We know the benefits of slow travel but we can't always take advantage of them.
It’s like being caught in a tug-of-war: you want to travel
the world, but you don’t have enough time to get to know a place the way you'd like.
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 and see as many places as you can.
Another is to choose a place, settle in, and get to know it intimately, using it as a microcosm of the rest of the region or country, an example of what it's like, but seen from the inside.
what is slow travel, anyway?
Slow travel has been all the rage for decades, as part of the slow food movement (eat locally) and the trend towards slower living. The excess in information and noise we've been facing in recent years is partly responsible for our need to slow down.
Basically slow travel involves traveling more slowly – by train instead of plane, bike instead of car – and traveling less: spending more time in a few places rather than seeing as many places as you can in a short time.
One 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 ©WOTR
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 had little time and I wanted to see as much as I could.
But my most connective experiences have always been 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.
There's no right or wrong way. Every kind of travel has a reason behind it but when I can, I choose slow travel. If you haven't tried this yet, here are some strong reasons why you should.
Sitting in a café in Moulay Idriss, Morocco. Doing nothing, watching the world go by ©WOTR
the benefits of slow travel
- 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 dog walker 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 the daily news, as I did when I spent a month in Dar-es-Salaam during the Tanzanian national elections.
- You can discover local foods. Your 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. 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 days?
- 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 ethical 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’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.
- You can truly connect. Whether it's with a place, its foods or its people, that sense of bonding is precious. It makes us feel 'in the know', as though we've uncovered a secret no one else knows about.
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 “put down roots” kind of 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 some corporate entity 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, where I had been living for a month, I heard a knock at my door. When I opened, a group of schoolgirls stood
The one who seemed the oldest, no more than ten, pushed herself forward.
“We want to speak English.” There were no other foreigners there at that time and for the next few weeks they
would drop by after school for a few minutes of
conversation and giggles. And I learned plenty 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 foods and games. 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 Bangladesh ©WOTR
my 9 rules for slow travel
Say Yes. My first instinct is often to react
negatively to change or to the unexpected, so I've said NO too often, missing opportunities. Now, I stay more open. (Of course after taking the usual safety precautions!)
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.
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?
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.
Taste everything. Within reason.
Use all your senses. Sight is only one of five. Smell the fields, listen to the birds, let the sand run through your fingers and toes.
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.
Establish a routine. Eat breakfast at the same
place. Or dinner. Soon people will know your name and you’ll know theirs.
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.
opportunities for slow travel
So what kinds of things would qualify as slow travel?
- Instead of trying to see three cities in a week, get an apartment in one city and stay put.
- Instead of a hotel, why not try a homestay or any kind of accommodation that will bring you into a family's home?
- Rather than take a bus tour, ride the local bus around and discover neighborhoods that way. Or take a free walking tour - many cities now have them.
- Stay away from any restaurant recommended in your guidebook. Ask your landlady or a neighbor instead.
- Even better, try to find a meal prepared by locals. Use one of the many networks designed to showcase meals in people's homes.
- Avoid the supermarket and go to the local market to buy your food.
- Build a routine. Choose a breakfast place and stop there every morning around the same time.
- Notice the people around you. If you see the same ones every day, say Hello.
- Don't buy mass-produced souvenirs. Look for local handicrafts instead and put your money back into the local economy.
- Rather than take a road trip, look for local bicycle paths or hiking trails (after having checked their safety, of course!)
- Choose alternative travel destinations - or at least those not affected by overtourism. And if you do visit a hugely popular place, use some of these pointers to slow down.
We cannot always indulge in slow travel but once our eyes are opened to its endless possibilities, it becomes so much more intriguing to truly discover a place.
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