How do you sum up 2020 in words? How do you sum it up in pictures? 52 images barely seem to do it justice, and yet it seems more than enough. What a weird year for everyone. Monotonous, and yet a rollercoaster at the same time. And it continues, with its strange ways, as we enter 2021, the 2020 feeling just doesn’t go away. It’s hard, for everyone, and yet everyone’s hard is different. And through all of that it’s had so much to be grateful for too. And yet so much loss. Such a tugging of opposites that leave us feeling adrift and not really knowing how to feel. Guilt at the good times when others are struggling. Regret at the missed opportunities when it looks like others are living their best lives. Happiness at the breathing space we’ve been surprised with. Sadness at the freedoms taken away. Emotions pulled every which way.
All I can tell you about is our 2020. Not better or worse than anyone elses, just ours. And illustrated with 52 photos that made up my submissions to the Wish You Were Here Project – our 7th year of this project which is quite remarkable really. And I’ll always be so glad of it for keeping me documenting, stepping forwards, through whatever life throws at us to have a picture a week to remember it all by.
We were mid way through a road trip from India to England, and started the year off in a petrol station truck stop in West Bengal. Bedded down by 10 the night before and blocked in by trucks in the morning. It was chilly and not at all exciting or auspicious. Another day on the road in our Vera van home. And the road took us on to some of our most exciting travels yet. Through North East India, the part of the country named the 7 sisters, areas little visited, and definitely off the beaten track. The land of tribal people and tea and festivals and bad roads. And also the land where my Mum was born. The reason why the girls and I even have Indian citizenship at all is rooted up in those fertile foothills of the Himalayas. A place I’ve never visited before, yet where our own India story began. A place woven into stories of my childhood while sitting on my Grandfathers knee, remote and excting sounding.
Indy and I were still recovering from our awful parasite contracted the year before. I was still weak and some days it took a huge amount of mental willpower to find the strength to even walk. We explored the Living Root bridges of Meghalaya, with it’s 8,000 (and more) steps which had me on my knees by the end. We stayed in the villages of the infamous headhunters of Nagaland and slept with our heads in Myanmar and our feet in India. We drove through the state of Manipur, which is reportedly full of bandits though we found nothing but the kindest people. The Ima Keithel, or Mothers market in Imphal, the worlds largest female run market, being a source of nothing but smiles and hugs and kissing, dancing and singing – I feel so grateful we were there in January because I literally can’t imagine the experience with a social distance between us and the 4,000 ladies that ruled it. We visited the Indian unicorns, a breathtaking experience up close with the Rhinos that are native to NE India. Indy had a run in with an over friendly cat that required a course of rabies jabs taken in 5 different hospitals in 2 different countries! Vera punctured a tyre and knocked down a wall, and I fell and chipped my kneecap, perhaps we should have seen thise mishaps as signs and given up then!!
But no, we headed forward to Nepal. Our plan there was to drive on into Tibet. But Tibet is in China and in China there was a new virus spreading…. We sat it out for a month in Nepal waiting for borders to re-open, visa and vehicle documents renewed and extended, reconfiguring our plans every day, numerous embassy visits and emails, glued to news updates daily, and even hourly, to see how we could find a way to keep going, whilst concurrently trying to actually enjoy the country we were in. Honestly that month is a bit of a blur, but I know we loved Nepal enough that we all want to go back again. Eventually we returned to India and drove on into Pakistan to try and get to England that way instead, either up the KKH and into China if the border was open by then, or to Iran and on from there… in retrospect, we probably approached it with the self assurance of people who’d lived in Hong Kong through SARS, we thought it would pass, but still we kept making plan after plan as the situation changed.
In Pakistan the border to India slammed firmly shut behind us preventing a return to our “home” country. We had nowhere left to go. For three months we’d basically hung around in areas bordering China with the belief we’d somehow make it through. We tried to make the most of where we were. Seeing the sights and eating the food and talking to the people, but with each passing day we were turned away from Mosques as gatherings were banned, or treated with suspicion as people wondered about where this mystery virus had come from. We could stay in a country where the situation was changing by the day or we could make a move now. In the end we flew, motivated by my desire to be around to help my parents, who of course needed little help, but everything was so unknown I wanted to be there. We booked flights at 11pm on the Thursday and left at 9pm Friday. In less than 24 hours we packed up our belongings, assessing each thing we owned to see if we could carry it or should leave it. We arranged somewhere to leave Vera, we got rid of our food to people we met and we left, with just 4 rucksacks and a duffle bag between us, carrying only what was necessary for our life. I still feel my heart quickening and my throat tightening thinking back on that day. It’s taken time to process some of that time emotionally, and I still need to share photos of Nepal and Pakistan – they were incredible countries and in the mess of 3 months of re-jigging our plans I never quite caught up with myself and posted any pictures from either country really – aside from a sad and weary series I shared on Instagram of our frantic departure, and what, in a lucky twist of fate, turned out to be the very last plane to depart from Lahore before it too was closed down.
Shellshocked, we arrived in a very strange England at the end of March 2020. Grateful to have our old Abu Dhabi car waiting at my sister-in-laws, and a little house in Yorkshire belonging to family, in which we could stay. Our heads were spinning as we dealt with a country we’d never lived in together which was in lockdown. Confusing to say the least!
As a family we were fractured. Living in a van may look idyllic and the adventures it brings are undoubtedly wonderful, but it often leaves little time, or privacy, for important conversations. Put the complexity of reconfiguring our travel plans day by day on top of that and it can lead to major breakdowns in communication on anything but the most pressing practical concerns. Having no base, and no jobs, and no clear plan forward on top of that left us floundering. On top of that, mine and Indy’s ill health, and a major mental health crisis which needed help and attention that was hard to access during a pandemic going on within our family and it was hard. Really hard. And it hurt, and was massively confusing, making the path forwards even harder to find. And in lockdown there’s no escape, and no space to breathe and it can become a seething cesspool of a mess. Which I’m sure is never how it looks on Instagram when you’re trying to find and focus on the little sparks of light in the midst of really truly dark days.
The beauty of the Yorkshire Dales helped. Every day we went out and walked from the front door in our little hideaway. We could walk anywhere 360 degrees and we watched spring unfurl and blossom around us. We rebuilt muscles and stomachs, and feasted on the cakes and pies my Mum sent me packing with every time I delivered groceries to them. But still we felt like we were drowning. Sinking under the weight of unknowns. Where would we live once this was all over? Where would our kids go to school? How and what would our work be? How do you work this stuff out in a country where everything is closed? Or online only? How do you get a feel for a community that’s indoors, hiding from a virus in its living rooms? How do you pick a school without ever having lived in the area, or being able to visit? And how do you find a job in a place where everything is on hold and everyone is furloughed? And then there’s Brexit, and the myriad of unknowns that come with the fact that 3 out of 4 of you aren’t even British.
Through this, the summer of 2020 held times of pure joy. Celebrations as my parents passed 50 years of marriage and we were able to be with them. An almost empty house up for sale meant we could stay close to both sister-in-laws for a while without having to stay in their homes, and a huge garden there meant the cousins could roam free together during those more relaxed summer days.
And the light in that empty house gave me life again in a way I could have never anticipated. And she gave us some much needed space, a respite from the confines of the Yorkshire 2 up 2 down terrace filled with someone elses stuff where we were still living out of those rucksacks we’d arrived with. We also needed the space because our van, Vera, arrived back from Pakistan, delayed, and costly with covid providing a convenient excuse for every extra day or dollar. And she brought a family of little rodents which was a truly unpleasant experience to deal with. But we worked together and found a common focus in 7 solid days of scrubbing and cleaning, and dreaming of not selling her as we’d planned, but venturing on future trips when the covid-madness passed.
Deadlines to get the kids in a school were looming – GCSE’s meant this was a much more critical decision than it would have been in any other year and they both wanted to be in school again. Although we always knew that Tommy going somewhere without us was something we’d have to consider we had a flicker of light at the thought of moving back to India. Tommy was up for a job there, so despite the fact we’d always planned to move closer to family after our Vera trip it seemed a viable way forward, a known rather than the unknowns of the UK. And so the kids were signed up for school in Delhi. And distance learning commenced. And then it all got put on hold… more uncertainty, more unknowns…. And in a totally unanticipated twist, a week after Vera’s return Tommy got a job in UAE again. And off he went.
The kids and I went back to Yorkshire and settled back into the tiny house there and made it work for us. A new rhythm commenced, with 2am alarms to do school online in Indian real time. The bonus of this crazy schedule was that they were mostly done by 9 and we still managed lots of walks. A much needed daily dose of fresh air and a mental reboot. A chance to chat and connect and on some days a chance to find solitude in nature. A lifelong sunset chaser, I saw the sun rise day after day with our early starts, and a new appreciation for the early hours grew in me. And as I became a solo parent and the kids weren’t in physical school, nor me at work we bubbled with my parents which meant we could celebrate big birthdays with both of them, and Diwali, which was super special to spend with my Mum in this year where we’d found the hospital she was born in.
The girls and I eeked out some England living experiences – foods of my childhood became staples to them too. We managed a trip to London to see Indy’s photos in the Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition, hiked the 3 Yorkshire Peaks, twice, and took afternoon tea at Betty’s in Harrogate, a new Christmas tradition for me and my growing-up-too-fast young ladies. We strolled along the prom in Blackpool with my dear friend for whom the girls should have been bridesmaids this summer – and we live in hope of the wedding happening right there in 2021. We sat in back gardens and had cups of tea with the Grandparents who made it over from Ireland, and with Aunties and cousins, and managed a few trips to photograph clients of mine which helped me from going stir crazy seeing the same place every single day.
We baked, and grew things, most of which died but the process was therapeutic. We hung out washing and the girls learnt to observe the weather more keenly. We saw 3 seasons change and the beauty that brings; something my kids have never truly experienced before. We exercised with Joe Wicks along with the rest of the nation, and we painted rainbows for our windows in spring and made holly wreaths in winter.
We had long calls with Tommy who was finding us a new place to stay. And we experienced the bittersweet feelings of him unpacking our storage unit back in the UAE into an apartment we know we three girls will only ever live in temporarily. But now we’re here, and making the most of it – having our things around us, even though we know through all this that it’s not things that matter most. We lived without them for 3 years, and in a tiny van, but there’s a comfort in these strange times in walking on my treasured rugs, collected from cooperatives around the world and looking at our own books and photos, and being steeped in our own memories. We made it here on Christmas Day – an odd way to spend Christmas in an odd year. Christmas jumpers and santa hats, hot sun and sleep were the order of the day, with an unhealthy dose of chocolate for good measure.
And so we start 2021, another year of uncertainty. A life plan that wasn’t what we planned. We wait to see if 3 of us can go to India. If we can be vaccinated and can feel a little safer traversing the world to see family. I wonder what to do with my business and how I can move it forward without a permanent base or routine – after over 12 years building it, and almost 3 years of me supporting the family with it, covid and the decisions it’s pushed us in to have rendered it all but redundant and I admit, the financial side of that is rough, but more than that, it’s loss has left me feeling rudderless. And yet the time and space to create just for me has been a piece of freedom I’ve not allowed myself in years. Yet more of those confusing and opposing tugs that covid has brought so many of us.
2020 brought us incredible unforgettable travels. And the kindest of people who looked after us in tough times. And zoom calls and quizzes with my dear best school friends who scooped me up as if I’d never been away. And good food. And stronger legs. And 3 beautiful seasons. And FaceTime storytime weekly with 2 sets of the littlest cousins in the family. And so many photos which helped me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And walks, walks, walks. And family time. And a much needed slower pace of life. A year of some of the worst times, levels of stress off the chart times, and a million little moments of beautiful times. And truly, through it all, through all the mess and the hurt and the brokenness, it brought so much good.
And that’s our 2020. Not better, or worse, just ours.
See previous WYWH roundups HERE