So, my first day in India. I’m in Delhi, a city I’ve been told you wouldn’t want to visit in the best of times. And the times couldn’t be worse, at least for travel.

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At Safdargan’s Tomb. Photos: Ted Botha.

This morning, my hostess, who I came to visit, mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ a book we both, coincidentally, love. It was apropos something else, but it struck me a bit later, as I wandered through an old temple Bara Lao Ka Gumbad in a roughly manicured garden near her home, itself a lush surprise in a city I had been led to believe was simply pollution and beggars, how this time could be called, sadly, ‘Travel in the Time of Corona.’

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Changi International Airport in Singapore.

From the moment I booked my ticket in Cape Town several weeks ago – not without serious reservation and doubt before I finally pressed the Confirm button, believe me – I’d been faced with the should-I-shouldn’t-I conundrum of moving outside my comfort zone as the virus (and all the theories about it) spread daily. I told myself that adventurous travelers back in the day journeyed forth to see the world, no matter the dangers that stood in their way. They didn’t let a bug deter them.

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The traditional names given to the multicoloured powders used particularly at Holi are gulal and abir. These were on sale at the Old Delhi Spice Mariet.
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At Jama Masjid, the huge mosque in Old Delhi.

But we have become softer, we need things to be controllable, and I for one get annoyed by the inclination in myself, in spite of earlier more daring travels, to also give in to that. (In those more carefree days, in fact, I pitched a story to an American magazine about people who traveled for danger, though I was nearly laughed out of the room for suggesting such an idea.)

When I boarded the Singapore Airlines flight in Cape Town I was quickly reminded of the storm we were heading into, with all the staff wearing masks. Several passengers on board had them too, which multiplied as we landed at Changi. Out they came, as varied in style (and doubtless efficacy) as was each wearer’s understanding of what Coronavirus is. The only certainty is that the whole thing has wrecked tourism, a fact that hits you as you wander through Changi airport. Perhaps it was also because of the early hour, 6am, but terminal 3 in this international hub was almost empty.

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A vegetarian meal at a hawkers complex in Singapore.
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Many Singaporeans eat in the modestly priced hawkers complexes.

A friend who picked me up said that Singapore Airlines had cancelled countless flights, as the fear of traveling grows and potential passengers stay home. (A friend who is a travel agent in the US already told me weeks ago that he is going crazy rearranging clients’ travel plans, with them canceling outright or asking to be rerouted through a ‘safer’ region. My Delhi friend said in India there are operators she knows who have been in business for decades who are seriously wondering whether they will survive at all after this hit. One only has to think that even if a cure for the virus were to be discovered tomorrow, it would take months, if not much longer, for perceptions to change. Cape Town, which lost tens of thousands of tourists when Day Zero was looming during the drought still has people wary of traveling there – two years later! – unaware that the drought is long over.)

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The minaret at the incredible Qutb Minar.
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The courtyard of the popular Dharampura Haveli in Old Delhi.

Yet on the ground, something else quite different is happening. On the flight to Delhi, surprisingly, the crew didn’t wear masks. The one stewardess said if one of them had put a mask on, they all would have. But no one did. The whole thing seemed very arbitrary. Did you need to wear a mask or not?

In Singapore – despite the prominent warnings of Covid-19 (next to those of summary execution should you be caught bringing drugs into the country) – the masks were in scant evidence. Sanjay said the number of people wearing them at the airport and in shops had, within the last weeks and despite international frenzy having rocketed, diminished drastically. Instead, people were exhorting you, wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Is it really that simple, I wondered?

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Government buildings designed by Herbert Baker in Delhi.
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The Imperial Hotel is running at half of its normal capacity. The iconic hotel is usually packed.

Then, just as I was growing more relaxed, I arrived in Delhi to hear from a friend who was at the end of her trip that she was seriously worried that her cough was the virus. The next day the doctor cleared her, but her reaction was understandable.

It’s hard to think of anything else, as you see other people preparing for the worst, posters in foreign languages carrying those familiar words, Corona and Covid-19, and the media jumping all over the story, for good and for bad (this, after all, is a story that sells, and the media loves that).

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Jama Masjid, Old Delhi.
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A Russian tourist poses at one of the mausoleums in Lodi Gardens.

Me, I’m going to try see India as a traveler first – concentrating on the small things I love about experiencing a country for the first time, the street scenes, the architecture, the sound of strange birds, the men sweeping the sidewalks with long brooms, the incredible masjids and forts whose size beggar belief, the countless stray dogs with kind faces (there are said to be 300 million in India), the alleyways full of poverty and ornate doorways, the contradictions, the history I can’t begin to comprehend – and see it as a worrier second (listening constantly for the sound of someone coughing, walking 2 meters away from the nearest person), for the latter seems a pointless way to travel. All I can hope is that the better journey man wins. 

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A ricksha driver in Old Delhi.