Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

Traveling in Slow Motion, Part 2

Interviews Insider Guides
by Sarah Menkedick Feb 5, 2009

[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our interview with Lara Lockwood and Tom Fewins, who are traveling the world in slow motion, without stepping onto airplanes. Read part 1 of the interview here, and find out more about their journey on their blog.]

BNT: What differences-other than the length of time traveling-do you see between this trip and other trips you have taken? How has going overland (or across the oceans) changed your perception of places, people, and the connections between them?

Tom contemplates the Pacific crossing

LL: By traveling over the earth’s surface you get a true idea of just what a huge place this world is. The distances in China and Russia, for example, are huge, and the Pacific is larger than the whole of the earth’s landmass put together. By crossing it in a boat you really get a sense of that.

As well as a sense of scale you also get more cultural insight. It is fascinating to see how one country turns into another.

Overland transport in Cambodia

Of course, some border crossings can show quite stark contrasts between countries (like between Thailand and Cambodia), but often countries really do merge into each other and you realise quite how fickle some borders are, often stemming from political necessity rather than reflect the ethnic makeup of the region they straddle.

The differences between the south of the [United] States and the north of Mexico are very blurred: The U.S. influence is strong in the north of Mexico and the Mexican influence is strong in the south of the U.S. Then there are some peoples for whom borders mean little, like the nomadic Hmong, who came from China and now live in northern Laos and Vietnam.

If you just dash between places in a plane boundaries are defined for you. It is much more interesting to see them for yourself and gives a much greater depth into the history. Unlike Tom, I’m not a great one for reading history, but seeing the differences and mergers between countries made me want to seek out more information and learn more.

You also get to go to some places that plane tourists would never see. Planes tend to take you from tourist centre to tourist centre, but by using the local transport you can get to some really far out places. Like the south of China and the north of Laos.

Chinese alternative to strollers.

It’s about as wild as it gets, and looking through the bus window as we bounced along a tiny dusty road for hour after hour, crossing from China into northern Laos I saw how totally different people’s lives are compared to mine – it fills me with awe.

BNT: Can you identify any insights or realizations made possible by choosing to travel this way? Things that plane travelers miss, and that you feel are crucial, or at least helpful, to understanding particular places?

LL: I have definitely gained a greater understanding of the places I have traveled through. When you have a few days on a train cooped together with the locals you can’t help but become curious about each other and start a conversation, even when you don’t speak the language.

Like in Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, people kept popping into our berth to say hello. It transpired that most of the men worked for the armed forces in some capacity. What with seeing their photos and videos of bomber planes and the like and watching the wagons of military machines go past in the opposite direction on the railway, I could see what an enormous military power Russia is, and was scared. I’m not sure I would have found that out if we’d traveled by plane from one side to the other.

The long journeys really are like living in the same house as the locals. You get to know their daily patterns – when they get up, what they eat, what they drink and other bizarre habits.

Like on the ferry from Japan to China. The Chinese passengers would always get up a couple of hours before everyone else and do their laundry (it was a two night crossing so why they had to do so much washing remains a mystery), they would be the first to all meals, wolfing it down in ten minutes and moving on, and they were so noisy! If you traveled on a plane you would be fed the same food at the same time and there would be no chance to wash your dirty pants! It was a great insight into the country that we were about to arrive in.

There are other side-benefits too. For example, we haven’t been as ill as we have been on other trips abroad to exotic places. I think this must be in part due to our bodies becoming more gradually used to local bacteria as we travel slowly, as well as being damn lucky!

Traveling by boat was also a great time to recoup. Traveling takes it out of you and after five months I really welcomed having two weeks to sort myself out: To eat regular meals, exercise daily and wash everything in and including my rucksack inside and out.

You rarely take time to stop and do nothing when traveling, so it was a blessing to have that enforced upon us on the ship.

BNT: What sorts of reactions have you received when you say, “We’re traveling around the world without flying.”? Do you see any marked differences between the way people react in different countries?

LL: Most people say “Wow” and are really interested, especially in how we cross the oceans. Lots of people do some of their trip overland, between countries, and enjoy it, and often say how next time they’d like to do a trip like ours.

The differences in reactions between countries: In Europe people weren’t that fazed, partly because it was the beginning of our trip, but also because traveling around by public transport is so easy there. Also in Russia people weren’t so impressed because there a lot of people who travel across the length of the country on the Trans-Siberian Railway, so eight days on a train aren‘t a big deal.

The Japanese, being an island nation, seemed a little confused as to how we had arrived and were surprised to know about the ferry between their country and Russia, but the slow boat to China is pretty well established (although most can afford the more expensive option of flying, and do).

In poorer countries like China and Mexico the reactions have been mixed. Some wonder why we are taking the slow route (by train or bus) when we could afford to fly, and others aren’t surprised at all because using public transport to cover big distances is quite normal to them.

Climate change also isn’t high on the agenda in many of the countries we’ve been to (e.g. Cambodia, Guatemala), so the environmental reasons for traveling as we do don’t translate.

In richer countries like the States and Japan people did seem more confused as to why we don’t fly when we can afford to. Using public transport in the States has a real social stigma attached; the attitude is that only poor people take the bus.

Tom taking his morning tea.

Others can see the potential for adventure it offers and some have been so interested in our trip that they have offered to give us lifts and beds just to be a part of it.

The further we get into the journey, the more impressed people are. Now that we are in the Americas, people are intrigued to know how we got here from England without flying and are amazed when we mention that we came the long way round across Asia and the Pacific. The Pacific crossing seems to spark people’s imaginations the most.

We’ve also had a lot of interest in our blog from people we’ve met along the way. They’ve been able to look up what we’re doing and some have even used it for information for their own trip.

BNT: It is evident… that both of you are interested in sustainable development and environmental causes. How do you feel travel can aide these causes? What do you identify as the benefits and the risks of this huge boom in travel in the past several decades?

LL: Travel makes a massive contribution to carbon emissions and tourism can be very harmful to the environment. However, it’s human nature to wander and people aren’t going to stop traveling.

We want to show how you can travel lightly, in a way that minimises environmental damage (by taking less carbon intensive modes of travel, refilling water bottles, etc.) and contributes to the local communities and economies.

There is no doubt that tourism is good for the economy. Talking to locals….they all acknowledge the money and jobs it generates, which helps improve the standard of living…. The important thing is to be able to contribute in this way without causing environmental damage.

The local economy in Guatemala

We have seen some very good examples of tourism done well, like in Laos, where the tourist industry is in its early days and is being developed with [sustainability] in mind. Tourism can also help preserve natural environments. For example, on the Mexican Pacific Coast parts of the mangrove swamps are being preserved as a tourist attraction instead of being destroyed to make way for a shrimp farm.

You can also use your time as a traveler to contribute to the country you are visiting by volunteering. We’ve done this in a few places – be it talking to Chinese students in their ‘English Corner’ or building a path around a lake in Siberia – you get so much more out of the country and give something back as well.

There are of course risks to poorly planned tourism booms. We’ve heard how other mangrove swamps in Mexico have been destroyed to make way for hotels, how sex tourists come to Cambodia to take advantage of the poor and have seen great swathes of land being concreted over to accommodate more tourist facilities.

Even when we were building the Great Baikal Trail around Lake Baikal in Siberia I did at times wonder whether opening up the lake and promoting ‘ecotourism’ is a good thing, as the Russians who came to use the path, camp and enjoy the lake left behind huge piles of rubbish.

So even if the intentions are good, if the culture of the country is not mindful of the environment it can cause problems.

“Ecotourism” seems to be a massively abused word worldwide with no guarantee that an eco-hotel or ecotourism tour is any better than a standard one. So really it is up to the individual traveler to make sure that the journey they take and the decisions they make not only enhance the adventure and fun, but also benefit the locals and don’t inadvertently harm the environment.

BNT: What are your goals during and after this trip?

LL: Goals during the trip: To be nosy really. To have a look at how other people live their lives, eat different foods, gain conclusive evidence that English beer is the best and spend time on a paradise beach.

I also wanted to prove that you can travel lightly and have a good time. I’ve also been interested to see what’s happening across the world in terms of climate change, in actual climatic changes and people’s attitudes to tackling it. The blog has also been an ongoing goal, and has really helped focus my mind on what’s happening around me.

My goals after the trip – to publish a book about our adventures and demonstrate how you can travel around the world without such negative environmental consequences. It would be great if, as a result, some people were inspired to take the train instead of the plane on some of their journeys. I’d also like to try and grow an avocado tree.

TF: Back home, I seem to have an [voracious] appetite for books, magazines and television programmes about the various peoples and places of this planet and I’m always itching to get out there and meet them. I love to learn about other people’s lives and cultures, and perhaps also tell them a bit about my own.

I also fully believe the world’s problems cannot be resolved without education and the best way of doing this is to go out there and learn for yourself. Perhaps we’ve given some people a different perspective on things (we’ve met some people with incredibly misinformed views of the world/the UK) and likewise, it’s helped me to understand the mentality behind counties such as China and Russia.

We’ve made friends all along the way and these will be people we hope to stay in contact with, and perhaps see, in the UK or abroad, in the future.

Yes, the book is the big, immediate goal once we get home. We also got engaged, as I mentioned earlier, so there will be wedding bells next year.

A friend back home, on telling him about our trip, said to me: “Traveling? Haven’t you grown out of that?”. Likewise, my parents are hoping that this trip will slake my wanderlust and salve my itchy feet. I think they’re going to be disappointed.

Lara’s always accusing me of planning the next trip whilst not paying enough attention to the current one. I disagree, but I am harbouring ambitions to visit the Middle East – an area which has always fascinated me – so why not a smaller circumnavigation – of the Mediterranean? We’ll wait and see…

BNT: Any parting thoughts/insights/memories you’d like to share?

TF: Can I quote the world’s wisest teenager, Ferris Bueller?

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

From a long, long list, highlights I have to include:

Russia: Encounters with drunken Russian soldiers on the Trans-Siberian railway and discussing the finer points of Russia-West relations with airforce pilots using a picture book and hand gestures; taking a naked dip after a long hot day’s work in the chilly waters of Lake Baikal, whilst the sun sinks over the horizon and the moon and Venus come out to greet us.

Japan: Pruning large branches off trees with a rusty saw from the precarious platform of a tractor bucket; soaking in steaming hot onsen hot baths fed by volcanic waters in Hokkaido; meeting the many bizarre, eccentric folk of Tokyo and witnessing the phenomenon of the ‘salary man’, the motor of the Japanese economy; visiting Hiroshima, site of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack.

China: Staying in a traditional old hutong neighbourhood, cycling around the tiny streets, visiting markets and eating steamed dumplings.

Laos: Driving an elephant across a river, perched atop its neck, and visiting the phenomenal falls springing up from underground in the jungle during the rainy season.

Thailand: Spotting Giant Hornbills in a national park and hearing the incredible rush of their wing feathers as they flew over.

Cambodia: Coming face-to-face with, er, the faces at the famous temple of the Bayon.

Pacific crossing: The entire voyage, the sense of immensity, the sunrises and sunsets, the whales and flying fish, the companionship of the Filipino crew, learning about navigation, international trade and the utterly different living people make at sea, and witnessing the changing shifts in economic power in the world as we visited Chinese and American ports.

USA: Staying in Liz Taylor’s old house in Hollywood, having fun with five young chaps who’d left Chicago/Des Moines to come and ‘make it in the movies’; hitching rides across the spectacular, lonely scenery of southern California, Arizona and New .

Mexico: Spending Christmas with a Mexican family and 30 of their relatives, smashing piñatas and taking part in a traditional celebration.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION: For tips on planning a round-the-world journey by land and water, check out Lara’s and Tom’s tips here.

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