A viral Birthday trip

As I have mentioned before, I have a personal tradition that I really like: going on a trip every year for my birthday. Since I’ve been in Canada I haven’t really been able to stick to it, mainly because of work. My first job didn’t really allow me to take leave, for my second birthday here I was about to change jobs and the last day of my 2 weeks was on my birthday. I couldn’t really go at that time but I went to Montreal for a short getaway the week before my birthday.

This year was my 3rd birthday in Canada and all the conditions were met for me to finally do things properly. I usually do these trips solo or with friends but this year I thought it would be a good idea to share the fun with my mom and my sister… I don’t think I’ll take that risk again for my birthday. My mom is pretty chill when it comes to traveling but not always the most reliable in terms of commitment. My sister is a bit more high maintenance and we don’t necessarily have the same idea of traveling, but I wanted to share the experience with them nonetheless, and that’s why I picked Miami as my first choice. Everyone was happy with the destination but they needed some time to get the logistics together. Prices on my end were rising and I had a growing feeling that this trip would probably not happen.

If I haven’t mentioned it yet, my mom and my sister both live in France. Flight tickets are usually much cheaper in Europe, even when it comes to traveling to the US. After a lengthy status quo, I decided to drop the whole project. My sister could no longer commit because of a work issue and she would have been upset if my mom and I had gone without her.

This is how I ended up picking Birmingham Alabama. Most of the warm places were getting too expensive for a 5-day trip, so when I stumbled upon a return flight for less than 300 CAD, I jumped on it. I didn’t care anymore where I was going as long as it was somewhere warm.

I had a lot of people scratch their heads by my choice of destination. For some it was because they were wondering what I was going to do there and for others my safety was their primary concern. Alabama doesn’t have a really nice track record when it comes to racial issues, so they were afraid I might end up in the news as a victim of a police shooting or something similar. Obviously nothing like that happened.

When deciding what to do on that trip, my main concern was being outside. I’m really trying to hone my skills at macro photography so I’d gladly spend most of my time outside trying to catch those tiny elusive creatures.

I checked what hiking options were available around Birmingham and made my choice. I was going to visit Ruffner Park and Red Mountain Park. Because it wouldn’t do to go to Birmingham without actually visiting the city, I had also planned to allocate a day to downtown Birmingham and the Museum of Civil Rights.

For my actual birthday, which was on March 15, I wanted to do something special. The Birmingham zoo was holding a special event on that day: Brunch with the Elephants, and that’s what I wanted to do. Unfortunately I waited until the very last minute to book my ticket and they were sold out by the time I was ready to make my purchase.

If you know me, you know that I believe in signs. Had I paid more attention, I would have decided to stay home, but I really wanted to go on my birthday trip and ignored anything else.

While I was busy making plans for my trip, the world was slowly but surely going through something major, but none of this seemed real at the time. Back in December 2019, a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was first reported to the WHO (World Health Organization). It started to spread rapidly outside of China and before we knew it, the entire planet was affected.

I could hear news coming from other countries, but at the time it felt like Canada and the US were so far removed from some of the things happening elsewhere. That’s why I decided to stick to my plan and board my plane on March 12. To me, it seems like things really started to go downhill on that day.

Just as I was on my way to the airport, my brother told me that France was going on partial lockdown, a friend told me that Ireland had done the same and the USA had announced a ban on all travels to and from Europe, except the UK. Although my sense of dread was growing, things still felt pretty unreal so I carried on.

I made it to Birmingham safe and sound and caught an uber to get to my Airbnb. My uber driver was really nice, like many she asked what I was doing in Birmingham. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most events were being canceled and I guess she also thought that I hadn’t picked the most touristy place to go to. She gave me a list of good spots to eat at, but due to the circumstances I was only able to try Hatti B’s

When I arrived at my Airbnb, I met Anne my host. Another one of those people I am grateful to have crossed paths with. Upon learning that I was traveling for my birthday, she invited me to dinner at her daughter’s for Friday. She also offered to go with me to Montgomery on Sunday to celebrate my birthday.

If you’re wondering why Montgomery? It’s because of the Legacy Museum. The museum was opened on April 26, 2018 by the EJI (Equal Justice Initiative). Its full name is actually The Legacy Museum: from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. You would have guessed by now that the theme of the Museum is the effect that the enslavement of black people still has on today’s society. A movie (Just Mercy) about the founder of the organization and one of the cases he worked on, came out this year.

Not the most cheerful way to spend a birthday, but it’s history that matters, even if I am not black American. Unfortunately I was not able to do any of this.

When I woke up on Friday, my first full day, things in the world were getting crazier. My invitation to dinner was canceled because Anne’s son in law was afraid I may be a carrier of the virus, since I was coming from Toronto and we already had a few confirmed cases. I totally understood where this was coming from but, still, the rejection stung a little.

I still refused to panic and just went about my day. Instead of going to Red Mountain Park as I had initially planned, Anne recommended I visit Vulcan Park and she gave me a lift there. There’s a small museum that gives a brief history of the city of Birmingham and the making of the statue after which the park is named, and which happens to be the biggest cast-iron statue in the world. Believe it or not, I forgot to take a picture of it… The statue represents Vulcan the Roman God of fire, also known by his Greek name Hephaestus: God of fire and metalworking. This specific god was chosen to honor the history of Birmingham as a steelmaking city.

At the time of my visit, there was also a small exhibition about voting rights for women. The exhibition also talked about how black women were instrumental during the civil rights movements.

Most of my time at Vulcan park was actually spent on the walking trail taking pictures. It was a rainy day, but I’d say it gave me the opportunity for some cool shots.

On Saturday, the weather did a 180 and it was really sunny and warm out so I decided to head out to Ruffner Mountain. The only thing I regret about this trip is not renting a car. I know that the US is mostly a car country but I wanted to believe that I could walk around Birmingham. After spending 10 minutes waiting to cross a street the previous day, I changed my mind. The place was not really pedestrian-friendly. Thankfully, I had the option to Uber to where I wanted to go.

On this second day Anne was busy so I took an Uber. My driver couldn’t locate the entrance to the park so I ended spending way much money on that ride than I had anticipated. After almost 20 minutes of circling around she finally dropped me at an entrance and I started my hike. Ruffner Mountain was really nice, I had a good hike and a few nice views out of it.

For a few hours, I was able to forget about what was going on in the world. Ultimately reality caught up with me though. Some of my friends were really starting to worry that I would not be able to go home if I stayed for the entire duration of my trip. I still believed that I was fine staying until the end, but when I got back at Anne’s she also told me that one of her friends had told her that things were not looking good.

That same night I got a ticket back to Toronto leaving the next morning at 10 am. I couldn’t get a hold of the airline I flew out with so I had to buy another ticket. Anne was the best, she packed me lunch and made sure I had sanitizing wipes with me and dropped me off at the airport.

This is not really how I had planned to spend my birthday, alone at an airport, hoping that I wouldn’t catch that virus. Fortunately I made it home safely and after a 14-day self-quarantine I think I am virus free. Now I just have to make sure that physical distancing doesn’t make me lose my mind. It’s a little strange spending every day in my own company, as we are being told to limit as much as possible going outside and getting physically close to other people. Really looking forward to the end of this and being able to touch people again.

How are you coping with this new normal?

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