Friday, 21 December 2012

5 Top Tips for Slowing Down your Travels!

After my recent post propounding the benefits of travelling fast, and in the truly bi-polar style you may have come to associate with Notes from the Road, I’ve decided to do a post on how and why it can be nice to travel slowly.

Some argue that there are two kinds of people in this world; introverts and extroverts. Introverts (of whom I am definitely one) are supposed to focus inwardly, on the self. For these people it makes sense for a trip to be more about the journey than the destination(s). Hence, fast travel.

My legs, floating on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
However, extroverts focus outwardly, on their surroundings, other people, cultures and so on. For the extrovert, taking the time to rest, let out a deep breath and take in your backdrop is always very important. Hence, slow travel.

Likewise, if you’re a travel writer, your readers will expect not a self-indulgent On the Road or Fear and Loathing-esque journey, but insightful observations, correct facts and an in-depth study of one particular place, be it a continent or a particular hotel.
In order to do this – become the expert on the place in question – you have to take your time. You’ll need time to observe, time to make notes, time to re-think your original biases, and, depending on the length of the piece you’re writing, time to discover and experience your own story there.

It’s not enough to have had an impression or an overview as you passed through. You have to verify your facts, learn the names of the things you see, discover the historical and political reasons why they’re like that in the first place.

But the best thing about staying in each place for longer is you don’t just get to know the place really well, but also the people. Although you’ll meet people travelling anyway (the backpacker circuit can be like a small village in its own right) it’s never as rewarding as being welcomed into the local scene.

So, now that you’re convinced (or not), here’s my advice: my 5 top tips to make the most of your slow travelling experience:

1.       First, when planning your trip, pick your destination(s) based on your own personal interests and passions. Make sure they’re not fleeting interests but have plenty of depth to plumb. You’ll thank yourself later…and remember, if your head can’t decide, always go with the heart.

2.       Hop a narrowboat! – Though a typically British phenomenon, designed for the particularly small locks of the old, inland canal system of Britain, this could just as easily apply to the barges of France, Germany or elsewhere in Europe, a cruise, or the waterways of Vietnam, Indonesia, etc … though probably not to a gondola in Venice (I doubt you’ll be able to relax that much when paying by the minute). The point is, narrowboats are notoriously slow, giving you as much time as you need to take in the scenery, reflect on your travels and on the nature of life itself, and even stop of at the pub from time to time when you get bored. Just make sure you bring someone to steer the boat for you.

3.       If you’re not lucky enough to be in a country where travel by water is common, there are plenty of other options to slow down the pace of travel, such as walking and cycling holidays. Hitchhiking will mean that your pace is controlled by your environment and that every mile you cover will be in the company of a local (or long distance trucker…or another traveller with a rental car). Likewise, choosing local buses over long-distance, international coaches will add a unique dimension to your trip. When you’re travelling, it can be tempting to crawl exhausted onto a night bus and sleep away 15 hours while the landscape outside passes you by in the darkness. Though I’m actually quite fond of this, just think about what you’re missing. Stopping off in every little town along the way will give you a unique insight into the destination and the lives of the people who live there. It’ll also ensure that you’re experiences are far more diverse and shall we say ‘genuine’, than those who simply jumped from point to point on the backpacker trail.

4.       Learn a language! It goes without saying that if you’re looking to learn everything there is to know about a country, and ultimately reach the point where you feel you belong there, first you’ll have to learn the local language. In fact, because culture is so intimately tied to language, you’ll find that by learning a language abroad, you are also learning about the people, the place, and their history in far more depth than you otherwise could.

5.       Finally, it’s a matter of money. While we all (travellers, that is) have vastly different budgets and every country has a very different cost of living/travelling, the basic principle is (almost) always the same. You make money, and as time goes by, you spend it. So it’s in the interest of every traveller to cut costs, and one way for the slow traveller to do these is to capitalise on the fact you’ll be in one place for a while. Make a deal with an hotelier/hostel owner, or find a place to stay that specifically offers long stay accommodation, such as the West Beach Hotel in Brighton.

For more tips on slow travel, fast travel, or any other kind of travel, you can subscribe to Notes from the Road for free, just by entering your email in the box (top, right).

Anyway, keep calm and carry on travelling slowly…

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Fast Travel: Is It for You?

Let me start by saying that this post is not an attack on anyone else's prefered style of travel, but simply a defence of mine, which often comes under attack itself.

Everyone is different, and so it follows that everyone's travel preferences are different too. Some people hate it all, some love it. Some like to do it alone, others with friends, family, their partner, kids, etc. Some people like a week on the beach in Ayia Napa, some people like a year in Shanghai, and some people, like me, prefer to always be on the move.

I like to travel fast (on a motorcycle, given the choice), taking that surreal, magical high that always accompanies the begining of a new adventure and making it last for months. To use that age-old cliche, I like to live life to the extremes.

This self-discovery is the product of much experimentation and experience, and yet I often get criticised for "just ticking off countries" or "not getting into the culture" here's what I have to say in return.

Fast Travel: Case Study 1

I recently took a trip with some friends to Geneva, Switzerland. Friends, I might add, who are among the critics of "fast travel". It was a very cool trip, it has to be said, but did we experience Switzerland?

We spent 4 nights in Geneva, and here's what we did:
  • The Hadron Collider at SERN
  • Went to an Ice Hockey game
  • Walked around the city by day x4
  • Walked around the city by night x4
  • Climbed Mount Saleve
  • Ate out in restaurants
  • Drank in bars
  • Bought food in supermarkets
  • Had a great night out!
  • Stood under the Jet d'eau fountain
  • A lot of time spent at the hostel; online, watching TV, chatting, playing foosball.
  • ...and a couple of hours outside the city, sat beside Lake Geneva, shootin' the shit.
Okay, now let's assume you're fascinated by Hadrons, and that you a visit to SERN will increase your knowledge of it more than reading about it on Wikipedia. Either way, the experience of being shown an educational video before being led around a visitor attraction is not a new one for many people. If you've been to a Science museum or something similar back home, you know roughly what to expect.

The restaurants in question were Mexican, pizza, and a typical Swiss restaurant, where we ate fondue. Each experience of which could have easily been had outside of Switzerland (even the Swiss fondue restaurant, I'm afraid...and for a lot cheaper too).

The great night out took place in an Irish Pub. Go figure!

The supermarkets, the hostel, the chatting, internet, TV, and other down time would all happen along the way while travelling anyway.

Walking around the same streets everyday obviously shed little extra light on the first time.

Mount Saleve, while a fun experience, is by no means Switzerland's tallest, most picturesque, or most challenging mountain. In fact it was chosen for its proximity to the city, and because it constituted "something to do" while in Geneva.

How would the Fast Traveller do it?

So that leaves the Ice Hockey match, exploring the city before and after dark, and my personal favourite; a few hours contemplating the beauty of Lake Geneva in the company of good friends.

Now I propose a different way of "doing" Geneva. How about riding into town with a trail of experiences behind you and a head full of memories, catching the hockey match, taking a good look around (including getting drenched by the Jet d'eau...and if you must, some fondue) before riding on out again, across one of the most dramatic and beautiful landscapes in the world, taking in new scenery at every turn, and all en route to your next adventure?

What do you loose? Nothing. What do you gain? So much! Now have we experienced Switzerland? Maybe, maybe not, but certainly moreso.

Fast Travel: Case Study 2

Two other friends of mine spent many weeks in Buenos Aires, not all in one go, but on and off during a trip around South America.

My personal experiences of Buenos Aires include being taken out to an extremely deprived barrio and helping build houses, as well as experiencing Argentinian house parties (or preboliches), tangoing with "the locals" at a boliche, eating asados at La Costanera, sharing the mate beside the rio, and many others. I even learnt some Argentinean Spanish.

I expect I'll take these experiences to the grave (sorry for another cliche)...and I was only in Buenos Aires for a couple of nights.

My friends, as far as I know, spent their three weeks hanging out at the hostel, eating out in restaurants and buying food in supermarkets, wandering the same parts of town over and over, bored, seeing "the sights" more out of obligation than genuine want, and all in the name of "getting to know the city". They came back having never heard of Fernet, the (un)official drink of Argentina, (despite being imported from Italy).

So who "experienced" Buenos Aires better? I wouldn't like to say, but I know which set of experiences I'd rather have.

More arguments for travelling fast!

...and if that doesn't convince people, I hit 'em with these:

  1. There are just shy of 200 (official) countries out there. Not to mention; some are huge, with infinite landscapes, peoples and cultures. Let's say you live to the ripe old age of 78. You probably didn't start your travelling career until you were done with school and so on. So that's around 60 years of potential travelling. Even if you're abroad and travelling consistently for your entire life (which is highly doubtful - try to think of one person who's done it), that's still only 0.3 years in each country. Now let's say you started later or you're going to die tomorrow... You get the picture. There's not a lot of time in this life, and if you really want to get the most out of it, fast travel is one way to go.
  2. I read enough other travel blogs to see that this is not too radical an idea. Many travellers are realising that, often, you'll have more fun doing what you want than seeing the sights for sights' sake.
  3. I'm not saying that I spend long enough in one place to fully experience the culture. I'm saying that neither does the slow traveller. It takes years to learn a language - the first step to immersing yourself in a culture completely. Unfortunately it's not always a case of the longer you stay the deeper you get. I've already shown with my Geneva and BA "case studies" that the converse is often closer to the truth. I don't mind being told that there's more to a place than I saw, by people who were prepared to devote years to that one place. I do, however, resent it when it comes from people who've spent three weeks in the hostel and the Irish bar down the street. Not that I'm ragging on hostel-bums either. We've all been there. It's another experience after all.
  4. £! $! It's the accomodation, as well as the food, drink, laundry and other minor daily costs that can really cut down the duration of your trip. Most people make the mistake of thinking that posting up in one place for a couple of weeks will help you save money. But that's not the only way of looking at it. If you can do what you might in two weeks, in two days, you can save a fortune on accomodation, food and the other necessities, and therefore see and do more on your trip. In short, you'll get many more experiences for your buck.
  5. Jack Kerouac travelled this way, and he's a legend!
  6. There are others out there who like to travel so fast they make me look like a well-rooted oak. Nick Sanders, the adventure touring motorcyclist for example, has admitted not noticing whole countries pass by in the blur between fuel stops. Though I'm not sure this extreme is quite for me either, I'll be the first to admit, there's a lot to be said for the joy of speed and movement in general.
  7. We can't all travel the same way, can we. Some of us are just different.

I hope this post has helped those wannabe fast travellers to see that they're not alone, and shown everyone else not to be so critical.

The only downside of travelling fast, as far as I'm concerned, is that people can't keep up. If you want to travel fast, first you have to be prepared for travelling alone. See my previous post for advice on travelling alone.

God speed!