Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Why I travel slow

I was having a conversation with a couch surfer I recently hosted about how I always like to use up a visa. I suspect this comes from my upbringing of not wasting things, hence why I over eat and am a hoarder, but that's another story... It also goes some way to explaining why I travel slow.

Sure if you've only got a 2 week vacation, you've only got 2 weeks, but if you're on a longer trip you have the luxury to take your time. A longer travel period for me doesn't necessarily mean travelling to more places, it means spending more time in each place I visit.

My approach is to pick a country I'd like to visit and find out how long I can spend there on the typical tourist visa, or exempt period, and what other visas or extensions might be available should I wish to extend my trip. Yes, just one country at a time. Others may try to fit as many countries as they can into a 3 month trip to Asia, I do pretty much the opposite.

Despite the fact that I am not a long term traveller (yet) I have never ascribed to the idea that I need to see it all. I know I can't. The world is too big, there's just too much out there. and trying to see it all is frankly overwhelming. However, taking time to look around, chat to locals, go for an aimless wander in a strange town, eat at a local market, always creates fantastic experiences and memories I will cherish forever. Sometimes it is a beautiful piece of architecture, or an interesting museum exhibit, a view from the top of a mountain, or across fields of green or a sandy beach, but it may just as easily be blowing bubbles with kids, chatting with a street vendor, or sharing snacks on a bus.

Knowing I can't see it all means the pressure is off. There are no expectations. I don't HAVE TO do or see anything, which leaves me open to opportunities.

I by no means prescribe to the idea of travelling without knowledge or direction. That, to me, is both disrespectful and arrogant. If you are in a strange place you should not expect to rely on the hospitality of others just because you haven't bothered to do your research about a place before hand. A little bit of language, a little bit of pre reading about the culture and norms, makes a massive difference to how locals will treat you.

If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll know that I research my destinations in great depth, from books, guidebooks, websites and blogs, including foreign language sites which I translate using Google Translate. I do a pretty good job of finding out what's to be seen and done in the country I'm going to. I also make an effort to learn about political, human and animal rights issues, so I can travel responsibly and ethically. No Tiger Temples or orphanages for me. I'm not perfect, but I try my best to be informed.

Then, armed with the knowledge of how long I've got, I put together a rough itinerary of places I'd like to visit. Knowing how long bus rides in the developing world can take I factor in travel days that don't involve any sightseeing, and I also allow time for preparation. Like if I want to do a trek somewhere, the first day might just be preparing for it, getting food, hiring a guide and equipment etc.

Once I have my rough itinerary I head off. In practice, nothing turns out as planned. The trek turns out to be overpriced, the weather conspires against me, I find out about an alternative destination from fellow travellers and go there instead, I decide to stay an extra week because I love it so much. Sometimes a place doesn't excite me at all, so I move on. But none of that matters because I don't build up the expectations. Each day I find new things that excite me, travel is never boring.

Travelling fast, on the other hand, is exhausting. There's an agenda, a timeline that must be kept to. For me, the timeline that really annoys me is the visa expiry date, when I have to leave the country and go somewhere else. Just sometimes I'm ready to leave, but usually, there's so much more I want to do and see right there, even though the next country will be just as interesting.

I think when travelling fast it's easy to feel like you've seen the sights, ticked off the bucket list items, eaten the national specialty and seen a traditional dance, and convince yourself you've had a glimpse of the life and culture of the country you've visited. But once you travel slow, start having conversations with people about life, family, politics, religion, culture, you want to explore more, know more. You don't want the glimpse, you want the immersive experience. And its addictive.

Travelling fast you pretty well maintain outsider status the whole time. It's probably why people moan about not having authentic experiences when they travel. You've got to slow down for that. The conversation you strike up with a stranger isn't going to lead to an invitation to come to a wedding if you've got a bus ticket already booked to the next place and you're leaving in two hours. I still regret that we weren't able to go visit a village with some newly weds when we turned up in a small town in rural Laos because my travel partner's visa was about to expire and we needed to get back to civilisation. I know it would have been an awesome experience. Instead, we ended up dining with a Kiwi expat working in Bangkok who does philanthropic work building schools in rural Laos. That was a pretty interesting encounter as well.

I love returning to the same market stall for breakfast each day, and seeing the smiles of welcome that come with familiarity. Being able to chat with the transport guys without them haranguing me for a ride, even learning their names. Ending up teaching English in a secondary school for a day, travelling there through lush scenery on the back of a motorbike, then having another session with university students training to be English teachers. Having a long conversation with a mother about her dreams for her daughter and her worries about how her late night texting is affecting her sleep and schooling. Conversing with a farmer in a rice paddy in the wilds of northeast Vietnam, who is seriously worried about climate change because it doesn't rain at the usual times any more, but floods and droughts are getting more frequent.

It's these connections that you make with people, no matter how disparate our backgrounds, these little acts of familiarity, that stop you feeling lonely when far from home. The realisation that although this family may live in a dirt floored hut with unreliable electricity and no running water or toilet, they have similar dreams and hopes for their children, concerns about the environment, disdain for corrupt politicians, as someone living in a double brick house with a big backyard in Australia.

It makes sense that we want to stay connected, and I mean on a personal physical level, not virtually. It feeds our souls more than ticking off a bucket list of sights and vicarious experiences ever will. I will never forget hot-air ballooning over the Serengeti, or skiing the Tasman Glacier (both of which are true bucket list experiences I would highly recommend), but I'll also never forget all those people I've shared snacks with on long bus and boat rides (I never sit with the westerners, always with the locals, they know where the more comfy seats are), my knight in shining armour in Malang, the complete strangers who've invited me into their homes, and the fantastic couch surfing hosts I've stayed with. Those people are what makes travel sustainable for me, and I mean for my soul.

Slow travel is pretty kind on the pocket too, as transport costs tend to take a good chunk of your travel dollar so if you're moving less you're spending less. Staying longer in one place can often mean a discount in accommodation too. Local hospitality can also be incredibly generous but should never be expected. I believe that I have a responsibility to contribute to the local economies where I travel, and taking advantage of other's generosity only to make my travel dollar go further is a pretty heinous act in my moral code. Unfortunately I see far too much of it in my travels.

There really is quite a bit of ugly out there on the road. I've met people travelling on next to nothing who do it with such generosity you feel you are doing them a favour, but I've also met my fair share of sneaky cheap selfish stingy cheapskates, who are obsessed with getting the lowest price or paying nothing and are just plain mean about it. Unfortunately the former aren't quite as common as the latter, but I've been lucky to meet some, who totally live the reciprocity of giving in a non monetary way. I did my fair share of living on a minuscule budget back in my 20s and I decided I'd never travel like that again. Budget travel is one thing, obsessing over the price of everything is quite another, and no way to enjoy yourself. Luckily, that's no longer an issue for me.

Karma. Pay it forward. These concepts apply just as much to travel as daily life. Travelling slow allows me to make connections, be generous to others, not just think about myself. It feeds my soul and keeps me wanting to travel further and longer.

Just slowly...

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