The Hungry Happy Hippy: Couch-surfing amid the pandemic... Travel junkies are finding solace in virtual tours
photo: Instagram/Viator

A few weeks ago, an American woman reached out to me to conduct a virtual tour of Mumbai for 300 colleagues that work together at a multinational company. All she wants is an interesting talk around a stunning visual presentation. Now, this is a relatively easy thing for me to do even in lockdown, as I have thousands of Mumbai photographs and videos (as a longstanding Bombayphile even before I started doing city tours for foreign visitors a decade ago), loads of guiding experience and enough tech savvy to make it a reality. Besides, I’ve already done a live webinar on the city’s hidden treasures for Maharashtra Tourism’s official Facebook page last year that garnered more than 8,000 views. Another woman, this time from Tel Aviv in Israel, had contacted me at the start of this year to check if I’d be able to do live tours while walking around the city for a remote audience. We went back and forth on the logistics until the second wave hit and washed away the plans. For now.

To research the possibilities while I wait, I’ve been doing a deep dive into various virtual offerings. It’s really got me pondering on how going online for what used to essentially be a completely offline activity, can actually be a lot of fun for travellers. You may be doing the right thing and staying home but, if you’re anything like me, you probably still feel intense fernweh (that craving for travel or distant places) in every pore.

The good news for locked down wanderlusters is that just about every popular travel website is offering virtual tours. So, just like you did before the big C came into our lives, you can just pick a place, compare itineraries and rates and book a tour that sounds exciting enough to take your mind off the sad state of affairs in our own country for a short while.

Virtual sightseeing experiences on Viator (@viatortravel) and similar websites allow you access to diverse sights across the globe. So, you can #roamfromhome with a bike adventure in Amsterdam, a drive through Berlin, while an #OutofIsolation web series brings Melbourne’s top sights, secret laneways, and street art directly to you via virtual walks. And whether you are interested in The Game of Thrones or World War II, there are themed tours to keep your adrenaline up. You can virtually visit every monument in the world from our own Taj Mahal to the Vatican and skip the line too.

While the adage goes that there’s nothing like a free lunch, there’s certainly a lot of complimentary travel across the World Wide Web, especially on YouTube. A free 360° video takes you off-roading in a pink Jeep down the Broken Arrow trail in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest in the US. Another one lets you hang with African penguins at Boulders Beach outside of Cape Town in South Africa. Throw in a quality VR headset and it’s like you’re really there! I may have already had a blast when I visited Florida’s Disney World (@waltdisneyworld) but would I like to virtually zipline over alligators or ride their tallest rollercoaster again? Yes, please! And while I’m in the neighbourhood, I wouldn’t mind clicking over to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando (@universalorlando) to experience the magic of Diagon Alley.

Speaking of magic, there are also countless classes you can buy online. Muggles can actually learn a spell or two. But apart from these, Airbnb (@airbnb) has such a vast list of out-of-the-box classes, that my mind was truly boggled! Should I do a K-Pop Make-up & Dance tutorial straight from South Korea or learn pasta making from an authentic Italian nonna? Should I pick up the basics of Champagne sabering or climb Mt Fuji in Japan as I lie back on my couch?

Elsewhere on the internet, there’s even a sake-drinking tour through Tokyo. I’m a bit unclear whether you bring your own booze to balance along with your laptop on your bed-tea table or whether you watch the guide sip their way through several bars and slowly keel over in their kimono at the end of the evening! There’s literally something for everyone. Search and you shall find, seems to be the go-to philosophy.

Closer home, Khaki Tours (@khaki.tours) has been conducting virtual walks showcasing history and local culture across Mumbai. Even the old school Rambo Circus (@rambo_circus_) went virtual with several online shows last year! Meanwhile, many museums across India have started developing virtual tours (find the list at this link – https://www.indiaculture.nic.in/ virtual-museums), inspired by the ones in the Louvre (@museelouvre) in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (@metmuseum) and the British Museum (@britishmuseum) in London, many galleries of which can even be viewed via Google Street View!

Apparently, the Google Arts & Culture (@googleartsculture) vertical has more than 2,500 museums worldwide on its roster. And while I really did enjoy seeing the wealth of exhibits at the Hermitage Museum (@hermitage_museum) in St Petersburg when I visited a couple of years ago, I am definitely happy to know I can appreciate all that art and beauty without sorely needing a foot massage at the end of the day!

For those who travel to watch musicals and theatre shows, there’s plenty of these to choose from as well. Most of the popular Broadway productions can be found online. And if you’re barmy about the Bard and always dreamed about going to the historic Globe Theatre (@the_globe) in London, you can actually treat your folks to a live stream of a performance for the price of a family meal at your neighbourhood McDonald’s! Throughout Summer 2021 (starting in June) Shakespeare’s Globe will have performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It and other events such as discussions and new plays.

Similarly, many of the performances at Mumbai’s National Centre of Performing Arts (@ncpamumbai) can be found on their website. If Western classical music is your thing, you can even click into play.wiener-staatsoper.at, where the Vienna State Opera (@viennaoperahouse) in Austria has been streaming its older performances for free. Just last week, they did rousing renditions of Beethoven’s Fidelio, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Gounod’s Faust.

I had never imagined that I could enjoy a posh concert eating popcorn in my pajamas without getting the eye from a snooty usher! Ah well, let’s leave that for when the world returns to normalcy once again.

(The columnist is an independent lifestyle journalist and bespoke Mumbai tour specialist. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @priyapathiyan and @thehungryhappyhippy on Facebook. She blogs on thehungryhappyhippy.com)

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