Seeing your surroundings like a tourist

22 February 2016

Scene from a local walk

I’m big on reinvention. Accordingly, I’ve always been one of the people that uses new year as an opportune time to make a conscious decision about what in my life I want to change.

Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m one of those nerds that actually keeps (mostly) my new year resolutions.

This year I outdid myself by making eleven, which is extreme. I usually do well in keeping resolutions by focusing on one or two. But I felt I needed to get out of something of a rut, so I worked my way through what it would take.

And here we are approaching February, and there’s only one so far that I’m failing to build into my daily habits. Just one, but it’s a biggie. It’s to do something physical every single day.

I don’t need to rehearse why this is important. If you spend as much time in front of a computer as I do, you simply have to get your body doing something each day for the sake of your health and peace of mind.

When you first move into a place, you take the effort to go around, explore. But afterwards you stop.

I play tennis. Four times a week on average, so that’s not bad. But those other days.

What I really want to do is get back into walking. It’s something I was inspired to take up briefly some years ago, and it’s a habit I completely lost.

My dad used to go trekking around the world. It was what he lived for. He didn’t particularly love his job or anything like that. It was all about saving the money so that for one month in the year he would be in Nepal, or China, or Pakistan, or Peru and, latterly, in Australia.

He saw and did some amazing things, but would rarely talk about it. When I was a kid I would get him to show me all his slides (he took hundreds of photos each trip which he developed himself in a darkroom he’d built in the attic). Every five minutes he’d stop and ask if I was bored. He was so amazed that anyone but him would be interested!

My father taking photos on trek
The old man, doing what he loved to do best

When he died at the end of the last century, his travels provided something of a surprise to all the neighbours. Whenever he went away, he never told anyone where he really went. He used to say he was visiting someone. At his funeral, the priest started talking about all his travels to far off exotic locations – you could see a lot of very startled faces of all of those who’d known him!

I decided after his death that my tribute would be to follow in his footsteps, into the foothills and mountainous regions of Nepal and right out of my comfort zone.

It was my first sight of the most stunningly beautiful unspoilt landscapes of the world (unspoilt, but with a busy tourist trekking route through it, of course). My first sight of real poverty, particularly in some of the slums around Kathmandu. And while I was there, I was convinced this would become a new habit of mine. This would be something I would do. See the world. On foot. Close up.

I did manage Peru a couple of years later. But my then-wife had problems with one of her feet, which made long arduous treks a rather unfair proposition as a shared activity. And it just dropped as a habit.

Now I run a business that uses online technology. The holidays where I’m happiest are ones where I’m staying somewhere that has good broadband and I can spend a couple of hours in the morning getting something done. It’s just how I am. Sometimes you’ve got to just go with the flow.

Buddhist children in Kathmandu
From Kathmandu before the trek began

But it’s bonkers to let that stop me. After all, I live in a lovely part of Suffolk. There’s a pleasant walk that goes through local woodlands that starts right opposite my house. And there are plenty of other walks all over Suffolk and Norfolk. And I’m currently doing none of them.

Why? Because they’re right on my doorstep. It’s so close, it’s easy to take for granted.

We all do this up to a point, I think. When you first move into a place, you take the effort to go around, explore, find out what’s nearby and what’s worth seeing. You look at the place through the eyes of a tourist.

But after a while, you stop. You begin taking for granted the things that are nearby. You see them in passing but your head is so full of the day to day of modern life that you don’t actually experience them.

Or is it just me?

Walking locally is one of the best forms of exercise. It’s good for burning up calories.

But on top of that, it’s good for clearing your head, giving yourself space to think. It’s great from a sustainability point of view – a real low impact activity.

And maybe, just maybe, getting back in the habit of regular walking will provide a bridge back to trekking in more challenging and rewarding parts of the world once again. We live on a beautiful world. So long as it’s done with sensitivity to local impact, it’s a crime not to take the opportunity to see it and experience it. Only one life.

We are what we repeatedly do, as the saying goes. Breaking out of a rut starts with making something into a habit in the way that comes most easily, and then taking it a little further, and a little further.

So this post is my notice to myself – resolution number 11 is not being allowed to slip away unchallenged.