Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2016/1 posted by hidden europe on

Flying is rarely a bundle of fun. Even leaving aside the generally horrid nature of airports with their essential (but inevitably unpleasant) security checks, modern aviation practice makes few concessions to the poetics of the journey. The privilege of a window seat, however, allows the imagination to roam free as real topographies are shaped by half-remembered geography lessons. On a clear day by the window of a plane, anyone can be an explorer.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Happy New Year! While you were sitting at home finishing the mince pies, we have been flying. It makes a change from trains and ferries and - let's face it - if you want to reach Lesotho from Berlin, one has little choice nowadays but to fly for at least part of the journey.

Flying is rarely a bundle of fun. Even leaving aside the generally horrid nature of airports with their essential (but inevitably unpleasant) security checks, modern aviation practice makes few concessions to the poetics of the journey. On long-haul flights, cabin crew are keen to get the dishes cleared after lunch and, even on the brightest of summer days, it's blinds down and semi-darkness as passengers focus on the in-flight entertainment screens in front of their noses. The passengers are happy with that. So too are the cabin crew, for a passenger deeply engrossed in a film only exceptionally requests any in-flight service.

Of course, there are always a few curious souls who take a peek out of the window, but for many air travellers today the world beyond the cabin window is reduced to the optional scrolling of route maps in the entertainment system. These maps are interesting in their own peculiar way, highlighting aspects of marine geography which we might otherwise never encounter. On our recent flights we've run across the Carlsberg Ridge and the Mascarene Plain. Not literally of course. But they popped up on our in-flight maps, giving a little cartographic texture to the wide open spaces of the Indian Ocean.

Being the inquisitive sort of people we are, we are now learning about submarine topography, and perhaps before long we'll be writing in hidden europe about love and life on the Porcupine Plain (somewhere west of Ireland) or what's new on the Gakkel Ridge (which is way up north beyond Franz-Josef Land).

It's almost thirty years since WG Sebald wrote a levitational little essay called Die Kunst des Fliegens (The Art of Flying). We hesitate to call Sebald a German writer, because he was in many ways profoundly English, and of course lived in East Anglia for most of his life. Sebald didn't have Airbus and Boeing in mind when he penned Die Kunst des Fliegens. Aeroplanes are too prosaic a topic to be truly Sebaldian. Rather, he had in mind issues of displacement and perspective - themes which were dear to Sebald and evident already in the very first of his books to be translated into English, namely The Emigrants in 1992.

Sebald is our guide to the magic of a long-haul flight. We stick strictly to daytime flights and gaze at the skyscapes beyond the cabin window. We take along good maps and plot our progress over the land below, within a space of a few hours remarking on the lush oasis at Salalah and the lack of water in the Zambezi. On long flights, the privilege of a window seat allows the imagination to roam free as real topographies are shaped by half-remembered geography lessons and soured by a thousand deadly snippets of bad news. Was there, we wondered last week as we skimmed the coast of Somalia, ever a good news story from Mogadishu?

Like Sebald, we are acutely aware of the binary divide that separates travellers and tourists. Unlike Sebald, we are happy to admit that sometimes we are just tourists and nothing more. But the sheer glory of the window seat on a clear day is that, with a little imagination, anyone can escape the formulaic prescriptions of mass tourism and rediscover the joy of being an explorer. We find that good maps help a lot. This time last week we were flying over the Ruvuma Valley. Our map cautions that there are no conventional ferries over the Ruvuma, but advises that the river can be crossed in a dug-out canoe.

We even select specific routings and intermediate stops to up the chance of interesting geography along the way. On one journey last year, we opted for a 13-sector itinerary on small turboprop aircraft (with two overnight stops), rather than a non-stop flight on a large jet.

Over the last year or two we've had glimpses from the air of Socotra and Moroni, of Basra and Beira. Sometimes our flights over distinctive terrain have so fired our imaginations that we then visited those areas on the ground. It was that kind of curiosity (and an interest in the writing of Wilfred Thesiger) which last month impelled us to visit the Liwa Oasis, a string of remote settlements on the edge of Arabia's Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter).

In our Manifesto for Slow Travel, published in 2009, we emphasised that journeys are something to be savoured. We certainly never wrote that manifesto with air travel in mind. But increasingly we feel that aspects of slow travel aesthetics can be applied to air travel. The poetics of the journey cannot be rammed into an in-flight entertainment system, but they are there for the taking outside the window. It is all, as they say, in the mind. We are inclined to say "Try it for yourself," but, if you do, please do leave some space by the window for us.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.