The merits of slow travel

Capturing "The Starry Night" - Chris Carruth Travel PhotographyThe struggle to slow down is one well known to many travelers, especially if our time in a given place is limited.  To take in the sights, to eat the notable local cuisine, to see the arts and hear the music – travel “to-do” lists can be inexhaustible and overwhelming (and pointless…).  So, as Lindsey Rue encouraged last week, slow down and enjoy the music.  Take your time.  Study the landscape, note the lines of convergence all around you, the architecture, the faces and clothing of the people on the streets, the nuances of the cultures and interactions before you.   Drink deeply and breath easily.

Sound simple enough?  It’s often not.  It takes a conscious effort – one that can be alien to those out of practice.  But it’s worth it…

Consider Van Gogh.  Aside from his slow descent into an all-encompassing depression, he’s known for his vibrant post-impressionistic paintings of rural France.  Particularly his depictions of Olive groves and Cypress trees (Most notably “The Starry Night“).   On paper, there is nothing about his work that smacks of brilliance, yet what ole Vinnie did better than anyone else at the time was slow down.  He saw, through his powerfully unique artistic eyes, the way the breeze teased the Cypress trees and how the light and form shaped the Olive groves.   Vincent, while not a notable traveler perhaps, is an excellent poster boy for slow travels, for taking things in slowly, revisiting the same scene over a day or week or months to broaden his understanding.  Through this he was able to possess the beauty he witnessed and capture the moment.  He took the ordinary and, through deliberate study and pain-staking art, made it extraordinary.

We can’t all be Impressionist painters, but we can capture the moments that are happening all around us.  If, and when, you next find yourself in an outlandish location trying to avoid an embarrassing sequence of moments (from linguistic mishaps to cultural misunderstandings), stop as soon as the situation allows and recognize the scene, the setting, the light, the people.  Step back from whatever self-imposed, artificial pace you may have adopted and instead spend an afternoon on a park bench with a sketch book, a journal, a camera, or simply an open mind, and if you can accomplish this, you’re tapping into the same perspective and approach to life that Van Gogh and other artists rely upon – to intimately know the world through slow and purposeful study.

Before I get off my soapbox, here’s a reference point from my own travels – I snapped the accompanying photo while hurriedly rushing through NYC’s Museum of Modern Arts in 2010 (8 hour lay-overs…love ’em, hate ’em or use ’em).  I rather like the shot.  It’s doesn’t fail or excel on any artistic level, but it does tells about a moment.  To most it’s about a young man who is experiencing what is arguably Van Gogh’s greatest work through his phone rather than through his eyes.  One could say that it speaks to the level of disconnection we have in today’s society; of our inability to separate ourselves from technology.  I can’t speak to that.  What I can say is that the moment the image speaks of to me is my own and that is a moment of loss.  I spent ~60 seconds watching him fumble the phone out of his pocket, waiting for the camera app to load, frame his shot and then take the picture (rinse, wash, repeat…).  I wasn’t basking in the brilliance of Van Gogh’s work at all, but was instead trying to capture another person’s moment and not capitalize on my own.  Being in the city only on account of a layover, I was pressed for time, and after taking the shot didn’t stop to truly revel in “The Starry Night”. My mind had already turned to the setting sun, my bus connection back to JFK and the trans-Atlantic flight I was about to board.  So caught up in taking pictures and worrying about the logistics of my trip, I had lost the moment.
In our travels, we would do well to take a step back from anything resembling a hectic pace and go slow, for the experience is less about the going and more about the being.

Wishing you happy, and slow, travels.

Posted by | Comments (9)  | February 13, 2012
Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind

9 Responses to “The merits of slow travel”

  1. Rolf Potts Says:

    This is the kind of challenge that is becoming even harder in an age of constant connectedness. Your experience in MoMA reminds me of a quote I read recently: “We have a different attachment to the present when we are not concerned with documenting it.” I.e. taking a photo or sending a Tweet is different, experientially, than simply stopping to be still and take things in. I also like the idea of avoiding an “artificial pace” in experiencing a place or situation, since at home, I think, we are conditioned to keep a pace that honors efficiency and scheduling instead of raw experience. The more travel life becomes like home life, the less it becomes like travel.

  2. Rolf Potts Says:

    The quote in question comes from this article:

  3. DEK Says:

    When you take a photograph you put the camera between yourself and the living presence before you. To you, the subject of your photograph is in fact an object.

    Tweeting a photo is even worse, as there your mind is with the people in another place to whom you are sending it.

    Travel is not an extreme sport. You don’t get points for seeing and doing.

    I think some people try to do everything so they won’t have to explain why they didn’t do something that the people back home had heard about. It was my third visit to Athens before I went to the Acropolis: I went mainly because I was tired of explaining to people how I had been too busy wandering down streets and looking at broken stuff and drinking wine and feeding the cats in the ruins and watching the Greeks and barbarians do all the ordinary and amazing things they did.

    I don’t want to tell people how to travel. But just try going slow. If you like it: fine; if not, then, as you were. We’ll be staying out of each other’s way.

  4. Chris Carruth Says:

    @Rolf – Excellent points (and quote) gracias.

    @DEK – I agree in principle, but assert that there’s a distinction that needs to be made between a snapshot and an intentional photograph. If you stop and study a scene, if you wait for the light and life, then are you not taking it in on a completely different level? As for those that try and do everything…there’s a lot to learn from failing.

  5. GypsyGirl Says:

    Striving to travel slowly and mindfully has always been an aim of mine. Sadly, the ability of many to do so seems a lost art. People look but they don’t really see.

  6. DEK Says:

    @Chris- The studied, intentional photograph, while resulting in more engagement in framing the scene, could result in discounting the moment of engagement with the people moving through it.

    I started traveling with a heavy SLR and bulky long lenses, which was just the thing for photographing distant cornices, but I eventually started carrying a cheap point-and-shoot, which I now seldom to use.

    The best way to get into a scene — and one which by its nature requires slow travel — is to draw. Drawing forces you to look at a thing intently and causes you to see things that you otherwise would miss. I carry a small sketchpad and a couple of soft-point pencils in my shoulder bag. If I don’t have time on the spot to catch the details I want I use the point-and-shoot to capture the scene and later make a photocopy blow-up of the print to draw from. This fortunately requires no artistic competence, as I have neither training nor talent, but the purpose is not to make art, but to see what I am looking at.

  7. Marco Ferrarese Says:

    “Fast” or “slow”, standing in awe in front of the dead never compensates the time we have among the living. Which is, to me, extremely more valuable, in life, as in travel.

  8. Chris Carruth Says:

    @DEK – no pun intended, but you can “draw” a parallel between sketching a scene and studying a scene for the decisive moment can you not? Either through pen or through intentional photo, you stop, you study the scene and you capture it in your own manner. In that light, perhaps the intentional photography is the 21st century sketch…

    @Marco – I agree with your perspective, but, to play devil’s advocate, taking in the dead (i.e. history) can lead to valuable lessons for the living.