Archive | Travel philosophy

On looking out of the plane window

Looking out of plane window

In the space of just over a hundred years, we’ve gone from the world’s first commercial flight (with just one paying passenger on a 40-kilometre route in Florida which took 23 minutes) to the dawn of space tourism. On average, eight million people fly somewhere every day. Today, the longest non-stop flight in the world – between Dallas and Sydney – is 13 730 kilometres and takes 17 hours and the biggest passenger plane – the Airbus A380 – can carry 853 people.

Somewhere between that first commercial flight in Florida and the launch of the A380, we airline passengers have become blasé about flying. Instead of marvelling at the remarkable technology that allows us and our 20 kilogram suitcases to fly across the globe in a matter of hours, we complain about the annoying airport security checks, the delays due to storms, the lack of leg room, the bland meals and extra charges for heavy baggage. We also roll down our little window blinds and forget to look through the glass at the ever changing landscape below us unfurling by the second.

Have a look at your fellow passengers right now. Can you see anyone staring out of the window? Probably not. When people first took to the skies they were utterly mesmerised by the view below them, but once the jumbo jet came along and the cost of air travel dropped significantly, the view from the plane window lost its appeal. We will pay a lot extra for a hotel room with a view of the sea, or book in advance for the table in the restaurant with the best vista but instead of marvelling at the kind of views once reserved for the birds most of us fill our hours of flying with work, movies, music, books and sleep.

To bring back some of that sense of wonder that that fliers in the early 20th century felt, all you need to do is look out of that oval-shaped glass. Out there are 50 different types of clouds, some filled with more than 500 tonnes of water. You may be flying over ocean, where you can spot tiny white horses and the occasional cargo ship. Or maybe you’re cruising over the arid, sparsely habited Karoo: rusk-coloured mountains and plains scarred with carless roads and dry rivers.There could be a vast patchwork of farmed fields below you, or neat suburbia, with swimming pools like tiny blue jewels and roads like gridlined maths paper. Maybe you glimpse a dusting of snow on top of the Drakensberg or see an above-the-clouds sunrise so beautiful it looks like a dream.

It’s a sad thought to think that the future of flying could be a viewless one. A UK-based development company is working on building windowless planes which could be flying within the next decade, replacing heavy aircraft windows with light smartscreen panels to cut fuel consumption. Instead of windows, screens covering the interior walls of the plane will project the sky outside – but would also allow you to browse the web and check your email. While cutting down on fuel would mean that airfares could be slashed, replacing windows with the equivalent of your laptop screen will take something irreplacable away about the magic of flying.

Whether you fly infrequently or travel by plane several times a month, take a moment (or spend the whole flight) appreciating being 11 kilometres above the Earth, like Richard Branson, who said “There isn’t a flight that goes by when I don’t stare out of the window and thank my stars for what I’m seeing and feeling.” For two hundred thousand years we were constrained to the ground, and just a century ago we found a way to break free and take to the skies. Enjoy those spectacular window views while they last.

This was originally published in the February issue of Mango Juice magazine




A green resolution for 2016

Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador

Lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, travel more: these are our most commonly made (and broken) resolutions at the beginning of each new year. What doesn’t make it onto the usual list but should be there is: spend more time in nature.

Currently more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and by 2050 that proportion is expected to increase to 70 per cent. While urbanisation has many benefits, studies show that city living takes its toll on us, as our brains are not optimally developed for living in concrete jungles. Urban living, with dozens of stressors such as traffic and noise, has been found to raise the risk of anxiety and mood disorders, while researchers in Germany found that people living in cities don’t handle stress as well as people who live in the countryside do. Living in an urban environment is also thought to cause cognitive load – the tiring of your brain from too much stimulation which is thought to weaken some functions such as attention capability.

This doesn’t mean we should all decamp to the country – what it does mean is that we need to bring nature back into our city lives. A lot of research has recently been done on the benefits of short exposure to nature, and the findings range from the alleviation of ADHD in children to improving memory. A study done at Stanford University found that volunteers who walked through on tree-lined paths through a leafy green park were more attentive and in a better mood afterwards than the control group of volunteers who walked for the same amount of time next to a traffic-choked highway. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that walking in nature for just a few minutes can reduce depressive symptoms, and studies have shown that children who attend schools with more trees and plants do better on cognitive tests than children at schools with no greenery.

The obvious solution for urbanites is to plan more weekends and holidays in natural environments. Spending time immersed in nature has been found to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and increase energy levels. Luckily in South Africa we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to wilderness escapes, whether it’s wildlife spotting in Kruger or hiking in the Drakensberg. Going off the grid as much as possible is ideal: researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder did a study on campers sleeping out in the wilderness for a week and found that sleeping in a dark place away from the artifical lights of a city helped reset their circadian rhythms (which govern your biological processes like sleeping) and made them more alert.

While getting out of the city does wonders for your mind and body, you don’t have to go further than your garden to get a rejuvenating nature fix. Scientists at Westminster and Essex universities found that people who gardened for at least half an hour a week were in better physical health, had lower levels of tension and stress and higher levels of self esteem than people who spent no time gardening. Even short amounts of time spent looking at a natural scene – like some trees in a park – have been found to have a relaxing effect on the brain and to boost attention levels.

Whether you bring nature into your life by going on an epic wilderness trip, taking more long weekends in the bush or just starting a flowerbox on your balcony, getting more green in your life seems like one of the best resolutions to make for 2016.

This was originally published in Mango Juice magazine in January 2016




On ditching the travel bucket list

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

In the 2007 film The Bucket List, two terminally ill characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman meet in a cancer ward, which they escape to do a road trip to tick off their wish list of things to do, including seeing the Taj Mahal and skydiving, before they die. Since then the term “bucket list” – meaning a list of things to do, see and accomplish before you kick the proverbial bucket – has taken off, becoming firmly entrenched in popular culture, with travel being a big focus of many lists. The term “travel bucket list” yields nearly 50 million searches on Google: the Internet is awash with articles proclaiming “The ultimate travel bucket list: 1001 things to do before you die”, “100 places that should be on your bucket list” and even “The ultimate Harry Potter travel bucket list”. On you can get inspiration from other users’ three million things to do before you die, if you don’t have enough ideas to fill own list. There are multiple smartphone apps that help you create and manage your travel bucket list and share your bucket list experiences with your social media community once you’ve ticked them off.

If you read through some of the many thousands of travel bucket lists posted on blogs and websites, you’ll soon see that there’s a startling similarity in many of the lists’ points: from swimming with dolphins, seeing the Northern Lights and road tripping across the USA to witnessing the Great Migration in the Serengeti, the same things appear over and over.

The problem with bucket lists is that they reduce the vast wonders of the world to the easily packaged consumerist form of a shopping list – and unfortunately the other shoppers have the same items on their lists to purchase. Experiences become things to acquire – not unlike material goods. Ticking things off comes with a competitive edge. The benefits of travel – the learnings, cultural exchanges and personal growth – are glossed over in favour of the kind of things that look great in Facebook photos: jumping on Great Wall of China, getting a selfie with a penguin in Antarctica, riding a camel in front of the Great Pyramids.

When you make a bucket list, you presuppose what will be the most memorable part of a trip: the great sights. In fact the elevated expectations laden on these places and experiences often leads to disappointment when the pyramids aren’t as big as you expected, or the dolphins don’t seem as friendly as you thought they’d be. Instead, the many joys of travel are the spontaneous, unexpected ones – the kinds of things that aren’t included in brochures. From getting lost in a foreign city and stumbling on a wonderful local restaurant (the kind of place that wouldn’t have made it into the guidebook), making a new friend on a long bus trip who you stay in touch with for the rest of your life, discovering your own tenacity when your journey throws up an unexpected challenge – these are often the memories that we keep with us long after the trip is over. You also don’t have to go far for travel to be rewarding – according to research short, frequent trips boost our happiness much more than long, infrequent holidays.

The American historian Miriam Beard wrote that “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” The transformative power of travel lies not in visiting the world’s most famous places, but in the way in which immersive experiences enhance, deepen and broaden the way in which you view the world and connect to other people. This kind of travel which cannot be checked off a list is the kind of travel that should make us leave home in the first place.



Shoot less, remember more

Shooting hummingbirds in Costa Rica

Going trigger happy on holidays and shooting hundreds of photos may not be the best way of remembering those special moments you experience – doing a beautiful hike, taking in an idyllic sunset on the beach or standing in front of a famous view.

In a recent study, a group of students went to an art museum and spent time observing 15 works of art, and photographing 15 others. The next day, the students were asked to recall details of the art works. It turns out that when they had taken a photo of a work, they remembered far fewer details about it than when they’d just observed it. This is called a photo-taking impairment effect: when people rely on photos to store the memory of something they’ve seen, rather than using their own memories.

But using photos as a digital memory of your trips only works when you access the photos – in order to remember, you need to spend time interacting with the photos. Research suggests that most of us leave folders of hundreds of photos on our computers and hard drives and don’t browse through them very often. Because we feel like the photos are safely stored somewhere, there’s no urgency to look at them.

Relying on technology to remember for us – using a camera or smartphone to record events and a hard drive to store the memories – means we often aren’t fully engaged in the experiences in real time. We are so busy taking photos that we aren’t looking at the panoramic mountain vista or palm tree-fringed beach that inspired us to take the photos in the first place.

The 19th century English art critic, John Ruskin, who was an avid traveller, had a solution for preserving magical moments and beautiful scenes that you don’t want to forget which doesn’t involve any shutter pressing. He thought that the best way of capturing what we see is to draw, whether or not you have any drawing talent. Drawing makes you an artistic observer, helping you to notice details you would have missed looking through the viewfinder of your camera. To draw something forces you to slow down and spend many minutes – if not hours – taking in a scene, rather than the few seconds it takes to touch a smartphone camera button.

Not everyone has the time for sketching while travelling (imagine asking kids to stay in one place for two hours while you draw) but one alternative is to buy an old film camera and limit your photos from a trip to one roll of film. Try to think about taking photographs in the same way that you would think about drawing – the noticing rather than just looking, the attention to detail, and most importantly, the decision to take just one or two photos of each magnificent scene or place instead of dozens.

Even if you feel that you won’t be able to remember all the details of somewhere you visit without taking photos of everything, if you are present in the moment then it forms a part of who you are. This is one of the greatest benefits of travel, and most often it requires using only your eyes to take in a view, rather than a viewfinder.

This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Mango Juice.


Why you should spend money on travel rather than things

View from Wayna Picchu

Want to be happier? It’s simple: buy less material things and spend more money on experiences, like travel. This route to contentment is backed up by science: over the past decade psychologists have done extensive research and studies into why experiences make us happier than things.

Most of us have finite amounts of wealth and we have to make decisions every day how to allocate it. It seems to make sense to buy things that will last at least for a few years: cars, couches, coffee machines, rather than spending money on experiences, which are short-lived, because the material things will bring with them longer-lasting happiness than the fleeting experiences, which are over in a few hours, days or weeks.

From a happiness perspective, this assumption, one which many of us make, is actually wrong. There are a couple of reasons why. Firstly, we’re subject to something known as hedonic adaption, which means we quickly get used to anything new. At first a new purchase, like a new pair of jeans, fulfills a desire, so you feel good. After a short time though, you stop appreciating the jeans, and as they become part of the background you lose the happiness you felt when you first bought them. Hedonic adaption happens much more with objects than it does with experiences, because of the transient nature of experiences like travel: you’re usually not on a trip long enough to adapt to the point where you don’t appreciate it any more. Even when a trip is long over, the pleasure derived from the experience stays with you: think about how long the happiness attached to the memory of a weekend away in the countryside with a group of friends or a camping holiday with your family in the bush lasts.

The second reason why experiences make us happier than things has to do with anticipation. Waiting for the new iPhone to become available in South Africa is annoying, while looking forward to the start of your holiday – even if it’s six months away – is butterflies-in-your-tummy exciting. Planning for and anticipating the start of a trip is part of the fun of travelling – who hasn’t got through long weeks of work without the fantasy of imagining yourself far away from the humdrum of the 9-5 life, relaxing on a beach, hiking through the mountains or exploring the streets of a new city? (This, by the way, is also an argument for booking holidays way in advance rather than doing everything last minute).

It might seem like you can create an identity connected to the stuff you own – that your house or your artworks can help to define you – but material goods are not a part of you, they’re just inanimate objects we to which we attach meaning. Experiences, on the other hand, are you. Experiences make us who we are: our self is little more than a collection of the things we’ve done, seen and learned. Every time you travel somewhere you build up your experience bank, which forms your part of both your ever-changing self and changes your outlook on the world. It’s hard to say the same thing about the latest Apple gadget.

This column was first published in the August 2015 issue of Mango Juice