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    Travel’s “Next Zeitgeist”

    In the second part of a conversation with David Prior, travel writer and author of The Lost Pianos of Siberia Sophy Roberts discusses the powers of natural wisdom, and how travel must change post-COVID.

    If we can admit one thing, the way we traveled before this pandemic should never return. Sophy Roberts, one of the most intrepid travelers and someone near and dear to the PRIOR community, argues what travel might look like when the world re-emerges - hopefully more humane and braver than ever before.

    To read part one, click here.

    This interview has been edited and condensed.

    David Prior: We’re particularly interested in indigenous cultures, because I think that we’re losing so much wisdom that could help combat climate change and be so instrumental in medicine and science and not to mention art and language. I know that you have that similar interest.

    Sophy Roberts: I have struggled with this for a while. Half the problem, which you’ll relate to, is how to compress all these incredibly nuanced and difficult issues into a few hundred words — things are often oversimplified and misconstrued. I just finished a book by Jay Griffiths, Wild, which really helped me. It’s got a phenomenal section on Papua New Guinea. She looks at the remarkable depth of natural wisdom we’ve lost as we’ve moved further and further away from the nature that sustains us. It’s an absolutely brilliant book and as soon as my kids are old enough, they’re going to read it.

    A fire ritual on a remote island in Papua New Guinea. Photos by Sophy Roberts.

    Over many long summers spent in Mongolia, I’ve grown to understand the rich shaman culture of the steppe. One of my friends there is a guy called the “Bonesetter” and his job is to crack bones back into place when somebody falls off a horse. It’s an old, ancient way of how-to-solve-a-problem-when-you’re-in-the-middle-of-nowhere medicine. There’s a hell of a lot to learn, outside the spaces of ‘formal’ education.

    DP: I think you’ve probably seen some of the more mournful saddest places in the world. But what do you think is the happiest place in the world?

    SR: This is super weird because, my goodness the world is messed up right now, but I would say Nepal. I think wherever there is a profoundly Buddhist culture, there is a kind of different approach to happiness — an acceptance of death which allows them to live in the present with less fear. We spend a lot of time in the Eastern Himalayas, in a house called the “Happy House”. In Nepal, happiness is engrained in the culture; it’s in the belief system. The people have been through hell and back with poverty and politics and all the rest of it. But there’s a kind of acceptance, rather than sadness — the wheel of life just keeps on turning.

    Bhutan is the other place — although I want to resist saying Bhutan because they’ve gone and done the off-putting thing and branded themselves the happiest country on Earth. They gauge their GDP using Gross National Happiness. But I do think they’ve done a pretty good job of it. It’s not without darkness, with an over educated youth who can’t get jobs, but at least they still have nature. Something like 70 per cent of the country’s landscapes are under government protection.

    Nepal is the happiest place in the world, says Sophy. "I think wherever there is a profoundly Buddhist culture, there is a kind of different approach to happiness — an acceptance of death which allows them to live in the present with less fear." Photos by Sophy Roberts.

    DP: There are so many businesses, individuals, organizations, and initiatives that are suffering this year. Who are or what are a couple of initiatives or people that we should all know about that are doing something extraordinary in the travel space that on the other side of this, we should a) know about their work and b) support?

    SR: There’s a company called Nomad Tanzania, which is really making a difference. They have a series of camps in Tanzania and also run logistics. I think they are socially responsible to a very high degree— the employees are empowered; the communities benefit. They’re environmentally intelligent and cutting edge. I would like to think that companies like that will not only survive this, but will also be seen as belonging to the next zeitgeist, which is less about gold taps and more about conscious, connected humanity.

    DP: What do you mean by the next zeitgeist?

    SR: I think the attitude towards travel is shifting: we’re heading towards a more measured approach. Travel is going to be more thoughtful, slower and less brash, less talked about. It’s going to be more humane and a bit braver. Because what COVID has taught us, or rather reminded us of, is our mortality: death is pretty close to life. So live it fully. Travel can’t just be an act of consumption any more; it needs to be an act of empathy.

    When you go to places like Bhutan and Nepal, one of the reasons they seem happier is because they’re so open with the knowledge that they’re just in a cycle of life and death. They talk about it every single day. I think in Western culture, death has become taboo. The subject has been hidden behind closed doors for too long. Now, we’ve been reminded that death happens on a large scale, every day, in a really brutal way. So I think the next zeitgeist will be an extension of that re-acquired knowledge. I want nothing to do with anybody who bounces back from this like something didn’t happen. That sensitivity is what I think will mark the generation that comes behind us. It’s certainly changed the attitude of our children, who’ve been out of school for months now, at a really crucial stage. It’s affected how they consume: the world is no longer just about ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’.

    A child running through the snow in Siberia. Photo by Michael Turek.

    DP: I was having a discussion with someone yesterday and they were like, “There’s no way I could go to India and see that disparity.” And of course, it’s there! It’s the best and worst in humanity. I’ve been thinking a lot during COVID about how life and death is so next to each other in this one picture frame. It really reminds me that we’re essentially all the same and that we are all in this together.

    SR: The Ganges — as a symbol of love, life and death — is really representative of everything going on right now, isn’t it? It’s as if the Ganges, with all it’s disparities, pollution, beauty and life force is flowing through every city in the world right now. I may be wrong here, but certainly the world that I want to be part of and contribute to is one where we are more thoughtful about the why and the where. I hope we can find our voice, like the voice you gave to the cruise industry. Why has there been such complicit silence for so long? Money. I have played my part in it too — but now the questions are too uncomfortable to avoid.

    DP: A fuckton of money in that one, I can tell you!

    DP: How can we educate travelers or have people be travelers that are globalists in the true sense of the word?

    SR: The most important thing — and I’m talking about what the attitude towards travel is going to become — is that travel professionals allow space for the serendipitous, for the unlikely encounter. Luxury travel has reached absurd levels. Travel changes you, not through an encounter with people paid to present themselves, but through a connection with the person you bump into on the street, or through that gap in the schedule where you actually talk to the woman who tans the leather, or whatever it might be. We have to allow unmanaged, un-playbooked space into our lives, because it’s only in those moments that something human - something real - can happen.

    Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.

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