The Winding Ways of Time

Travel Blog 12: Hakuna Matata

These mountains are not quiet places. There is no sound to the wind, while the buzzing insects and rustling grass are just more of the normal subtle harmony of a place surrounded by the caps of blooming flowers. There is hardly any birdsong, or at least none one can hear, and the humans are silent, solitary things especially as they labor up and down the slopes.

But it’s the clanging bells one hears. The sound comes from every direction, the clattering of thousands of plates stuck loosely in a box, or a bell choir trying and utterly failing to keep time when the members are spread from one end of the cliff side to the other. All these bells hang from the necks of cows as they graze on the sloping fields of mountainsides, better to keep track of them as they wander among the shaggy grassland. It’s a marker of an age-old tradition, when herders would take flocks up to the mountains to graze during the summer, and back down to the plateaus during the winter. It doesn’t matter how many hikers and tourists walk the dirt and gravel paths or stuff themselves into cogwheel trains to make their ways up and down the cliff sides, the bells still jangle, even as one steps to the highest point of Mount Pilatus, where the entire length of the north side of the mountain is shrouded in a mist thick enough to chew on, one can still hear the bells far below. On Mount Rigi, the slopes are absolutely full of them, even near the peak.

This practice of alpine herding puts a new perspective on time, the constant cycle that keeps on and on. It’s like the switchbacks on the trails up the mountains. Slowing that progress that takes longer also makes the journey easier, quieter.

Can I really say the same with my journey so far? Perhaps. I am surprised by how some people have commented that it seems like I have not had time to breath, but in reality I am alone in my head so much, time seems to dilate. As of today I have been on this journey for a full month, and yet it feels so much longer than that. I have been to around 10 cities, seen the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and of course many, many rivers and bays. I have hiked three mountains (not the whole way, mind you), biked around 40 miles, and swam in both Spain and now Switzerland. Just this morning I walked into the 65 degree waters of Lake Lucerne. I wanted to see the difference of swimming in mountain waters compared to the stinging, pungent coast of Long Island. 

And yet, I still feel like a meek observer, where the lives of people pass me by among the calls of invisible birds and insects, with the distant sound of a boat engine through a window in the shore canopy.

So be it, then. In that mental environment I can observe and conserve these sights both to memory and to paper. Though really I’m just some random American who has no claim to this place, it’s important, I think, especially since so many of these places may change. A heartbreaking article in the NYTimes relates just how hurt a young woman was to come back to Yosemite National Park after a decade to witness its devastation at the hands of climate change.

A few days ago I was in Bern, the administrative capital of Switzerland does not feel like a capital of anything. Sure, it’s got a metric ton of public transport options and streets filled with a mix of car and pedestrian traffic that somehow doesn’t erupt into utter chaos with such a lack of streetlights. It has something to do with the character of the place and the people there. The Aare river is running with a tumultuous ferocity from one end of the city to the other, driven by recent rains streaming off the nearby mountains. There is some amount of bustle during the day, but by the evening, around 6 p.m., all things have quieted down. Most shops and museums are closed. The streets are emptied save for those crowded into the cafes. The bars are quiet places where people come to chat with friends with drink in hand. The parks are full of people enjoying the warmth of the descending sun. At one of these parks called the Rosegarten for its many examples of blooming, multicolored roses, a few young people stand around a stereo dancing next to a standing pool. The rest sit near an overlook that displays the capital’s old town, home to dozens of examples of medieval architecture. Most of the city was rebuilt in sandstone after a fire in 1405, but all the local shops are located underneath hard canopies open to the street through arched frames.

Compare that to Lucerne, just an hour and a half train ride from Bern. Despite its examples of old architecture, including the famed covered bridge which is the oldest standing example of its kind in Europe, the place is vibrating with modernity. Even as people gather in the public parks to enjoy the small beach on the shore of Lake Lucerne, more are gathered for the active bar scene. The sounds of city are reverberating down the slim alleyways and open streets, reaching me all the way in my hostel dorm through a crack in the window. The lake has risen precariously close to the shoreline thanks to all the recent rains, and though they haven’t experienced anything like the devastation and death seen in western Germany, workers are busy piling sandbags along the wharfs to keep the waters from spilling over. Lucerne feels so full its small borders seem ready to burst.

 In Bern, a unique kind of quiet takes over the place as evening descends. The waters pass on, and keep moving. There is a kind of serenity to constant motion, or at least I’m beginning to feel that way.

This weekend I’ll be spending time with two gracious folks just south of Zurich who have agreed to take me in for two nights. Thanks to people who helped set that up. Hopefully I don’t become a nuisance.

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