Active and Passive travelling

If conventional travel isn’t satisfying your need to see and experience other people and places, it may be time for a more ‘active’ approach

In my early 20s, like many from my generation, I hitchhiked across Canada. Though as a child I had taken plenty of road trips with my family, they were to familiar places; I itched to see something new. Hitchhiking, whatever they say, has risks. Those risks themselves are different depending on who, and where, you are. Certain types of travellers will get different kinds of rides from others, and some will catch their rides in no time while others will wait for several hours.

There is no mystery to this, either. Solo women on the side of the road get picked up faster than single men. Beards, dogs, walking sticks, amongst other things, all affect your chances. Two men hitchhiking together could prompt an awful lot of waiting, while two women might get more frequent lifts. Of course, we all need to play it safe, but there are predators who target women specifically – in Canada most notably in British Columbia (home of the so-called “highway of tears” that runs from Jasper up to Prince Rupert). A couple is said to be the ideal combination, but as with all things, it really depends.

These days I rarely hitchhike as my preferred mode of travel is by train. And hitching is tiring, often wet, and unpredictable. But unpredictable is what I like, and why I have decided to write this. The theme of this series is how to safely travel in an “active”, unpredictable mode. Travelling “actively” brings you to a place where magic can truly happen. I have many stories.

About a week after I turned 30 I went to Europe for the first time. I travelled by train from city to city, trying out the hostels and seeing the grand cities of Paris, London, Prague, and Budapest. It was thrilling to see it all. I took in about 50 shows in 30 days, from Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam, to Eloize’s Rain, the National Hungarian Circus, magicians Jeff MacBride, Max Maxen, and Michael Ammar, not to mention loads of street theatre, puppet shows, and other events. It was a feast. I felt strange, though. I was alone almost the entire trip, and in each place I went my only point of access to my surroundings was mediated through a hostel or tourism centre. Designated “locals” gave me a tired welcome routine they didn’t seem to believe themselves and my only company was usually the Canadian, American or Australian travellers I would run into in the hostel pubs. It was travel but, with a few exceptions, it was not adventure. It was passive. It would be wrong to say it was boring because it was not. But it also wasn’t ecstatic, thrilling, and mysterious like I remembered hitchhiking to be.

Time for a change

So I began to travel a little differently. I decided to roam with a tent across Northern Scotland on a private adventure to seek out my family roots. I was looking for chance encounters, folklore and faery tales in and amongst the old hills and stone rings. I climbed through dolmens and walked around circular alignments, travelling alone in my own mythic world.

I had heard about a tree called the Fortingall Yew. This tree was said to be 5,000 years old and could be found in a small town near the geographical centre of Scotland. I took the train down from Orkney, where I had been rambling, and stopped in the town of Pitlochry. From there I took a local bus to a place called Aberfeldy. That is when I was struck by the lightning of magic once again. I waited for the bus to Fortingall and, when it came, it was short and stubby like a van. There was a fat Buddha on the dashboard and the driver had waist length dreadlocks. I felt a bit like I was stepping into a Simpsons episode.

The Fortingall Yew
“Despite its unassuming character though, the tree must have had some strong magic about it, because by going to visit it I set into motion a chain reaction.” Photo by Rowan Ramsay,

I asked how much it would be, and the driver just scoffed me off: “Ah, get me later,” he said, casually. I told him I was going to Fortingall and he replied, “Sure, no problem, I just need to pick up my girlfriend.” So he stopped by his house and picked up his girlfriend and his dog, and they all piled into the bus (which was festooned with Tibetan prayer flags). They told me about how it was their one-year anniversary, from when she got on the bus a year ago. Well, that was a decent tale, so I shared mine: I was venturing around the highlands, talking to Faeries and having invisible adventures at the ancient sites. Not something that usually gets spilled in polite company, but what can I say, it was one of those trips. Magic is, after all, wherever the imagination is, but I will say this: real magic has less to do with place and much more to do with people.

So Dave took me to the tree, and also offered me a lift to Edinburgh the next day. The tree is not what you’d think. Small, weathered, even a bit grumpy. Hidden behind a fence to prevent people from chipping off its bark, it sort of sat there quietly, being extraordinary and mundane at the same time. Fortingall. Who knew? According to Dave, neither the plague nor the Romans ever got further than Fortingall. Despite its unassuming character though, the tree must have had some strong magic about it, because by going to visit it I set into motion a chain reaction.

Spontaneity, magic, and skills

Dave ferried me early the next day to Edinburgh where he passed me off to a fellow magician, Rowan, who put me up that night. We discussed “invisibility” and the art of walking without gathering notice. Together we strolled through the packed streets of the city during the height of the famous Fringe Festival, discussing everything from travel to magic to philosophy. We were invisible, gathering no notice from the crowds, like we were in little bubbles that diffracted attention around us. A most memorable night, and a friendship that has lasted since. This is just one small example. From it so many strange and wild connections developed that, since that trip, I rarely stay in hostels anymore. Instead, I use lines of communication, friends of friends, and, travelling from house to house, meeting people who know the customs, the people, the history of the places I visit. I usually do magic shows to reciprocate the numerous acts of kindness that inevitably come my way in the process.

If you want to travel actively, there are a few things you must bring with you, and one of them (at the top of the list, next to an open mind, politeness and kindness) is skills. Skills are the access key to the world, and everyone has them. Value and develop your skills. Music, magic, art, storytelling, languages. The more you can bring to share with people, the better your experiences will be. That is the truth.

In the next instalment I will continue the story of the Yew, along with tales of a burning longboat, a once-in-a-hundred-year planetary conjunction, and a close life-and-death encounter.

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