What is slow travel? I’ve been trying to come up with a good definition of the term, and I keep coming up against a wall. I’ve read other people’s definitions, and seen it described as a social movement, a trend, a mode of transportation, and even a state of mind. Most of it was either frustratingly vague or frustratingly restrictive. I think there’s a good reason for this. People want the term to have meaning, but they also want to make it inclusive enough that anyone can do it.
Recurring Themes in Slow Travel Descriptions
Overall, the definitions of slow travel revolved around a number of themes, each of which seem logical enough at first glance, but lost value as I tried to apply them to our experience. It got so bad that I started to wonder if maybe we weren’t slow traveling at all, despite the fact that we were living in foreign cities for a month at a time, and having a pretty rewarding experience. I’m going to start with a discussion of those themes, and why – upon giving them way too much thought – I found them to be problematic, or at least incomplete.
Slow Travel is “Slow”
The word slow in slow travel gets interpreted in a couple of ways. The most obvious way is to interpret it literally and say that slow travel is about moving slowly. This could be accomplished either by choosing a form of transportation that allows you to experience the world more fully as you get from point A to point B – on a train for example – or by staying at one destination for an extended period of time in order to achieve a greater connection to that place. I think this interpretation is a critical component of slow travel, but doesn’t fully encompass the spirit of it.
The other interpretation is to see “slow” as S.L.O.W. (Sustainable, Local, Organic, Whole) from the slow food and slow living movements from which many claim slow travel evolved. I dunno. I think that the slow lifestyle is admirable. And when you are traveling, you can practice it as much as possible. Dannie and I love farmers’ markets, and when we find an organic or unprocessed product, we prefer it to the alternative. Sustainability, too, is something worth pursuing. We only have one world, and if it isn’t too late (it isn’t) it’s a world worth protecting.
But the S.L.O.W. movement almost feels at odds with travel. There’s no way to get across the world without leaving a big footprint. Even if you take great pains to be friendly to the planet as you move across its surface, the resources you put into traveling could help more by investing environmental lobbying or making your home more efficient. You can eat healthy food that is local to the region when you travel (depending on where you travel to), but you don’t have to travel to do that. We’re in favor of the slow movement, and to the extent that it’s possible to live and eat slowly while traveling, I encourage anyone to do it as much as possible. But to me it feels tagged on. It’s something you do despite the fact that you are traveling, not as a purpose for traveling.
Slow Travel is “Authentic”
Who doesn’t want authenticity? No one would ever come home from their vacation and brag about how inauthentic it was. But what is authentic? Lots of people have opinions about what isn’t. Tourists aren’t authentic. Chain restaurants – especially McDonalds, apparently – and bus tours aren’t authentic. The locals don’t eat in the tourist traps. The locals don’t take tours, or ride in the gondolas, or have their caricature drawn, or take their picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, and so on.
But here’s the thing. You aren’t a local. If you are traveling – especially to another country – you are an outsider, and no amount of self judgement can change that. The locals are going to work and getting their kids ready for school. They are eating dinner in the house that has been in their family for generations, or in an apartment that they can finally afford because they got a better job, or maybe in a restaurant. They buy their bread fresh from the bakery, unless it’s inconvenient to do so, in which case they buy it from the grocery store. They watch TV sometimes – that’s why there are so many stations in the local language! When you aren’t traveling, you are a local. Think about the kinds of things you do and imagine that you are doing it in a different place. Ask yourself what someone would do if they wanted to have an authentic experience in your home town.
So does being authentic mean you can’t visit the colosseum or take a tour? If so, we’ve been traveling inauthentically for almost a year now. There are plenty of things that are marketed as authentic. You can buy authentic food and authentic clothing and bring it home as an authentic souvenir. Go for it! Is it made in China? Sure, lots of stuff is. Does that make it inauthentic? What if you are traveling in China?
Is traditional stuff authentic? What if the locals aren’t very traditional? Maybe then traditional stuff is just historic. What happens if a Roman walks by the colosseum? What if he takes a picture of it? What if he works there? Wait, what if he works at McDonalds? Is he a fake Roman or a fake employee?
Okay, you get my point. When applied to an experience, the word “authentic” is meaningless. Visit the landmarks. They are landmarks because they are amazing. Take pictures because it’s fun, because you want to remember the moment, and because you want to show it to people. Avoid fast food, not because it’s inauthentic, but because you never liked it much anyway. All of these things can be a part of slow travel, so stop judging yourself. Crowds of tourists are annoying not because they are tourists, but because they are crowds, so stop judging other people too. Judging yourself and others is not part of slow travel.
Slow Travel is “Open-Minded”
One of the main reasons for traveling is to seek out an experience you couldn’t have at home. So, doesn’t it make sense that a definition of slow travel would include being open to the unexpected? Changing our plans and embracing what we find has been an important part of our journey. Variety is the spice of life, and if you aren’t open to enjoying other places, people or cultures, then slow travel definitely isn’t for you. Once you get to a place, if you can’t let go of your preconceptions and embrace it for what it actually is, you didn’t really need to go there in the first place.
But like slow living, we feel that this is one of those mindsets that is good to have whether you are traveling or not. It’s a component of slow travel – an important one, too – but it isn’t the entirety of it.
Our Definition of Slow Travel
So our definition of slow travel includes all those things. We would say that yes, slow travel is slow. If you feel rushed or stressed out for more than a few minutes out of your day, then you are probably not slow traveling. And as you travel, you should do your best to practice slow living, especially if that is part of a lifestyle you already enjoy. And slow travel is open-minded. If you are staying in your comfort zone, just hanging out in the resort or watching tv, then you are relaxing… but you are not in the here and now. So yes to all of those things, but…
We would phrase it a little differently.
Slow Travel is Personal
“Wherever you go, there you are.” Sure it’s a truism, but it’s apt. I remember the first time that Dannie, Lisa and I traveled together outside the country. I remember walking down the banks of the Seine River in Paris with the Eiffel Tower glistening in the darkness as Lisa slept in the stroller. The scene was even more beautiful than we’d expected, but we both noticed something that caught us off guard. We didn’t feel very different. The air smelled like air. The cars sounded like cars. The ground beneath our feet was just pavement. “I sort of thought it would feel like floating,” Dannie said.
It wasn’t just disillusionment, it was a revelation. we’ve been guilty of calling places “magical” before when describing them, and we’ll probably do it again. But, of course, there’s no such thing as magic. The citizens of Paris aren’t swooning from one street corner to the next, overcome by the romance and beauty of the city of light. It’s just a place where people live. There are buildings. There are roads. There are buses. There are probably a few magicians who live and work there, but Paris is not literally magical.
That being said, a trip to Paris or anywhere else can be magical. But you have to bring your own fairy dust. No matter where you go, if you aren’t into architecture or history, the bus tour probably won’t float your boat. If you aren’t a foodie, it might not matter whether you dive into the local cuisine (though you might not have a choice). You have to seek out the aspects of your surroundings that appeal to the person you are stepping off the plane, not whatever stereotype of a traveler (fast or slow) you’ve seen stepping out of a magazine.
This doesn’t mean you can’t try new things or even push your boundaries – you can and should do so. But if you are slow traveling for weeks or even months, you will get nothing out of pretending to love something you hate. Test your expectations and be ready to change your plans when your expectations are wrong (about a place or about yourself), but explore your own mind before you explore a new city.
Slow Travel is Life
We don’t mean that in the way you probably think. We mean that slow travel is life, as opposed to an escape from life. This doesn’t mean you bring your desk job with you, but it does mean that everyday pains and pleasures don’t vanish simply because you aren’t in the apartment you’re used to.
Sometimes Dannie will talk to me about Buddhism. Just the other night she talking about the Diamond Sutra, in which the the Buddha has a conversation about the illusionary nature of what we perceive. But her favorite part, she says is near the beginning. There is one paragraph before the dialogue, in which the Buddha gets dressed, grabs his bowl, goes out and begs for food, comes home, eats his food, puts his bowl away, washes his feet, and finally sits down. Dannie likes that part because it shows that even if you’ve achieved enlightenment, you still have to live out all the moments of your life, just like everybody else.
Travel is amazing, but it’s a far cry from the bliss of total enlightenment (I assume). And doing what it takes to live your life is what separates slow travel from a vacation. When you are on vacation, you are taking a break from your life, and then you return to it. When you are on vacation, you visit a place. When you slow travel, you don’t just visit, you live there for a while. Even though you might be traveling for a longer period of time, there is actually less disruption to your life.
I think this where words like “authenticity” get mixed in – and get mixed up. If your goal is to live like a local, it means living as though you aren’t jetting off in a day or two. Likewise, if you are staying abroad for a while, it helps to live like a local. That means cooking your own meals and keeping your fridge stocked, instead of looking for a restaurant to have dinner at. It means getting to know not just the landmarks in your area, but the pharmacies, the bakeries, the parks and the bus routes. If you stay long enough, you’ll even have to familiarize yourself with the postal system and (gasp!) the neighbors. In other words, you’ll have to live your life in the place that you’re living.
If you are traveling slowly enough, you might even decide to go on a vacation for a day or two while you are there. Everybody needs one once in a while.
Slow Travel is Meaningful
When I graduated from college in 2005, I sold everything I couldn’t fit in my car (a 1996 Dodge Stratus), and I moved to Tucson Arizona. I didn’t have a home picked out. I didn’t have a job lined up. Why did I choose Tucson? Because in my entire life, I had never spent more than three weeks in a row outside a ten mile radius of the small town of Durham, New Hampshire. Tucson was about as far as I could get – geographically, geologically, and culturally – from the place where I grew up. I was hoping that a change in location would be a catalyst for change in my life. I was out to have an adventure. All the ingredients were there except meaning.
While I was there I did a little writing, but not much. I listened to a lot of my favorite music, and I played some video games – but that didn’t mean I never got out. My favorite pastime in college was playing ultimate frisbee, so I joined a local team, trained with them and went to tournaments. I formed friendships with some of my teammates. I looked half heartedly for a job while I was there, but the lack of direction I’d felt in New Hampshire had followed me across the country. After a few months, my money ran out and I broke my lease, moved back in with some of my buddies in New Hampshire (who had bought some of my old stuff anyway), and returned to the part time job I had left.
It’s possible that I could have changed my life while I was in Tucson, but it was unreasonable to expect Tucson to do all the work. I didn’t go there with a mission, and as a result, no mission was accomplished.
I wouldn’t say that my trip to Tucson was slow travel, even though I was there for a long time and I certainly didn’t act like a normal tourist. My time there was definitely slow, but athough I was thousands of miles away from home I am reluctant to call it travel. I didn’t do anything that I couldn’t have done at home. I had a list of reasons why it was a reasonable place for me, but because I never embraced anything that was unique to the city, I actually had no reason to be there. I could have saved a lot of money and stayed home.
I guess that story was a long way of saying that I think slow travel should have a purpose, and that the purpose should be something that you couldn’t accomplish by staying home. Right now, Dannie and Lisa and I are focused on our photography (okay, maybe Lisa isn’t that focused), and as a result we do visit a lot of landmarks that are frequented by tourists. But we are doing it with purpose! We get a lot of satisfaction out of the photos we take. We love sharing them, but even more, we love the process of creating them. We plan carefully, practice our techniques and learn to see the world with new vision. When we explore the city or a landscape we have the good fortune to see the sights as more than checkmarks on a list. Each location feels ripe with potential, and every morning we are glad we are waking up in the place where we are.
It’s been so rewarding that we’re having a hard time imagining leaving the lifestyle behind. We’ve started trying to monetize our blog through a project we call Operation Digital Nomad (if you want to support us, consider taking a look at our resource page). And imagining ourselves moving around forever has added meaning to our travel we didn’t expect. Since we aren’t on vacation, we have to think extra hard about the effects travel will have on our daughter.
We need spend real time and energy making sure that she gets what she needs out of a place as well. We have to keep her healthy, so we learn where to buy good food and where to get exercise. We have to help her learn, so we take time to slow down and let her indulge her curiosity. We have to find other children for her to play with. As she ages, she needs new clothes and toys as she grows out of everything in her suitcase. Traveling with a child forces us to embrace every aspect of slow travel that makes up my definition. She doesn’t give us the option of thinking of our location as temporary.
Slow Travel is Mindful
Finally, just because we can’t help but break our own rules, we’re going to tag on one last definition that is something you should be doing all the time whether you are slow traveling or not. If your slow travel is personal and and meaningful, and if it feels like your life, then it should also be mindful. You should be aware of what your are doing and experiencing and what effect it is having on you and on others.
When people judge tourists (and when tourists judge themselves), it is usually because of the litter that is dropped or the noise that is created or the way they breeze past what some might see as the most valuable part of a city on their way to the most popular part. Dannie and I do our best to be the kinds of guests we would want to have in our own town. We try, but we still fail sometimes, and when we fail, we try our best to be mindful of the consequences so that we can do better in the future.
But that’s only half of being mindful. It’s also important to be mindful of how you are treating yourself and the impact your actions and thoughts are having on your life. Are you getting carried away trying to see to much at once? How long has it been since you spent some time just reading? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you learning anything? Are you having fun? Have you lost sight of why you wanted to travel in the first place? I don’t know for sure that being mindful has to be part of our definition of slow travel. But if you aren’t being mindful of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, what’s the point of having a definition in the first place?
And that’s the end of the post. Thanks for reading.