The Beauty of Slow
By Ed Gillespie
A decade ago I went around the world without flying. A plane-free circumnavigation of the globe. An environmental odyssey. A climate change pilgrimage to explore the world, in a slow, grounded and connected way, without a planet-stewing slew of carbon emissions trailing along behind me. It was a deliciously deep immersion in the quirky vagaries, uncertainties but also joys and pleasures of slow.
Travel can often seem to be solely about speed. For millennia humanity’s fastest speeds would be obtained on horse or camel back. The invention of the steam engine brought trains and tracks, internal combustion engine cars and roads, jet engine planes and runways, all flinging us ever faster to where we wanted to be. The Concorde was the apogee of this neediness for speediness, but after it’s supersonic retirement in 2003, commercial human travel got slower for the first time in the two hundred years since the first locomotive took to the rails. Well, except for commercial space travel of course, but if Elon Musk is going to cover the 100 million odd miles to Mars to seed humanity elsewhere in the Solar System he’s going to have put some wax on the tracks to get there.
For most of us that deceleration is no bad thing. Slowing down is synonymous with sensual experience, savoring the moment, immersing oneself in the present, being mindful. Travel is not just transit, a physical transaction of one geography to another, it’s relational — the muddled transition of landscape, culture, people, language and cuisine. It’s a romantic seduction, not a behind-the-bike-sheds-knee-trembler. It’s being in the world, not passing through it like a bad oyster. It’s beautiful.
I slowed down because of climate change, which is why I took the extra time to take the return trip by train from London to Lisbon and the House of Beautiful Business. Flying is the single most carbon intensive discretionary behavior we undertake. It’s a terrible double-edged sword. On the one hand a testament to engineering genius, drawing the distant world closer temporally, connecting disparate cultures, making exploration accessible to those who can afford it, and perhaps bringing people together through better understanding? Perhaps. On the other it’s enabling us to buzz around the world like flies in a jar, overloading popular destinations, and pumping vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere where radiative forcing increases their impact.
Forsaking the aluminum sausage was a liberation for me rather than a loss. It slashed my personal carbon footprint and put the adventure back into travel. In an era where it’s really rather easy to jump on a plane to the other side of the planet like New Zealand, there’s a lot more richness to be experienced in getting there by land and sea, as I did as part of the trip that became my book Only Planet.
One of the delights of slow travel is “the places in between.” The unexpected and unplanned, the strange and sometimes wonderful places you end up in through a wrong turn, or a broken down vehicle, or simply casting your net into the sea of serendipity and seeing where your catch takes you. I remember waking in a nameless motel in the Sierra Madre mountains in Chihuahua State, North West Mexico and literally not having a clue where I was, having been unceremoniously dumped there in the small hours by a decrepit bus that could bus no further. I still have no idea of the name of the place. Or finding yourself at the end of the beaten track on a recommendation and having to improvise a haphazard journey to escape again as happened to me on a remote Lake in rural Guatemala, and in a semi-abandoned sanitorium in Siberia. Getting lost is almost the point.
All the best travel stories are about this sense of schadenfreude. No one wants to hear about your all inclusive fortnight sipping cocktails next to the infinity pool in paradise. Seriously. They don’t. But offer up an anecdote about being arrested by Chinese border guards crossing from Mongolia into China on the notorious “smuggling train” and suddenly people are interested. Travel is often far more fun when it goes at least a little bit “wrong.”
Travelling slow is also the best way to meet people. There is something inherently convivial about sharing a train, especially when you sit facing each other or across a table. Even more so in a sleeping compartment. I’ve eaten tiny dried white Iranian strawberries with a refugee on a Dutch sleeper train, shared sweet Russian champagne with raucous retired Fins and ex-special forces soldiers on the Trans-Siberian Express, and helped hoard contraband goods under hatches in the floor of the aforementioned “smuggling train” from Ulan Bator. You always smile, you speak if you can find a common language, or you gesture, gesticulate or sketch your way to connection and perhaps common understanding, although that’s by no means guaranteed.
The comments people always make about slow travel are around time and money. “That’s all fine if you have the time” and “great if you can afford it.” Crucially, the perception of time is often misleading, especially if you only consider the journey to be a means to an end, rather than part of the holiday itself. Last week I took the train from London to Rapallo, in Liguria, Northern Italy. Eurostar, a skip across Paris from Gard du Nord to Gare du Lyon, a TGV down through France and between the early wintery snow-capped peaks of the Alps to Turin, and a couple of local trains along the stunning Italian Riviera coastline via Genova to the sea. It was an amazing journey and I arrived in time for dinner. By the time you’ve hauled yourself out to the airport, checked in two hours in advance, flown and made your connection from airport to final destination, flying is barely quicker, at least for most European locations.
Instead of sitting watching the scenery roll past the window or taking a stroll down the train to the bar or buffet car, in airports you’re shuffling through Duty Free, idling time in a departure lounge, sitting next to a large man eating off a plastic tray, navigating passport queues and hunting down your luggage. The train is usually much much more pleasant on holiday and more productive if it’s a work trip. At Futerra, the sustainability agency I co-founded, we even gave staff a “slow travel day” if they holiday in Europe by train rather than plane, to “compensate” for any supposed holiday time “lost” on the journey. Trains are pricier. But only because flying enjoys tax-free aviation fuel which makes it cheaper, a level playing field would mean much more comparable costs.
But are these the only questions we should ask ourselves about our travel? How quickly and cheaply can I get there? And no matter what the environmental impact? If you are not seriously concerned about climate change then you are really not paying attention. Seventy-five percent of UK flights are taken by only 15 percent of the population. We don’t live so much in a great democratic era of accessibly priced aviation for all, we live in a time where a minority of well off people “binge-fly.” A lot. And that is a choice with consequences for all of us.
Ultimately slow travel is about a shift in mindset, to one that appreciates that our hypermobility is a privilege not a right, that we should exercise with a degree of awareness and sensitivity to it’s impacts. In doing so we reap the deeper rewards of real connection with people and place. Humbled by the wonders of our wild and humanmade worlds, appreciative of the awesome diversity of creatures and creative cultures that inhabit them, and inspired to tread lightly on them lest we end up destroying the very things we set out to enjoy in the process.
We grieve the threat of climate change and the tragic loss of so much of the intricate, interdependent web of life because we should, because we love the world. Not for me the almost perverted counter-productive “last chance to see” mentality of desperate travel to destinations in danger. Instead I am drawn more to the wonder in the local and the everyday. The beauty in the mundane when we pause to notice it. Relishing the complex psychogeography and history of the familiar. Tuning my senses to consciously listen, smell, touch and taste the journey as well as eat it up with my eyes. Feeling not just seeing.
When we truly open our eyes and hearts to this authentic reality our perspective shifts. We start, as William Blake wrote, to see a world “in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” We celebrate rather than fear the differences of others. We are grateful for what we have and understand why others might choose, or not, to strive for it. We are aligned with the flow and grain of the world, not barging through it. In uncertain times the unpredictability of slow travel might be the antidote to the creeping need for authoritarian control. We see that what connects us is always greater than that which divides. And by slowing down and getting lost we might just find not just ourselves, but how to live and flourish better on our one and only planet — before it’s too late.
The future is slow. And beautiful.
Ed Gillespie is a poet, writer, keynote speaker, responsible leadership facilitator with the Forward Institute, co-founder of Futerra, a Director of Greenpeace UK and involved in a number of ethical businesses as a Director and investor. His book ‘Only Planet’ is available from Wild Things Publishing.