BBC Travel is running my photos from a trip to Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska. It’s a corner of the US once occupied by Russia and whose residents were interned after the Japanese invaded the region during World War Two. Click here to see more.
I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time of late. When I’m deep in my more regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same friends and family under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter, contracted, and devoid of a certain pithiness. Time ticks-by evermore briskly. During these periods, it even seems to vanish or disappear when gazed at in retrospect. “Where did all that time go?” I sometimes ask myself. It is something we all experience.
On the other hand when I travel to new places, or when I see and do new things, time feels expanded, stretched, and lengthened in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and elapsing, than is usual. It unfurls like the volume of surface territory in a mountain range if one were able to flatten and stretch it out. No matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a period of months, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.
I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in a new city I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a pleasant and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.
We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning there are many versions of time. The way we experience it depends on numerous factors and circumstances.
Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”
“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.
“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”
Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most at present is within the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – taking much of our lives with it.
I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.
While I was in the U.K. I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home, a few things stood out. My partner and I were constantly problem solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail we were following would sometimes fade or vanish). Our visual background was constantly changing as we moved through many landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that soon changed to hilly, windswept moors which then gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we met and conversed with. And there was loads of conversation between the two us – and silent thoughts to occupy us when we weren’t speaking. In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn.
It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next – as Aristotle defined it – then the more visual and mental stimuli one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.
When we travel it feels like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans because we, in a sense, are actually doing more living. We are using our brains differently, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. This is when the feeling comes that time, and our lives together with it, are slipping away.
This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.
Back in the fall I visited the Valais region of Switzerland near the border of Italy to work on a magazine assignment about Swiss Wine. After one of many tortuous wine tasting sessions in the city of Sion, accompanied by a light lunch of raclette, my local guide and I – a bit tipsy – hiked down the mountainside towards our next destination in the centre of town. Along one of the main thoroughfares we came across a huge workers’ tent pitched atop a parking lot between a restaurant and school. When I asked about the tent, my guide said it was the site of an archaeological dig and suggested we go inside and take a look.
When we entered we discovered a team of archaeologists digging up an Iron Age necropolis containing many graves. Flamur Dalloshi, the lead archaeologist from Albania, told us the burial ground dates back to prehistoric times. But most skeletons of interest, he added, were from circa 1,000 B.C.
Several months earlier Dalloshi became a minor celebrity after unearthing the remains of a male warrior that was laid to rest with his weapons, a razor, pottery vessels and bronze jewellery. However, most of the skeletons, he told us, belonged to women and children of the elite ruling class, leading him and his team to believe that the society may have been matriarchal.
He invited us to take a closer look a the remains still being excavated. If you look closely at this skeleton on the left, you can see bits of clothing and jewellery just behind the back of the skull – and to the left of the mid-section (a belt).
When I asked him what the most surprising thing was he’d discovered, he replied that in some graves his team had found pottery with hoses running into them and extending upwards to the surface – so that the living could provide the dead with water in their eternal repose.
While on a recently assignment in Northern British Columbia, I was introduced to a group of people working for a mining exploration company prospecting for gold. Like most city people, I know very little about mines and mining beyond the occasional bad press those companies get when they cut corners, or become lax, causing damage to the environment.
So it was enlightening to meet these people in person and to hear about their work. The geologists and technicians took me on a tour of their small warehouse, showing me their collection of “core samples” – cylinders of rock that have been cut and extracted from below ground with a diamond drill.
The samples are taken and examined to find concentrations of gold in a given location. If enough of the metal turns up in the cores to justify the high cost of extracting it, a mining operation ensues. The photo below shows a core sample with trace amounts of gold mixed in with the rock on the top left edge of the core.
The people I met were nonchalant about their work, which they regarded as very regular and even mundane; similar to how archaeologists sometimes demystify their undertakings to laypeople. But like with archaeologists, I could discern the slightest sense of repressed expectation and excitement hanging in the air around them. Their work is a bit like playing the slots.
When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture mentally, and considered all of the physical, organizational and emotional effort going into finding a metal with seemingly little intrinsic worth beyond its human-endowed value of profound wealth, the entire operation seemed a bit surreal.
As I was leaving, I asked a senior manager of the company what the next step was if, and when, they found enough gold to justify mining it. He told me that they would likely sell the claim to another company that would do the actual mining.
When I asked what other geographical areas they planned to prospect after hypothetically selling this location off, the man looked at me with a bit of surprise.
“Well, none,” he said, taken aback. “Part of the point of doing all this is that we hope to never have to work again.”
Read about my traipse up the remote Moose and North French rivers with cohorts Jean-Pierre Chabot and Mike Naponse during a visit to Moose Factory. This feature appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Explore magazine.
One of the unintended consequences of spending a lot of time working and travelling in British Columbia – a place of astounding physical terrain – is that one becomes indifferent to attractive, but less dramatic landscapes in other places.
The unavoidable reality is that our minds are constantly comparing. The West Coast with its big mountains and vast forests, elevated in my mind to a sort of gold standard of nature, has worked as a spoiler for other worthwhile spots. Time outdoors, especially in parts of Ontario and Quebec, has sometimes fallen flat.
We’re all familiar with this situation in which bold and sensational things can sometimes drive out the fine: a powerful experience makes such an impact that all else seems to pale in comparison. It can be one of the biggest pitfalls of travel. Some people spend years, or sometimes entire lives, trying to recapture a powerful, but fleeting epoch or life experience that occurred while travelling or living abroad; often to the detriment of the equally important, but less dramatic, day-to-day.
I decided to ditch that addictive and defeatist thinking and get out and appreciate the wilder areas near where I live, in southern Ontario, without feeling the need to place them on some experience scale of the epic and grandiose.
This spring and summer I hiked a few sections of the 900 kilometre long Bruce Trail Conservancy – something I’d never done before. I was hugely surprised. Those daylong rambles were among the nicest and most interesting I’ve done.
I’ve attached here a few Instagram shots of some views along parts of the trail.
It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?
The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.
The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.
Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.
“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”
– Pico Iyer
“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”
– Alexis Wright
“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”
– Ian Jack
“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”
– Samanth Subramanian
“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”
– Colin Thubron
“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”
– Hoa Nguyen
“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”
– Rana Dasgupta
In 2009, researcher Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany conducted a series of experiments using volunteers wearing GPS tracking devices who were told to walk in a straight line over long distances in wilderness environments.
The tests determined that people who are lost in the wilderness and think they are walking in a straight line, and have no physical landmarks to rely upon, tend to travel in squiggly, circular trajectories. In other words, they walk in circles.
Later experiments led Souman to conclude that most people, when lost without navigational cues (thus lacking a deeper contextual perspective), will not travel more than 100 metres beyond their embarkation point – regardless of how long they walk.
That’s a sobering thought. An equally sobering question is whether that same tendency may be at work where trajectories in our own lives are concerned.
Here is another great travelogue. In Chasing Alaska, author C.B. Bernard chronicles his travels across ‘The Last Frontier’ while gathering and piecing together clues about the life of a distant relative, who, like him – but decades earlier – travelled to Alaska from the East Coast and became a bona fide Arctic explorer.
Bernard’s writing is sharp, insightful and leisurely paced. The book isn’t exceedingly long, but it covers a lot of spatial and temporal ground, giving it an epic quality. It’s a ‘journey of self-discovery’ book – in my opinion the best kind – with lots of grit and character.
It’s redirected my attention to a part of the world that I’ve put off visiting for way too long.