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‘A vaccine against noise’ – why it’s time to seek quiet on our travels

As the world goes back to being busy, an award-winning travel writer advocates for more silence in our trips 

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Plum Village, France. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Plum Village, France. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Met Cloisters in New York. Photo: Emma Thomson

Met Cloisters in New York. Photo: Emma Thomson

Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Greenland. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Greenland. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

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Plum Village, France. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

After a record number of delayed or cancelled flights, and bags galore going missing, the summer of travel chaos left us strung out and stressed.

But it’s not just travel. As the world goes back to being busy, our lives seem bombarded by an ever-increasing shrill, discordant symphony of ringing phones, pinging alerts, and the ceaseless chatter of others around us.

Our brains are abuzz, and — either consciously or unconsciously — we’re battling the anxiety this constant noise brings.

During my career as a travel journalist, I have always been drawn to the world’s quieter corners. During lockdowns enforced to contain Covid-19, when we were unable to travel, I spent time exploring silence as if it were a new continent.

Now, I feel many of us are longing to press that ‘off’ button again. “To return to something basic, authentic, to find peace, and to experience a small quiet alternative,” writes Norwegian explorer, Erling Kagge.

And still, the idea of being quiet can often be seen as boring, uncomfortable, even scary.

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Met Cloisters in New York. Photo: Emma Thomson

Met Cloisters in New York. Photo: Emma Thomson

Met Cloisters in New York. Photo: Emma Thomson

In 1952, composer John Cage debuted a score titled 4’33. For four minutes and 33 seconds, he sat at the piano in silence. The only sound was the opening and closing of the lid between each movement and the occasional rustle of him turning the score’s pages.

People were confused, aghast, and even outraged. Cage argued that it was perhaps his most important work, because it encourages the listener to tune into the world around them.

“We need not fear these silences, we may love them,” he wrote in his avant-garde Lecture on Nothing, “for we are like an empty glass into which, at any moment, anything may be poured.”

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Quiet is the great overlooked panacea. Potential benefits include lower blood pressure, lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), the easing of insomnia and improved concentration, to name just a few.

Some argue that silence is the new luxury; a therapy only the wealthy can afford. After all, it is money that buys homes in less-crowded neighbourhoods; it is money that purchases travel to far-flung peaceful destinations.

But while silence is certainly precious, I wanted to write a book that shows quiet can be found in locations both near and far, to suit a range of budgets. I’ve been to some of the world’s most remote corners, from St Helena and Marquesas Islands to the Amazon and Djibouti. Quiet Escapes features 50 of my personal suggestions on where to find it.

I see it as a vaccine against noise.

Quiet is not just the domain of monks and holy men; it is achievable by all. And the quickest way to access it is by paying attention to place.

Places often have something to say and, frequently, to teach us. Don’t allow the temptation to share the adventure verbally with a travelling companion or capture it on camera let you miss the subtle messages it can share.

At times, a place will sing; on other occasions, it will whisper. Let’s retrain our ears to listen to the sounds they were crafted to enjoy.

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Greenland. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Greenland. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Greenland. Photo from Quiet Escapes by Emma Thomson

Five quiet escapes

1. Foula, Shetland Islands, Scotland

The 38 residents that call the UK’s most-remote permanently inhabited island home are outnumbered by birds 13,000 to one. On the same latitude as Anchorage Alaska and only privy to electricity since the 1980s, this untamed isle is famed for its Lord of the Rings-style peaks and staggering birdlife. Stay in one of just two croft guest houses and experience life on the edge of the world.

2. Arctic Circle Trail, Greenland

In Greenland, nature is king. Go days without seeing or hearing another soul on the Arctic Circle Trail, a backcountry route that stretches for 160km from Kangerlussuaq, on the edge of the vast interior ice sheet, to Sisimiut, on the shores of the Labrador Sea. Wild camp, traverse mossy tundra beneath massive skies, ford glacial rivers, and keep an eye out for amber-eyed Arctic foxes.

3. Plum Village, France

Buried in French countryside, an hour-and-a-half drive east of Bordeaux, is Plum Village — Europe’s largest Buddhist monastery. Founded by the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, its retreats invite guests to stay from a week up to a year to immerse themselves in the Buddhist practice of weaving mindfulness and periods of silence into daily activities. You’ll be expected to prepare meals and wash dishes, but attendees have reported a diminishment in anxiety and a deep-rooted sense of wellbeing.

4. Met Cloisters, New York, USA

You may think it impossible to find an iota of calm in one of the noisiest places on Earth. But seek out the Met Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park on the northern tip of Manhattan. This architectural marvel blends a modern building with sections of original French medieval monasteries and is filled with art from John D Rockefeller. Surrounding the gallery are three cloister gardens ideal for contemplation.

5. Rio Zabalo, Ecuador

Tucked away in northeastern Ecuador, near the border with Peru and Colombia, is Rio Zabalo — designated the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park by Quiet Parks International. It flows through Cofán Nation territory and they’ve established a community-based ecotourism project to preserve their ancestral territory and help defend their land from foreign corporations. Guests are invited to spend a week living with the community, sleeping in thatched huts; fishing with handmade, hand-thrown nets; sharing meals; and learning how they live as part of the forest.

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'Quiet Escapes' by Emma Thomson

'Quiet Escapes' by Emma Thomson

'Quiet Escapes' by Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson’s ‘Quiet Escapes, 50 inspiring destinations to find your Zen’, is published by Greenfinch (Hardback £22/€26); quercusbooks.co.uk


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