On the joy of snail-paced travel

I have always had a knack for enjoying doing nothing. Give me a hammock, a book, and sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatched roof – or a window seat on a long train journey – and I’m perfectly happy. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. Some of my happiest travel memories revolve around the simple pleasure of people watching. Sipping chai on a hotel balcony while watching the dhobi wallahs scrub clean mountains of laundry in the river below. Sitting at a pavement cafe observing the world go by. It’s when travelling creaks down a few paces to a crawl that I feel the most alive.

Because of this, it was with a large dollop of trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in one place if the mood beckoned me. Travelling on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed…a little…quick. Blink and you miss them. Organised tours take the hassle out of your travel plans. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and can’t spend a longer time on the road. But how much culture and history can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East?

For over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.

It was a life carried out in fast speed. Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column, just surveying the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as the get-on-the-bus, get-off-the-bus, endless packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on weary backs.

Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off only if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.

The afternoon after I resigned I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. Despite living in the city for four years I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours; just breathing in the atmosphere of quiet contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter view of pigeon coops and satellite dishes which grace Cairo’s rooftops, greeted me at the top.

Having the luxury of slowing down while travelling is something of a frowned upon treat. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – where we graduate from needing to own ipod and plasma-screen TV, to mortgage and kids – it’s seen a little naughty to be so lavish with wasting time. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Having seen the other side of tourism up close, slow travel is a luxury worth wanting. 

22 thoughts on “On the joy of snail-paced travel

  1. I understand not being able to take large amounts of time to travel – I’m mostly stuck in that mode myself, but I’ve never understood the traveler’s desire to see huge amounts of territory in 2-3 weeks. Yosemite-Rainier-Yellowstone-Arches-Grand Canyon in 2 weeks – what’s the point? London-Paris-Rome in 10 days – why bother? While I typically only had 10 days to 2 weeks for trips, I always chose smaller geographic areas.

    Due to work and life, my first opportunity to do anything close to “slow travel” was my 5 week fall 2011 trip to Ecuador. It was a revelation to not have to spend my time rushing around. To be able to spend an entire day doing basically nothing when I felt like it. To spend 5 days in a small town instead of 2 days. In previous travels, I was always go-go-go because I knew I had limited time.

    I’m jealous of your ability for extended travel. I just hope you are saving for retirement so that you don’t have to work when you are 70 (unless you choose to of course!).

    • I know. I kind of understand why people do it – only four weeks holiday a year/need to brag to friends about impressive holiday time/pure curiosity about the world and need to see everything – but seriously, they were always, always exhausted at the finish line. It would have been much more pleasant to do things, as you did when you had little time, and simply opt to take on a smaller geographic area. But then again, if everyone was sensible like that most overland travel companies would be out of business.

      Retirement? You’ve got to be kidding right? I’m an ex-tour leader and now I’m a freelance writer. There IS no retirement savings. They’re not exactly jobs you do for the money.🙂

  2. It’s such a dilemma, isn’t it? When you have the money, you don’t have the time and later in your life, you have the time, but not the money.

    • I’ve got to say, when I was tour leading in the Middle East a solid 40% of my passengers overall would have been retirees. And I’ve met a ton of amazing people over 60 just toodling about the world as an independent traveller. It’s not so much about time/money but having the impetus to go.

    • So, so true. We decided to take time out now and make the money work (travelling on a shoestring) – life’s too short.

  3. We definitely took our sweet time in Asia, especially Vietnam, and it was blissful – hardly even felt like ‘travelling’ as such. It is a luxury, and a wonderful one.

  4. I love your writing! Discovered this blog thanks to the ‘wordpress.com News’ email. Some of the things you state here are things I can associate with very well. Also nice to know you were in love with India at some point of time🙂
    Looking forward to more articles.

  5. Another inspiring post! Glad I found you! Yes, I’ve done both…usually the speedy gonzalez type trips were when they were funded and organized by my dad or my aunt, I would go along as tour guide/translator/companion….but on my own I tend to spend months or years in one place…I feel that I’m vicariously traveling, here on wordpress!, as I’ve settled a bit, raising my daughter…but in 3 or 4 years she’ll be off to college…and I’ll return to that gypsy life I so miss and long for! I know I could have done this with her in tow, as I did once with my stepson at age 9, when his dad and I traveled with him overland from California to Brazil for one year…but now it’s high school and she would not be receptive to , nor well served by the itinerant life…although I do suggest it regularly to her! And yes, those comments about retirement….I’m 50 now, but figure life will bring me whatever is in store for me, and sometimes I worry, but never long enough to get serious about saving anything!

  6. Thanks – great blog and reassuring for a travelling Mum who sometimes feels like a tortoise trying to race her little family around like hares all over the place. Of course we want to make the most of visiting everywhere, experiencing all we can, not missing anything…, Sometimes we see how much others pack in and I’m thinking we should be doing the same but actually, perhaps the whole family are really tortoises, as our happiest moments are when we stay still and enjoy one place for a while! You’re blog ecourages me to slow down in my quest to be a hare!

  7. I would dearly love to spend more time travelling and relax a bit more, but with a fixed number of days off per year I always feel like I need to make the most of the time I have. You never know when you’ll have the chance to go back somewhere and I’m always worried I’m going to regret not seeing something that I may never have the chance to see again. But I also never feel like I’ve broken that feeling of being a tourist.

    It’s a shame and something I hope to change. I always think that by not seeing everything I am going to be missing out, but perhaps by not experiencing anything I am missing out even more. It’s much easier to come up with a list of sights to see and be satisfied that it was a ‘successful’ visit. Seeing something is tangible and precise whereas experiencing something is not.

    Fantastic post, really interesting to hear your point of view. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Admiring the dedication you put into your web page and details you provide. It’s awesome to come across a weblog every once in a while that is not the same out of time frame spun details. Outstanding read!

  9. Pingback: On the joy of snail-paced travel | The Trusting Traveler

  10. I love, love, loved this post! So much so, I re-posted it on my own site. It ties in beautifully with what my site is all about. I’m so glad I found it, and I could not agree with you more about the pleasures of slow travel; it is definitely how I love to travel myself!

  11. As you can appreciate, there is a world of difference between a cycling tourist and a car-driving tourist. And I haven’t regretted it these past 2 decades!

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