Six Things I Learned in Three Years on the Road: The Art of Slow Travel

This morning, I walked to my dance community event.  As is the custom in my neighborhood, we greet each other as we pass.   I know many of my neighbors by name.  In the afternoon, I went to the market to buy fresh bread, cheese and produce.   In the evening, I relaxed outside on the patio swing, drinking a cup of tea.  A pleasant breeze stirred the leaves.  I watched the sun set and listened to the birds.

I need connection.  Living out of a suitcase in a cramped hotel room is alienating.  The frantic pace of tourists who rush from one destination to another is not for me.

I believe in slow travel.  In the past few years, I have spent six weeks in London, several months each in Spain. Kenya, and Vietnam, nearly a year in Thailand and a year and a half in Mexico.

Slow travel has a lot in common with the slow food movement that began in Italy in the 1980´s with the aim to preserve local food traditions from farm to table.  Slow travel is about making a connections with the places we visit rather than rushing from site to site snapping pictures.

Slow travel is a mindset. Places are to be experienced rather than checked off a bucket list. It´s about staying in one place long enough to know your neighbor´s names, to have a favorite coffee shop, to linger over fresh flowers at the market.

Slow travel is thrifty travel.  Instead of blowing through a wad of money for a two-week trip, renting an apartment and cooking at least some of your meals is much kinder to your budget. Staying lowers transportation costs. You walk more.  Your body gets stronger.

Instead of site seeing, the slow traveler takes classes, learns new skills, meets people and joins groups.  It is an embedded experience, as compared to being on the outside looking in.  Slow travelers learn at least some of the language, and if they stay long enough they become fluent.

I travel by my senses.  Walking a glorious way to slow down and experience the world around me.  Sometimes I focus on looking, really looking.  Other times I focus on sounds.  There are layers and layers of sound around us, yet most of the time we are oblivious to them.  Other times, I use my nose, sniffing the air like a puppy.   In my neighborhood, my nose tells me where all the good cooks live.

Becoming familiar with the local food markets and taking cooking classes is pure pleasure.  Learning popular dances of a region is a great way to make friends.  In San Miguel, Mexico, where I live now, I could go dancing every night.  Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Cumbia and Tango are popular here.

My mantra is Joy.  Dance joy.  Cook joy.  Speak joy.  Paint joy.  Sing joy.  Slow travel is playing in three dimensions, staying long enough to enjoy the place and connect with its people.  Each new place brings new challenges and new opportunities to make connections by joining in local events, volunteering and making friends.

By nature, I am an introvert.  When I first started slow traveling, making connections was something that I had to force myself to do.  Now, I do it naturally in each new place I live.

Slow travel has shown me how to embed in a new place, to learn the culture and to build relationships.  It is the single most valuable gift I have received during these years on the road.  Like a Bedouin pitching a tent, I can make a home anywhere.

Slow travel opens the world to me and lays it shimmering at my feet.  It offers an intimate experience of place and people. It demands authentic engagement.

All it takes is time.

Six Things I learned in Three Years on the Road: Resourcefulness

The defining characteristic of travelers who successfully spend months or years on the road is not their resources, it´s their resourcefulness.

The dictionary defines resourcefulness as “the ability to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations and difficulties.”   Resourcefulness is not a theoretical concept.  It arises from challenging situations and problems.   In other words, you learn it when your ass falls off and your hair is on fire.

For me, the appeal of travel has always been its unpredictability.  My Spanish teacher recently gave our class a list of disasters and asked us to talk about which ones we had experienced.  I had experienced all of them, plus a few that were missing.  Earthquake? Alaska.  Hurricane? Hong Kong.  Plague of insects?  Kenya.  Military coup? Thailand.

Before I started the first leg of my trip around the world, I planned each week carefully, with great attention to detail.  My first stop was to be a work exchange gig in a chateau in the Loire Valley in France.  Then I planned to hike 791 kilometers of the El Camino in Northern Spain.  Afterward, I planned to study dance for six weeks in London before returning home for Christmas.

It was buttoned down.  Nothing had been left to chance.

My entire plan fell like dominos less than 10 days after arriving in Europe.  The work exchange gig in France was a bait-and-switch scam. The place was a sweatshop. Workers didn´t live in the chateau, they lived in the barn.  Instead of six hours a day, five days a week, the owners expected 10-hour days and some of the workers had not had a day off in six weeks.   The operation was run by a chain-smoking wreck of a woman whose husband had developed dementia and was given to wandering around the grounds naked.  When he escaped, the staff had to catch him so he could be medicated and put to bed.

I left that mess, figuring I´d start hiking El Camino early.  However, the day I left the chateau, there was torrential rain and flooding in the Pyrenees Mountains. The region was declared a national disaster area.  Hiking that part of El Camino was impossible.

My glorious plan was in ruins.  I spent three days cold and dreary days in a hotel room in a small town in France, listening to the rain, having panic attacks, and trying to figure out what to do.

Resourceful people tend to be goal-oriented, creative problem solvers.   I blew into a paper bag and pulled up my goals for the year on my laptop.

My goals included studying Spanish, dancing, hiking El Camino, expanding knowledge of world cuisines and learning more about the Arab Spring.

What if I threw out my bucket list and used these goals to travel, I wondered?

What if my goals became my compass?  What would that look like?

What happened was that I fundamentally changed how I travel.

Rather than go someplace because it was on a must-see-before-you-die list, I began to evaluate places by whether they were healthy, walkable, creative environments for learning.

El Camino stayed on the list since it would eventually dry out and become passable again.  In the meantime, I decided to go to Southern Spain to study Spanish and dance.  In Sevilla, I joined an African dance group.  I bought castanets and studied Flamenco.

I wore flowers in my hair and walked everywhere.

I decided to go to North Africa.  I took cooking classes and spoke with Muslim women in their kitchens about the Arab Spring.  I wore an abaya and a hijab so that I could blend in and travel more freely.  I came away with recipes and a unique, feminine perspective on current events in that party of the world.

When the Camino dried out, I hiked it.  On the last day of the hike, I developed a hairline fracture in my talus, or heal bone.  There was no way I was going to be able to dance in London on that foot.  I could barely walk.

Another domino had fallen.

Back to the drawing board.

“You are 85% water,” I told myself, “Flow around it.”

What could I do in London that didn´t require a lot of walking, I wondered?  I looked at my goals again.  One goal was to start drawing and painting again.  I had a BA in Fine Arts, but over the years, I had gradually stopped doing anything creative in order to focus on a career in research.

I discovered that the National Gallery offered artists stools so they could sit while they drew.  I hobbled to the art supply store a couple of blocks away to buy drawing supplies, hobbled back to the museum and claimed my stool.  I drew at the National Gallery every morning and late into the night in my room.  In the afternoons, I sat in the pews of cathedrals and listened to concerts.

I decided to visit libraries, another good place to get off my feet, I figured.  In a library near Saint James, I saw a man was sitting by a northern window.  The light was spectacular.  He was dressed in a long blue canvas workingman’s coat and a blue watchman´s cap. It was a scene that Vermeer would have painted.

I introduced myself and asked if I could photograph him so that I could draw him.  I explained about the problem with my foot.  We started talking.  He was intelligent and very articulate.

The gentleman was homeless.  He belonged to a book club made up of other homeless men.

They were reading the Russians.

Would I like to join them?

I would indeed.

It was an amazing experience.  The guys turned me on to the British Film Institute, where a membership included access to viewing rooms.  The rooms held small groups of people.  We viewed films from a collection of thousands of the best, award-winning films from around the world.

We spent several rainy afternoons together watching movies.

They smelled like wet dogs.

I loved every minute of it.

I flew home to the US for the holidays.

The next leg of my trip would be Asia.

Over the holidays, people asked me often about my bucket list for the next leg of my trip.

“I threw the bucket away,” I would reply.  “I found a new way to travel.”

Six Things I Have Learned from Three Years on the Road: Perspective

Perspective is a cliché in travel writing. Those who travel, the writers say, have a broader perspective and are supposedly more tolerant of their fellowman.

This is not true.

I currently live in Mexico, where Gringos regularly express intolerance for their adopted culture. Barry Golson, in his book “Gringos in Paradise”, tells a story told about a Gringa who lived next door to a church. Anyone who has ever lived near a church in Mexico knows that they are noisy places. Golson writes that the lady was tired of the noise and decided to do battle with her water hose, soaking the congregants as they left church.

Douglas Bower, in his post “When Gringos Attack”, writes of another Gringa who blasts her neighbors with a compressed-air fog horn whenever their parties get too loud.

Here in San Miguel, a woman recently told me that she picked up poop on the street from her neighbor´s dog, put it in a plastic bag and hung it on his doorknob. (Poop scooping is not a Mexican tradition.)

Complaints about fireworks are a perennial favorite on the Civil List, the most well-known Yahoo group for Gringos in San Miguel, and in the past week Gringos have been grousing about dogs barking. Someone suggested that they start a petition to get Mexicans to reign in their barking dogs.

When pigs fly.

Travel is definitely no guarantee of a broader perspective. Rather, it depends on HOW one travels.

Tours, cruises and luxury hotels certainly make travel safer and easier, but the curated experience is a bubble that does not provide much insight into how people live. Fast travel, with a “bucket list” of places to visit at lightning speed, may enhance one´s social status, but will do little to change one`s perspective.

It is also possible to live years in an expat bubble in elite enclaves, not speaking the language, interacting with locals only through maids, waiters or taxi drivers, with 100 percent of meaningful interactions limited to other Westerners.

What I have learned in three years on the road is that enlarging my perspective takes real commitment, a willingness to take risks, spend time outside of one´s comfort zone, learn the language and the culture, and establish relationships outside fellow travelers and the expat community.

All of this takes time, which is why I travel slowly.

And here`s the payoff.

I can roll with the flow. I will eat what is put in front of me and say thank you, sleep through fireworks, and bark back at dogs.

I have learned to operate on the fly, get things wrong, and keep trying until I get it right. I´ve learned to smile, ask for help, have a dictionary at the ready and communicate with hand signals.

We Americans are notoriously impatient. One of the way we identify newcomers here is how wound-up they are.

I have learned to wait in line with grace.

Until my bones turn to ashes if I have to.

The road has taught me that Americans have a lot to learn from other cultures, in particular, social skills like good manners and hospitality.

The road has taught me that the common thread that ties us together is that we all love our kids and want them to have a good life.

Also, pretty much everybody likes cookies.

Traveling emphasizes the value of experiences over things and has made me appreciate the people who make things with their hands, repair what is broken, dance their joys, create art from fear and write about the world they see.

Most of all, I have learned that I do not travel alone, but with the support of family and friends back home and in far-flung places.

You know who you are. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

Six Things I Learned from Three Years on the Road: Trust

I expected that one of the gifts of this trip around the world would be renewed trust in human beings.

It did not happen. What I found instead was better.

After three years of travel as a solo female, I have lost the flower-child, we’re-all-children-of-God trust I had in mankind. Instead, I have learned to keep my eyes open, be aware of the surroundings, profile (yes, profile) and pay attention to that reptilian portion of my brain concerned with survival.

Traveling, especially in countries where I don’t speak the language, taught me to pay attention to behavior, not words, to spot patterns early and to cut bait fast.

The reality is that the world is both beautiful and ugly. Some places are damned dangerous and corruption is everywhere – from taxi drivers to politicos. Many people cannot be trusted and others can only be trusted on a limited basis. Most relationships are transactional and transitory.

Today, I know the difference between acquaintances and friends and have sorted out who’s who. It took courage to tear off that veil. First, I had to learn to be comfortable being alone.

There are two dimensions to being alone: solitude and loneliness. They are quite different emotionally. They do not occur simultaneously, but each can appear and disappear within minutes of each other like flowers appearing and disappearing in the desert after a rain. It’s exquisite, actually, when I hold my seat (a meditation term), do not seek diversion and simply observe them arising.

Does the harsh reality of the world keep me from seeing beauty and kindness?

No. The realization that these qualities are rare has made me appreciate them more and cherish them when they appear. The difference is I no longer see the world though pink-tinted glasses.

This lesson was difficult to learn. I’ve seen poverty, human trafficking, illness, addiction, insanity and death. It’s not Disneyland out here, it’s life.

As I have traveled, this quote by Thoreau has been my guide: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

The gift of these three years was unexpected. As trust in other people has gone down, trust in myself has grown. I can handle just about anything now, from a coup to a hurricane. As a result, I’m not as afraid as when I set out on this trip.

I have been afraid almost all my life. I’ve never let it stop me from doing anything, but it’s always been there, a constant struggle with anxiety. For fear to subside has been the single biggest gift of the journey. Life may be harsh, but it is also amazing. Today, I live sturdily.

Six Things I Learned From Three Years on the Road: People Watching

The body is a powerful communication tool. I would much rather watch people than visit ruins. After three years on the road, I have become an expert people watcher.

The best places to people watch are well-lit and not crowded. Situations which provide a head-to-toe view and involve human interaction are best. I also like to change my perspective, especially in crowds, by watching from above.

My favorite places to people watch are outdoor cafes for street fashion; airports and train stations for greeting and leave taking; metros and plazas for daily life; playgrounds and schools for kids and their parents; markets and grocery stores for food and food retailing; and weddings and funerals for pivotal life events.

Being invited to a wedding in another culture is a people-watching goldmine. I have become a fearless people watcher. Yesterday, I joined a funeral cortege. The mariachis at the head of the cortege were hot and bored. Behind them, the old women were crying and the old men were stoic. The young people at the end of the cortege were chatting, laughing and immortal.

It’s important to watch across social classes as well as cultures. Museums give insight into one end of society, bowling alleys another. To miss either is an incomplete picture.

Use all the senses, not just the eyes. I took the photo in this post at a café in a museum in London. The couple was so much in love, it was a thing of beauty to behold them. I wasn’t the only one watching; an older gentleman in a pale yellow linen jacket and a Panama hat was drinking cognac and watching, too. Something about the set of his shoulders conveyed nostalgia and sadness.

The young woman wrote something on a napkin, which I retrieved immediately after they left. She had marked the napkin with a pale pink kiss and the words “I love you.” I still could smell her perfume. The man who was watching and I smiled at each other. He lifted his glass of cognac in a toast. I will die with that memory.

However, people watching can be tricky; it’s important not to get busted. Sunglasses are useful. So is tilting the head slightly away from the people being observed. Being engaged in a task reduces suspicion. Reading a book and taking notes is an activity that is effective and also allows the watcher to record what they are seeing. Newspapers are especially good because the watcher can hold them up, making them a perfect people-watching shield. (I’m also not above following someone discretely if I’m not done watching them.)

Things to observe when people watching: age, gender, social class, group dynamics (dominance, submission, respectful behavior, social distance), personal appearance, perfumes/aftershaves (Sniff the air) and emotions (happy, bored, nervous, angry).

People watching around the globe has taught me that some emotions are expressed universally, while others vary by culture. Once, in Tunisia, as I was watching two guys interact, my first impression was that they were angry. However, I dismissed my first take because their language naturally sounds more aggressive and people stand much closer to each other in North Africa than in other parts of the world. Then they stated slugging each other.

The lesson? First thought, best thought.

People watching hones situational awareness, which keeps the traveler safe. I have learned to pay attention to my own body reactions. If my gut is telling me something is off, I leave. I have nothing to win if I am wrong, but I might just save my life if I am right. The situational awareness I have developed through people watching over the past three years keeps me safe here in Mexico.

Not to mention some great material for writing.