Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts. (from Wanderlust: A History of Walking, page 5)
Recently several senior students returned from an overseas trip organised by the school. These students, on return, articulated how transforming this first overseas travel experience was for them. They were intellectually stimulated and personally challenged, on multiple levels, making many comments about how differently they saw their own communities (and lives) on return. Travel is like that. It is addictive and after these initial experiences many crave to deepen their pleasure of learning with more travel and reading. Certainly that’s how I feel about it and remember fondly the glow of those first journeys (in my case to India and Nepal) and their impact. It is no surprise to me that walking long distances alone or travelling by myself on the train played a large part in these first wonderful journeys overseas.
The solitary walker
I like walking alone. Walking with friends is great but walking alone has a stillness I love. Sometimes that stillness is disturbed by high drama as the weather closes in while exposed on a ridge or when challenged by navigation where the trail has grown indistinct. Walking provides a natural metre for thought (and discussion). There is a rhythm when walking, deeply satisfying to the whole human, that ‘leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts’. After a few continuous days of walking it feels like one no longer needs to rest and can walk forever. Thoughts have both clarity and precision.
For so much of human history it is estimated that our species walked 20 kilometres each day. Logically, humans walked far more than what they do today and many in contemporary society have little or no experience of long walks, taken day after day, through changing landscapes, as our ancestors did. Much has been written about walking and our long history, as a species, with this most basic mode of travel by the greatest writers of our collective literary tradition. Wanderlust: A History of Walking is a good read for anyone interested in a taster to what is available on the subject.
Reading & Walking (but not at the same time)
Reading the right book(s) when travelling, especially while walking alone, is important and fuels the walk as much as a good breakfast. Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe (whose research interests include Atlantic trade systems, cultural interaction and state formation in Southern Iberia and social hierarchies in Central Southern Britain) is an excellent, authoritative read about the surprising level of travel and trade that was taking place pre-Iron Age (before 800 BC). Many miles were walked as individuals and small family groups sought knowledge and trade. I found his book stimulated much thought while I was in England and Spain about the ethnic connections between the people of these regions that I’d previously not even remotely understood. The number of regular, great sea voyages made by many in ‘the sewn boats of the Early Bronze Age’ was quite phenomenal. These were not journeys of conquest but those likely made out of curiosity, exploration and trade. Professor Cunliffe says
…mastery of the sea became an imperative: shipbuilding technologies improved, and power began to be expressed in terms of ability to acquire rare raw materials brought from afar. All this seems to have created a situation in which competitive journeying became the favoured activity of a new maritime elite…Over the thousand years from 2500 to 1500 BC the nature of mobility had changed from initial exploration, to population movement and settlement, to elite adventuring, and finally to trade and settled cultural consolidation…Over the long-drawn-out period of interaction people needed to communicate one with another to develop relationships, set up complex allegiances, and exchange knowledge about technologies and the subtle values of abstract ideologies. To do this they needed to develop a lingua franca.
I mentioned in a previous post that travel always leads to interesting questions and reflections about language. Etymology is endlessly fascinating but Cunliffe’s book really has one thinking about this period before written records and the migrations that took place. Looking at the similarities in physical appearance of people in different countries one starts to realise how little we still understand of the movements of populations in the earliest of times. Travelling to Spain, after reading Britain Begins, really allowed me to see the physical similarities of many people in this country with those in the UK. Previously, although I spent a month in Portugal, I had not made this connection.
The privilege of travel
Many of the students we teach do not have the privilege of travel. For me, travel was not an option either until I was an adult. My own parents, born pre-WWII, never left Australia. Leaving the school, for short journeys and excursions is great but it would be wonderful if all students could travel, walking long distances as part of the experience, to make their own connections and be stimulated by the multiplicity of experiences on offer. I often think that more students would read more widely if they had the opportunity to travel. Maybe the penny would drop and reading would become a vicarious form of travel.
Travel is often said to broaden the mind. Student exchange is a great option and the values, espoused by organisations like AFS, are wonderful:
AFS is an international, voluntary, non-governmental, non-profit organization that provides intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world.
What experiences of travel, walking or exchange have stimulated your learning?
Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/9351564955/