How to Experience ‘Slow Travel’ (Even on Short Trips)
Once they’re on the road, many travelers find it difficult to slow down and experience ‘slow travel’, and instead seem to dart around from place to place, obsessively checking off landmarks from their ‘to-do list’ without ever really experiencing where they are.
Of course, if you only have a limited amount of time to travel (as is often the case for 99% of travelers), it’s natural to want to squeeze in as much joy as possible during your trip, and attempting to do so can be a blast.
The problem with doing this in the long-term is that making a travel ‘to-do list’ filled with items (that the guide book told you were ‘must sees’) can be exhausting and potentially unfulfilling (if you don’t end up seeing exactly what you expected).
As Rolf Potts (vagabond/travel expert) said, “Take your time. Study the landscape, note the lines of convergence all around you, the architecture, the faces and clothing of the people on the streets, the nuances of the cultures and interactions before you. Drink deeply and breathe easily.”
Rather than rushing around all of South-East Asia in 10 weeks, a slow traveler would spend a few weeks (or months) in each place and immerse themselves in the area until they essentially become a temporary resident. Instead of just seeing the tourist hotspots and the things that have been set up for tourists to enjoy, they’d actually be seeing the real area and interacting with the real people.
Spending months on end traveling around at a snail’s pace all sounds very nice, but unfortunately unless you have a sack full of cash and zero commitments back home, it’s not really a possibility for most people.
So how can one experience slow travel on short trips, then? By taking the principles of slow travel (such as having a genuine interest in the local culture, becoming part of the local eco-system, understanding how the locals live and ‘experiencing’ things instead of just ‘seeing’ things) it is possible to experience the benefits of slow travel even on short trips.
How do you actually go about doing this? I’ve outlined a series of steps below to help you do this, which range from picking a home base (preferably outside of the city center) and creating a new routine to finding what the locals like to do and minimizing your ‘to-do list’.
“Most travelers hurry too much…the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly — but with real inward attention. You can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle you’ll be there.” – Lawrence Durrell, “Spirit of Place,” quoted in The New New Journalism (2005)
Pick a Centralized Home Base
Travelers often waste (I use the word “waste” loosely here) lots of days traveling from place to place as they move around different areas. Apart from the time spent physically moving (whether it’s on a plane, bus, boat or whatever), checking in and out of accommodation and packing and unpacking your bags also takes up a lot of time.
If you want to visit a lot of places in one particular area, one way to save time (and to have a far more relaxing trip) is to pick a centralized home base where you’ll settle in to, and then take short excursions to the places around it.
Although you’ll go off on mini-trips to other places, you’ll always return to your central home base, which is why it’s good to pick somewhere that’s located right in the middle of the area/region you want to explore.
This first place will feel like home after a while, and instead of having to deal with countless logistical problems you’ll be able to spend your time appreciating and understanding local life in a way not normally possible.
Once you’ve found your new city/area to call home, what type of accommodation should you get and where about should you stay? Let’s see…
Spend Time Outside of the City Center
City centers are typically very busy, manic places (unless you’re in San Diego) and are typically the main ‘tourist areas’ where everyone goes to visit.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with spending time in the center of a city (as it’s often where a lot of the ‘sights’ are and where it’s at its most vibrant), but don’t forget to spend time outside of the center if you want to experience a slower lifestyle (the way the locals live).
So what exactly are you looking for when you travel outside of the city center? You’re looking for where the locals spend their time – where they eat, shop and live.
It can be difficult to find these places unless you meet a local who will guide/advise you, although I have found Yelp.com (and similar websites) to be a very helpful when it comes to getting local recommendations on where to go.
If possible, when picking a place to stay, rent an apartment instead of staying in a hotel/hostel.
Hotels are typically very impersonal lonely places, and it’s hard to stay in a hotel without feeling like a tourist.
Having your own apartment will give you the feeling of ‘coming home’ to your own private space, instead of simply returning to your dull hotel room that’s no different from several hundred other hotel rooms in the building.
This makes it a lot easier to get into the local mindset, as you’ll be experiencing what kind of housing the local people live in and the chances are there’ll be a few local neighbors you can make friends with.
Most people avoid renting apartments, but when you consider the price compared to how much space you’re getting, they’re actually pretty cost-effective, especially if you’re sharing the apartment with a few friends.
“Step back from whatever self-imposed, artificial pace you may have adopted and instead spend an afternoon on a park bench with a sketch book, a journal, a camera, or simply an open mind.” – Rolf Potts
Do What the Locals Do
As I touched upon earlier, in order to find out how the people of a country truly live (and in order to experience the local culture authentically), you need to talk to the local people and ask them what they like to do and where they like to go.
Of course, don’t go around the streets interrogating locals, but if you happen to strike up a friendly conversation with someone while traveling on the bus or when at a coffee shop, don’t hesitate to ask their advice.
Be aware, however, that the advice given by the hotel staff (in particular the hotel concierge) is not always in your best interests (if your aim is to travel slowly). They will often direct you straight to the tourist hotspots and the pre-designed tourist locations, but they may have a vested interest in the places they’re promoting and they will rarely direct you off the beaten track.
Minimize Your To-Do List
When most people (who’re restricted by how much time they have) go traveling they usually make a to-do list of everything they want to see/do while they’re away, then breeze through it as quickly as possible.
If you want to experience slow travel, you have to slow down and accept that you might not be able to see and do everything you want to on this particular trip.
This might seem like you’re being lazy, but not visiting a museum or two won’t affect your trip too much, and it means you’ll have more time to relax, create adventures and experience the unknown more often.
Start out by cutting all the non-essential activities from your to-do list. Focus only on the few things you really want to do. Instead of seeing a small portion of everything, take the time to deeply explore a few things. For example, instead of spending an hour wandering around the Campo dei Fiori food market in Rome, take a cooking class to learn about the local cuisine and how to make it.
A good way to do this is to assign one major thing to do each day. For example, your ‘mission’ for the day might be to visit a certain part of the city, or to partake in a certain activity. This will be the full extent of your ‘schedule’, meaning you can then do whatever you feel like (whether it’s wandering around the city and getting intentionally lost, playing football at the park with a group of locals or spending the afternoon sitting in the park).
Traveling like this allows you to create deep, meaningful memories that you’ll cherish, instead of vague memories of wandering around countless museums.
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