What it’s like to travel alone as the country seemingly opens itself back to “normalcy”
January 20 marked a special date for my existence, and no, I am not talking about Inauguration day. (Nothing wrong with Inauguration day, kudos to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for making history as the first woman of color to become VP of the land of opportunities, it’s just that’s not why it was special for me.)
It was Inauguration day when I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as experienced what seems to be the first step into “normalcy”, whatever that means.
I had received my second dose on February 11, and hope for my social life for the months to come was reignited.
Once the two-week mark since receiving the second dose — following experts’ recommendations — had passed I felt the wind of change. More specifically, Google Flights appeared in my life.
A deal shined from my computer screen: a one-stop round trip flight to Washington D.C. for less than $200 (taxes not included).
By going incognito (by opening an incognito window), going to google.com/flights, and being as flexible as possible, especially by going to “Explore,” and setting up my availabilty as “flexible”, I booked the deal.
It’s not brujeria, it is a matter of having a budget — to have money to book a ticket if you see a good deal — and, for the most part, having the flexibility to travel, preferably during the week. (I found google displays better deals if you set your trip for four to six days.)
As I was packing my bags my mom looked at me and said she only wanted me to follow a set of rules:
Keep wearing face masks in public transportation.
Do not hug strangers.
And especially do not kiss strangers, even if they look like Chris Evans.
For the most part, one can argue the CDC will endorse my mom’s rules.
Upon my arrival at my Airbnb, I could see locals not wearing masks as they walked down the streets. I was a little skeptical about the CDC’s new guidelines for vaccinated people. No masks are required if you have been fully vaccinated. Yet, seeing people walking around without a mask seemed like it was not okay, and felt like they were breaking a law. After a year of wearing a mask, it felt strange to finally see people’s faces.
I spent most of the time in public transportation, where it is still required to wear masks. Everyone seemed to adhere to the regulations. But, some folks and businesses were the exception to the rule; my Airbnb host was one of them. She visited the building several times as she welcomed and gave a tour to the visitors and at all times, she kept her mask on and maintained her distance.
In fact, I was making my way back to my Airbnb and decided to make the last stop in Lost City bookstore, where ACLU canvassers were spreading their message on voter suppression right across the street. I stayed right by the entrance next to a postcards section when I heard someone yelling at one of the canvassers: “I am not going to wear a mask. Are you going to make me wear a mask? They made me take the vaccine, and now I still need to wear a mask?”
The canvasser offered the woman to wear her mask. He didn’t feel comfortable speaking to people less than six feet apart unmasked as he was trying to spread his message and she ended up agreeing to wear the mask he offered. The two then kept, as I could tell, an amicable canvassing conversation.
This interaction played over on repeat in my head as the days went by in my visit to D.C. . On the same day, I visited a small bar within walking distance from my Airbnb with two friends. The sign read something along the lines of:
“If you are fully vaccinated, masks are optional. If you are not, you are required to wear them inside.”
I arrived first and grabbed a table; upon my friends’ arrival, they took their masks off and said, “Is this ok? I am fully vaccinated.”
It has been the most common phrase I’ve listened to these last few weeks: “…I am fully vaccinated.”
Surprisingly some people kept their masks on inside the establishment.
We then made our way to my friend’s house for a “get together,” where no one wore face masks. I didn’t know anyone from the party; it was the first party outside El Paso since the pandemic started, where I interacted with people outside of my circle. It felt strange as it was the first time that has happened in over a year.
Traveling by yourself is always a huge responsibility but, in a pandemic, it feels like we need to be even more responsible. It is no longer “unsafe” or “necessary” to wear a mask, yet the thought of asking people their preference in terms of social distancing and mask-wearing prevails.
In the end, the slow transition to “normalcy” will require more than small fights outside bookstores and small gatherings with strangers for me to feel more comfortable not wearing a mask. A year passed and breaking habits will not be easy, it is not that I am scared of the virus or anybody else, it is simply that it doesn’t feel natural anymore.
It is bizarre to say it, but seeing people’s faces after a year feels strange, and I keep wondering if “mask consent” will be a thing in months to come.
Story by Estefania Mitre