After having lived in London all these years, I finally took my first trip on a towboat last weekend. There is another world out there with canal dogs and boat shows. It is wonderful. And I could never do that for more than a couple of weeks. 🙂
A hunt for unstructured experiences is the easiest way to summarise my year of 2016. Yes, I did doctoral research on the topic but the theme was definitely prominent also in other areas of my life (in art, mountaineering training, etc.).
For a while now, I shall probably be posting about different ways to go after that specific type of experience. I will give my best to try to approach it from all angles, large or small, crooked or right angled, and see what makes it longed for, for me and for a lot of people of my time.
This post will focus on two very straightforward ways of achieving a completely fresh spatial experience without throwing yourself off a train without a map. It will focus on ways for designing surprises that work, for yourself.
1. Give someone permission to take you on a trip without telling you the destination.
Lessons learned from the Arctic Norway and Finnish Lapland in September 2016.
Let another person pack your clothes, choose the date and not tell you where you will be going. Destination awareness can be left for the check-in desk, train station or the boat mooring spot.
In September, I had a fabulous chance to experience that type of once again. It is definitely one of my most favourite modes of travelling. Of course, it is romantic to the core, but it also frees you from the philosophical task number 1: to know where you’re going.
And this is where the surprise design kicks in. If all you know is the return date, every following detail starts acting as a structural element of your adventure:
– not knowing when you have to wake up;
– not knowing whether there are plans for the next day;
– not knowing what is in the neighbourhood, near or far;
– not knowing what to take with you;
– not knowing which means of transport to use;
– not having to worry about reaching a place at a certain time;
– not knowing when and where you’ll be eating;
– not knowing which direction you’re going;
– not knowing what to expect.
2. Change the time and scope of your wanderings
Lessons learned on Venice canal shores in November 2016.
It is worth it. If you suddenly find yourself attracted to a city that is an object of admiration to the entire world … don’t go exploring it at the heels of it.
I am talking about these destinations that do not even have an off season, to use holiday parlance.
So, how to find your city inside everyone else’s?
If possible, arrive very early or very late. This makes your first impression more personal.
Then, schedule your first longer wander outside the tourist hours. Yes, you are on a holiday (I only use the word “holiday” for city trips; outside of it, the concept does not even work), so setting the alarm for 3.30 AM may feel like the first signs of madness, but the sleepiness will lift as soon as you enter the empty maze that every new city is.
Imagination works better when left alone in an empty space. It is also easier to get a feel for a place that is uniquely meaningful only for you.
What else helps? Making a game of spotting a certain elements (like a weathered pattern on a wall) in every new street or square. This way you will end up looking into little side streets and courtyards more often.
Visiting cemeteries always helps. When a city is crowded, her cemeteries are usually less packed (well, depending how you’re counting). Cemeteries let you in on the spirit of the place (no pun intended) without having to fight the crowds.
For extra ideas, it is worth reading Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys or taking a an official city guide book and reversing everything that can be reversed.
Also, on the topic: “The rational flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information, what Nero was trying to practice in his travels, often guided by his sense of smell. The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flâneur continuously – and, what is crucial, rationally – modifies his targets as he acquires information.” (From Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleeb)
DAY 6, from Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, 15.9 km
Every time when I go for a walk, I wake up as a dog on that day.
I usually open my eyes a little after 6 am and a friendly voice starts the disco mantra of “Can we go now, can we go now?!” in my head. Until we finally do.
We took a bus from our hotel to Kingshouse. Our plan had worked! So far, we had been walking every inch of the way. Oh! And the local transport routes in here are nearly as ridiculous as the Snowdonian ones. I know that driving a bus is never a hassle-free job, but these routes must be amongst some of the most relaxing ones in the world. (In good weather, I point out.)
Day 6 was all about walking the Devil’s Staircase and getting ourselves to Kinlochleven as a result. (The internet was right. People had described Kinlochleven as a town that does not get closer when you approach it. As exact a description as there ever was.) You can see Kinlochleven for more times than you can count, but it will always remain there, silently signalling your arrival, almost as if it’s not caring. You just walk and foolishly put on and peel off your rainproofs many times in one go without even seeing proper rain. And yes, during all that time, Kinlochleven is still waiting.
Devil’s Staircase, the path across the Aonach Eagach ridge, is special. It is the childhood playground of clouds. I’m guessing this is the place whence they go into the world to bring awe and new ways to look at things to all people. The clouds are alive on the Aonach Eagach ridge. Their games are innocent, whimsical and intolerably pretty. And up here, I finally (and I *mean* finally) understood why I have never been drawn to the Alps. (I’ve been drawn to all other mountains as long as I can remember, but never once to the Alps. I do find that suspicious, by the way.) I’m not claiming that it is the legally acceptable answer, but for me, the Alps are not alive with any sort of mythological life. I look at them and I see beautiful mountains, there to be admired and climbed by all levels of outdoor lovers, enthusiasts and all types of locals. But you are not coming home with an invisible friend from them, no.
With the beginning of our descent, the sun came out again in its absolute splendour. (Of course, by that time we both knew Scotland consisted of nothing else but the sun, shh!) I was taking many pictures and was often so entranced by my surroundings that I found myself standing in various creeks. It is dangerous not look at your feet when walking down a mountain and walking into creeks is the most innocent lesson you can learn.
It did happen, eventually. We did reach Kinlochleven. It was a small mountain town (a village, technically) with the sound of gushing water prevalent in the darkness (the village is home to one of UK’s largest hydro-electric power stations). Kinlochleven held all the crucial shops and all the necessary places to eat. There were at least two pubs and also a brightly lit fish and chips shop that held an outline of one dark silhouette in its neon midst.
There was aluminium industry in here too, once, but now Kinlocheleven lives more of a quiet life. (Except for the gushing water, of course.) After arriving, we soon headed to the pub for some dinner of soup and ale. The streets where empty but you could feel life surrounding you behind every wall in the darkness; maybe smiling, maybe just keeping an eye on you.
Never in my life had I been in a place that felt more like Twin Peaks.