From the Pages: ZOOM OUT- an Essay on Slow Travel

vor 3 years

In slow travel, there is perhaps an answer that can be part of a broader lesson. That in zooming in on life and taking ourselves out of the frame, the picture becomes all the richer.

This essay by Damien Cummings is taken from our current print issue on Life, which can be found in shops or purchased here 

Inching around the bend in our cramped rental, a round of gasps interrupted what had thus far been an excruciatingly awkward journey. Flurries of excitable French, far beyond my high school level of comprehension, alerted me to the fact that while numbly scrolling on my smartphone, I had missed something of vital importance. “The waterfall,” one companion exclaimed, “It is flowing!” 

Once a secret, Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park was known only to a dedicated few ramblers and photographers, but is now one of the social media wonders of the world. For a fleeting moment each year in February, the sun’s angle is such that for just over ten minutes each sunset, it is illuminated in hues of vibrant orange and crimson. A seasonal cascade of glittering lava some five hundred meters tall, they call it the firefall.

When I was there, it was little more than a trickle. My fellow travelers had gasped because it was not supposed to be there at all. In fact, it had not been for some years due to a string of unusually dry winters. But this year it flowed freely and, by far, the earliest it had done in some time. “It is a miracle,” declared my francophone hosts.

Seasonal warming due to climate change is the only reasonable answer as to why these waters now flow as they do. Nevertheless, visitor numbers continue to swell as thousands arrive by car each day to trundle their way across the congested valley floor in search of the miracle falls. This year, the problem became so severe that rangers closed two of the three most famous viewing points to the falls to dissuade tourists. The move was declared draconian by some and roundly praised by others who would rather usher in a new form of tourism. One that accommodates fewer people but does so with more room.

Slow travel is a phenomenon. It has been gaining in popularity among travel agents and tourists alike in the last decade as a response to the rapid advances of climate change in the era of low-cost flights. Take a shipping container from Rotterdam to French Guiana or pick your way through the Sri Lankan tea steppes on a steam train. Whatever floats your boat, there is a way to do it slowly.

On that day, I had been aiming for slow travel but ended up traveling slowly. I was packed into the back of a car with space for four, equipped for five, and including myself, containing six. The young French family that had taken pity on me as I stood at a bus stop, waiting in ignorance for a connection that would never come, had summarily thrown me in with three distinctly embarrassed, and not a little scared, teenagers of varying levels of moody resistance.

What had begun as a backlash against kerosene powered tourism became an obsession that would lead me from California to Buenos Aires by bus, train, boat, one horse and cart, and a few brief stints in the boot of a clapped out Bolivian taxi. Its allure was in its difficulty and its haphazard nature. In the people you met and the things you saw. The fact that you had to give up on the notion of going where you intended to go, and accept that you got where you ended up.

As the world enters another period of viral lockdowns, the privilege of travel feels so distant. Climate change, as well as the coronavirus, has changed traveling in partly similar ways. It is slower and more local by necessity. People are more and more conscious about a trip to the shops, a weekend in the country, or returning home to their families for the holidays. For the first time in a long time, the world is being forced to think twice.

When flights were halted globally at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, there was a flood of statistics that pointed to a hopeful future. Emissions in China were temporarily cut by 25%; in April, EU daily emissions fell by 58%. Yet it turns out that the temporary throttle did not even show up as a blip on the Keeling Curve, a graph that has been plotting the inexorable rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958.

The coronavirus, like climate change, is a genuine threat to our survival. But unlike the climate crisis, it has prompted a near unanimous response by world leaders to radically change the way we live our everyday life. So, why, as wildfires and deforestation are on the brink of turning the Amazon from rainforest into a savannah, is it impossible to convince the majority of people to separate their trash into a few different boxes? One of the most significant issues with regular travel and climate change is that it has not yet shown any tangible adverse effect for many people in the global north. In Yosemite and beyond, it has made access to those unique and previously unknown parts of the world a little bit easier. While at the same time, making them all the less special.

Travel is an act of pleasure. And, by and large, an act of privilege. Slow travel is an act of environmental advocacy. That freight ship that chugs across the Atlantic to French Guiana costs 110 Euros per night. And takes two weeks. Though some may scorn the trend as another in a long line of first world follies, there is a growing feeling that travel of this kind will have to become the norm. In the wake of Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future, flygskam (flight shaming) made slow travel the only morally acceptable way to travel. Now, in the ravages of coronavirus, there is no other option.

During my time in South America, my impact on the world was not at the top of my list of priorities. It was rather the effect that it would have on me. I was in search of a different kind of experience. One more closely related to the far-flung adventurers of the 19th century. People who hoped to expand their horizons in the search for knowledge and the rich experience of life. 

Like those adventurers, my actions often fell on the wrong side of the moral compass. In one particularly glaring act of privilege, I broke a bloody miners’ strike in Bolivia. Hidden in the boot of a taxi, I made a break across the desert for the Argentine border to avoid the bulldozers and tree trunks that blocked the highways. I was dropped at a featureless bridge where I slunk on foot to the border. It was a dispute so fierce that it had cost the life of the deputy interior minister of Bolivia. I sidestepped it for a little over ten dollars because I was on my way to the Olympics and did not want to be late.

In the end, the Olympics were something of an obscenity. Yet, my journey itself was not. Among the benefits of slow travel is that it allows us to learn. It lends something intangible yet nourishing through experience and interaction with those in-between places, places that are not marked on tourist maps or guide books, places that get overlooked when sightseeing. 

In South America, no journey is considered complete without a visit to Christ the Redeemer or to the Inca ruins of Peru. On the barren salt flats of Uyuni, guides routinely snap pictures for tourists in various poses, playing with the landscape at will. Yet the moments that stand out in my memory are not the same as those on my Instagram feed. Smiling at the Iguazu Falls, grinning at 4600 meters at the shores of the lapis lazuli waters of Laguna 69 in the White Mountains of Huaraz, Peru. Or at the base of the Maya ziggurats of Palenque. In each case, I was at the edge of something, wedging myself into the frame and toying with the viewfinder of an expensive camera in such a way as to grant myself the same amount of importance as the object in question.

Instead, the moments that I recall with the most clarity are the ones in which I did not stand at the edge and marvel, but where I allowed myself to wade into the minutiae of everyday life. Getting to know the ubiquitous bus stations from Mexico to Argentina. They are places bristling with life and thick with the heady scent of freshly cooked food and gasoline. The babble of the people, the teeming ticket desks, and learning – the hard way – that your bus will leave without any last calls.

It is the understanding that buses and trains are cold in a way that cars are not that sticks with me. That thin air makes you sleepy and that regularly smoking seems, somewhat perversely, to ward off the worst effects of altitude sickness. That the things that go bump in the night in Cienfuegos are avocados and papayas falling onto tin roofs, perfect for breakfast the next day. That in every place you stop, you are equally likely to encounter somebody that has been deported to a “home” that is as alien to them as it is to you.

One of the more disorienting aspects of an already bewildering year has been the way that the pandemic has shifted our perceptions of time. Locked inside our houses, the hours have dragged on and on while the months have seemingly disappeared. It is as if the foundations on which we measure our timelines have switched places at the most fundamental level. All of a sudden, a lot of us were confronted hard and fast by the future being knocked out from under us by the wide-reaching ramifications of this pandemic. At the same time, the usual predictability of the present, the day to day, has been completely disrupted. The place where we could see the impact of our actions most evidently, was brought to a standstill. For once, the future feels more imminent than the present. 

While travel, at this moment in time, might be irreconcilable with everyday life for people worldwide, it still has something to teach. My experience of slow travel laid the groundwork for the way that I would come to understand and make my peace with our new reality of lockdown. It taught me that measuring my success from one event to the next, one beach, one border, one stamp in the passport made little sense compared with the bigger picture of the world around me. A snippet of which I was only granted when I was forced into the limbo of a 30-hour bus journey.

By taking the focus off the spectacle and putting it on the journey, slow travel can be an analogy for how we must come to interpret our world en masse. Movement ought to be a fundamental right of all people, and travel will not stop simply because the way in which it is currently regulated is harmful. But in slow travel, there is perhaps an answer that can be part of a broader lesson. That in zooming in on life and taking ourselves out of the frame, the picture becomes all the richer.

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