soul travel blog

Surviving 2020 | Year in Review

by Ellie Cleary

We think it’s safe to say that 2020 has not turned out the way any of us thought it would, and no-one has been left unscathed. Despite the obvious challenges of 2020, especially when it comes to travel, we have much to be grateful for this year, and we hope the same is true for you as well.

Looking Back at 2020

Writing this in mid-winter and looking at all that has come to pass this year, I am reminded yet again of the significance of the Ramayana and the Diwali story.

Representing the triumph of good over evil, with Diwali marking the return of Rama with his wife, Sita, to Ayodhya after doing battle with the demon god Ravana, Hindus celebrate the light in their biggest festival of the year.

As we approach the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere, we hope that next year will be filled with much more light than 2020 has been. Because it certainly seems that the world has been doing battle.

2020 has been a year like no other for us, for many of our friends and family, and probably for you, too. We have all lost something. Yet despite the loss, for us it has not all doom and gloom, and there have even been moments of the miraculous—and we hope the same for you.

We haven’t done an annual write-up for many years—my last one was in 2016! (When I go back and read that, just how much I’ve taken travel for granted shouts from the page). But, aside from the self-indulgent opportunity to reflect on all that has come to pass this year, frankly, 2020 deserves it.

Saying goodbye to Victoria, BC

Trans-Atlantic Change (of Address)

At the top of the year, our vision for the year was to spend several months back in India, seeing Ravi’s family, travelling and creating content for our new India website.

Since moving to Canada from India in 2018, thanks to Ravi’s Canadian PR, our relationship with Canada had been bittersweet. Despite definitely not loving Toronto, our second attempt, at setting up home in Victoria, BC (the main city of Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast) left us feeling much more torn about leaving (for now).

Flights to India via the UK booked for early March, we were monitoring the Covid situation. At the time, India seemed blissfully unaffected by the virus, perhaps the spiritualism was protecting India. With less than 10 total cases at the beginning of March many were quite happy with the idea of laying low in India for a couple of months until this all blew over – including us.

Of course, we know how the story ends. On the 12th March 2020, India cancelled all tourist & general visit visas. On 22nd March 2020 all international flights were banned to and from India. The ban remains in place except for Indian nationals.

Many of our India group members and readers have been affected, with people stuck in India for weeks on end, just getting out by the whisker of a hair, or having trips cancelled. Our hearts go out to everyone, especially those who had booked the trip of a lifetime.

We had arrived in the UK for a family event in the first week of March and were staying with my family in London when we heard the news that visas were being suspended and our onwards flights from London to India cancelled. We were faced with the tough decision as to whether Ravi should go alone to India, having no idea when he’d be be able to fly back out again. We decided not to risk it.

We also had more pressing issues. Having packed up all our things in Canada at the beginning of March and giving notice on our lease, we had nowhere to live. I’m a British national but Ravi was in the UK on a tourist visa to visit my family. Ravi could have gone back to Canada as a permanent resident, but as a temporary resident, I could not. There were no easy options.

Morning views from our bunks on the Caledonian Sleeper to Aberdeen

Accidental Wwoofers

Facing the prospect of all hotels and short stay accommodations closing and crazy London airbnb rates that were well outside our budget, we were forced to get creative with finding somewhere to stay in the UK for a while until Covid blew over and we could continue on to India (or so we thought).

I’d looked in to Wwoofing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) in Canada, but we’d never got around to actually doing it. With Covid spreading rapidly in urban areas of the UK for now, it seemed the perfect time to “escape to the country” and volunteer our time working on a farm in exchange for board, getting a bit closer to the land.

I found a farm in the Cairngorms, Aberdeenshire in the highlands of Scotland that had just had a cancellation and would take us immediately. The job description looked idyllic – accommodation in a Scottish bothy, set in the Cairngorms national park with pine forests and rivers surrounding us, with our main work feeding herds of red deer that were being farmed for venison and a host of other farm animals.

We set off on into the night on the sleeper train to Aberdeen from London, on what would be one of the last trains to run for several months.

Needless to say, the reality of Wwoofing was a little different and harder-going (there’s an article on that in my drafts, so watch this space…), but it also held many blessings. Our planned stay for 6 weeks got extended to 2 months and then 3.5 months as the UK was slow to lift national lockdown restrictions.

Wondering what to do as the opening of international travel to India looked to be nowhere in sight, we started to look into getting a partner visa for Ravi to stay for longer here in the UK. After several long weeks waiting to hear back from UK immigration, eventually we got the all-clear that we could apply for a visa that’s normally only available for application from outside of the country.

Three of our favourite highland friends

Heading South

Once we knew that we’d be able to apply to stay for longer in the UK, we acknowledged it was time to set up a base here. Despite the looming Brexit chaos, I had found myself longing to move back here since 2017 after living overseas for most of a decade, and Ravi was excited by a country that offered (in normal times) regular flights back to India taking less than a day and winters that didn’t see feet of snow.

With Ravi’s goal to expand his photography business once his visa was approved, in June we decided to head to the south coast, to Brighton, otherwise known as London-on-Sea for its easy access to the capital (and rip-off housing market as we were later reminded) and long favourite hang out of artists and entrepreneurs. It’s famously the only electoral constituency in the UK to have a Green Party Member of Parliament.

Finding housing demand to be even higher than we had imagined, we found ourselves a great apartment on the edge of the city of Brighton & Hove, with sea views and easy access to the city, meanwhile overpriced damp and dingy basements in Brighton city were snapped up before we could even go to see them. Somehow, we struck gold.

Leaving Scotland in June

Redefining Normal

As I optimistically wrote about redefining travel and creating a more sustainable normal for travel back in May of this year, we failed to comprehend that 9 months on, we’d be nowhere near normal. As one of my mentors says: “we’re not going back”.

As the message that there is no way back to how things were sinks in, we have been through cycles of grieving the hibernation of our just-born India travel business this year. Although we have had moments of light, such as launching our new course for India travel planning, it has been truly heart-breaking to think that we still have no idea when we’ll be able to travel to India again.

As the travel business ground to zero, I have had to look elsewhere to earn a living. Fortunately, I have been able to draw on other skills, and have been focusing on my SEO and freelance copywriting business. Just as I struggled to understand how we were going to make this work, new clients would appear, and we’ve been incredibly blessed to be able to afford the high cost of living in the south east of the UK.

Walks on the south downs on our doorstep have helped keep us sane

Meanwhile, the limbo of our immigration status for Ravi’s visa drew on, and it was not until 1 week ago that we finally heard it had been granted. We are grateful to finally know that we are able to stay here in the UK and Ravi is able to work here.

Much as running a travel business has been challenging for us, it has been nothing compared with the challenge faced by many entrepreneurs and business owners in India – and around the world – where tourism has ground to a halt and income has dried up for many. It is especially hard to see so many tourism businesses that have been founded on the principles of positive-impact tourism struggle. If this speaks to you, please do read our guide to supporting responsible tourism businesses in India during Covid-19.

The beautiful East Sussex coastline

Gratitude for 2020

Leaving this year behind for the next, we have a huge amount to be grateful for. We are lucky to both be healthy and well. We have managed in this crazy year to unwittingly move countries, be protected by the wild nature of Scotland, find a new home, and set up new businesses.

In the bigger picture, although the dismantling of 2020 has been deeply painful and uncomfortable, it is badly needed. Our world and its systems are broken. Our planet is metaphorically screaming. The patriarchy is starting to crumble.

As we enter a new age in 2021, we are faced with the reminder to decide: What do we want to carry with us?

Our hope, for us and for you reading, is that in 2021 we may find light-hearted adventure again.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays and best wishes for the new year ahead,

Ellie & Ravi

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