I don’t think I will ever be able to understand people who can spend only one day, or even one week, in a given place and then move on. I can’t do it. For me, visiting a place for only a short period of time is almost worse than not visiting at all. I am what some folks have now taken to calling a “slow” traveler. I see itineraries like this and start to have an anxiety attack. When I travel, I rarely see more than a couple places on a given trip. Sure, this means that I don’t see as much, but I get to know the places I visit much better than someone who only stops in for a couple days. Think of it as quality over quantity. If I have a month, I will only visit one country. If I have a week, I’ll only visit one city. If I have a day, I’ll only visit one “sight”. I hate hate hate feeling rushed, and I’d rather leave the place with a few good memories and hope to come back than leave with a bunch of stressed memories and barely remember why I went there in the first place. Sometimes this means I don’t see as much, don’t eat as much, don’t experience as much as other, more on-the-go travelers. That’s alright with me. I would rather spend an hour playing in the river than make it up the trail in time to see the monks singing at the temple.
I blame my childhood partially for this one. My parents are both artists, and due to this we always had a lot of flexibility with our vacations when I was a kid. We often took several trips a year, and at least one or two of them were guaranteed to be at least two weeks long. My family tended to stay in one location for a long time, rather than running around trying to see everything. We’d rent a cabin in Colorado and fish the days away. We’d get a beach house in North Carolina and spend the non-sunny days laying on the floor, tossing playing cards up at the blades of the ceiling fan. Choosing to stay in a given location for longer allowed us to better absorb the nature of that place, and lowered stress levels. It’s really the only way I can conceive of traveling.
I have a several reasons for choosing to travel slowly and more deliberately. It’s a topic that is sometimes a bit difficult for me to explain to folks, but I’ll do my best. By this point slow travel, like solo travel, has simply become part of my general traveling style, but I still have enough perspective to try and explain some of the reasons why this has become so integral to my identity as a traveler.
1. It lowers stress. One of the major causes of stress while traveling, at least for me, is when I have a small amount of time to accomplish a large amount of stuff. Not only that, but faster travel (traveling for a long time but seeing a lot of locations) or shorter travel is also much more prone to difficulties caused by the gods of chance. If you only have two days to see Tokyo, you’re likely to be quite disappointed if there’s a torrential downpour on both, or even one, of the days, or if something goes wrong and your ATM card isn’t working. Slow travel solves the stress problem because it allow you to shrug your shoulders and inwardly say “That’s okay, I’ll do it tomorrow.” If your trip to Tokyo was a week long, those two days of rain, while not exactly a fun time, would not be the ruination of your trip. Likewise, if you have longer to spend in a location, you don’t have to run around like a headless chicken to try and see everything you want to see in only a few days. You can spread your explorations out, and even sometimes allow for full rest days where you do nothing but hang around the hostel and work on the backlog of comments from your blog.
When Marc came to visit me in Korea, we only had two and a half weeks together. Initially I had wanted to show him several parts of the country, but in the end we opted to visit just two places, Gangwon Province and Seoul, and spend more time in each. As a result we were able to have a couple “throwaway” days where we just wandered around and explored the area and put off visits to tourist destinations like temples, etc, for days with more favorable conditions. Sure, we could have seen more, but by choosing to longer chunks of time in each place, we were able to travel with less stress and were able to relax and have more fun.
2. It allows you to immerse yourself in the local culture. This is a big one for me as both a traveler and a photographer. The best photographs come from little-known secret local areas, and if you only have a couple days in a location, you aren’t likely to discover them. The longer you stay in a given place, the more you will hear about the local secrets; markets, bars, restaurants, sights, and events you would likely have not known about if you were too busy rushing from tourist destination to tourist destination. Not only that, but if you stay in one place for a long time (multiple months), the locals are likely to begin to regard you with more respect and as something of an “inside outsider” (more on that in another post). By choosing to stay put, you are in effect showing that you have a high regard for their country and that you aren’t just passing through, and if you become a regular in certain restaurants, shops, bars, or whathaveyou, you may find that in time, you begin to be treated differently and more like a local. In countries with very closed societies, staying put is one of the only ways you will ever be able to integrate yourself even marginally into the local culture. Rural Korea is notorious for being very shut off to foreigners, but I found that when the locals on Jindo realized that I lived next to them, took my motorcycle to the same repair shop, ate at the same restaurants they did…I found that most of them warmed up considerably and by the time I left after a year, I even had the shopkeepers saying goodbyes. Similarly, I found that when I stayed in one tiny (113 residents) mountain village in Switzerland for 3 weeks, the famously cold and closed Swiss became warm and inviting, even offering me a place at family dinner tables.
3. It gives your travels more perspective and allows you to see progress and change. For me, this one was quite literal during my year spent on Jindo Island. I got to see the seasons change, and I got to see the population of foreigners on the island rise from four when I arrived to almost 10 by the time I left (practically a colony of our own, really). The island was known for being the origin of Korea’s national dog, the Jindo Gae, and I got to watch countless puppies go from little furry white fuzzballs to full-grown adults capable of taking on a wild boar. These indirect indicators of time gone by really helped me to understand how long I had been on the island, and how I myself had changed. When I first arrived, I thought my apartment was pretty much on the edge of town. By the time I left, I was well aware that it was actually quite central and that the town went on for almost another mile in any direction. When I arrived I initially saw Jindo as an isolated, dirty backwater with open sewers and a distinct lack of availability of the foods I enjoyed. By the time I left, I saw it as a quiet island where older Koreans were trying to hold onto the Korea of their pasts, and where there was a surprising amount of variety to be had so long as you knew where to look.
4. You have more time to discover things you like and dislike. If I had been in Korea for a week, I probably would have never tried kimchi. Even a month I probably could have done. But when living in Korea for a year…kimchi is unavoidable with that kind of duration, no matter how many horrible stories I had heard about it. It takes me time to warm up to things, places, and people. Food is no different. When I first arrive somewhere, I’m very likely to stick to things that sound vaguely familiar on the menu. Over time, though, I start pointing randomly at other people’s plates and I’ve discovered some amazing dishes that way. Without the time to properly warm up to Korean cuisine, I probably wouldn’t have tried much of it at all.
When I lived in Korea I also discovered that I love motorcycling. The first time I drove my little 150cc bike I was utterly terrified. I had to drive the damn thing home on the highway, which didn’t make things any easier, and for the first week or so, I never got the bike over 40kph. The locals must have thought I was nuts. In time, though, I developed more confidence on the bike and soon enough I was whizzing along at 100kph, changing my own oil, even, at one point, beating a BMW up a very winding mountain road. If I hadn’t been in Korea for long, not only would I have not gotten a motorcycle, I wouldn’t have had the time to learn to love the freedom of them either. I wouldn’t have had the idle hours to drive aimlessly around the island, discovering new villages that had literally never seen a foreigner before. I wouldn’t have discovered the quiet, traditional Korea that I eventually came to love (noisy, modern Korea is a different country in my book). Being able to spend an entire year on my little isolated island allowed me to gain insights and perspective that I could have never gotten from a few days or even weeks.
I think that travel is a deeply personal undertaking, and as such, personal preferences are just that. Some travelers get their joy out of seeing three museums in a day, others get theirs from visiting a farmer’s market and then taking a nap on a park bench. Some travelers want to get to the top of the mountain, while others are okay with hanging out at the waterfall they found on the way up. But, if you have found yourself waking up the next morning barely able to remember what you did the day before, or feeling that you need a vacation from your vacation, or getting back from a trip just as stressed as you were when you left…you may want to consider giving slow travel a chance.
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