Are you a slow traveller? What is slow travel? I’m sure it means different things to different people.
For me, slow travel means pacing my travel, not having every moment accounted for, and therefore leaving time for the unexpected. The unknown and the unplanned for. Leaving time to sit in the coffee shop and watch how locals live and interact.
For me, the difference is about the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller. I like to think I’m a traveller. It means going to a country but only visiting one small region, not rushing around so you can take off everything on the must-see or must-do lists. I like to create my own list with lots of gaps 🙂
So are you a slow traveller? Tell me, what does it mean to you? I do understand people taking tours, but I guess I’m selfish and self-centred and really just want to leave when I want to leave, to stay longer when I want to – or to jump on a bus and get the hell out of somewhere. 🙂
In particular, I want to have an early breakfast and get out exploring not waiting for other people to wake up have their breakfast and then join a bus group. It is easy to see why most of my travels have been solo 🙂
Over the past few days I’ve listened to Elvis singing, sat through rhythm and blues on Beale Street and now the musical theme continues in New Orléans.
Arriving in the dark at the usual grotty bus-depot, I agree to an offer of a taxi. The driver, carrying my pack, walks out the doors to his cab where an argument immediately starts. A tough-looking, rotund man is trying to grab my pack from driver number one; it seems my driver has jumped the queue. This second driver is insisting I go with him, his taxi is in the front of the queue and the young man looks at me and shrugs his shoulders: it seems I get to go with the bully. Reluctantly I get in the cab – it’s dirty, smelly and the upholstery is ripped – I feel a little unsafe.
We speed though dark streets and, after a few turns, when I’ve totally lost my sense of direction, I begin to worry: seriously worry. Finally, one more turn and we’re in a well-lit street where he pulls up at the hostel.
‘Don’t go walking around here at night lady – it can be dangerous’ he tells me.
In the morning, the hostel is buzzing. I’ve slept through a murder.
Not long after I’d arrived, a young man – a local – was shot three times and died on the hostel doorstep. A drug-deal gone wrong is the common consensus but drug deal or not, I’ll try to look like a local: my camera and bag left behind, my money tucked into a pocket.
Sometimes things, and taxi drivers, are not as I, fearfully, imagine. If you want to travel alone this is a great how-to book.
About ten years ago, the author Christopher Kremer, who, at a book festival I helped organise in Christchurch, New Zealand, signed his book (Inhaling the Mahatma) by saying ‘To Heather, with best wishes on your yatra!’ Christopher, September 06′.
That was just before my first trip to India, and now with my fourth starting soon, I wondered what is it that attracts me to the country – after all, I have family members who find India too intense, too difficult. Why do people love it or loathe it? Why am I different? And why do people always ask : is it safe to travel alone?’
Yatra means journey and, as a travel writer, for me a journey is not just the places I go – it is also the trip my emotions take – and India takes you on many journeys of the emotions – the highs and the lows.
I loved it, I hated it, I laughed at it, I laughed with it, and I cried about it – confused and sad but ultimately optimistic about this huge country, an intensely vivid country – the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the sights (and sites) – which assaults all your senses for good and for bad: and that’s just in the first hour of course.
It continues the whole time you are there. When you are travelling on your own, such as I usually do, you get 100% of the pain, and of course, a hundred percent of the pleasure. What you don’t get, is bored.
Of course, there is also pollution, and rubbish, nearly everywhere, as well as people desperate to sell you something. Poverty and richness live side-by-side and it’s devastating to see and hear the beggars.
While I usually don’t give to beggars, I travel sustainably and support small businesses and responsible tourism – instead of waiting for money to ‘trickle down’, wherever possible I spend with small traders – and certainly not with international companies.
On my first trip I travelled from Haridwar, Uttarakhand, in the north then south to Ernakulam in Kerala and of course, Maheshwar on the banks of wonderful Narmada River. My other Indian yatra have been in Gujarat, home of Gandhi, and which has few tourists – I recommend you go there. Search on any of these names in my blog and find stories and photos about each of those places.
Let me make a list of just some of the reasons I’m returning on yet another yatra:
the people, the food, and the feast of colours, sights and sounds
2000 years of sacred buildings; Buddhist, Hindu, Islāmic, to name just a few
Interesting festivals throughout the year
There are nine or ten religions in India, and about 33 million gods – I’m bound to stumble over at least one!
And maybe, just maybe, when they know I’ve been an extra in the Bollywood movie The Italian Job they may make me a star – or, knowing what happened, they may not!
In middle-eastern or Asian countries people are often sad, or amazed, that I’m happy to be travelling alone and some women on dating web-sites appear fearful at the thought of being alone.
It seems this fear of being alone is almost primal in many – equating being alone to being lonely. Not so.
Years ago I also feared being alone and often contrived to have people around by having parties, marrying, living or sleeping with men so there was someone in my life, that I was not alone. Nevertheless, being surrounded by people did not guarantee I wasn’t lonely even though I was ‘not alone’ and at times, could still be alone in a crowd.
I have now learnt how to be alone, whether I’m in a group of people, alone at home, or traveling the world, and not be lonely. Here are a few photos of me alone!
Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg
Snorkelling in NZ
Wellington waterfront, NZ
Parit Jawa, Malaysia
Living in cities, with a family, or even traveling, sometimes means it can be hard to be physically alone so it’s a valuable skill to be able to be alone in your mind or emotionally no matter how many people are around you.
Hermits and mystics choose to spend much of their time alone. A pilgrim, whom I met on the north bank of the holy Narmada River, in the centre of India, was spending three-years, three-months and three-days on a Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the river. It is a spiritual quest, for self-realisation, or a thanksgiving for favour asked for or received, or just an act of love, with just as many reasons for the walk as there are people who undertake it. Despite being dependant on people for food by their alms, this sack-clothed man was mostly alone but did not seem lonely.
Women behind a burka can choose to be alone by using the cloth to create a barrier between them and strangers while at other times, still behind the same material, in small or large groups, are laughing and enjoying each other’s company – or talking to me, a stranger. Old age too can confer a barrier, albeit not chosen by the person. This wall is an invisibility cloth placed by over them by the people close by and much to the recipient’s distress or anger.
Language, or rather the inability to speak a language, is another obstacle that can force you to be alone while surrounded by people. As a travel writer, travelling alone is essential and even when separated by language I know I can always break the verbal barrier by ‘talking’ with signs or gestures – all the while chattering in English to non-understanding ears. Silence also allows me to be alone when I hear the occasional English voice in a non-English speaking country – allowing me to eavesdrop on unmonitored conversations while staying alone with my observations.
So how, apart from solo-travel, can you learn not only to be alone, but to be alone and not lonely. For me it started with needing to radically change my life; to change many friends; to stop throwing parties, to stop using alcohol, and learning to mediate.
At first the task of being alone for ten minutes with no coffee, no music, no cigarettes and no people was impossible. Without those props, within 2 or 3 minutes I would rise from the garden seat to pull out a weed or go inside to check the time: “surely I have been sitting here for ten minutes” I would say to myself: the apparent tyranny of living alone can lead to talking to oneself!
And, over the years of practising meditation and trying to still my mind, I find my mind is peopled with imaginings. As Oscar Wilde said “I never travel without my diary. One should always have somethingsensational to read in the train”, and I never sit alone without ‘something sensational’ to think about. As he also said “serious writers … are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists”. I stand convicted: I can, and do, enjoy the wanderings of my mind and entertain myself for ages, so never feel alone.
So how to be alone? For me, it’s living in the now and, enjoying my own company while knowing I can change being ‘alone’ at any time I choose – it just takes practise.
Like the Nike ad says “just do it’. you will no doubt find, like I did, the fear of being along was purely in my imagination – you are stronger and braver than you realise.
See my book, Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad, for more ways I learnt to be alone. It tells of my solo travels around the world, age 50, and which started with me being full of fear on the very first flight – Auckland NZ to LA, USA.
How do you travel? With a partner? Friends? On a tour? Alone? Solo?
I’m a passionate nomad, a solo traveler: I love to travel alone for many reasons. High on the list is the freedom to decide when, where, and how I will travel – that I can satisfy my wanderlust pretty – selfish huh!
Being alone also means I suffer 100% of the pain BUT get 100% of the pleasure too 🙂
Of course there are downsides to being alone; it often costs more for accommodation and you will always have to make all your travel decisions, always read the map alone, and always be totally responsible for your own actions! This can be tiring, however, I also can always stop to eat where and when and what I want. The augments – or heated discussions I have overheard on this simple topic are amazing in their length, ferocity and frequency!
Being alone means sometimes I have been afraid but that’s rare. One fear I still have is my strange combination of fear and excitement when I move from one place to another, more noticeable when I go from village to city, or when I cross a country border.
I vividly recall the pervading feeling of unease I had when going directly from a months peaceful stay on an Malaysian island (a marine reserve with no roads or power) to a busy city in Thailand. Within hours of my arrival I had bought myself a No Fear T-shirt to bolster my courage; “Don’t Just Break Limits, Shatter Them” it told me. With that yellow shirt and its message on my back I felt more ready to cope with the changes from snorkeling in warm water and few people around to the crush of many people, a new language and the seediness that usually goes with prostitution.
Being alone also means there are no safety nets as I walk the tightrope of solo-travel. However being alone does not mean being lonely.
On my recent travels, in Borneo for 8 weeks, I occasionally felt sad I was not with a group when I saw locals sharing their meals – sharing lots of bowls of food while I had just one or two plates on my solo table. So not that I wanted to be with others but I did want to taste all those yummy Malaysian dishes!
When alone I am approached by locals more than when I’m spending time with another traveler. It seems that I am less threatening alone, I am not talking to someone and so am not being interrupted by the local person – who often are really keen to practice their English or just talk to someone with a different background. So I believe I can meet more people on my own, have direct contact with those who live in the country, so I needn’t be lonely
As I travel without reservations or plans I also often need to approach locals for information in a way that is not required by tourists who have had their bookings all arranged before they leave home, or have a traveling partner to talk plans with. It is also a great ploy to get to talk to women who are often in the background, sometimes almost invisible in many places.
Even when I ask a couple for information it is to the woman who I address my query. Although often it is the man who replies ( often the woman have limited English) but I have made myself more acceptable and non threatening, less inappropriate, in their cultural eyes anyway.
These little interactions with locals also gives me a different perspective on the country than when I sit and talk with another traveler over a Turkish coffee, a Malaysian long tea or a Thai curry. Conversations with other travellers are useful, fun and interesting too, but better kept for evenings at the hostel, tent or hotel I’m staying in.
If, when travelling alone, you feel lonely one can always join someone for a an hour or a few days. Once I joined a group of ten in a truck to travel in Botswana and Namibia, not because I was lonely but for convenience. Although I got to fabulous places and saw great sights, I didn’t get to have interactions with the very people I came to meet. A big group is too intimidating for most people to approach, and the truck tour convinced me lone wandering is my preferred style.
Finally the other really great travel companion for me is my journal and a good book. they add some silent consistency to life when all else is changing. Constantly.
So what other advantages are there, for me, in living a nomadic lifestyle on foreign roads?
There is no compromise in the experiences I have, I can stay as long or as short as I wish, so the ability to be flexible is a wonderful asset.
I have had to develop skills and strengths that I did not know I wanted, needed or were lacking, and my experiences – both the pain and the pleasure are intense, undiluted by my old thumb-sucking security-blanket of others.
So why am I a solo traveler? Maybe because I feel more of a soul-traveler that way . . . or maybe it’s because I am totally selfish and self-centred and want to clasp the intensity all to myself. And it’s that very intensity that makes me a passionate-lone-nomad.
How do you travel? What are the advantages of your preferred way whether it’s solo, with someone, or a group?
It’s funny that until you have someone ask the questions it’s often hard to know what travel lessons a travel writer can pass on. Travel seems so normal that it’s not until someone is surprised, amazed or horrified about something that you realise things have become ‘normal’ when maybe theya re not!
So this blog is for Margaret from the San Fran area, in the hope she reads it before her trip to Tanzania. And, the photo of the city mosque is either a reminder her of our over-coffee conversation this am, or memories of her trip to view this stunning building in its’ man-made lake.
I wish I had had a tape rolling as I talked about the pros and cons of solo travel, and how to pick the perfect travel partner. I’m so selfish and self-centred I do like to travel alone, but it has it’s disadvantages.
Solo travelers have to make ALL the decisions which can be good, but also exhausting especially when you are tired or under the weather. SO what advice did I give my new-found, ships-in-the-night, travel friend?
Body clock or bio-rythms in sinc are vital: I hate ‘killing time’ in the mornings, while night owls are frustrated by my early to bed, sleep through anything habits.
Fussy eaters can be hard to travel with. If they liked international chain food often I couldn’t travel with them .. once a week to keep the peace would be ok, but I want to taste the local food in the local down-home types of places. What about carnivores or vegetarians? Or gluten intolerant?
For me a place and their food is as vital to knowing about them and their culture as is their religion. I dont have to like all their food, customs or religious practises, but it’s none of my business: I’m a guest in their country and if I don’t like it, I need to go home! Luckily for me, there has only been one place that I felt uncomfortable in and left quickly. (See my book – Naked In Budapest -travels with a passionate nomad – avaliable via Amazon etc – and no, it’s not the place in the title !) Not bad considering all the places I’ve been. Of course not liking a place or culture usually says way more about you, or me, than the places or people.
The other ‘advice’ I gave was to treat other travelers as adults … you both don’t have to do the same thing at the same time – programme days off, mornings off for when you each do your own thing. After all when you always do what the other wants you will return home with lots of regrets about the compromises …and, memories of my days a counsellor has taught me that usually one person makes most of the compromises.
So, if each make a list of wants (sights/ sites/ activities) from the place and then put all the same ones onto the master list .. then do trades for the other things – “I’ll do this with you if you’ll come to xyz with me’. Others can be non-negotiable for each of you .. and those are for your solo part of the day or week.
Margaret suggested I write a blog about fellow travellers from hell but I’m not sure this is wise – but I’ll put the idea on the back burner and see what happens with it .. maybe a short story would be best, although I’m sure some people may still correctly, or incorrectly, identify themselves.
What advice would you add about picking someone to travel with? Who were nightmares to travel with and who were perfect? Or are you a solo traveller like me, and if so why?
Lets make this blog a list of tips that are worthwhile for many travellers.
Firstly I must declare my prejudice – I am a lone traveller. That is my preference, born out of nature and experience.
My group travel is limited: an overland truck tour on the southern African continent with strangers; plane and bus travel with a group of Kiwis attending an international convention then adding a three-week tour in the USA, and recently, a few days with a group of Californians in New Zealand to do some hiking. So this column is based on some brief concentrated group travel and observations. Totally biased you could say.
What are the advantages of group travel? As with my African experience, I saw a lot more in a short time than I could have possibly done on my own. Someone else had done the research, created the itinerary, smoothed the way and that gave me an overview of what I would like to do on my return to Africa.
When I’ve discussed this topic with travellers many say it feels safer, is cheaper as they didn’t have to pay a single supplement – the bane of the lone traveller- it’s cheaper also in the bulk buying rates of transport or accommodation and of course, the good company of like-minded people when the trip has a purpose.
Conversely it is not always plain sailing. A snorer like me may be assigned as your room-mate. The Sierra clubbers were great, prompt – no waiting for stragglers as I had to with the group of kiwis – always the same one or two no matter what the threats.
However for me, a low-planning-wanderer, the African trip was hard because in a tour there is no freedom for changing the itinerary. I found places I wanted to explore and couldn’t, and even worse, I felt separated from the very people I wanted to meet.
Although we shopped in markets for supplies we did it in groups of 2 or 3 which made it difficult for us to interact with the locals in any real way. It seems all tours mostly socialise together, and even when on the bus, truck, or train, seem more interested in talking to each other for long periods rather than take in the views. This mixing together, as on the tours I took, meant I was less aware of local customs, beliefs, or language than when alone.
As you can see, the pros and cons of group travel is really subjective and I’m making sweeping generalisations. I suggest you discuss this with friends who have toured.
However the final difference can look like this:
The tour leader tells you. ‘Tomorrow morning breakfast will be here in the hotel dinning room at 7 30am. We leave for the border at 8 15 so make sure your bags are outside your room ready for collection before you come down for breakfast.’
When alone it is more like this. Wake up at 5 am to the rustling plastic bags of an early riser in the dormitory you are sharing with others. Go wandering the streets at 6 am for breakfast, eat it in the company of tuk-tuk drivers and wonder why every one has both a cup of coffee and tea in front of them. You hire one of the drivers to pick you up at 8am to take you to the border only half an hour away. He takes you but you find you haven’t got a vital piece of paper the last official told you were no longer needed. You struggle with a combination of English and the local language, watch the bus drive through with the minimum of fuss and some two hours later, passport stamped you finally arrive in a new country.
While the tour is exploring the local temples and has a free afternoon to buy souvenirs the bus can carry, it is now time for you to find somewhere to sleep. Lonely Planet’s recommendation is full, has closed or changed its’ name and the next one seems miles away.
Your choice is simple, tour or budget solo, as I have heard “you pays your money and takes your chances!”
Fear raises its ugly head and sits beside me. I’ve been fed, watered, had a nap, and now fear demands I re-worry about how to get from Los Angeles international airport to its domestic terminal. Once again I doubt my ability to complete this journey. Am I capable of travelling alone, for a year? Will I find a bed each night? With my lack of other languages, how far will miming get me? My mind has a long conversation with itself until I finally push these concerns away, practice living in the now, staying in the moment and leaving the future to arrive, and be worried about, when it is due.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to land in Los Angeles. Please fasten your seat belt and ensure your tray table is upright and your hand luggage is stowed under the seat in front of you.”
My heart beats faster, I’m here. My big adventure is really starting. Deep breathing, I brace my back squarely against the seat while the pilot completes the most dangerous procedure of any flight, and within moments we land smoothly, as smooth as I hope my travels will be.
Customs. Despite having nothing to declare I would love to declare the world is wonderful place or some other such facetious remark. Luckily I don’t as I meet the customs woman from hell. She is a well manicured, big haired, beautifully made-up Mexican woman.