Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022

Our Man In Europe On The Importance Of Slow Travel

Journeys carry within them the potential to transform – especially the slower journeys taken in buses and trains

A train in the Malmo Central Station
A train in the Malmo Central Station BLAZE Pro / Shutterstock

I am writing this column while sitting in a train – a train that will cover the distance between Malmo, where I live, and Stockholm, the Swedish capital, in approximately four hours. This is a train that runs fast, and I have boarded it after many years, swapping it with the option of taking a flight. A flight would have been faster, even cheaper, but its hyper-efficient process would have robbed me of the opportunity to study the Swedish countryside.

Even this fast train gave me the opportunity to slow down and reflect on how I travel.

While I sit writing, the landscape outside the large panelled windows evolves. The metamorphosis is gradual. What starts as the bright, gold mustard fields of the south transforms into birch forests, the branches of the trees slowly beginning to gather colours of the spring – the reds and violets amidst the greens. The landscape otherwise is even, for Sweden is primarily a flat country.

The train, though fully packed, is eerily quiet, letting me the peace that I need to observe and reflect. Around me, everyone is busy with their own journeys – some are bent over their phones, catching up on social media posts or listening to music. Others are nestled deeply in their books, while the remaining few are napping. Even those who are eating are doing so without making noise. Even the puppies, travelling alongside their owners, keep themselves from barking. This quietness, underlined by the gentle hum of the running train, is all there is for noise.

While I sit and look outside, I remember the train journeys I had once taken as a child. These journeys were an event in themselves, with my mother preparing for them days in advance. I would pack my comics collection, for we would have hours to read through them, with no technology to distract us. Now, I am carrying my books, but invariably, my hand reaches out to the phone whenever a slight sense of boredom sets in. What a loss that is – I admonish myself as I check my phone for the umpteenth time. I look out of the window again, to the green fields punctuated with log huts painted bright red. Someone lives in this Swedish wilderness, I tell myself. I try to imagine their life – so far away from the distractions of city life. Wasn’t that the life I had always wanted – away from the city, living in the solace of the forest? When did I let go of that dream?

Well, I grew up. Unreasonable dreams, like that of living by myself in the far-off countryside, were shelved for pursuing a career. Practicalities took precedence, running over dreams, softly crushing them underneath.

Had I taken a flight, I would have noticed the white clouds outside, and the cities below would have looked like specks of dust. There would have been a distance from the scenery, sitting in the air-pressurised cabin. In the train, though, the countryside unrolled gracefully and gently. The world outside the large windows was a familiar one, and as it unfurled, so did my memories and dreams connected with them.

A ‘slow’ train journey between Malmo and Stockholm
A ‘slow’ train journey between Malmo and Stockholm Illustration by Nitin Chaudhary

I had long associated travelling with reaching. The destination was the end point, never mind the amount of travelling needed to reach it. In fact, reduce the burden of travelling, and make it as efficient as possible so that I can reach my destination faster. However, in doing so, I had forgotten that even the journeys carry within them the potential to transform – especially the slower journeys taken in buses and trains. A road trip is an alternative. However, the constant engagement that driving requires allows little opportunity to let the mind wander.

A resolution begins to take shape in my mind as the train rolls into Stockholm. Going forward, instead of mindlessly hopping from one city to another, I will consciously slow down. One way to do so may be to take slower means to the destination, allowing myself to experience the journey at least as much as the destination itself. And, what better means could there be than taking a train, sitting next to the window, watching the landscape transmute outside to the gentle whirr of the train?