Travel sensationally!

Have you noticed that when you eat certain foods, taste certain wines, smell certain smells, you are instantly taken back to your memories of a place, perhaps distant in space or time from now? For example, I recently baked.a tarta de Santiago – an almond cake common in Galicia in northern Spain. The sense of taste took me straight back there. It was one of the great tastes of the Camino de Santiago.

Tarta de Santiago

Papua New Guinea smells strongly of vanilla – it permeates all the food and of course their famous coffee, but it is also on the air too.

When we travel, at least part of why we travel is to experience new places, new sights, new sounds, new tastes. Indeed, one reason that travel is so exhausting is that we are literally on sensory overload. So much is new to us: the rhythms and sounds of a new language, the smell of dust and spices and markets, the sights of ancient buildings, the touch of a Roman wall or the feel of the cobblestones beneath our feet. These are all part of the sensations of travel.

Aristotle told us we have five senses. But the reality is that we have many more. As British philosopher Barry Smith has pointed out, science has long moved on from Aristotle’s five elements that make up the material world, yet we still cling to his categorisation of five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

School of Athens

Today, scientists believe we have between 21 and 33 senses and possibly more. Part of that is a more nuanced version of our five senses, but there are a few surprises. It turns out that our body is full of sensors each designed to keep us healthy, away from predators and poisons, and able to appreciate our environment in extraordinary ways. And most of these senses also help to enrich our experience of new places.

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

For example, I often wondered why I would get misdirected in Australia where I have lived most of my life, yet in London which I barely knew, I always knew my orientation in the city. The answer appears to lie in magnetism. Well, it turns out that we have magnetoreceptors – an ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, in the way that birds have an innate sense of direction. And these sensors seem to be related to the iron in our nose – we literally follow our nose! Our sense is much weaker than that of birds, but is well documented. And yes I was born in the UK, but came to Australia as a child. How is your sense of direction affected by travel?

We also have a sense of time – not only are we aware of our circadian rhythms (which get disrupted by jet-lag) but we also have a surprisingly accurate sense of time and duration.

Clock in Paris

And of course, our senses work together to build layers of experience. I have spoken elsewhere of recording the sounds of a place – whether the dawn chorus of birds, or a hubbub of a street with the sound of street sellers. One thing I love to do, is to sit in a foreign cafe and listen to the rhythm and cadence of the local language – especially where I am unfamiliar with the language. It is like the music of a country.

I have heard the mellifluence of Korean, the staccato syllables of Indonesian, the soft gentle sound of Khmer, the distinctive French, the expressive Italians and so on. Try closing your eyes and just listen to the sounds of language without trying to understand what they are saying, just the flow of speech.   

Food stand in Kuching, Malaysia

 

Then there are practical things, such as we wouldn’t get far without a sense of balance, and we would have a hard time drinking coffee or eating sushi without our proprioception – the sense of knowing where your limbs are – to guide the cup to our lips.

Our sense of temperature will tell us to dress warmer or cooler and this is an aspect of where we are and how we experience a place. It also helps to signal to our body that we need to regulate our temperature in some way, and to stay hydrated in warm or dry places.

Our taste is probably around 80 percent smell, and the rest is divided among senses for sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (the taste that responds to the amino acid glutamate, found in meats). So they work in combination to give us the rich world of flavours wherever we travel.

Laksa

Sight appears to be two senses – cones for colour and rods for brightness – again these work in concert to bring to life the colours and visual textures of our travels.

Being aware of how we sense a place, also helps to stitch that place into our idea of who we are as well as who we are becoming. As Barry Smith points out:

“Once you have a multi sensory view of perception, you have a better chance of explaining how you are in touch with the world and how we know about ourselves.” – https://aeon.co/videos/aristotle-was-wrong-and-so-are-we-there-are-far-more-than-five-senses

Each place has its own pace, its own feel, its own light. So here’s an exercise for you – can you describe a place in one sentence or paragraph, using a more nuanced description of how your senses responded to it? Don’t you just love the gravity in Paris?

Dancer sculpture seen in London

Travelling mindfully is like making a violin

Do you approach travel with excitement or trepidation? How do you find calm amidst the excitement? And importantly, how do you balance these to get the most out of travel, and out of life more generally? It seems to me, that to get the most out of our travel, we need to be:

  • responsive to our environment,
  • aware of our surroundings, and
  • calm within ourselves.

How we achieve a balance between these aspects can influence how we experience our travel.

_MG_6546

As a musician and luthier, I find that these aspects can easily be applied to violin making. For a violin to have good tone, it must be responsive, both to the inputs from the strings but also to the environment. And at the same time, in order to produce a good well-rounded tone, there must be a harmony between the responsive parts and the calm parts of each plate of the sound box. Examining this is a bit like reading the Chladni patterns on a violin plate, showing how harmoniously it vibrates in response to excitement.

violin purfling

Between travels, I have been making a violin – my second – and some people have asked me what I do to make a violin have a good sound. As with my first, I have tried to take time to tune each plate so that it is responsive across a range of frequencies. Every piece of wood is different, after all, it is an organic material that has grown in its own environment and has been subject to unique weather patterns, and cycles between winter and summer, resulting in unique growth patterns (the same applies to people too!). For that reason, you can’t just measure a Stradivarius violin and machine the timbers of a new one to exactly the same thickness across each plate and expect a Stradivarius violin to emerge. I think there is both an art and a science to it.

violin shaping

It is possible to measure the responsiveness of a violin plate at different frequencies, but perhaps more importantly, we need to be able to see where the plate is responsive, and where it is not. Any block of wood can be tuned like a xylophone block to ring to a particular note, but it is the pattern of vibration that provides the tone.

I use a fairly crude means to do this, but it seems to work. I suspend the plate I’m working on over an amplifier/speaker – in this case, a 15W Roland Cube amp placed so that the speaker faces upward. I set the plate on a couple of pieces of foam polystyrene over the speaker. I then use a tone generator on my phone (yes there’s an app for that!) and play tones smoothly rising from 10 beats per second (10 Hertz) up to 1000 Hertz.

So how do I see the vibration patterns? I take a tea bag – actually, any lightweight powder will do – you could use poppy seeds or dark sawdust too – and sprinkle a random pattern evenly over the plate. Then I play tones gradually rising in frequency. At different frequencies, the tea leaves will bounce and move where the plate is responsive, and they will stay still where the plate is not responding. In this case, the plate responds to its resonant frequency, which is 190 Hertz – which falls between F# and G. This is good because it means it won’t ring out suddenly when a properly tuned note is played.

violin chladni1

Initially, the patterns are thick and often unbalanced. I then take a photo, and draw with chalk lightly around where the tea leaves are settled, and gently remove shavings of wood, a little at a time, with a scraper from within the chalked area. Then I re-sprinkle the tea leaves and repeat the process until I have a nice pattern – like a frown and moustache – that are well balanced and have a nice form. Every plate is different and varies in density, but the patterns shouldn’t have gaps or wild inconsistencies. The technical term for these patterns is Chladni patterns, named for Ernst Chladni, who first visualised the patterns. The tea leaves collect where there is no vibration – these areas are called ‘nodes’. Where the vibration is greatest, these are called ‘anti-nodes’.

violin chladni2

Just as when we travel we seek a balance between periods of excitement and periods of calm, so too we need a nice balance between the nodes and the anti-nodes. There will be changes, of course, to these vibration patterns when the violin is assembled as against being a free plate, but I work on the basis that if each part is tuned well, then it will also work well collectively when it is assembled.

Again, the same is true of people – if each member of a group is well attuned, the group itself will perform well. This is why emotional intelligence is so important to good group dynamics. Conversely, if one part of the group is not emotionally aware, the whole tone of the group, or the tour, or the holiday can be dampened. I hope your ‘Chladni’ patterns are nicely formed too!

Okay, I drew a long bow here, but while this post tells you something about violin making, it also shows how different aspects of our lives can be seen metaphorically to apply to one’s whole philosophical approach to life. All things are connected in their way, and find resonance in unexpected places.

 

 

Pack a light heart – and travel positively

How do we stay positive when we travel? We’ve all been there. The flight gets cancelled, the accommodation is unavailable, the unexpected happens. We experience frustration – often magnified when we travel, perhaps compounded by language difficulties and cultural differences. What happens next is up to us.

Tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful

There is a saying I heard from fellow pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, along the lines of: “Tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful.” And I think that’s worth exploring a little further. For me, it relates to the idea of expectations. We anticipate our holiday, We see photos on Pinterest or Instagram of our desired destination, and we read the Trip Adviser reviews, that give our dream destination five stars. By the time we board our plane, train or bus, we have already travelled to our destination in our minds, we have pictured the perfect weather, the fantastic view from the hotel, and of course, we are in the pleasant company of young happy fellow tourists.

wine with baguette

With such expectations, we are rarely reaching into the unknown, and we pay good money to have a good time – hard earned by an exchange of time and effort out of our finite lives. So we feel entitled to have a good time, and we’ll stamp our feet if we don’t!

But the reality of our holiday might look a bit different. That beachfront hotel that looked idyllic until the tide came into the room (yes it happened). The quaint French hotel is being renovated around you (also happened), and the room looks out over the gas works (actually just a brick wall). Our fellow tourists raise a chorus of complaints as they realise that the place is just a bit more squalid than the brochures led us to believe.

Albergeue sign

With such thwarted expectations, our holiday seems doomed to failure. For this reason, the philosopher Alain de Botton advises that we might be better off if we were pessimists. That way, we won’t expect too much, and we’ll feel relieved that the experience was perhaps not so bad as it might have been. He argues that we should heed the call of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who suggests that we must keep in mind at all times the worst case scenario. Seneca warned that all versions of our experience are possible, and therefore we should not be surprised when our worst fears are fulfilled, as he says: “Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened?”

toxic air headline

But what if there was a more positive way to approach travel? The pilgrims I met on the Camino were not pessimists. Neither were they overly optimistic, but they were positive. What is it that was different among the pilgrims, as opposed to other travellers? Let’s return for a moment to the pilgrim saying – tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful. They trudge for days or weeks through mud and rough tracks, yet are still able to stand in awe of a medieval cathedral or a simple sunrise. What did I learn from being a pilgrim?

pilgrim sunrise

Firstly, while each is on a personal journey, they look out for others. It is not about ‘me’, it is about the journey we are all on. Secondly, although each has done their research, and seen the photos, and read the accounts of others’ journeys, it is without too many expectations. This is about mindfulness, experiencing that moment across each moment of each day. And remember, each day is its own journey. Pilgrims recognise that if their phone charger breaks, or the plumbing gives hot water from the cold tap and vice versa, all these are first-world problems. Pilgrims feel privileged to be on the journey. Being mindful means that you take things as you find them. Each day is different, and each day we are alive beats the alternative. It is about experiencing the strange, whether it is unfamiliar foods, or the struggle to communicate in a foreign language, or the daily battle with blisters or the weather. Each day brings a new joy, a new taste, a new connection with someone. Above all, a new focus for our attention.

Pack a light heart and the rest will follow

Another pilgrim saying is: “the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears”. I reckon that’s pretty well spot on. We try to anticipate everything that could go wrong, and pack accordingly. Often I went on business trips carrying a travel iron – just in case – but the reality is that hotels have irons, or you can use clothes that don’t require ironing, or you can improvise (hint: hang them in the bathroom while you shower, and roll rather than fold your clothes). The iron was a symbol of my fear.

These days, I try to sort those fears into first world problems and real problems. And I have halved the weight. I can travel for several days with just a carry-on bag. I plan clothing for layers, carry enough underwear for 3-4 days, a notebook, pen and minimal tech and travel docs. If I’m hosteling then a small travel towel goes in, and for weather, it’s a jacket and/or hat. Research the destination, and go. I’ve rarely missed something I’ve forgotten, and if I do, I try not to beat myself up over it – I can always buy another toothbrush!

St Martin in the Fields

You can be part of a virtuous circle.

It can seem natural to join in when someone complains, and in the process, it feels like you are being part of the tribe. You get validation, perhaps sympathy – especially if your story of woe can top that of the previous speaker. But consider for a moment, whether you want to remember that experience with such negativity, or perhaps there is a more positive way to see things – a different part of the experience on which to focus our attention.

Perhaps others try to put you down or better your epic survival story about the local sanitation, with a story with their own? The best response is to thank them and smile – often other people’s put-downs or one-downmanship are a sign of their own childish fear and insecurity and have nothing to do with your experience. They will quickly forget you, and you don’t need to carry their burden as your own. It is, after all, their monkey and theirs alone.

And if it’s a local having a bad day – perhaps they’ve seen one too many complaining tourist – and at the end of the day, I do get to go home, while the locals deal with x every day. I always try to remember that there is a lot to be grateful for – such as the privilege we have to travel, the privilege we have that we can choose to go home if we want to, or to find another place. Or even just hold that thought, and pause before stoking the fire of negativity. We don’t always have to be happy, but we can be positive. If we travel gratefully, like the pilgrims, and with a light heart, our own journey will be lighter – and our packs too!

Big Ben