Digital detox, savouring silence: How to escape the crowds when travelling

I'm halfway to Kathmandu when it hits me. Listening to metal chair legs scrape on the tiled floor of the food court in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, babies screaming and several Russians deep in vigorous conversation, I get a sudden urge to abandon my journey, crash through the floor-to-ceiling windows and trade places with the gardener calmly watering the grass and the plants outside. 

Of course, being Bangkok, it's probably no quieter out there than in here. And airports aren't the reason we travel. They're on-the-way places that force us to hold our breaths and amuse ourselves until we're somewhere real again. But the experience starts me thinking about something I've often overlooked or, more precisely, underheard: the joy of quiet travel.

You won't find me running with the bulls in Pamplona, clinking steins full of beer at Oktoberfest or watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve. If I had a bucket list, Rio's Carnival wouldn't be on it. Nor would any of Thailand's full-moon parties, or that festival in Spain where people throw tomatoes at each other

Cities have their charms, but I've always felt drawn to wide, open landscapes far from Thomas Hardy's "madding crowds". I don't mean to be misanthropic; in fact, travelling to these empty quarters, getting away from our fellow humans now and then, can make us kinder when we return. It can also develop other, undervalued qualities such as patience, fortitude and modesty. Standing on a ridge high in the Himalayas, surrounded by 8000-metre peaks that seem close enough to touch, for instance, you can relax into insignificance. Give me Mongolia over Manhattan any day.

Besides, some of travel's most splendid moments happen in near-silence, or at least without a man-made soundtrack. 

There was no fanfare when a glacier calved before my wide-open eyes while I was sea kayaking in the Canadian Arctic, just the gunshot-like cracks of ice under pressure and the urgent commands of our guide telling us, Bear Grylls-style, to paddle away, fast. Bergs that had seemed immovable islands moments before, started bobbing like bath toys in the waves emanating from the crash zone. We retreated to a safe distance, then turned back to see the fallen chunk of ice start to roll. It was like watching a five-storey building do a slow somersault. I still wonder how something so incredible could be so devoid of sound.

Now that I think of it, my travel dance-card has been full of quiet moments. Star-gazing from a swag in the Flinders Ranges, hushed by the reminder of infinite time and space around our planet. Stopping to get a fleece out of my pack while trekking in remote Mustang, in northern Nepal, and finding myself suddenly, totally alone, engulfed in silence, my fellow trekkers having temporarily ambled on. Waiting for sunrise to light up Uluru with hundreds of other tourists sitting quietly in folding chairs or standing in reverent silence, all of us humbled by sacred stone and limitless sky.

And how often do we describe memorable moments by saying they rendered us "speechless" and "lost for words"? I'm all for reviving the art of silent appreciation. Why hoot and holler when you can stand and stare? Useful as they are, words can reduce powerful moments to human dimensions. 

"Speak only if it improves upon the silence," implored Gandhi. To be fair, English poet-philosopher Coleridge maintained that "silence does not always mark wisdom." But, as Dr Seuss might say, even a well-meaning "Wow" can take you away from the here and the now. Why not save the exclamations for later, when you can use them to embellish the tale you'll tell friends who weren't there?

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Noise can be exciting and energising, make us feel we're where the action is. But when it's living up to its proper definition as "unwanted sound" – cue barking dogs and aircraft noise – it can be nerve-jangling and distracting. Quiet, on the other hand, helps us relax, reflect and reconnect with each other and our surroundings or, when wearing earphones not to listen but to not be disturbed, cocoons us in our own private Idahos.

Ever travelled with a big personality? Someone who arrives at the departure gate bearing armfuls of anecdotes, one for every occasion and location, and never tires of talking, telling, out-loud observing? Lively travel companion or insufferable bore, you be the judge. Either way, they can get in the way of seeing the world as it is. 

Travelling quietly, by contrast, can take you down a seldom-walked path to the essence of a place or a people so that they may affect you, instead of the other way around. 

Some people are more at ease with silence, it's true. In her best-selling book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking, Susan Cain asserts that a third to half of all Americans are introverts and the numbers are surely higher in other countries that don't value the extrovert Ideal, as she calls it. (Being an introvert doesn't mean you're shy or antisocial, by the way, just that you recharge in solitude and silence – unlike extroverts, who are energised by socialising.) 

"We are in the early stages of a Quiet Revolution, analogous to the early stages of the women's movement," Cain told the Chicago Tribune recently. "Change will come slowly, but change will come everywhere." Even to travel. 

While half the world seeks hotels with free Wi-Fi, the other half wants to digital-detox at "black-hole resorts" or, say, Lord Howe Island which offers, in addition to its twin peaks, turquoise lagoon and bike-friendly roads, an absence of Wi-Fi, television and mobile reception (though newspapers are delivered by the daily Qantaslink flights from Sydney). 

Sure, quiet travel has its downsides. It can be lonely, when all around you seethes with sound, particularly other people's conversations and choices of music. It can make sense, then, to avoid losing yourself in the crowd, to join in the cacophony and "sound off like you've got a pair" (to quote drill Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket). I speak, therefore I am.

And there is quiet that can make us uneasy. Walking alone down a deserted lane in a strange city, at night, the sound of your own footsteps echoing against high brick walls, you can start to feel… Until you emerge at a fairy-lit cobbled square where people are talking, dining and drinking at tables in the street. Sound is safety, sometimes.

You might think quiet travel is a privilege, the first-class domain of high-end, noise-cancelled travellers who can afford to glide between airport lounges and luxury resorts where staff speak in smiles, lest they disturb the rarified air. Perhaps you equate quiet with being passive, stillness with dullness. 

But quiet doesn't have to be expensive, or boring. Some of travel's most exciting experiences can be the quietest, particularly those that happen underground or underwater. 

One of the best outdoor adventures I've had – abseiling 100 metres into the Lost World cave system in New Zealand's North Island with two friends, all of us kitted out in overalls, gumboots and helmets with head torches – was silent but for the rush of water at our feet. 

 Be quiet on safari and you see, hear and learn a whole lot more than you would otherwise. I'll never forget sitting in an open-sided, roofless Land Rover not two metres from a pride of 14 lions at sunset in South Africa's Sabi Sands Game Reserve, scared to even exhale, let alone speak, in case I dropped a camera lens into the tousled mane of the nearest male. Dad was sitting beside me; I squeezed his hand, he squeezed back and smiled, a wordless yet eloquent conversation. A silent high point in 40-plus years of father-daughter relations. 

Where are the quietest places on Earth? You've got two options. Go where there are few people. Montana, Madagascar, the icy poles, north and south. Any desert, most oceans, the former preferably by camel rather than jeep, the latter on a small expedition vessel (the fewer passengers, the better) that will immerse you in the immensity beyond the safety rails.

But mankind gets a bum wrap sometimes. The second option is to visit countries where the people are known for being quiet (beware: racial stereotypes ahead), avoiding their largest cities if you can. Finland is said to be the most introverted, and therefore quietest, country in the world. Japanese people are known for their sensitivity and consideration. In Buddhist Bhutan, it's customary to add a gentle honorific "la" to the ends of sentences, as in, "Good morning, la". And, contrary to the travel warnings, you can find kind strangers almost anywhere.

My love of quiet finally found its match in Norway recently. I spent two weeks alone in a cabin in the woods south of Oslo. It was the epitome of quiet travel. There was no electricity, no running water, let alone Wi-Fi or phone reception. I chopped wood to make a fire to cook and boil water, carried water from the lake, a one-kilometre walk away. I spent the long summer days – it didn't get dark until 11.30pm – walking in the forest and swimming in the mirror-smooth lake. There was unlimited, uninterrupted time to read, write and do nothing but listen and look at the birds and the trees. I didn't once feel lonely. I can't remember ever feeling so content.

Maybe that's the ultimate relief and reward of quiet travel: that it lets our senses rest and the world settle itself so that we might better understand our place in it, where we belong, without our noise-making vehicles, devices, machines and minds. Who are we? Where are we going? Quiet travel promises answers, if only by reminding us where we come from – a time when we, and the world, moved more quietly.

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