Last December, I found myself on a road I didn’t recognize, searching for clues to my whereabouts. On my right, thatched huts dotted the arid flatlands like squat mushrooms. On my left, long-eared cows bent over balding grass. Just ahead, a man in a blue polo shirt lugged neon-yellow fruit in a cardboard box on his head. I ambled toward a sign but found only a mysterious Tetris-like shape. Finally, I noticed a dated car, driving on the left—must be a former British colony. I ventured a guess: Kenya?
It turned out I was 1,800 miles south in Eswatini, a tiny country in southern Africa I’d never heard of (it was called Swaziland until 2018). I was immersed in GeoGuessr, an online game that plops players in random spots on Google Street View, leaving them to deduce their location. I’d played a few times soon after the no-frills game launched in 2013, then forgotten about it. When I rediscovered GeoGuessr years later, in the throes of new parenthood amid a global pandemic, virtual travel was less a diversion than an antidote to standing still.
The pandemic had left me with a profound sense of confinement. In earlier seasons of my life, I had been an avid traveler. I learned Spanish in Barcelona, built homes in El Salvador, and reported from northern France for a travel guide. I backpacked across Italy, picked coffee beans in Colombia, bathed elephants in Thailand, and salsa danced in Mexico. I wandered through street markets in Nanjing and Marrakech and Istanbul. I visited my birthplace of Kyiv, studied in London and New York, and spent nearly two years working in Mumbai’s informal settlements.
When the San Francisco Bay Area ordered residents to shelter in place in March 2020, my world shrank beyond recognition. Three months into the lockdown, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. New York City was piling corpses into refrigerated trucks. A reporter I knew told me that her sources warned it was “a terrible time to get pregnant” and much prenatal care would “become temporarily unavailable.” Life was imbued with a sense of recoiling, of holding back, of vigilance rather than curiosity.
Prone to anxiety in the best of times, I tried to protect my family by dutifully obeying health orders. Like many in the Bay Area, my husband and I met loved ones outdoors, faces covered, six feet apart. I stepped off the curb when passing masked strangers in my Oakland neighborhood. Some days, raging wildfires confined me to the one room in our apartment with windows solid enough to seal out toxic air. A few months before I was due, we moved to a new part of the Bay Area, cut off from everyone we knew by a bridge.
My son’s arrival, in March 2021, only deepened my isolation. After a musculoskeletal injury from nearly five hours of pushing and an unplanned C-section, I lay helplessly as machines pumped my calves to prevent blood clots, unable to even change my baby’s diaper. Back home, days were measured in feeds and diaper changes and wake windows. I sat immobile in a rocking chair for up to 10 hours a day, staring through the window at the same lichen-stained olive tree and patch of dirt. We felt privileged to be healthy, to work from home, to live amid natural beauty, and to have supportive family and friends. Our life with an infant was full of quotidian delights and deep fulfillment. But I felt dislocated and becalmed, a lone ship treading water until the waves around me blended into a dizzying mass. The unrelenting sameness led to what sociologist Corey Keyes has described as languishing, a surreal disconnect from my former self, and occasionally a quiet grief.
GeoGuessr allowed me to recapture in some small way what travel once provided: disorientation, discovery, surprise. I could escape my regimented, mundane surroundings and become a digital flaneur, exploring the globe with a sense of wonder and spontaneity. It was a window into the world as it used to be, imperfect but alive.
Playing repeatedly, you notice that, on the surface, much of the planet is boring: indistinguishable roads, nondescript shrubs, generic structures. But walk this way or that, zoom in a bit, and every place is etched with details that make it inextricably itself: a child’s soccer ball deflating in a driveway, a skull peeking over a fence, a donkey standing in the shade of a white cross. My favorite encounters were with people, greeting me across time and space: the young woman lounging on a hammock in Thailand, the kid riding on the handlebars of a bike in Mexico, the man watering his lawn in Croatia. GeoGuessr was a smoke signal from beyond my daily orbit, a portal to the vast and weird world out there, waiting for me whenever I was ready to rejoin it.
In June, for the first time in two and a half years, I boarded a plane. I was traveling to visit family in Germany, where they’d fled from the war in Ukraine. One afternoon, while they were busy, I roamed the cobblestone streets of Heidelberg’s old town. Caught in a sudden downpour, I took refuge in an entryway. I watched tourists scamper into an ancient church and heard the clatter of shopkeepers retrieving their wares. I smelled wet stone and felt the rain soak my shoes. I had just been to a bakery, and I bit into a schneeballen, a dense, crumbly pastry filled with Nutella. I knew exactly where I was.•