Posts Tagged ‘slow travel’

Vacationing alone in the Lake District

August 11, 2018

I spent the past week by myself on vacation – or “on holiday,” as they’d say in England’s Lake District, which is where I was.

This was the first time I’d ever taken a full-on vacation by myself. I’ve traveled alone for reporting assignments and book promotion, moved to new cities alone (a long time ago), and spent two days alone in Puerto Vallarta last year when Sam had to return earlier than I did from a trip. But this was my first full week in a foreign place with no reason to be there other than enjoying myself.

I was a little nervous beforehand. But it was great!

England was an easy place to be a solo American traveler. We share a language (despite the occasionally confounding accents). It’s got reliable train schedules, comfortable hotels etc., and unlike some other parts of the world, a woman alone is not viewed as a target.

And the Lake District – the mountainous area in the northwest of England made famous by Wordsworth – was particularly welcoming. The region basically lives off of tourism. It has well-marked hiking paths that are easy to navigate. It has a great bus system that allows you to reach almost any trailhead or cultural site without a car. And its beautiful walks draw a variety of visitors – studly young rock climbers, multi-generational families, older couples who have been walking the fells (hills) together for decades, and a surprising number of single hikers like me.

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View of Derwentwater from top of Cat Bells footpath. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Steady stream of hikers climbing up Cat Bells. Note view of two lakes. Photo by Ilana DeBare

My home base was the Lairbeck Hotel, a small family-run inn in a spacious 19th century home on the outskirts of Keswick in the northern Lake District. Keswick swarms with tourists in the summer months, but it’s outdoor-oriented tourists, not the “file-out-of-the-tour-bus-and-take-a-selfie” packaged-tour crowds. It feels like Truckee or Banff: Everyone is wearing hiking boots, and there are more stores selling outdoor gear than you can count. No one dresses for dinner. People ask each other where they hiked that day. I felt very much at home.

Sam was backpacking in the Sierra while I was gone – hauling thirty pounds in his pack, sleeping under the stars, totally away from civilization for five days. The Lake District is a different kind of outdoor experience. I’m not sure there’s anywhere you could hike and camp for five full days without running into roads or towns. Instead, you do day hikes – between picturesque stone villages, or loops up and down the fells. You can easily get away from people by choosing the right path, but England is too small and has been settled for too long to have the vast amounts of wilderness we enjoy in the western United States.

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View of farmland from a ridge. Photo by Ilana DeBare

What England does have is an amazing network of public footpaths. Many of these paths have existed for centuries or even millennia, and private landowners are required to maintain the public right of way. (As opposed to the U.S., where landowners will shoot or sue anyone who sets foot on their property.) My hikes took me through sheep pastures, across wheat fields, down farm driveways, along a “coffin path” formerly used to carry the deceased to the nearby churchyard, and through countless wooden gates with an equally countless variety of latching devices.

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England’s public footpaths are usually well marked.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Footpath up the Latrigg fell that, like many others, goes through sheep pastures. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Derwentwater in the morning fog. Photo by Ilana DeBare

The paths offer stunning views from the tops of the fells – of lakes, farmland, villages, and clouds sweeping over the surrounding peaks.

And then at the end of your hike, you return to your comfy hotel or bed-and-breakfast or rental cottage. With a tall pint of ale in the nearby pub! With all due love and respect for my husband, I’ll take this kind of hiking vacation over a backpack trip any day.

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Pub near my inn.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

Before my solo week in the Lake District, I’d spent a similar week walking in the Cotswolds to the south with my friend Sue. By the time I reached Keswick, I’d realized that my “sweet spot” for hiking is six to eight miles, or about three to four hours of actual walking.

My time on the trails was longer than those three to four hours, though, because I stopped a lot. And that was one unexpected benefit of spending this vacation alone – I got to set my own pace, not just for the walking, but for everything.

Traveling with even one very compatible partner entails a constant calibration. Are they bored at a viewpoint and ready to get moving? Do they want to spend more time in the antiques shop? Like a good marriage, they accommodate you and you accommodate them, and it all works well.

But traveling alone, you’re only responsible to yourself — which forces you to pay more attention to your desires. So I spent a full hour sitting on top of the Cat Bells trail, just looking down at the dueling vistas of a farm valley and Derwentwater lake, while other hikers stopped to picnic and moved on. So I noodled around the edges of the Castlerigg stone circle in the drizzle, thinking about the 5,000-year history of those stones, for much longer than I would have with a companion.

I stopped to look at birds. I stopped to look at really nondescript birds!

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Visitors photograph a “druid” at Castlerigg stone circle. Photo by Ilana DeBare

This was “slow travel.” And I realized I wanted to get even slower. Next time, I would bring a small notebook or sketch pad with me. I wanted to interact with the landscapes in a more active way than taking a cellphone photo. Often we arrive at a beautiful or fascinating place, glance at it, click the camera to capture it, and move on. We lazily count on that photo to be the memory rather than trying to remember it ourselves. I wanted to feel the contours, remember the lines, articulate the feelings and thoughts evoked by the scene.

Two mornings, I stayed at the inn and worked on my novel on my laptop before going out to hike in the afternoon. The Lairbeck Hotel has a lovely, quiet garden, and one of those late afternoons after hiking I sat in the garden with a glass of wine.

I realized that was my ideal travel day – half the day writing, the other half out actively exploring. With a garden and a glass of wine at the end!

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The garden and house at Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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View of Skiddaw fell from my room at the Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

It’s hard to achieve that kind of balance without a deliberate effort. When visiting a new place, there’s always so much to see. The temptation is to run from sight to sight, and then collapse at dinnertime. It’s even harder to carve out quiet time for writing, sketching, or reflecting when you’re traveling with a companion.

One of the benefits of this solo trip was I’m now more aware of what I want from my travel experiences. If I don’t get to every highlight listed in the guidebook, that’s okay: I’ll see fewer but spend more time at each, and more time on reflection.

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Sheep, sheep, and more sheep / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Oops, not sheep! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Why do we take vacation photos?

July 19, 2014

For twenty years I was the family vacation photographer. I bought the cameras, I packed the cameras in my luggage, I was the one who thought to stop in the middle of a museum or a park and say, “Hold on a sec! Let me get a photo!”

Then my husband Sam got an iPhone. He realized how easy it was to snap a photo and upload it to Facebook.

So now we both take photos. We returned last week from a vacation in Central Europe during which we often ended up taking photos of the exact same things.

We’d be standing in Budapest looking across the Danube to the old castle on the Buda side of the river. Sam would take a picture of the castle with his iPhone. Two feet away, I’d take a picture of the castle with my point-and-shoot.

And the kicker is: There were already about two zillion photos of that same castle, taken from the same angle, on the web.

Sam's photo of the Danube and castle

Sam’s photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

So why do we take those photos? Why capture an image that has already been captured countless times, often with higher resolution or better quality?

The simple answer is that we want mementos of our trip. We want to remember where we’ve been. But that desire could be satisfied by just one person taking photos, or even by buying old-fashioned picture postcards.

Another answer is that we love our gadgets. We feel compelled to use them constantly. But that doesn’t fully nail it either.

There are also less charitable possibilities. We are sheep: We take photos on vacation because we believe we are supposed to take photos on vacation. Or we are status-grubbers: We photograph ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum or the Budapest castle  to show our neighbors and our Facebook friends how worldly and fantastically happy we are.

Blech. That may be true for some people, but I think it is still more complicated.

For me at least, taking vacation photos is an attempt to engage with the things I’m seeing. As tourists visiting places briefly, we are typically spectators. We are outsiders watching a world that other people have shaped and are living in. But we want more than that.

So we engage with the places we’re visiting by eating the food, meeting the people, or… taking photos.

Sam's photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam’s photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

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My photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam's photo of a communist-era status in Memento Park in Budapest

Sam’s photo of a communist-era statuse in Memento Park in Budapest

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park status

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park statue

Choices: I can stand by  the Danube, look briefly at the castle, and then walk on to the next site specified in my guidebook. Or I can pull out my camera and engage. Frame the picture. How much river, how much sky? Focus on the dome or the facade? Which part seems most interesting? It’s bringing a little bit of artistic judgment and creativity to bear. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal connection to a place. That’s not the same level of engagement as getting to know local residents, but it’s something.

“Taking photos forces you to look at what you’re seeing,” someone told me the other night.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Taking photos can also be a substitute for truly looking at what we’re seeing.

Scenic vista point! Get out the camera. Frame the shot. Move on. 

I fall victim to this, no question about it. I don’t try to commit a scene to memory because I assume it will be preserved by my camera. Instead of paying attention to the details of this interesting place – the color of light on the roofs, a boat’s wake on the river, the funny zigzag path taken by a small child running near the water — I think about framing the photo. Once I’ve pressed the shutter, I feel like I’m done.

Now let’s ramp up this scenario to the Nth degree – Auschwitz.

Our recent trip included a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post. But what’s relevant here is that I took photos.

I took photos of the room filled with hair shorn from thousands of Jewish women en route to the gas chamber for use in German wigs. I took photos of the room filled with shoes from dead children. I took photos of the bombed ruins of the crematoria, of the gathering spot where people were unloaded from boxcars and directed to either barracks or gas chambers. Our guide described each section of the camp, and we looked, mostly silent, and took photos, and moved on.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time looking, thinking, and imagining. I would have liked to stay in the unloading spot for maybe an hour, to sit cross-legged on the summer grass and just think about what had happened there. Maybe try to sketch it or describe it in writing. But definitely do something slower and more mindful than pressing a shutter.

I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with photos as a way to engage with important places – places of particular historical meaning or natural beauty. I’m not a visual artist, but sketching or painting a scene seems to require so much more attention and involvement. Writing a description also forces you to engage more deeply and attentively.

I wonder what it would be like to take a sketch pad or pocket journal on our next trip instead of a camera. When we come to a point of particular interest, I could sit there for a half hour drawing or writing.

Of course that would slow things down – it’s harder to hit six different churches, museums and monuments in one afternoon if you keep stopping for long blocks of time!

But maybe it is useful to start thinking of “slow travel,” like we now think of “slow food.”

And tapping into ways of engagement that are deeper than snapping photos.