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ETG Presents: Silver Linings of 2020

by Amelia Curran
Celebrating at a Zoom wedding in 2020

In normal times, the ETG HQ Christmas Party is filled with stories from the year’s adventures; our yearly reflections always comes back to travel. We share our favourite random encounters, like meeting monks in Bhutan who wanted to learn English, or bonding with a guide in Vietnam over a mutual love of Arsenal. We also talk with excitement of holidays booked for the coming year, whether it’s returning to an old favourite or heading completely out of our comfort zone.

But this year, of course, is very different. For a start, it was our first ever online Christmas party – what a fitting way to end 2020! However, though the travel tales were far fewer than normal, we still have stories to share. In fact, despite this terrible year, we have all experienced some wonderful silver linings. So, in the Christmas spirit, we thought we’d share a few of these heartwarming stories with you. Let’s toast to the silver linings of 2020 – in the hope that next year, they won’t be so hard to find…

Wedding in the rain in 2020
Becky and Rowley's wedding, October 2020

Becky’s Silver Linings

Becky Grainger, Deputy Head of Travel

Whilst there are some memories of 2020 we would all rather forget; it will always be a special year for me as it is the year I got married!

Whilst it wasn’t the big Scottish party we had originally planned, we managed to get married at a wonderfully intimate, COVID-safe micro wedding in October this year. Planning a wedding in normal times can be a lot to deal with, but with daily rule changes, family stuck abroad, and the constant threat of self-isolation, it sometimes felt like it just wasn’t going to happen.

After many hours of deliberating, we decided to move our big celebration to next summer and go ahead with a smaller ceremony this year anyway. With just one week to go, we firmed up arrangements and kept our fingers crossed for our big day. In the end, it was perfect- even Storm Alex couldn’t dampen our day! After the previous 8 months, having 18 of our close friends and family (plus a few more on zoom!) with us to watch us get married meant so much and made the day even more special.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

Next year I hope to head to Bhutan and India for our honeymoon! I think they sound like the perfect combination for me and my husband – the adventure and excitement of India, followed by the tranquillity and remoteness of Bhutan. I’ve been planning this for a while now, and postponing it has made me want it even more!

Food ration box provided for the Concern Worldwide Ration challenge in aid of refugees

Holly’s Silver Linings

Holly Newing, Travel Consultant

Being unable to leave the house, let alone the country (for the most part), aroused quite a number of irrational fears that I hadn’t realised I possessed… such as not having any flights booked… or being unable to find eggs in the supermarket… (First world, middle-class fears, I know).

It was the acknowledgement of my trivial anxieties that encouraged me to look at the bigger picture. And so, I found myself compelled to take part in Concern Worldwide’s ‘Ration Challenge’.

The idea is to raise money and awareness by living on the same rations that a Syrian refugee would receive in a camp in Jordan. Which is basically plain white rice, and not much else, for seven long days.

Whilst I clearly ate far less than I would normally, I was able to fill up enough on rice. What I really missed, however, was the lack of flavour; because no matter how you try to package it up – when you have that little to play with, ultimately it all tastes the same. Eating just to fill a gap and not for enjoyment, was truly upsetting – especially as I’m a big foodie.

However, by the end of the week, it was worth it. I had managed to raise over £1,200 – double my original target and enough to feed 8 refugees for a year! And so my experience in 2020 helped me to appreciate the joy in being able to create such variety and goodness on my plate every single day… And I am considerably less frustrated now when Sainsbury’s has run out of eggs.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

Next year I’d love to go to Thailand! Because I adore the food and beaches, but also I am craving to get off the beaten track in the North and try some of our unique community tourism experiences.

Hand knitted pastel cardigans made by Melissa Clark
You can find Melissa's knitwear on Instagram: @future_purl

Melissa’s Silver Linings: “The year I swapped holidays for cardigans…”

Melissa Nicholas, Product Director

From sending crayon drawings of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg to “The Gallery” on Take Hart and helping my Dad cut out pieces for his marquetry in the early ’80s, to making cushions and baby blankets during two pregnancies, I’ve always had a quirky craft project of some kind on the go. Much of lockdown #1 was spent trying to keep my with my kids’ Yr 2 and Yr 4 home school work, and inevitably their art (and geography) projects were the ones I was most at home with. We stocked up on PVA glue, coloured card and the like and got stuck into aboriginal paintings, models of the Daintree Rainforest, Greek temples, sketches of Angkor Wat and of course a steady stream of baked goods (baking = maths).

Now, this may sound very wholesome and all that, but it dawned on me one night in early April that the kids were in bed and I was on my own merrily attaching parrot stickers to a pretend rainforest canopy. It was time to find a project of my own – preferably one that didn’t add to the mounting craft creations that were filling up the house. Since I’d already dabbled in knitting and had a set of needles, I decided to order some wool and try to make myself a jumper. And just like that, I’d found the perfect pandemic hobby.

There is something meditative about knitting and it gave me something to tinker around with whilst supervising the mildly challenging home school situation. Don’t tell anyone, but I could even do it during company zoom catch-ups. But best of all, finishing each project gave me a sense of accomplishment at a time when everything else in life seemed to be unravelling somewhat. It became quite addictive. With each item I made, I got faster and learnt new skills, eventually working out how to design my own patterns.

COVID restrictions eased a little, September came, the kids went back to school – hallelujah. It began to get colder, the perfect time to wear the cardigans I’d been furiously if not somewhat bizarrely knitting through a heatwave. People began asking where they were from, could they commission one? Vogue declared: “cardigans are having a moment”! Lucky that, as I’d got more than I could wear myself, I’d filled up a clothes rail in the guest room; a woolly jungle dwarfed the cardboard rainforest and the kids various craft creations that I’d been trying to keep under control in the first place.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

I’m not sure where this hobby will take me in 2021. I’ve set up an Instagram page, been paid to make cardigans for friends and friends of friends, had great feedback and enjoyed every minute of it as it’s helped me through 2020, but I think I would drop it all for 2021 to take me (and everyone else) on another travel adventure. The dream destination for me will be India, not least because I’ve had two trips recently thwarted but, first, I’ll be working out where and how I can meet up with my brother and sister-in-law and their small children who live in Sydney, Australia. Ideally Thailand or Bali, but there’s always the Daintree Rainforest…..

Four people smiling in London

James’s Silver Linings

James Wilmshurst, Senior Travel Consultant

One of the advantages of living in London is the sheer size and history of the city. While I’ve not been able to travel further afield, I’ve managed to sate my curious side by exploring the history and heritage of areas around South London, on foot or by fold-up bike.

I knew a fair bit about the history of Brixton (where I live) which is a great starting point. I delved much deeper and learnt more – essentially conducting my own private walking/cycling tours-for-one through Kennington, Walworth, Rotherhithe, Stockwell and West Norwood.

I even stretched this to include fantastic restaurants showcasing ETG’s list of destinations… A personal favourite was cycling from Brixton to Hounslow (!) via Richmond Park, Ham House and Hounslow heath, all for tasty Mumbai cuisine.

While I can’t travel out of the UK, London isn’t a bad place to be for some curious adventures.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

In 2021, I can’t wait to see our in-country partners in India and travel with them through rural central India – being in London does sometimes mean you want a bit of country life (with a twist!). I’m particularly excited for a real adventure through Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

"Meals on wheels" food packaged in pull along suitcase
Roast dinner delivered to vulnerable people in London

Sara’s Silver Linings: “Connections on my doorstep”

Sara Wells, Travel Consultant

2020 was a blow. Without ‘travel’, which is so defining to me, I was adrift. A lot of soul searching later, I discovered that the things about travel that I most enjoy are the connections you make, learning anew and the sharing of experiences. But this is possible even when you’re grounded…

During the furlough, I volunteered with Quarantine Cooks: pairing cooks with vulnerable isolated people. I was paired with Sally, who’d request a particular meal for me to cook for her each week. The big challenge was the timing – preparing the main dish as well as a pudding – but then I packed it into my trusty wheelie travel luggage (at least it got some use!) and delivered it while still hot to Sally who lives 5km away, basically on my doorstep. Meals on wheels! We would then sit at the front of her house, socially distanced of course, and chat for an hour. We’d exchange letters too. A heartwarming and rewarding experience.

Where would you like to go in 2021 and why?

2020 has mostly been spent in my little flat or in the park opposite and I am craving the wider world, in particular breathtaking land and seascapes. So in 2021, I’d love to go to Indonesia to hike the volcanoes, snorkel among the coral and of course meet and learn from the local diverse cultures.

Woman standing at doorway in garden
Pauline, who Alice met through the Regenerate RISE scheme.

Alice’s Silver Linings

Alice Bayly, Head of Sustainable Travel

In lockdown #1 I made a LOT of new friends. Each day I escaped the house in my car, armed with a letter of permission and an official badge (although disappointingly I was never stopped), collected 7 hot lunches and drove around my community delivering them to isolated elderly residents. I learnt that Nellie, 90, still lives opposite the primary school she attended as a child; I got the lowdown from David on all the celebrities since the ’60s who’ve lived nearby; I received a daily marriage proposal from Richard, and I gained gardening tips from Pauline as she stood among the countless pots of flowers outside her front door. Nine months later I’m still delivering – albeit weekly now – to the same gang. Of course, I can’t wait until they can resume their normal lives, especially as that will mean being able to socialise with each other at their regular lunch and games club in our local church once more, but I have loved getting to know these people whilst sharing a grumble and a giggle on their doorsteps. They tell me that this pandemic is sending them doolally – I feel a bit guilty that my new friends have kept me sane!

Where would you like to go in 2021?

I’d like to take my family to Thailand to try one of ETG’s community tourism experiences – they not only share the benefits of tourism directly with local communities in northern Thailand, they sound brilliantly immersive and fun enough to engage my teenage ‘children’, too.

Tom playing Beach Tennis is Thailand
Tom winning Pickleball tournament in Thailand

Tom’s Silver Linings: “Unexpected Champion”

Tom Armstrong, Co-Founder of ETG

Aside from the things we’ll all remember or want to forget it for, 2020 was also the year I rediscovered the joys of playing racket sports socially and competitively. Fortuitously ’stuck’ in Thailand since entering just before the borders shut across Asia in March, I had more time on my hands and fewer plans in my diary than I’ve had since my halcyon, pre-mobile phone backpacking days.

Thankfully, to fill the void I discovered two niche but increasingly popular sports I had never previously played but which have totally captivated me; Beach Tennis (a kind of cross between badminton, volleyball and tennis, played on sand) and Pickleball (a mix of tennis and table tennis, played on hard surfaces). They’ve been the perfect tonic for the living nightmare and separation of a Zoom-based work life and an undoubtedly more wholesome approach to survival than simply drinking the year into the recycle bin. I now play most days at my local club in Bangkok and even travel around the country to compete in tournaments, something I could never have imagined doing before.

The highlight was unexpectedly winning one, but the enduring memories and silver linings are the countless hours of fun and laughter in an otherwise pretty tedious period, the many new friends made along the way and the welcome reminder that it’s never too late to try your hand at anything if your aim is simply to enjoy yourself.

Whatever happens in 2021 and beyond, these games are coming (or staying!) with me. I’m trying not to think too much about where I would like to go in the future because it may not be possible or worthwhile, but my mind does still wander regularly. Beyond my immediate priorities of getting back to my home in Sri Lanka and seeing my family and friends in the UK, my heart still pines for more adventure in the Himalayas; ideally trekking in remote regions of Nepal whilst researching the country as the next ETG destination or fulfilling my ultimate pipe dream of cycling the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan.

Nick spending time with his family

Nick’s Silver Linings

Nick Clark, Head of Travel

On a personal level, 2020 has been a year like no other. All perfectly normal and sanguine until spring when, like many people up and down the country, lockdown #1 life meant endless zoom meetings, lots of cooking and daily hill seeking (which is surprisingly easy in SE London) on my new bike. Then as spring moved into early summer, news came through that my father was terminally ill. Although the illness was known, the severity and speed of the subsequent decline was a huge shock.

While this does not seem like an obvious place to start a story of silver linings, much like with the pandemic there were important things to cling on to, both in the short and long term.

A combination of the speed of things and the pandemic blocking hospital visits meant that at one point, it looked possible or even likely that we would not be able to see him again. However, things did improve (relatively), and my Dad was able to return home and welcome visitors. As I was able to work remotely and we had options for basing ourselves near to my Dad, my siblings and I decamped to Dorset and Hampshire with our respective families, maximising our visits for the best part of the next month.

Although there were lots of tears, that month will always remain very special, both for the time with my Dad and for the shared experience with the people who mattered the most; allowing a level of closure that I will be eternally grateful for.

My wife then confirmed in September that she was pregnant with our first child and the circle of life starts all over again. Knowing the Grandad he was, there will always be great sadness that my baby will not know him but huge joy in the stories that will be told. And I will always have the memory of his smile when I told him that we were hoping for the news soon.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

Our baby news might slightly clip my travelling wings in 2021, although our priority will be to see my wife’s family in Ireland, especially after May and since our Christmas travel plans were scuppered. My explorer side would love, finally, to get to explore the madness of Kolkata, but I suspect my wife might be more interested in a babymoon on a Thai beach!

Sam walking around London
Sam picnic in London

Sam’s Silver Linings: “London Looping”

Sam Clark, Co-Founder of ETG

Worried about seeing my teenage boys spending their ENTIRE LIFE indoors, needing to scratch my travel-curious itch and inspired by my late father’s love of walking (as Nick has said, he sadly died in June), I decided to walk around London following the LOOP trail, otherwise known (according to Wikipedia) as the ‘M25 for walkers’. That description does it a disservice – as Bryn from Gavin and Stacy said, ‘the M25 can be a cruel mistress’, whereas the LOOP is a fantastic gift that just keeps on giving all the way around. From ancient woodlands in Croydon, to royal parks in Richmond and canal paths in Uxbridge, the range of scenery is constantly surprising. There are also all kinds of little finds and moments to be had and discovered along the way, including this picnic beside the remains of an oak tree where William Pitt (The Younger) met with William Wilberforce to decide on enacting the anti-slavery bill.

Where would you like to go in 2021 and why?

My travel plans for 2021 would be to go through Calcutta, West Bengal and up through the plains, hoping for a real travel adventure. I’d like to see some of the amazing work that the charity Shivia do in the region as well.






Matt training on the balcony in Spain

Matt’s Silver Linings

Matt Brazier, Head of Marketing and Brand

It’s hard not to start this without mentioning the Maldives. As some of you will know, I played a bit of a blinder escaping Lockdown 2 with an out-of-this-world 3.5 week trip exploring many of the resorts in the Maldives. I still have to pinch myself now, to be honest. But, if I also look back at the changes that have happened in my work/life balance, having ‘more time’ is something that really stands out for me. I live in a little flat in Mile End and it would have been easy to get in a negative space during the first lockdown, but I tried to enjoy the little things; like going to have a cup of tea on the balcony for 20 minutes after my morning meetings and enjoying the sun (something I would never have done in the office). And swapping my morning commute with 30 mins of skipping or going for a run/cycle around the Olympic park to start my day.

I also did a 6-week nutritional course and loved cooking loads of new and different meals, getting totally carried away on Ocado ordering Yeast flakes, Miso paste, Kefir yogurt and making my owns dips – like roasting carrots and red onion with paprika, cumin, cayenne and then whizzing together with garlic oil and cannellini beans (yum!!) As James Hudson the nutritional coach would say – get range, range and more range in your diet.

I felt very fortunate to fly out to Spain when things eased up and I spent 12 days with my friends in an apartment in Palma. I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I spent this amount of time in one place outside my home (on every previous trip I’d be used to moving at least every 2-3 days). It was quite liberating – being able to do my job remotely and without the pressure to ‘do lots’ with our time away. We just enjoyed the space we lived in, I worked out on the balcony every morning, we all went for daily swims and walked along the seafront for a cheeky glass of beer after work. It was bliss. Something I will look back very fondly on.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

My plan in 2020 was to fly my friend (and one of our guides) Jamyang over from Bhutan. I was just submitting the visa application in February when I realised everything was going south, and I decided to park it. It would be a dream to be able to get him over him and show him around. He’s helped create so many life-long memories for me and what a joy it would be to do the same… although admittedly my tour guiding would be very straightforward – he’s never even been in the sea!

Sam exploring with her family in cornwall

Sam’s Silver Linings

Sam Carr, Financial Controller

Hanging out with me probably wouldn’t have been her first choice, but getting to spend time with my daughter Milly during lockdown, in the year that she was leaving to go to university, was lovely.  The long walks, heart-to-hearts and discovering new box sets together was an unexpected (and now treasured) pleasure of lockdown.  The box set part is important because I need her to make extensive notes for me to understand the plot of anything more complicated than an Agatha Christie.

Although we were unable to go on an ETG holiday, we did manage to get away to Cornwall with my mum and dad and Milly’s cousins.

Black labrador puppy

Amelia’s Silver Linings

Amelia Curran, Content Editor

For me, there have been a couple of silver linings to 2020. I moved to France in September last year, seeking a year of smugness on the continent pre-Brexit. Though getting “stuck” there during the first lockdown heightened the sense of isolation at times, on the whole, I feel I was lucky to be there; the sun and next door bakery definitely did wonders for pandemic anxiety. The summer of almost-normality was another highlight; simple pleasures like going out for a drink made me giddy with excitement, and I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted again. But, to be very trite, spending 10 months away from home made coming back feel so special. I was so excited to see my family, and several of my friends moved near my area, so we’ve been able to have plenty of socially distanced pre-Christmas walks around London. And my mum got this puppy. The shiniest of silver linings.

Where would you like to go in 2021?

I’d love to go to northern Vietnam, and maybe Laos as well. I love big cities and food, so Hanoi sounds perfect, and Laos just looks mind-blowingly beautiful.

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