense they do most things, gently. The smiles are there. No people could be looser, more easy-going, nicer, and it’s just as pretty as you hoped; Belize, and its gracious people, are lovely.

Pandemic strain isn’t specific to Belize, of course. It has just been a long, weird year and everybody’s wary – not so much of each other but just of the whole patience-pulverizing persistence of the virus.

One benefit of quarantining for a year inside your own enclosed small space is that you make your own rules. For much of these last fourteen months we could hear others around our apartment, people with their own approach to quarantine involving, say, twenty friends, but we kept a closed regime.

Finally vaccinated and eager to go, the first thing we realized at the airport was, forget about your closed regime. Some people are just going to be ornery and you can not stop them. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport felt nearly normal, busy, shops open and people, as many as you’d figure, damn them, just misbehaving. Yes, I want the airport back to normal. No, not with misbehaving people.

Some Americans are clearly never going to respect distance or wear masks, exhibiting a kind of “go ahead and challenge me” belligerence. After a year of only seeing that on TV, the minute you find that it looms between you and your destination, that people out there are loud, boisterous and mask free, that’s disappointing. So not a lot of places want Americans right now because some of us don’t acquit ourselves well when we arrive.

After a year of ennui in sweatpants, now that the vaccinated can enjoy an outdoor meal with sorely-missed old, true friends, what scares me is that, even as the world has changed in radical ways out there, in here, among close friends, we’re stuck where we were a year ago. Same stories we’ve already told, no new ground.

I read this as clarion cause to get back out there and gather some new experiences. Old friends who are still friends after a year will remain friends for a while longer yet. Suppose we all go collect a few new stories to share with them.

So where might we go?

The European Union’s baffling, childlike helplessness with vaccine procurement and administration seems to have cost Europe another summer. With Europe failing, shall we pin our hopes on Asia in the fall?

Those would seem to be tenuous hopes. You can read any day about worrying new outbreaks in Thailand and Cambodia, and the inexplicably slow rollout of vaccines in formerly exemplary South Korea, Australia and, of course, Japan, where no one is welcome for the Olympics.

Not going to China. If there is a country in this world more politically geared to inject its citizenry with dicey drugs than China is, I don’t know of one. China exports more of its 50/50 Sinovac vaccine than it vaccinates its citizenry with, and that tells you all you need to know about its efficacy. Brazil, a major beneficiary of China’s benevolence, is a case in point and a sad example. South America in general is just toast, virus-fried. Not going there. Even Canada, Jeez, Canada is shut down.

So we climbed onto Delta Airlines for a short flight to Belize, which, as I say, was lovely. Outsmarting ourselves, we bought tickets up front. We sought to bypass the entire middle-seat question but so many others had the same idea that while our cabin was full, entire rows in the back stayed empty.

Up front they dispatched bright orange boxes meant to keep contact to a minimum, shrink wrapped packages suggesting more than they had to offer, cheerfully labelled BISTRO. The contents? I just have to share:

• Partners brand “slow-baked” crackers with olive oil and sea salt, with “honest ingredients” and a homey quote on the back from Cara Figgins, President. Net weight 0.75 oz.

• Boulder Canyon brand ® Classic Sea Salt, Classic Cut, Kettle Cooked, Gluten Free potato chips: “Our path took us to  the great outdoors.”

• Kind brand Cranberry almond bar, “#1 ingredient heart health almonds,” 1.4 oz.

• One Old Wisconsin brand beef snack stick, 0.5 oz (Wait a minute: you can not dress up a SlimJim as anything else, especially in the south.)

• Albanese brand ULTIMATE Gummi Bears with natural flavors and “colors from real fruits and vegetables,” net weight 0.75 oz.

• Four Tic Tacs wrapped in plastic .07 oz net weight.

Ultimate Gummy bears, Slim Jims and plastic wrapped Tic Tacs. Delta welcomes you back to the air.

•••••

Civilization’s veneer stretched so thin in 2010 you could see through it. Through it, Americans saw unrelenting gun violence, our ugly, persistent racial divide and one political party’s flirtation with nihilism. But people also saw cleaner air, clearer waters in Venetian canals, and citizens of Delhi could even see the Himalayas. Perhaps the virus can help the planet self-correct a little. In this respect viruses are above the human pay grade.

Through that stretched veneer you could discern a pull-up-the-drawbridge sentiment early in the pandemic that thankfully didn’t last, but did put a marker down. In March last year the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP, warned people off heading to Scotland to self-isolate:

“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”

Fannin County, Georgia officials did the same. March a year ago its sheriff’s administration posted to Facebook: ““I have received multiple inquiries wanting to know if people from Atlanta can come to their cabins. The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!!” Attempting to deny the right to use someone’s property is kind of shocking in our usual American context, especially in rights-loving rural Georgia.

Fannin County is around 100 miles north of Atlanta in the southern Appalachian mountains. My wife and I own a pretty little patch of creek in adjoining Union County. In the panic phase of the pandemic we considered (as everybody did) whether our last redoubt might be there. To reach it we’d have wanted to drive through Fannin County.

Georgia displays county names on its license plates and thereby gives our State Patrol, those guys with the handsome wide-rimmed hats, telltale clues as to whether any individual car might be not from around here, meaning from one of those damned metro Atlanta counties.

If pandemics will be part of the future, something to keep in mind for next time is how straightforward it would be to fundamentally fracture a real pillar of the US’s secular worship of property and wealth. It wouldn’t be the province of theorists in columns like these. It would simply, summarily, be done, by big brawny state troopers in impressive headgear.

And that’s the thing about pillars. They’re real strong and all, until they’re not.

We’ve learned the foundations of our societies aren’t as strong as we thought. In politics, ask Poles, Hungarians and Hong Kongers. In pandemics, add Brazilians and Indians.

A year ago we all made predictions, and some were better than others. A Naval War College scholar named James Holmes thought “stress … reinforces the society’s basic character. When trouble strikes, the society’s members reach for familiar ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. They respond in ways tested in, and seemingly verified by, past experience. Stress drives discourses about diplomacy and strategy toward extreme versions of these familiar ways, and action follows that trend.” Maybe.

I feared that once leaders saw how easy it was to rule by fiat, for example summarily ordering their publics off the streets, some might be less than willing to return to the status quo ante. It looks from here like that prediction may have only come true in Myanmar.

Many of us mapped what we wanted to happen into our predictions. I hoped that forward looking local leadership would press for change, and the mayors of Paris, Madrid and Milan did well by doing good with their bicycle lanes. Tel Aviv, Portland, Minneapolis, Calgary and other cities closed streets to encourage walking. Those changes may have come about because they were achievable.

Others predicted the pandemic would usher in grand, fundamental change, like Justin E. H. Smith in It’s All Just Beginning, argued that since the virus is presumed to have originated in a Wuhan wet market, the time of “wanton delectation” should end. Some things that seemed at least plausible and definitely desirable just didn’t happen. For one, a Digital Congress. Ethan Zuckerman wrote

“this is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently. Not only is this move medically necessary at the moment, but it has ancillary benefits. Lawmakers will be closer to the voters they represent and more likely to be sensitive to local perspectives and issues.”

What a great, and hopeless, idea, that feeders would remove themselves from the trough. Confirming a maxim: entrenched interests tend to remain entrenched.

Some opinion now fashions us as tender emergent post-pandemic shoots, urging that we not become the boorish rubes we were before. With some forethought, a little planning, maybe some well-meant community meetings, we can all become humble and hygienic, engaging and empathetic and kind to animals. We’ll have to see about that. No harm in aiming high, I guess.

Various people in random places came out ahead:

• The people of Nairobi, where Governor Mike Sonko included Hennessy cognac in his Coronavirus Care Packages, calling it Throat Sanitizer. “Hennessy would like to stress that the consumption of our brand or any other alcoholic beverage does not protect against the virus,” French-based Hennessy scolded.

• The United States, where good fortune somehow seems to come naturally in spite of ourselves. It turns out that even in our national obnoxiousness those who want to are getting vaccinated way ahead of the rest of the world. Never would have believed it.

• Two other winners: Hands, and dogs. Neither ever had as much attention as they did in 2020.

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Here are a few photos from Belize, at EarthPhotos.com. More will follow. And my next monthly column at 3QD goes up Sunday night.