I’d never planned on going to Switzerland. I didn’t have anything against it, of course. But it was just never on my admittedly wide-reaching travel radar. Uzbekistan, sure, Japan, yes, please, but this nation of chocolate-producing, neutrality-loving citizens? It just seemed too safe, too sure of itself and its place in the world. But my dear friend and traveling companion had to attend a conference there, in a tiny village called Les Diabrelets, so it was off to Switzerland we went.
When traveling, I usually like to choose places I feel some sort of cultural or spiritual connection with. Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Spain have all been amongst my favourite destinations. I love urban holidays and feel most at home in big cities, so London and New York have also been places I’ve really enjoyed. So what on earth was I going to do in a small village in the Swiss Alps, besides consume copious amounts of Swiss chocolate?
I did in fact consume copious amounts of chocolate. After all, the old-fashioned hotel we stayed in did a daily round of the rooms, offering chocolates from a charming picnic basket. (A few times they stumbled in on me lounging around in my pyjamas at 3pm, but let’s not go there.) I went to the village supermarket and bought myself a continuous supply of Ovomaltine, a spread best described as ‘Nutella, but crunchier and infinitely more delicious’. I spread that on chocolate biscuits when I wasn’t busy eating it out of the jar, which was rarely.
But what struck me most about Les Diabrelets were not its culinary delights, but the complete and utter silence. Just a few steps from the hotel, the river flowed and all was quiet but for the sound of it cascading down the mountain. I inhaled. The cool, crisp air hit my lungs with almost frightening speed, but I kept gulping it down, as I did with the freezing water.
I started to feel like I was in the Blair Witch Project and that at any moment, some horrible paranormal activity/axe-wielding serial killer would set upon me and throw my corpse into the river. The path was deserted, after all. There would be no witnesses, no one to hear my screams. I didn’t even have phone reception, and even if I did, who knew the Swiss version of 000 or 911 in any case?
This initial panic is indicative of a simple truth: quiet can be profoundly unsettling to those unused to it. This noisy world of ours is constantly ticking over with sounds, pings, vibrations, notifications. Our natural habitats are more often than not food courts, train stations and shopping centres, places of activity and movement. Many of us deliberately seek out noise and bustle as a distraction from the constant pressures we face: that of where we’re going, how to get there and why we’re not getting there fast enough.
For just four days, I was immersed in quiet. I went for walks through the village, adjusting to the sound of my voice as it echoed through the pathways. I went up a rickety cable car by myself, surveying the landscape alongside a disinterested horse. I had picnics atop the hillside, munching on apples and reading books. I filled up my water bottle from streams, said ‘Bonjour’ to every person I saw and had one-sided conversations with a herd of friendly brown cows.
Amidst all of these pleasurable activities was the constant, unwavering awareness of the Divine. The quiet seemed to only magnify the ways in which His blessings and bounties manifest themselves, from the trickling of the water to the chime of cowbells. Praying outside and making dua amidst such beauty heightened my appreciation of the blessings of my life, a series of which had led to my unexpected journey to this place. Some of these steps had appeared to be strange and even unwelcome detours from the ‘planned’ course of my life, but here, sitting in the Swiss Alps, the journey assumed an almost tangible sense of clarity and peace. I wasn’t sure what would come next, but I was sure that I would meet it with renewed purpose of being and intention.
I wonder sometimes if travel is less about the destination and more about the deliberate disruption of routine. Routine is undeniably necessary, but it can also lead to stagnation and the stifling of spiritual and creative impulses in the midst of daily coffee runs and office chitchat. Our sense of wonder can easily diminish in the face of so much repetition, but it can and should be rekindled on a regular basis. It doesn’t require a trip to Switzerland to do it, but it certainly can’t hurt.