Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Traveling At The Speed Of The Soul | NOEMA

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Nick Hunt is the author of three travel books about walking in different parts of Europe, two of which were finalists for the Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year.

The flight from Istanbul to London took about four hours. Leaving the Balkans behind, my body traveled at a speed of 400 miles an hour over the Great Hungarian Plain, the snowy mountain passes of the Alps, the forests of southwest Germany, the Rhine and the Low Countries. Through the blurry windowpane I watched the continent slide by, its greens and browns smeared together like a spill of paint. Mountain ranges passed in minutes, great rivers in seconds. I tried to spot landmarks — Had I walked through that woodland? Had I crossed a bridge down there? — but none of it seemed remotely real. As the plane touched down in London, I had the sense that somehow, something had gone extremely wrong.

Seven months before, I had embarked on that journey in reverse. In the winter of 2011, I took the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. Then I started walking and continued for 2,500 miles. My journey followed the footsteps of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who completed his “great trudge” on New Year’s Day 1935, and took me through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to the shore of the Bosporus. 

I slept on couches, in the ruins of castles and abandoned hunting hides. I got lost in graffitied city streets and in snowbound forests. I spent the vast majority of those months alone, talking to myself with a lack of self-consciousness that at times alarmed me. Birdsong, the roar of cars, church bells, cowbells, outraged dogs, the rush of rivers and the patter of rain kept me steady company. The sound I heard more than anything else was the crunch, crunch, crunch of my boots on the road. 

By the time I got to Istanbul, those boots were full of holes. My skin was scorched from the sun, and I had a matted beard and a stench I hardly recognized; even after multiple baths, I couldn’t shift that smell for weeks. For hundreds of miles, through rain and snow, skirting autobahns and being chased by dogs, I’d been dreaming of my arrival in the place that Leigh Fermor had set his sights on 79 years before: “The chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt,” he wrote. “The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist.” 

But my arrival didn’t feel like that. I was beyond exhaustion. I limped to the quayside, sat down and dragged off my stinking boots. The call to prayer was sounding, and the sky was full of seagulls. I felt happy, but in a distant way. Mostly, I felt like crying.

Originally, I’d planned to return home slowly, a gradual re-acclimatization over weeks by way of trains and buses. But having reached my destination, I was just too tired. I’d done what I set out to do. My purpose seemed concluded. 

Hence the flight, and a walk that had taken 221 days compressed, with a violence that startled me, into 240 minutes.

“Travel has a warping effect on time, elongating it in some ways while compressing it in others.”

Returning home after being away for any length of time is strange. The Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who journeyed 70,000 miles across much of the 14th-century Islamic world, wrote that “traveling gives you home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” I’d venture that all travelers, whether they have been away for years, months or only weeks, know something of this estrangement. What gap year student hasn’t returned from their rite-of-passage journey to find that the “gap” now lies between them and their former life? This peculiar dislocation — a kind of out-of-body experience — might wear off after several days, or it might last much longer. 

For me it lasted for at least the same period as my absence. During that time I tried and failed to slot back into my old life, but everything seemed misaligned. The familiar sights around me had become foreign. One of the most confounding things was that my mental map of London — a city I’d learned street by street in the era before Google Maps, cycling for hours each day with a battered A-Z map — had completely vanished, as if the data had been wiped. I constantly found myself lost in neighborhoods I had known for years. 

This cartographic distortion was accompanied by a temporal one. Travel, as has often been noted, has a warping effect on time, elongating it in some ways while compressing it in others. Like Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the bigger the journey and the greater its gravitational pull on the trajectory of your life, the more the temporal field around it seems to become dilated. It can feel like you’ve been gone for a lifetime and have changed irrevocably, and yet when you return, time has apparently stood still. George Orwell described something like this in “Homage to Catalonia” on his homecoming from the chaos of the Spanish Civil War: 

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood […] the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

Of course I hadn’t come home from a war, but I was struck by a similar sense that, during the time I’d been gone, the place I’d left had been in a state of suspended animation. Nothing had changed, and yet, confusingly, nothing was what I remembered. It was a geographical version of the “uncanny valley” effect, in which ostensibly normal things take on an alien quality. It was as if my body had arrived but some other vital part of me had not. I seemed to have dropped it on the road to Istanbul.

Underlying this was another impression, even more disturbing. I couldn’t shake the nagging sense that the achievement of my walk — all the struggles, hardships, joys and revelations — had in some way been negated by the manner in which I’d returned. Flying had undone the walking, raveling it all back in.  

Much later I came to understand that, on a spiritual level, it had. I had not completed a walk, but half a pilgrimage.

“I couldn’t shake the nagging sense that the achievement of my walk had in some way been negated by the manner in which I’d returned.”

In the West, pilgrimages are much in vogue these days, often stripped of religious baggage and repackaged as “slow travel.” Spain’s Camino de Santiago, by far Europe’s best known pilgrim path, was tramped by more than 446,000 pairs of boots in 2023, double the number from a decade before and six times more than two decades ago, according to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago de Compostela. Of course, many of these peregrinos, bearing their traditional scallop shells, go to revere the shrine of Saint James, but increasing numbers are drawn to the walk for secular reasons. The British Pilgrimage Trust, a charity formed in 2014, talks of a “global renaissance,” enthusing on their website:

Today’s pilgrims have often come to a crossroads in their life, and want the slowing, socially levelling and revitalizing benefits that pilgrimage brings. Others want to connect with themselves, others, their ancestors, spirituality or nature. Pilgrimage is, at its essence, the story of discovery and quest — of Odysseus, Aeneas and Frodo.

This choice of names at first seems strange, but what these unlikely characters share is the so-called “hero’s journey,” a motif popularized by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. A pilgrimage is a hero’s journey in the archetypal sense, but one in which the victory over “fabulous forces” is an internal one. 

Campbell identified three key stages of such journeys: departure, initiation and return. Of these, the latter is the least examined yet perhaps the most important. After leaving ordinary life and overcoming obstacles, a pilgrim, crucially, must return home to integrate whatever knowledge they gained into their community. 

The journey is not a straight line but a completed circle. The supposed destination — whether Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca, the banks of the Ganges or anywhere else — is not the end of the road but the exact halfway point. The real destination is your own front door.

In the days before high-speed travel, you either reached the pilgrimage site on foot or on a ruminant’s back, and you had no option but to go home the same way. The outward journey and the return, therefore, were of equal lengths — not only in terms of distance but in terms of time. 

My journey wasn’t a pilgrimage in the religious sense. But — although I wasn’t aware of it then — it matched that archetypal shape, and only afterward did I realize my archetypal mistake. I had completed the return, but I didn’t do it slowly. 

“The journey is not a straight line but a completed circle. The real destination is your own front door.”

There’s an old idea that the soul travels at the speed of walking. In an Arabic saying, according to the philosopher Alain de Botton, this is pegged specifically to the walking speed of a camel, which, at around three miles an hour, is the same as the average human’s. In “Essays on Love,” he wrote: “While most of us are led by the strict demands of timetables and diaries, our soul, the seat of the heart, trails nostalgically behind, burdened by the weight of memory.” 

Rebecca Solnit put it much the same way in her history of walking, “Wanderlust”: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought.” In other words, thoughts — or souls — can get left behind if their hosts move too quickly.

Another writer who thought deeply about the importance of walking speed was Bruce Chatwin, to whom Leigh Fermor was a friend and mentor. Chatwin believed humanity’s original state was nomadism, and that a golden age was lost when most cultures settled down. In “The Songlines,” he wrote that “man is a migratory species” and described an experiment performed at a London clinic that showed that babies soon stopped crying when rigged up to a device that “imitated, exactly, the pace and action of a mother’s walk.” “Day in, day out, a baby cannot have enough walking,” Chatwin wrote. “And if babies instinctively demand to be walked, the mother, on the African Savannah, must have been walking too.” 

The act of walking engages something fundamental about being human, an atavistic memory of our ancient origins. When I set out on my walk, that sense took time to emerge. I found myself constantly frustrated at how slowly I was moving compared to everything around me. Passing bicycles felt like personal insults; cars and trains were like demons from another dimension. 

It took many days to accept slowness. I was past the German border before my consciousness adapted to an ambulatory pace, and my thoughts began to move in rhythm with my footsteps. Then the idea of moving faster felt unnatural and vaguely alarming. 

After about a month, I broke my own rules on a rainy day and accepted a lift from one city to the next. A journey that should have taken a day collapsed into 30 minutes. Sitting mutely in the passenger seat, I had a minor panic attack at how the experience disjointed me from the world around, violently tearing me from the state I had spent weeks cultivating.

Chatwin recounted being driven through the Australian Outback in the company of an Aboriginal man. The man was singing his songline, which, in much-simplified terms, is a spiritual or ancestral map where every landmark forms a part of the Dreamtime story. When the vehicle sped up, the song’s cadence sped up too; when the vehicle slowed, it slowed. The land and its song were innately linked and cannot be decoupled.

“The soul travels at the speed of walking.”

The journalist Paul Salopek, currently 11 years into a walk along the path of human migration from Africa’s Rift Valley to the tip of South America (a journey of Ibn Battutan ambition), also talks of walking in terms of musicality. In a recent interview with Emergence, he likened it to “a stylus dropping into a groove on the surface of a planet and making this music. And we are, our bodies are, that stylus, and we’re meant to move at this RPM that comes with the movement of our body.” Solnit put it more succinctly: Walking “is how the body measures itself against the Earth.”

A few days after my ride down the road, I found myself following signs that showed an image of a woman driving an antique vehicle alongside the words “Bertha Benz Memorial Route.” These markers commemorated the maiden voyage of the world’s first car. In 1888, Bertha Benz tested her husband Karl’s prototype automobile on what was then the rough carriageway between Bruschal and Pforzheim. Even Karl was doubtful about the outcome of this test, but, by connecting the two cities, Bertha proved the viability of a new form of transport. Less than 50 years later, Germany would lay tarmac for the world’s first autobahn.

Part of my journey thus became an inadvertent pilgrimage along a route of great historical significance: one of the birthplaces of modernity, the beginning of a time when we would be propelled headlong into the high-speed age. The fact that I badly injured myself tramping down that very road — suffering weeks of Achilles tendonitis that almost put an end to my walk — was an appropriate, if painful, flagellation.

At three miles an hour, the world is a continuum. One thing merges into the next: hills into mountains, rivers into valleys, suburbs into city centers; cultures are not separate things but points along a spectrum. Traits and languages evolve, shading into one another and metamorphosing with every mile. Even borders are seldom borders, least of all ecologically. There are no beginnings or endings, only continuity.

If driving breaks that continuity, flying explodes it. It shatters reality into bits that have to be pieced back together. We label this “jet lag” — a disruption of the circadian rhythm caused by different time zones — but what really lags behind is much more fundamental.

At a travel event some years ago, I met a computer programmer who wanted to design an app — I don’t know whether she ever did — that worked as a soul-tracker. You plot your origin and destination on a map before getting on a plane, and when you land, a tiny dot will be inching toward your new location: your displaced soul, patiently plodding after your body. If you stay where you are, it will eventually catch you up, but if you jet off somewhere else, it will have to keep chasing; presumably, if you kept on moving, it might never catch you. The idea was meant to be entertaining, but I found it haunting. In the age of mass transit, our restless world must be thick with ceaselessly roving souls, wandering imagined maps with no hope of reunification.

I don’t really believe in souls, or at least not eternal ones, but the concept resonates. When I flew home from Istanbul, it did feel like some intangible part of me took seven months, the same period as my walk, to catch up with my body again, to restore my wholeness. Perhaps I was waiting for De Botton’s “seat of the heart … burdened by the weight of memory,” or perhaps, in less poetic terms, I was simply processing. A pilgrimage works on two levels, external and internal, and while outwardly I was home, inwardly I was still plodding along, trying to make sense of what I had been through and what I had returned to. Only when that process was done could the circle be completed.

“You cannot know home by staying at home; you must first have gone away.”

A rich man from Baghdad loses all his wealth and is left with nothing but his house and the fountain in his garden. One night, this man has a dream: a mysterious figure appears and tells him that only by going to Cairo will he find his fortune. But Cairo is far away, through difficult, dangerous territory. So, like any sensible person, he ignores the dream. 

But on the next night and the next, the figure appears again with the same instructions. So the man packs his bags and sets out across the desert. When at last he arrives in Cairo, exhausted from the long road, he finds shelter in a mosque, but is promptly accused by the chief of police of being part of a band of robbers. After being thoroughly beaten, he is thrown in prison.

There he languishes for days, until the chief of police visits him and demands to know why he came to Cairo, leaving his home in Baghdad behind. The traveler describes the dreams, and the chief roars with laughter. When he was young, the chief says, he also had three dreams, in which a mysterious figure told him to go to Baghdad. There, in such and such a district, he would find a house with a fountain in its garden. By digging underneath the fountain he would find his fortune. But he ignored that foolishness: “I went not; and thou, through the smallness of thy sense, hast journeyed from city to city on account of a thing thou hast seen in sleep, when it was only the effect of confused dreams.” He throws the traveler some coins and tells him to go home.

When he arrives back in Baghdad, the traveler goes straight to his garden and starts digging. Sure enough, underneath the fountain, he discovers treasure. It had been there all along. He lives happily ever after.

This story, based on a poem by Rumi, appears in “One Thousand and One Nights,” a volume compiled over centuries of stories from across the Middle East. Like the man from Baghdad, the tale has traveled far. In an English version, a peddler journeys from Swaffham in Norfolk to London Bridge, only to learn that his fortune lies beneath an oak tree at home. Another version is set in Somerset and the man is a cobbler. In an Ashkenazi Jewish variant, a rabbi travels from Krakow to Prague (or from Prague to Warsaw, depending on who is doing the telling). 

The bones of the tale can be glimpsed in Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey and Iran. Jorge Luis Borges adapted the original into “The Tale of the Two Dreamers,” replacing the fountain with a fig tree, and Paulo Coelho borrowed its structure for his novel “The Alchemist,” which begins with a Spanish shepherd boy’s dream of treasure in a ruined church.

“In memories, journeys never end.”

I have been telling this story for years, mostly around campfires with friends, but it is only recently that its meaning has bedded down. The man from Baghdad is not a pilgrim, but the structure of his tale maps the same hero’s journey. He departs on a quest. He overcomes suffering to receive knowledge. He returns to integrate that knowledge into what he knows and gains new insight into his home because of how the journey has changed him. 

The moral — that true treasure lies at home — initially seems obvious, but what really strikes a chord is the deeper suggestion: that you cannot see that treasure until you have seen the wider world. You cannot know home by staying at home; you must first have gone away. 

As a travel writer, my attention has always been on the “away,” on setting out into the desert — or the mountains, or the woods, or the streets of unknown towns — rather than grubbing about beneath the soil of home. The treasure has always been elsewhere; home is where I bring it back to.

The fear that I had dropped my treasure on the road or jettisoned it from the plane turned out to be misplaced. It was there waiting for me — I just had to dig for it. 

“To travel without arriving would be as incomplete as to arrive without having traveled,” Solnit wrote. Twelve years on from my unwitting pilgrimage, I remember raindrops falling on the Rhine, the snow of the Carpathians, the bend of a dusty road in Romania, sunlight glittering on the Black Sea. Solnit calls these moments “the tangible landscape of memory.” I consider them part of the deeper meaning of home.

On some subconscious level, my feet are still on that road. In memories, journeys never end. This is the treasure.

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