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The Benefits of Slow Travel: How Staying Put Means You'll Actually See More

It’s like being caught in a tug-of-war: you want to travel the world, but you don’t have the time.

Vacations are short, money is limited – how can you see everything you want to?

It’s so frustrating!

One way is to cram as much as possible into that short vacation.

But what if you could get to know a place far more intimately in the same amount of time just by staying put?

Venice at sunsetOne evening I crossed the lagoon to see the sun set over Venice. Watching the boats speed across the water and people get on and off gave me a strong sense of the city’s rhythm.

I understand it’s hard to slow down. Compromises usually are.

I know what it’s like.

In Sri Lanka and Albania, I rented a car and driver to see as much as I could in ten days. I loved both those trips but my most connective experiences were those in which I did – very little, whether sitting in cafés in Marrakesh and Moulay Idriss or renting a suburban apartment for a week near Istanbul.

Moulay IdrissSitting in a café in Moulay Idriss, Morocco. Doing nothing, watching the world go by.

Why settle for seeing less when you could cram it all in?

For many reasons!

  • You’ll actually be able to relax. If you’re on vacation, perhaps it's because you need one. What would be the point of returning home more tired than when you left?
  • You can begin to understand a place. By watching people and their habits, a sense of them emerges – how they earn a living, what they do for entertainment or how they behave socially. The clothes they wear, the timbre of their voice or the gestures they make are clues to their personalities and environment.
  • You can become a temporary insider. At a fish restaurant in Greece, the chef emerged from behind the counter to tell me about the day’s catch – his catch, and one he was proud of. He then proceeded to act out the fishing, as men often do, exaggerating the size and quantity of the catch and predicting my first morsel would take me to heaven. His family, settled in front of the TV, laughed at the antics they'd all heard before. For a few seconds, I tasted a morsel of that family's life.
  • You can meet people. Chances are you won’t make lifelong friends in an hour or two but even a pleasant daily exchange - like the dogwalker on my Istanbul street every evening - can connect two people for a moment. Or you can end up in heated political discussions that provide you with insights vastly different from those you'll get from your daily dose of news. 
  • You can discover local foods. You local butcher shop in France might try to sell you a spider, or even a tab! Fear not, they (araignée and onglet) are cuts of meat not common in the English-speaking world. Or less appetizingly (to me), giant snails in Nigeria... or cassava root... or lamb eyeballs... yes, not for everyone but if you're in discovery mode most of these specialties will be served in people's houses, not in Western-frequented eateries. (The exception is insects, so commonly fried in Southeast Asia: these are becoming mainstream, even in France!)
  • You can gain insight into local customs, like taking your shoes off in Canadian homes or in Spain, kissing every single person in the room when you arrive or leave.
  • You can uncover local hangouts. I like wandering into neighborhood restaurants, hoping for a discovery, or asking local shopkeepers where they eat lunch or have their pre-meal tapas. I'd rather take advice from someone who has lived here for decades than from my guidebook...
  • You’ll unclutter your mind. Like relaxing, it’s one of those things we don’t know we need until we try it. All those lists, schedules, commitments – surely we can let them go for a few hours?
  • Your senses can get a workout. Of course you don’t usually say, “I think I’d like to have an intense experience” when you travel but staying put makes that happen. Your senses go on full alert: the sound of each wave breaking against the rocks, the smell of a lilac bush, the touch of sand or grass underneath your feet.
  • You can push beyond your comfort zone. Slowing down may force you to sit and – horror of horrors – do nothing. Just observe. And experience. When I do this I tend to come away with insights not only about where I am but about who I am.
  • You can be spontaneous. Want to explore that neighbourhood? Mountain? Crazy market? Without a schedule there’s little standing in your way. Just do it!
  • You can practice your language skills. Living among locals often means few people speak English. I feel empowered when I say something in a foreign language and it is understood! (These tips on learning a language can help.)
  • You can save money. Renting an Airbnb for a week can be cheaper than a hotel, not only because rent could be lower but because you get a kitchen, which means huge savings on eating out. Housesitting, couchsurfing or even homestays can bring prices down further.
  • You can get into better shape. When I walk at my natural pace, I tend to walk more. In Venice recently I found I was walking up to 17,000 steps a day! That’s after I ditched my map; before that, I was walking less than half as I shuffled trying to decipher street names.
  • You’ll be choosing quality over quantity. To me that’s an equation that works.
  • You can “be there” as opposed to “see there”. 
  • You can be surprised. By not having a plan, you let the unexpected into your life - a chance comment, an unexpected discovery, or spending all day in a lovely venue you'd only planned to visit for an hour. No plans? No rush.

It’s not just about you. Slowing down is good for others, too.

Slow travel is more environmentally friendly and that should be enough reason to incorporate it as much as possible in your plans. Tourism is responsible for at least 5% of global greenhouse gases, so fewer cars and planes means a better planet for us all.

This kind of “put down roots” travel also benefits the local community. The money you inject into the community by paying rent and buying food tends to stay there as opposed to being diverted to head office in another country. Real people benefit from your spending. Your presence also builds bridges and while it opens up your world, it can also open up someone else’s.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra one afternoon, I heard a knock at my door. When I opened, a group of schoolgirls stood there. The one who seemed the oldest, no more than ten, pushed herself forward.

“We want to speak English.” And for the next few weeks they would drop by after school for a few minutes of conversation and giggles. And I learned a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.

Kids being kids, we soon ran out of things to say but by the time I left I knew a bit about them, their parents and school, their favorite colors and toys and stories. They knew a bit about Canada and Switzerland but what fascinated them most was snow. I enjoyed a privileged window into their lives and I hope I was able to share a bit of mine.

Schoolchildren in JapanSchoolchildren in Japan

Here are my 9 rules of the road for slow travel. I try to apply them wherever I go. Sometimes I even succeed.

1.     Say Yes. My first instinct is often to react negatively to change. I've missed opportunities and now I stay more open. (Of course after taking the usual safety precautions!)

2.     Look around. Sit and observe. Stop “doing” all the time. Don’t just see – BE. Let a place talk to you. Sit back and enjoy.

3.     Step out of your comfort zone. Just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it now. Yes, it's different. Isn't that why you travel?

4.     Interact. Speak to people. Share something about yourself. Local people aren't there for your viewing pleasure. If you're curious, they may be too. 

5.     Taste everything. Within reason.

6.     Use all your senses. Sight is only one of five (I sometimes forget that).

7.     Ride the bus. It’s the first thing I do when I get somewhere. Hop on for an hour and see where it takes you.

8.     Establish a routine. Eat breakfast at the same place. Or dinner. Soon people will know your name and you’ll know theirs.

9.     Use your legs. Walk (or bike if you're so inclined). It keeps things human to human.

Slow travel is nothing new and people have been doing it for most of history. They had no choice – horses, carts, the occasional boat were the only transport available. Only in the 19th century with trains and the 20th with air travel did public transportation become widespread and cheap enough to carry millions of people.

The ability to choose to travel slowly is a privilege. In the poorest countries, slow travel is an obligation, not a choice. People may not be able to afford anything faster.

Traveling slowly is trepidating - you're not quite sure what may come up next. To me, that sense of wonder is at the heart of travel.

Unless, of course, you’re checking things off a list. Then it doesn’t matter. 

slow travel in Morocco

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