Mhe had not expected the virus: When Martin Lewicki first set out on a long-planned trip around the world on December 31, 2019, to India, he had no idea how extensively Corona would thwart his plans. As part of the “One Way Ticket” column, the Berliner has been reporting on the stages of his journey every two weeks in WELT for a year. And that is far from over.
WORLD: What was the original plan for the world tour?
Martin Lewicki: Oh, I had so many plans. My focus was on the Far East because I’ve never been there: Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan – all of these were on my handwritten list that I found in my travel documents a few days ago. From today’s perspective, after the corona trauma, that sounds completely utopian.
WORLD: Did Corona already play a role in travel preparation?
Lewicki: At the end of 2019, Corona was not yet a big issue. So I first went to an ashram in India and lived there for two weeks in a dormitory with around 30 men. Nobody bothered about viruses and distance.
At the end of January, I sat completely cut off from the world in a meditation center in South India and meditated ten hours a day in one room with around 50 other people. Even after I had access to the news again, I still couldn’t see the gravity of the situation.
WORLD: When did the virus first make itself felt as a problem?
Lewicki: When I traveled to Burma from Nepal in early March. At the transfer airport in Bangkok I was suddenly the only one without a mask – there was no obligation at the time, but almost all of the Asians wore one.
By the way, Burma was considered one of the wonderlands: Despite a border with China, there was officially not a single corona case there until the end of March. When Burma finally decided to close the borders, I knew it was going to be serious.
WORLD: When your tourist visa for Burma expired, you stayed in Thailand contrary to your plans. Was it still possible to travel normally there at the end of March?
Lewicki: It was crazy, like a game against time. Almost every hour there was new information and restrictions. Nobody knew whether a flight was still taking off or not.
I can still remember exactly: It was Saturday evening when I was stranded at the airport in Bangkok, and I took one of the last possible domestic flights in Thailand to the province of Krabi. There I took refuge on the island of Koh Lanta, because it became clear that Thailand would also go into a lockdown. I wanted to “sit out” in beautiful surroundings.
WORLD: As a stranded European, were you considered weird there?
Lewicki: The first days on Koh Lanta were really nice. While the pandemic was raging out in the world, I whizzed from one dream beach to the next on a moped. But after just a week the hard lockdown came. Travelers were suddenly seen as virus throwers who may have brought Corona to the island.
And so I could hardly move for three weeks. I was not allowed to leave my bungalow complex and even shopping for groceries was not welcome. The locals should do this for us. Thousands of people were stuck in Thailand like me.
Fortunately, the government extended tourist visas very generously and unbureaucratically for months. And after the three-week hard lockdown was over and there were hardly any new corona cases, the tourists were no longer labeled as scapegoats.
WORLD: Did you have a major corona shock experience?
Lewicki: My personal corona shock was to notice that bit by bit the unlimited freedom of a world traveler was being taken from me. I had gone out into a world that was open to me and after a few months I was suddenly deprived of all possibilities. The only travel option I still had in the spring was to fly straight back.
WORLD: Why didn’t you return to Germany then?
Lewicki: You don’t go on a trip around the world spontaneously. I had planned it for six months, as a freelancer I quit my jobs or put them on hold and sublet my apartment. But stubbornness and pride also played a role, because I like to see what I’ve set in my head.
WORLD: Do Thais think differently about tourism and especially about mass tourism?
Lewicki: Definitely. I think Thailand has dramatically recognized its dependence on mass tourism. At least when I was still there, the government talked about developing a healthier relationship with tourism and wanting to pay more attention to the values of the country. But I don’t know what exactly that will look like after Corona.
WORLD: After three months, you flew again for the first time in June, within Thailand. What was different about flying now than before?
Lewicki: It was incredibly exciting and at the same time not very spectacular. I didn’t know what to expect, whether I could actually go to another province without having to be quarantined. In the end, I just had to follow three rules: wear a mask, keep your distance, disinfect your hands. And now and then fill in lists with contact details.
WORLD: Was there any prospect of continuing the journey elsewhere in Asia?
Lewicki: I was hoping by the end of August that some country in Asia would open its borders to tourists. Some, like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, announced it – and then withdrew it.
Laos was also reluctant, which was certainly a good idea given the poor health system there. At the beginning of September it was clear to me that Asia would be closed to tourists until at least the end of 2020.
WORLD: Where did it go instead?
Lewicki: After much deliberation and weighing, I decided on the Balkans. I hadn’t been to any of the Balkan countries before, and I found the mixture of southern and eastern European culture exciting.
WORLD: What is different there with regard to Corona than in Asia?
Lewicki: In many of the Balkan countries I have observed inconsistencies and inconsistencies in the rules of conduct. For example, I was told by the police on the street to wear a mask, even though almost half of the other passers-by didn’t. At the same time, you were allowed to sit close to each other in crowded bars and restaurants without a mask.
WORLD: Can you even enjoy a trip around the world if the virus is traveling with you?
Lewicki: I have now come to terms with the situation. But I’m also not the type to whine around. I also know that Corona hit a lot of people really hard. That’s why I don’t want to complain about the loss of lightheartedness when traveling around the world. That was and is manageable.
WORLD: What was the best moment of your world tour so far?
Lewicki: My 2500 kilometers alone on the motorcycle through the beautiful north of Thailand. Despite Corona, I felt infinitely free.
WORLD: And the scariest moment?
Lewicki: When my shoe claws gave up the ghost at 5000 meters in the Himalayas. It was six o’clock in the morning, dark, it was difficult for me to breathe and I had to walk down a slope as smooth as glass. There was no turning back. Suddenly I slipped with my ten-pound backpack. I could hardly hold on. Only one other climber saved me from sliding down the entire slope by pulling me up.
WORLD: Do you regret having made your world tour last year of all times?
Lewicki: Absolutely no way.
WORLD: Would you do it again
Lewicki: Let me put it this way: Despite Corona, 2020 was my best and best year.
WORLD: Is it going on around the world?
Lewicki: In the new year I want to leave for Latin America. There are some countries like Mexico and Colombia that are open to travelers – at least they still are. It might sound crazy to many outsiders given the situation, but I don’t want to stop traveling right now.
Read past parts of the world tour series “One Way Ticket” here. The column appears every two weeks.