As I like to travel around a bit in my free time, I felt that I couldn’t skip today’s prompt here on WordPress. A prompt about modes of transportation. I like it.
The easy answer to this one would be ‘it depends’, because of course it does. Going cross-country in the Netherlands is a bit different from doing the same thing in China. Although as an ecologist I can write volumes about ‘it depends‘ it usually doesn’t make an interesting blog post. Or does it? We’ll see.
Pre-covid – and I guess pre-kids, but these two sort of coincided – I used to travel a lot to far destinations. Like, quite a lot. I sort of needed that regular break from it all, in order to maintain my sanity. I was pursuing my doctoral degree, and this was a time in my life that could be particularly stressful at times. However, I was in an institute with a pretty amazing vacation policy. Basically, I would get 28 days off every year, and I had a 38-hour contract. However, one of their cool feats was that you could also work 40-hour weeks, and basically add twelve days off to make it a total of 40 days off. Having 40 days per year to spend is pretty sweet. It meant I could take a full month off, twice a year. And I did!
My first year as a PhD I started just after a six-week cycling trip from Bordeaux to Santiago de Compostella, then south to Porto, Lisbon and Faro. After I started this new position, in my first year I visited Oman, and then later China. In my second year, I traveled to Peru, Iceland, and Italy. In my third year, I flew to Mexico and Belize. My fourth and last year I flew to Scotland, and also traveled through Austria and France. These were roughly eight months of travel in four years. On top of that I have traveled to ecological conferences in the US, Belgium, Malta, Italy, and Greece. I had a job interview trip to Sweden as well. I traveled a lot.
All these trips included a fuckload of flying. Oddly enough, I was never very aware (or just willfully ignorant) of the environmental problems inherently associated with it. Particularly the flying for three to five days for conferences, in hindsight, was a bit ridiculous. Flying to Stockholm and back within 24 hours felt a bit silly as well. My last flight was that flight to Stockholm, in June 2019. I haven’t used a plane since. The main reason obviously was, and actually still is covid. I have no desire to spend many hours with 300 people in a plane. However, over the past three years I have also grown increasingly self-critical on my flying behavior. I love flying. The idea that a jet engine and wings of a certain shape placed at a certain angle will generate enough lift to make a jumbo jet take off is simply something I find impossible to believe. But it works, and it is an amazing concept. I love being inside planes. I love the excitement of take-off and landing. I also embraced the whole process of check-in and security checks, waiting at the gate, Airport life. Most of all, of course, I loved the final destination. But it isn’t always a good thing. People fly too often and too much. And as the above description makes abundantly clear. I’ve been very guilty of this. The carbon footprint associated with flying is too big to justify the majority of flights, in my view. These days, I would avoid flying where I can. Some places are hard to reach with alternatives. Sometimes they are, but it will take you six weeks. I would sort of weigh these things in my choices from here on onward.
So when going cross-country, it is something to consider. Which transportation to use then? Some places can be traveled to over land in a pretty efficient way by train or bus, and I think these are worthy alternatives to consider. And it is a pretty awesome way to see a lot. I usually only take the plane to get me to a far destination, and once there, I take local and ideally the most basic transportation. You only experience local cultures for real if you take a economy-class train ride through the country. We crossed the Andes by bus, which sounded great in theory (but somehow made my wife feel very unpleasant). We traveled through southeast Asia for four and a half months using only bus and train. This was a cool thing to do. I loved seeing everything around. You certainly miss most of those things if you take a flight. In 2016, we took a train ride from Kunming to Lijiang in China. An eight-hour trip. What made it interesting was that it was during the national holiday in October. This means mass-migration of the entire Chinese population to wherever they decide to celebrate. Sitting on two fold-down seats in the aisle of a sleeper wagon, which was absolutely packed with standing people, and in which absolutely no one was sleeping, was an experience I will not easily forget. A positive experience though. I loved it!
In the past three years, I haven’t traveled much by train or bus either. Covid scares me. I am drained and destroyed every day after work, and the chance of a covid infection making that worse than it already is is not among the things I aspire to. It is a shame, because I love the mode of transportation, and I would love to show my kids the country (or other countries) by train. It’s lovely. Instead, we bought ourselves a campervan. A tiny Ford Nugget van, in which we now spend most of our family travel days. We usually stay pretty close to home, but for longer trips, we sometimes travel to Croatia or Italy. I also use our van a lot for travel to work-related places, like conferences. It gives me the opportunity to travel whenever I want, and park wherever I want, so I have the freedom to eat and sleep following my rules, and not some transportation provider. I love the travel with our van, and there is a pretty huge network of places you can stay cheaply or freely. We have encountered some real gems, and if that becomes your guide, you always end up in places where you would otherwise not have come. I think that is pretty cool. There is a dark side to it, too. Locals, wherever you are, are not very fond of camper folk. And rightfully so. There is some despicable behaviour going on, ranging from installing full garden equipment all around a triple parked truck palace, to taking a shit in people’s private properties. You see some weird stuff. Best to avoid a certain type of camper crowd. But it is a nice way to go around, also across the country.
Lastly, one of my fav modes of transportation to get around through new places, is by bike. There’s something about the pace of biking that makes it perfect; you see everything in great detail, it’s easy to make a quick stop to look at stuff, people will talk to you, and yet you make some level of distance progress that is hard to reach on foot. In 2014, my wife and I bought our two Koga Randonneur bikes, which we wanted to cycle to as many places as possible with. We have made a couple of long-distance bike trips, but we also keep making life choices that mess things up in good ways (PhD, kids, demanding jobs), but limit us on these bike trips. I love bike trips. Don’t get me wrong. I’m lazy as fuck, and I would rather take the car to work (but I usually don’t). I don’t necessarily like the act of biking as a regular activity. It’s something else about it that I find deeply inspiring. Just using your own physical strength to get yourself and all your necessary equipment from A to B on a bike is something I find very cool. When you sit on the bike for eight hours for five days in a row, your ass hurts like mad, but at the same time you feel fitter than ever. It’s an amazing thing. A great side effect to biking is that somehow in most countries that are not the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany, people are deeply impressed by it. By moving yourself and all you need to sustain yourself on a trip on two bikes commands respect. I don’t know why, but it does. You get the best conversations, the nicest camping spots, and for some reason free food offers everywhere. Biking from Sofia, Bulgaria to Athens, Greece in August 2014 definitely led to many frowns along the road. The conditions were harsh, but the trip was also insanely beautiful and peaceful. Climbing the mountain ridge that surrounds Volos, Greece in 40 degrees centigrade blistering fucking heat really made me experience the limits of my physical abilities. It was my 28th birthday that day, and I remember thinking that I was ‘getting too old for this shit‘. I also remember the taste of the cold coke in the mountain-top village. The downhill into the coastal city was amazing and long. Forty degrees and a breeze is so much better than forty degrees and overheating your body, I can tell you that. But you forget everything immediately. The bike trip that we did the year after, cycling the Camino Atlantico was even better. Gallicia, Asturias and Basque Country are simply amazing. And the food is incredible. And the wine. Oh, and the Atlantic temperatures are much, much better to cycle in, even in August or September. That was a good trip. Reaching Santiago de Compostella felt good. We are not religious in any way, but the trip to me felt oddly spiritual. Unfortunately, we have had to leave the bikes gather some dust, but on our upcoming trip around Easter, we have decided to bring our bikes, so that we can take the kids for a ride, at least for a day.
So, back to the prompt of the day. Which mode of transportation for a cross-country trip? It really does depend. But if I would have the luxury of time, I would take the bike. The painful buttocks are more than worth it!
4 thoughts on “I’m Dutch – what else would you expect?”
It’s so hard for me to read your posts half the time because I get so jealous of how much you’ve travelled! 😂 I’m kidding – but seriously, it is incredible to hear about how much you’ve seen. I love your perspective on modes of transport and I totally agree on biking! My friend and I spent a day biking all around Barra and Vatersay when we went to the Outer Hebrides and it was awesome.
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I had not seen any country other than my home country the Netherlands, and a little Germany and Belgium (only brief shopping across border visits) until I was 23. I had some catching up to do. I’m privileged to see what I see and have seen. Too often I forget that. Thanks for reminding me. Biking the Hebrides sounds pretty good though!
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Your thoughts on flying are so similar to mine. I used to love it and now I feel guilty. I like the idea of traveling by bike, maybe when my kids are bigger we could so that – if I’m not too old by then! A decade ago, on a long trip to Argentina, we rented bikes there a few times and rode in the mountains and in a desert-like terrain. Fun memories. Too bad they have to be in the past!
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It’s always one of my fears: what if I’m too old by then. Luckily, I’ve met people in their late seventies traveling Asia on a tandem bike. And very awesome sixty-some year-olds riding the globe as they had done since their kids were young. I think staying fit enough and open minded enough to do it, is partly a choice. You can do things at lower pace (but I typically don’t have low gears).
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