In April Jake and I did a little photography lesson in the Black Dragon Cafe, here in Dali, China. After we shared the photos from the baking class we took there the month before, CC, the baking instructor and owner of the Cafe, invited us back to do a food photography demonstration. It was a little bit chaotic, but it was a lot of fun – especially since we took all the food to a flower farm after we cooked it, for a big sunset picnic. As I was getting the photos ready for this post it got me thinking about how that day really reflects a lot of the things I love about Dali, and why we chose to spend the next year here.
If you’ve been reading our blog over the last few years, you know that we’ve been slow traveling full time since January of 2017. The idea behind it is that we get to experience the world as a family, but without the hectic and superficial pace of a quick vacation here and there. We get to know a city over the course of a month before moving on to our next adventure. We stayed right outside the colosseum in Rome, road tripped through the South of France, and even camped in a tent for a three months in Scotland.
Traveling slowly is an amazing experience that just can’t be compared to a vacation. Over a month, we learn the side streets and traffic patterns. We find our favorite restaurants and farmer’s markets. We even learn which playgrounds have kids Lisa’s age and make a few friends while we’re at it. And all the while, we kept moving at a snail’s pace, never falling into a rut or a routine.
But that’s actually only a half truth.
There was a routine of a different kind. And though it’s a problem that will sound romantic and exciting at first, it’s a problem nonetheless. One that’s been weighing on our family in the last few months. Travel is definitely an adventure – our favorite adventure, which we are going to continue – but there’s a reason most people don’t choose it as a lifestyle. Full time travel entails a lack of continuity that wears you down over time, makes it hard to be productive, and on top of all that, makes it really hard to potty train.
Our routine played out over weeks instead of hours. We would arrive in a city, unpack and rest up for a day or so after a long trip with lots of luggage and a toddler (the other thing about full time travel is you have to carry everything you own). Then we would get to work exploring and getting acquainted with our surroundings. We would try out the shops, talk to the locals, and scout for our photography. We’d take Lisa to the playgrounds and chat with other parents when we found some that spoke English. We’d learn which stores had good vegetarian food, and where we could get good prices. If we needed it, we’d figure out how to use the public transportation.
But it always seemed like just as we were finally getting to know a place, when we were just figuring out how to live our lives there, it was time to move on. We’d spend another day packing up all of our stuff, and catch the bus or the plane or the train. Lisa would leave her new friends behind – usually without a chance to say goodbye – and all the connections we’d made, the hacks we’d discovered and the routes we’d mapped out were suddenly relegated to list of potential blog posts. It was time to start over.
And just to be clear, starting over was kind of the point. That’s why we embarked on this journey and it remained a fun and exciting part of our lives. We were just as excited to explore a new city as we were sad to leave the last one behind. The point I’m trying to make is that it was kind of tiring. It would be nice to have the time to really benefit from all the knowledge we gain over the course of a month about the layout, culture and people of a place.
As Jake mentioned in his last installment of Operation Digital Nomad, we’ve decided to “settle down” for a little while in Dali, China. Jake talked about some of the reasons we chose Dali – the scenery, the region, the climate, the people – but there were other, more subtle reasons as well. We originally came here for cherry blossom season (see the photos here and here), and intended to stay for the months of March and April. Just staying in one place for a two months instead of one made a big difference in how we saw the city we were in. Like all the places we’ve been to, Dali is beautiful, with mountains, water and flowers all year round. We also found ourselves living at a pace that was easier, healthier and more comfortable than we’d experienced in a long time.
It wasn’t just better than the months we’d spent traveling in Europe. It felt better than before we’d started traveling as well. Dali, China isn’t just a great place for slow travel, it’s a great place for slow living. The house we’ve rented is in a quiet neighborhood well outside the city center (it’s actually in the community where we took the cherry blossom photos). It’s a short walk to Dali Old Town, a number of fresh markets and (really good) vegetarian restaurants. There safe and clean playgrounds inside the housing community for Lisa to play in with other children, exposing her to a second language and giving her a chance to make real friends that she can socialize with.
As we walk down the streets here in Dali, we find that even when it looks crowded, there is a quietness in the air that makes it feel peaceful. Maybe that will change in time as Chinese cities continue to grow, but for now, it really feels like we’ve found a nice place. It’s modern enough that we feel comfortable, but different enough from the western world that we don’t feel like we’ve stopped traveling. By the time our lease runs out and we’re ready to move on, I think we’re going to really feel like we didn’t just visit Dali, we lived here. Many, many years from now, Lisa will come to think of Dali as place she once called home, and I hope she will remember all the adventures we encounter together and the friends we make.
And while we are here, we can still go on trips to other cities and regions, so that when we are ready to pick our next destination for extra slow travel, we will already know where we want to be. They say that home is where your heart is. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last year and a half, it’s that to feel at home while you are traveling, you have to give your heart time to catch up with you.
While we are spending our time slow traveling and slow living in Yunnan, China, there will be a new column on our blog, which will focus on slow living and featuring people, stories and food we’ve encountered during our year in Yunnan, China. We welcome old and new friends visiting us in our Dali home.
(FYI to clear things up, Yunnan is a highland state in the southwest of China, and Dali is a city in Yunnan which is famous for it’s lake, mountains, flowers -perpetually spring like weather and a well preserved old town. We traveled to other regions of Yunnan back in 2013, but it is this year’s trip to Dali which sealed the deal.)
if you are interested in learning where we’ve been over all these months and years, check out our destinations page. You might also be interested in Operation Digital Nomad, the monthly post in which Jake goes over our efforts to monetize this blog to help cover our expenses. And if you’d really like to help support us, check out our resources page the next time you are planning a trip to see what travel, photography and blogging gear we have found useful through trial and error. Here’s wishing you good times on your big adventure, at whatever pace you choose to move!