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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.

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.

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.