Why we travel slow

I’m trying something new in my latest post. I’m calling it CanDoLatitude101, where I will take some time to go into the how’s and why’s of the way Fara and I are traveling. In earlier posts, I occasionally used the phrase “slow travel” to describe how we’ve been traveling since we left home last August. However, I’ve failed to take the time to define what I mean by it. This omission is something I will do my best to rectify, hopefully without getting too boring or preachy.

The History of “slow travel”

One rainy January afternoon, I attempted to research the origin of the phrase “slow travel”. This proved to be a somewhat difficult endeavor. A quick Google search uncovered at least two distinct travel websites (independenttraveler.com and slowtrav.com) which independently lay claim to coining the term sometime around 1999-2000. Countless other travel writers bragged they were practicing slow travel long before anyone knew there was such a thing. Wikipedia doesn’t cite any of these sources, but instead references an article published in the March 2009 issue of the magazine Hidden Europe entitled “A manifesto for slow travel” due to its frequency of being referenced by travel writers. The manifesto itself gives credit to 19th century travel writers such as Théophile Gautier and Isabelle Eberhardt who’s views on travel were later adopted by the slow movement (slow food, cities, medicine, work, etc). At this point in my little research project, frustration set in and I decided it wasn’t as important to definitively know who was the first “slow” traveler.

Changing tracks a bit, I decided to focus on the concepts forming the basis for slow travel as they are presented in the manifesto. Rather than regurgitate its contents, I will leave it to you the reader to peruse it at your leisure (here is the link again in case you missed it earlier). For the remainder of the post, I’m going to touch on a few of these concepts that resonate with our travel philosophy.

It’s the journey, not just the destination

I know, it sounds like a motivational poster, but it is a platitude worth believing in. The author of the manifesto quotes several 19th century travel writers. What I found most interesting is that even in that relatively antiquated time there were grumblings around the conveniences of modern travel causing a disconnect between the traveler and the world around him or her. Granted, “modern” travel for them was stagecoach or train travel and they were advocating for the use of donkey or camel instead, but the sentiment can be extrapolated into modern times.

There are some travelers today who look at this solely from a ecological standpoint, foregoing air travel for the more environmentally friendly trains or boats. I feel this only touches on part of the reason why we travel slow. If one were to take a high speed train from Paris to Nice instead of a flight, it would take a few hours longer and the resulting carbon footprint would be measurably smaller, but the traveler wouldn’t feel any more connected to the people and places along the way. For obvious reasons, putting a personal ban on all air travel is impractical. Intercontinental travel from the Americas to nearly anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere practically requires it as the sea faring options are few, require more time than most travelers have available and can be quite expensive. However, once a traveler has arrived at the destination, it is often easier to make a conscious decision about the mode of travel used.

Taking the slow route will have a direct impact to the amount of connections made during the journey (pun intended). Choosing a train or bus over an airplane will allow you to appreciate the changing scenery along the way. Opting to navigate country roads and highways in the car rather than by the more direct expressway route will uncover a treasure of towns and villages forgotten by everyone but the locals. Skipping the subway to either walk or ride a city bus will minimize the disorientation many travelers experience upon reemerging from underground in an unfamiliar city. What a slow traveler loses in time can be repaid in full with everything experienced along the way.

Get to know your destination intimately

There’s a joke I’ve heard over the years where the weary traveler says something to the effect of “We’re in London, so it must be Tuesday!” The day of the week and location changes, but the message is still the same. In the US, vacation days are in such scarce supply that many feel it important to pack in as many sites as possible, especially when travelling abroad. The itinerary of a popular European “tour” lists eleven cities in six countries over the course of 21 days. No one destination is experienced for more than a couple of days. Booking this will likely hit all the major tourist attractions along the way, but can’t give one a real sense of the cities visited.

Changing the above itinerary to include two, maybe three destinations in the same three weeks would give a traveler the opportunity to experience a place more than just superficially. On our honeymoon, Fara and I spent a week in Paris at the beginning of our trip. By the end of our time there, we had not only visited most of the popular tourist sites but more importantly we had experienced enough of our neighborhood to have a favorite cafe, boulangerie and patisserie that we visited almost daily. The people in these shops also got to know us better, making sure our favorite pastries and baguettes were there for us when we stopped by in the morning on our way to the Metro. The most interesting find was when we decided we’d had enough of the tourist sites and walked the opposite direction one day. What we found was a local farmers market and the most quaint fondue restaurant you could ever ask for. Had our itinerary rushed us to the point of only being tourists, little of that would have happened.

Immerse yourself in a culture, don’t just observe it

This concept is very similar to the one I commented on previously, but I feel it differs just enough to warrant its own section. Spending more time in a destination will enable you to explore more of the place, getting to know the physical location. Trying to understand and be a part of the culture will allow you to be closer to the people. Cultural immersion is a very broad topic and I won’t even try to come across as an expert, but there are a few things that Fara and I routinely do in order to break through the culture barrier.

Being native English speakers, we have the advantage (or is it disadvantage) that it is taught as a second language to much of the industrialized world. This means that rarely are we in a situation where we can’t find someone that speaks English better than we could ever speak the local language. That said, it is rather rude to assume and expect it to be the case. I don’t advocate that a traveler to a foreign land has to be fluent even to a small degree, but learning a few key local phrases goes a long way towards not being seen as just another tourist. “Hello”, “Good bye”, “Excuse me” and “Thank you” are essential, but we also try to know more complex phrases such as “Where is the bathroom?” and “Yes, I’ll have another beer/wine/whiskey” for obvious reasons.

Doing what the locals do is a great way to understand the culture. Spending the time to enjoy the morning cup of coffee sitting in a cafe rather than seeking out the local Starbucks for take-out will make you part of the scene. The same is true of occupying a stool in a nearby pub as the locals drop in for a pint on the way home from work. Being the only diners in a restaurant at 6pm flags you as a tourist when it would be better to arrive at 9pm when it will be full of regulars (just be prepared for the meal to take multiple hours).

The accommodations you book can also impact how deep into a culture you dive. Since starting our adventure last August, we have more often than not booked a private room via AirBnB, rather than an entire apartment/home or a hotel room. In general, the hosts we’ve encountered have been wonderful people who enjoy learning about the guests staying with them and in return sharing a bit of their culture with the guests. As the guest you also get to see a side of the place your staying in normally reserved for the local residents.

To sum it up

Fara and I advocate for slow travel because it makes us feel connected to the people and places we visit. There will always be situations where we have to speed up again and take a quick flight to get across the country, or stay in a hotel for a night on our way to another destination. But, when given a choice, we will take the slower route.

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