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Travel and its thousand experiences

Recently, for whatever reason, my mind has been turning to the nature of travel in the early 21st century. It was perhaps pricked by the tweets on my twitter feed full of information about places. You know, they swirl around and find their way to blogs, posts, articles and wherever else.

This ease of information no doubt brings with it a range of benefits for we travelers – insights from others, cheap fares, cheap accommodation and cheap eats, safety advice, connections and communities and the like. There is little doubt that is the case. Guide books and indeed letters home, have been doing this for centuries so it’s not anything knew. But what is new is the kind of ‘hyper-information’ now available – the information on the destinations, the communities of travelers and bloggers that have cropped up, the reviews of everything from hotels to bars to gear to take.This got me thinking about what we might now be missing with this world of ‘hyper-information’. What are the down-sides to information and reviews? By searching endlessly, are we losing some of the essence and the spirit of travel? Or, are we just traveling ‘differently’?

When doing some research I came across a wonderful quote from Lawrence Durrell. This seems to epitomize this dilemma between the act of planning and the act of traveling. He wrote: “Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.” This ‘thousand different circumstances’ is very interesting because it raises the idea that the information, the searching and the reviewing might be reducing the very number of those ‘thousand different circumstances’. Therefore this may run the risk of homogenizing, or at least blue-printing, an experience that should be, let’s say, ‘organic’. It should be more open to interpretation, discovery, reflection, and deeper understanding.

It’s possible to say the answer to this is to be found in individual travelers and the ways they engage with the notion of travel. This is in part true I think. If we want to seek to increase the ‘thousand different circumstances’ by traveling in a more unplanned, organic way, then we can do that. Equally, as travelers, some of us want to research, to analyse, to plan, and we see that as part of the travel process – exciting times spent in front of the computer (or whatever other device) and exciting tweets sent out looking for information or advice. This generates its own kinds of connections and its own kinds of energy.

We need to be aware that the price may well be a reduced number of the ‘thousand different circumstances’. This might be a price we are able to, or want to, pay with the planning. For me, it’s a price none-the-less. It’s too easy, like so many other things, to put it down to individual choice. If we go the route of hyper-information, we should be aware of the fine-print to our contract with our travel expectations, the part of the contract that says ‘Undertaking this activity may reduce your thousand individual circumstances. This in turn might make your travel experience different to what it could be (for better or worse)’. I suppose what I am suggesting is the potential for over-planning and over-researching looms large. For some, this is a price they are willing to pay and we all make our own decisions about this.

The point I want to make is that we need to be aware that there are costs. These costs may well change the nature of the journey, the destination and the experience. It’s a price we all need to keep a watch on.

Giving nature personhood

Over the last few years there’s been increasing debates in some quarters about the rights of nature and the feasibility of giving ‘personhood’ to landscapes or parts of landscapes. This is something that has many parts. It can be about legal protections, recognition of the ways First Nations people view landscapes or the natural world or a deeper ethical position on the rights of nature (even though, for some, bestowing personhood seems to contradict the idea of nature’s rights).

They’re interesting debates with some contradictions and limitations. However, they do share a common attempt to strengthen the rights of and protection of nature. You can see an interesting recent piece from The Guardian, written by Patrick Barkham, here.

*This is also published at brianfurze.com

On small travel

Small travel in the time of COVID has become incredibly important. Alexander Lobrano has written a beautiful piece published in The New York Times on 21 July 2021 and available here. The piece, ‘Making discovery, not distance, travel’s point’ is a celebration of travel in general, of small travel in particular and of the joy of discovering place. There is one line which sums up so much:

‘This kind of small-brush-stroke travel is intimately valuable, too, because it teaches us where we live and who we are. ‘

Enjoy this wonderful piece. You can also read some more ideas of the essence of local slow travel here and more about people and place here.

(Re) Imagining Slow Travel

It’s time to (re) imagine slow travel.

Twenty years ago I was working with various communities and agencies looking at facilitating ecotourism. I was struck by the variety of ways people would define ecotourism. It was generally accepted that it was something that would become the saviour of travel. But for some people, the ‘eco’ defined economics – hence a focus on the economic system and benefit/costs of initiatives. For others, the ‘eco’ was ecological – hence a focus on ecosystems and ecological sustainability. For yet others, the idea of making money from nature contributed to undermining the diverse ways people could actually value nature beyond the economy – ethically, culturally, as a part of a community, as part of the essence of humanity for example.

Fast forward to the present, and we see something similar happening with slow travel. Academic research consistently identifies slow travel as being used as a marketing tool, as a set of activities, as destination and as form of travel to a destination. It therefore gets used as a market segment, a means of travel, a specific destination experience and something people who call themselves slow travellers ‘do’. There are contradictions, ideas and ethical values to be better understood.

It’s time to take a breath – to remember travel is more than a series of sights, sites, experiences and places to be consumed, but as a deep engagement with place, people and ourselves.  The idea of ‘engagement’ means our focus becomes a deeper understanding of slow travel, landscapes, people and ourselves.

This gives us the opportunity to remember to travel slowly – in a deeper ethical, philosophical and reflective way.  A way that means we as travellers leave positive impacts locally, we contribute to the sustainability of the landscapes we travel through and beyond, and we have a deeper engagement not only with these places but with ourselves as travellers and as people being able to contribute to a greater good. This requires a good deal of rethinking (or re-imagining) on our behalf as travellers.

We need to imagine a form of travel which occurs within landscapes, not through them. Being able to move within landscapes rather than through them is the essence of LoST because it implies our travels are an ongoing engagement with place/places, their landscapes and their communities. This is the travel within landscapes which occurs because we are reflective travellers who want to engage.

This is the essence of LoST, and is the essence of this website.

Thoughts on connections to place

The image above is taken in the foothills of the Victorian Alps. On one level it’s an image of water and forests. Yet at a deeper level it represents important parts of my connections to place.

This place is the place I first went on a bush walk. It’s a place I have come back to time and again over the last 30 years and acts as an anchor for me. It’s a place I try to get to at least once a month when I’m home.

But it’s still more than this. The colours represent the foothills, but they also reflect the forests of northern Haryana in India, the olive groves on the Greek island where I worked, the forests of the foothills of the Indian Himalaya. And the sounds of running water connects me to multiple locations and parts of my professional and personal history. Lie in a tent in amongst this, and there are yet other connections.

Place is such an important part of our lives and our travels. Understanding place, and how we sit within it, is central to being lost travellers.

Paddling the Martuwarra (Fitzroy) River, Australia.

There’s recently been a great piece from the Australian edition of The Guardian on travelling the Martuwarra in Western Australia. It’s written by Lorena Allam with production by Carly Earl and photography by Jackson Gallagher.

There has been a lot of action focused on the river’s conservation and protection, as part of the protection of country, by First Nations people. The piece looks at connections to place, country and the river. These actions have in part focused on Martuwarra as a living ancestral being of the First Nations people of the area, and also all living things globally in terms of its protection. Yet there are still pressures on the river stemming from big agriculture and ‘Development’.

The story can be found here.

The Yeti as an indicator of people and place

“Why isn’t the Mirka here?”

I was in a valley deep within the Himalayas, discussing my list of local endangered animals with a group of herders.

“They’re very difficult to find.  But you can if you follow their trails.”

The comment certainly didn’t have all the herders nodding in agreement- there was plenty of animated disagreement and some scoffing laughter. Nevertheless, the herder stood by his question.  There was just one problem- I had no idea what a Mirka was.  I asked the assembled group to explain the term.

‘Yetis’ one of the other herders replied.

For me, this interaction highlights something that goes well beyond the work that drew me to this valley in the first place.  This was the moment I realised the Yeti represents two inherently connected worlds – wild places, and the stories of ‘wildness’ that go with them.  

This herder had summed up a very complex relationship in one sentence.

That was twelve years ago.  Over my time working in the Himalayas, I’ve heard other stories of Yetis – sometimes told to much laughter, sometimes to serious nodding.  Irrespective of the reaction, local people thought it important enough to mention the Yeti in discussions about establishing sustainable futures for their valleys and landscapes.

Yetis are in this area of the Indian Himalaya. Sunset reflects pressures that Yeti stories face.

It was around the time of my discussions with the herders that Reinhold Messner wrote his book My Quest for the Yeti.  His mission in part was to prove the existence or otherwise of a strange creature he had encountered in a Tibetan forest. 

Trying to answer the question ‘Does it exist’ is nothing new.  To my mind though, this is the wrong question.  The bigger and more important question?  ‘What if the things that gave rise to the possibilities of its existence no longer exist’?

What happens when the biological and ecological wildness that could hide the Yeti – make its existence a perpetual ‘maybe’ – start to disappear?  This is a question that in many ways goes to the heart of the protection and conservation of mountain landscapes.

A related question: what if the rich cultural traditions that house Yeti stories are lost, because of social change, modernisation and science ‘proving’ it doesn’t exist?  This is a question of the centrality of cultural diversity and cultural traditions to the resilience of mountain communities.

The Yeti is a window into the diverse and rich cultural connections people have with ecosystems and landscapes in the Himalayas.  The legend’s gradual disappearance mirrors the gradual disappearance of these connections.

To look through this window, to discover the links and the pressures, you need to follow the Yeti’s trails – the trails that local communities know. This will really provide us with a window to landscapes and our engagements with them. But also it’ll provide a reminder that these engagements are culturally constructed and have important meanings attached to them.

LoST as the essence of slow travel

LoST is the essence of slow travel.

Some of the reasons I began to think much more about the LoST idea came from my work in various landscapes. Because I work at the intersection of communities and their landscapes, with a particular focus on community rights, the impact of tourism and visitors was never far away.

I’d talk to visitors who would be moving around, for example, a tiger landscape. But their whole engagement with the place was framed by the tiger – not the landscape of the tiger. Sounds, smells and sights deep in the tiger’s forest hardly registered because the tiger wasn’t around to register. And, when there were no sightings of a tiger, the feeling of ‘failure’ hung heavily in the air around the tourist and the local community members who would be guides, mahouts, the people who made chai etc.

This kind of experience was replicated across multiple landscapes, in multiple countries and for multiple visitors. Even though these kinds of travels were marketed as ecotourism, or slow travel, or nature travel, there was too often little emphasis on the broader experience and the broader engagements of travellers and how these engagements could re-imagine the connections between communities, landscapes and travellers. The landscape and the communities became a backdrop for the focused activity of seeing tigers, or climbing a mountain, or getting to a particular location.

Things needed to be re-imagined.

So there are a number of reasons I think LoST is the essence of slow travel:

The methods of travel allow us to travel within a landscape, not through it. 

There are many ways that we can travel slowly through a landscape. Train travel, for example, has a long tradition of moving travellers slowly through landscapes. For LoST however, our sense of moving through landscapes is by walking, cycling and paddling. These are human powered and they allow us to do a number of things.

Our exertion means we measure the contours of the landscape. Therefore we not only feel the landscape, we can also see it, hear it and smell it. Our senses frame our engagement with the landscape itself, and we understand more about it. Using the tiger landscape example above, an elephant gives the slow means of travel where we can hear, see and smell. We can experience the tiger landscape through the pores of our skin, with or without encountering a tiger.

They also mean we spend more time in localities or moving through landscapes. We get to know these places much more intimately.

Uttarakhand Himalaya, India

The methods of travel encourage a connection to landscapes and communities.

As we travel slowly through landscapes, stopping in various locations, we are part of the landscape itself. This is a reminder that landscapes are lived in and shaped by the actions of people, their activities and their values/own engagements. Being able to walk, ride or paddle allows us the opportunity and potential to meet with others, to learn about them and their landscapes.

We combine this with travelling within a landscape. We therefore increase our understanding of landscapes and their communities and we are reminded that communities are dependent on sustainable landscapes and landscapes are dependent on sustainable communities.

Contributing to local communities.

These methods of travel give us the opportunity to stay locally, to eat locally and to contribute to the local community and economy in myriad ways. When we combine this with our understanding of communities and their landscapes, we also uncover more of the linkages between the two.

For example, LoST travelling allows us to see an agricultural landscape. Staying or eating locally allows us to see how the linkages between people and their landscape come together to produce food, to develop the local culture of living together, local food production and distribution, and local mechanisms for the life of the community. It allows us to understand more fully the landscape basis for resilient communities and the community foundation for resilient landscapes.

Reflecting on our travels and we as travellers.

Uncovering the above linkages and connections requires us to observe, to think about where we are and what we do and ultimately engage with how our travels are impacting on the landscapes we travel though. Doing this means we do two things.

First, it means we engage with the landscape and the communities. We have to, otherwise we don’t uncover the nature of linkages and relationships between the landscapes and the communities.

Second it means we can ultimately reflect on our own travels, approaches, understandings and motivations. As travellers we are all outsiders coming to a ‘different place’. But as LoST travellers we are coming to learn, to understand, to engage, to reflect. This makes us better travellers and also reminds us of how we are able to contribute to local economies, landscapes and communities.

Becoming advocates for landscapes and their communities.

Ultimately, through this understanding and this reflection, we can become advocates for whatever we see as important things we have understood through our LoST travels.

For me, I take away awareness of the localities, but I also take away a more generalized awareness of the role of LoST travel in contributing to communities and landscapes well beyond the geographic location of where this occurs. I translate the experience into a broader advocacy role for rediscovering the essence of slow travel.