The Slow Travel Movement

What is Slow Travel?  Just as the Slow Food Movement aims to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and advocates the avoidance of Fast Food Mega Chains, the Slow Travel Movement advocates a cultural shift from rushing to relaxing.

Within the realm of Slow Travel, rushing doesn’t mean a shop-until-you-drop vacation and relaxing doesn’t mean soaking up some rays.    In Slow Travel terms, rushing and relaxing can be compared to Clifford Geertz’s Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.    In this classic 1972 opus, Geertz observed the symbolism and evaluated the popularity of the phenomenon as an essential insight into the very existence of the culture.    Shallow Play refers to the knowledge about a destination that a curious traveler might learn while taking time away from a one-week Mexican beach resort vacation for a one-day tour of Chichen Itza.    Conversely, Deep Play represents a lengthier immersion and a deeper understanding of the social and cultural infrastructure of a culture.   The day tripper tourist gambles little time and money to just barely scratch the surface of another culture (Shallow Play) whereas the immersed traveler invests much more time and money (Deep Play).

Unless you’re traveling for business, you chose this destination!    Make time – and take time – to experience the essence of this special place that you’ve chosen.   Foster a healthier lifestyle that doesn’t see you darting from one attraction to the next “must see before you die” attraction.   You don’t want to remember your trip as if it were the classic rom-com If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium.   Concentrate on the present – enjoy the moment.   Celebrate colors. Savor flavors.   Even try to appreciate unusual (perhaps noxious to your nose!) smells: you may be offended by the stench of the tanneries and dye vats of Fes but they’re integral to this environment!    Enjoy being where you are.   See all that you want to see, or perhaps, see all that you’re able to see, within your time constraints.   For example, if you’re determined to visit all twelve museums and galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, you’ll need at least two weeks.   Even then you’ll be exhausted mentally and physically from all the walking (and standing) required. A better strategy would be to select your favorites:  I`ve returned time and time again to the National Air & Space Museum, gazing with awe at Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega, Lucky Lindy’s “Spirit of St. Louis”, and Chuck Yeager’s sound-barrier-breaking Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” (named for Mrs. Yeager) but never yet visited the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art.

You may understand that Slow Travel means that you slow down your pace and spend more time in one place.   And that the movement encourages travelers to become immersed in the local culture and to make friends with the locals.   But how does one plan a Slow Travel Vacation?

  • Plan some (or all) of your itinerary (flights, ground transfer, accommodation) but don’t schedule every activity. If one of your must-see-sights is the Taj Mahal reflected by the water of the reflecting pools, you must plan to visit on one of five nights surrounding the full moon.    And it is wise to reserve accommodations at least for your first night in a foreign country, especially if your flight arrives at night.  Evaluate your options the next morning when you’re refreshed and only slightly jet-lagged.    You might plan to stay longer in the city of your arrival – maybe it’s Istanbul! – and you want to stay in this area for several days.
  • Select ground travel.   Airplanes are not always practical.   When I lived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (then a somnolent fishing village where fisherman gathered on the beaches selling their fresh catch on the same beaches now jammed with tourists) only once did I succumb to the ‘helpful suggestions’ of well-meaning ex-patriot friends who assumed that bus travel was a waste of time whereas flights were always more efficient. The flight was an international flight to Guatemala so I needed to arrive at CanCun two hours prior to departure.  To get to CanCun I had to travel one hour – north, away from my destination.   The buses in those days were dilapidated, American-made rejects that left town two times daily.  And the route was direct to downtown CanCun NOT the airport – so I had to get off on  the highway and walk one mile to the airport (carrying my backpack).   The flight was direct (but not non-stop): we had to land in Chetumal for immigration clearance before entering Guatemalan airspace.   Overall, this flight from CanCun to Guatemala took one half hour longer and cost US$120 more than the US$10 bus ride would have!   And most of all, I missed the fascinating cultural snapshot of the locals that bus travel allows.

Don’t just travel by ground, select slower methods of ground travel.

  • Choose the same transportation favored by locals.  Don`t necessarily step from the threshold of your hotel into an expensive taxi cab.  Hop on a rickshaw, triciclo, or tuk-tuk.   Learn from the driver.   Impetuously stop at that unexpected treasure – an elaborately gilded temple, children playing in a laneway, or street musicians.
  • Walk or bicycle – instead of taxi, bus, or city tour bus.   Stop and chat with the locals.  You don`t need to be fluent in their language – a friendly smile and a few basic words such as Hello, Goodbye, Please, and Thank you in their language will crack the cultural barrier.
  • Stow your cellphone.  Don’t forget your friends and family but minimize compulsive technological reliance. Do you that the average person checks their cellphone 150 times per day?
  • Arrange a home-stay with a traditional indigenous family.   At home with my Maya friends, my momentum wanes almost immediately.   Be guided by daylight hours, walk one mile for potable water, carry those full 10-gallon water buckets the return mile home, bathe in the river, wash dishes in the stream, walk the hills to gather firewood, cook on the wood-fueled hearth, fall asleep in the hammock, exhausted.   Google “village home-stay programs” for your destination area.   Arrange accommodation with a tour provider before or during your trip.   If you’re already in a remote area, speak to a villager elder.
  • Transform travel into the destination: hike from Pokhara to the Annapurna Sanctuary, march the meseta pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, meander the Via Francigena Pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome, perch on top of the train car to view Ecuador’s El Nariz del Diablo massif, or do a camel safari in Tanzania, India, or Morocco.
  • Study abroad. Devote a few weeks for short-term foreign language acquisition or a few years for post-graduate research.    While abroad, living at your destination, you will have time to explore the region thoroughly, alone or with others.
  • Volunteer abroad.   Work with the locals.   Meet their families and friends and be immersed in their traditional culture.  Learn regional mores.   Learn that there are many different approaches to problem-solving, many equally effective to those from your own culture.   Prepare yourself before departure by reading books like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible or Ronald Wright`s Cut Stones and Crossroads to appreciate the travesty of the mindset that our modern, developed world has all the answers.    Welcome the understanding that perspectives on life and living as observed by different cultures are fundamentally equivalent to your own.    We all seek happiness and contentment for ourselves and our children.

When you`re getting ready for your next (or your first!) trip, remember Abraham Lincoln`s adage:

 “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”