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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m often asked why slow travel is so important. It’s a good question and goes to the heart of our engagements with landscapes and communities as travellers. So why should you travel slowly? For me, local slow travel is one of the great things I do. Here’s some of the reasons why I think it’s the best way to travel:
Walking, cycling and paddling allows me to travel IN a landscape, not THROUGH one.
I get to meet people.
I get to learn about their landscapes.
Contributing economically, socially and sometimes even politically to communities means I make a difference.
Knowing more about the ways people live in their landscapes, their aspirations and their concerns means I know more about myself as well.
It’s sustainable travel – for example, low emissions, contributing to local sustainability through what I contribute to local communities.
The pace is slow so things unfold rather than get ticked off lists.
It’s a good way to reflect on my own ideas, approaches to travel, actions and what I do.
You can find out more about the essence of LoST by clicking here.