“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mahatma Gandhi
In 2007 Ed Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona set out on a remarkable adventure. They wanted to travel around the world without using airplanes, relying instead on alternative forms of transportation such as trains, cargo ships, ferries, buses, hitchhiking, and bicycles. For thirteen months, they traveled almost non-stop, tracing a route across Russia and Mongolia, down through Asia into Australia and New Zealand, across the Pacific to Mexico and Central America, and then back home to London, England.
Seven years later, in appropriately slow fashion, Gillespie has written a 300-page book about the trip called “Only Planet: A flight-free adventure around the world.” It’s a wonderful read that provides not only humorous cross-cultural encounters and descriptions of stunning geography, but also a passionate conversation about climate change, both from Gillespie’s perspective, as he moves slowly around the globe, and from the perspectives of the individuals he meets along the way.
“How could we see the world without disproportionately contributing to climate change in the process?”
This question becomes the central focus of Gillespie’s journey, and it quickly becomes clear while reading that the purpose of his unusual trip is more than just a whim to do things differently. Gillespie, who works as a business sustainability consultant and trained in marine biology, deliberately sets out to prove that humans don’t have to (and should not) travel the way they currently do. He digs deeply into the differences between travel, tourism, and transit, portraying the world “in all its down-and-dirty glory” and making slow travel seem like the coolest thing on earth.
For someone like me, whose love of travel rivals all else, Gillespie’s tale is inspiring and revelatory. For example, I discovered the previously unknown world of cargo ship cruising. I’ve always wanted to cross an ocean on a ship, but had resigned myself to never doing it, since I wouldn’t set foot on a cruise ship. At the same time, however, Gillespie warns of the impending closures and limitations placed on these alternative forms of transportation, since they cannot compete with cheap, fast airfares, and most travellers are uninterested in ‘slow’ travel.
It’s a pity that humans are so averse to slowing down. Despite the global connections that flights have forged, there are many things lost in the process. Interestingly, Gillespie argues that flight actually reinforces the cultural misunderstandings that it claims to knock down:
“Mark Twain noted, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ Yet how much of modern travel enables such deeper connections and understandings to emerge? In some ways the swift, almost brutal discombobulating experience of flight that whisks you from the cool, grey urbanity of London’s Heathrow to hot, steamy, frenzied Chatrapathi Shivaji airport in Mumbai actually serves to reinforce perceived barriers and divides, confronting us joltingly and jarringly with our differences.”