Speed is the Enemy of Cultural Travel

When I set off on this four-month backpacking trip at the end of February, my cultural travel itinerary included Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador. I envisioned ten weeks in Mexico, followed by whirlwind tours of the other four countries, including hiking the Machu Picchu Trail in Peru and sailing to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Some of you are looking at the calendar right now and noting that it is now nearly four months later and my blog posts are still all about Mexico. Yes, I am still in Mexico and will not make it out of the country on this trip.

Palm Sunday celebration in Mision Cinco Santos de Cusarare in Copper Canyon Mexico
This Palm Sunday celebration in Mision Cinco Santos de Cusarare in Copper Canyon Mexico is the essence of cultural travel

On my RTW (round-the-world) trip in 2007, I did 17 countries in six months. Although I’d previously traveled for a month each year, my RTW trip was my first foray into real long-term travel. I’d recently recovered from a serious illness that had filled me with fear of dying before I could visit all the places I’d longed to see, and I was determined to strike as many of the world’s travel wonders off my bucket list as possible. The trip was fascinating and exciting and educational, and exhausting. I well remember hitting the two month mark and wanting to pack up and go home. Fortunately, I took a couple of days of down time at that point and the urge to flee back home disappeared.

Strangely, the exact same thing happened on this journey, at exactly the two month mark. Not only was moving rapidly from one place to another exhausting, I had more obligations than in 2007. I had contracted to write four travel articles per week for one client, wanted to post to Hole In The Donut at least four times per week, and was writing an occasional feature story for other online travel publications as well. By day I would see the sights and try to learn about the local culture; by night I had to sort and catalog the 200-400 photos I took each day, decide which ones to use and size them, before finally writing and uploading my posts. I was averaging perhaps four hours sleep per night, sometimes less, and it finally caught up with me when I experienced chest pains in Queretaro. Fortunately, the pain was the result of a combination of stress and muscle stain rather than heart related, but it was a definite wake-up call. My inner guides were speaking to me, telling me to slow down, and I paid attention.

I finally realized that I don’t need to see everything, all at once. I also realized that my travel is more about immersion into cultures than seeing the sights and, speedy travel being the enemy of cultural travel that it is, I was stressed out by moving too fast. At that point, I threw my intended itinerary out the window and decided to just wander, which is what I do best. No plans, no schedule, no need to get anywhere at a particular time. If I needed to hole myself up in cheap hotels for days on end and write, then that’s what I would do. Rather than visit five countries, I would eliminate South America on this trip and only do Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

But then I got caught up in Mexico: the desolate beauty of dusty plains and remote mountains in the north, fascinating history of the central plateau, jungles and ruins of the Yucatan, and the exquisite beaches on the Caribbean coast. I saw the folly of my initial plan clearly. I could spend years in Mexico and not see it all. My methods of traveling are evolving, but there is no doubt that I am favoring slow travel more and more. That certainly means focusing on fewer places during future trips. I leave for China on September 1st and had anticipated 5-6 months in Asia, SE Asia, Indonesia, and perhaps even the South Pacific. But I now know that I will eliminate about half of the countries on my list and instead immerse myself in the culture of those I most want to explore and understand.

I have long believed that travel may be the most powerful tool in our arsenal for effecting world peace. If we get to know one another, if we come to understand and accept other cultures without judgment, we are less likely to want to kill one another. But to do that, we have to slow down.

49 thoughts on “Speed is the Enemy of Cultural Travel”

  1. I had a strange combination on my trip — since I went RTW without flying, it was slow, but extremely fast. To get around in a year (actually took 16 months), I simply didn’t have time to stop anywhere too long. I actually really enjoyed the almost constant movement. On the other hand, I am now just basically hanging out for about 3 months and like that also. There are a variety of ways to travel — most all of them are interesting — everyone just needs to get into whatever comfort zone they particularly have.

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  2. Great post. Sounds like you were really doing a lot! I’m beginning to realize the importance of slow travel. My boyfriend and I did 4 countries in less than 2 months, and about a month into it, we were exhausted! Although, I’m extremely happy with everything we were able to see, I’m just not willing to only give myself such a short amount of time to travel anymore.

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    • Hi Ordinary Traveler: I have to say that the longer I do slow travel the more I like it. It’s addictive, especially since my main focus is culture.

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  3. I’m struggling with the same thing. I have spent 3 months in South America thus far and only have 4 months left to do Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. I feel like there’s not enough time to be able to do it properly, I may have to make some tough decisions.

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    • I hear you Ayngelina. Really, the longer I travel, the slower my travels are
      becoming. I am seriously thinking about committing to never being in one
      place less than a month.

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  4. I totally agree you can spend a lifetime in Mexico, and there were days I seriously pondered this…. But overall, I agree on slow travel. It’s never about the list, but more about a way of life.

    On my RTW, I decided to stop from 3-4 days and move on to a new approach – renting an apt. I selected Buenos Aires and yes, I wanted to see more of Argentina, but decided – nope, just Buenos Aires. and to quote Robert Frost, ‘that made all the difference.’

    stay adventurous,
    Craig

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  5. I travel twice a year for 2 to 2.5 months. One trip is a bit of a whirlwind trying to see lots. The second trip is where I find affordable accommodation and settle in. While I still enjoy my “whirlwinds” I love my “settle in” time. Getting to know the people and the culture of one place is so amazing.

    Summer is the time I do my “whirl wind”. This year that will be China and Japan. My travel is a bit shorter……one month China and two weeks Japan, and I will make the most of it.

    Great post Barbara.

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  6. Barbara,

    I am so glad you are enjoying your trip and have “stopped to smell the roses”. Those signals (stress, etc) are important to pay attention to and it sounds like you did the right thing for you. I agree that the slower pace allows you to experience the life and culture of a place – and I think you enjoy it more! All those places you crossed off your list will still be waiting for you to visit soon enough. I also think a faster pace can burn you out as it will feel more like traveling. If you slow down and travel from place to place a bit less, it will feel more like just living.

    I truly have no desire for RTW travel, but I am thankful for folks like you who do – so I can live vicariously through you.

    Safe Travels.

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  7. Great post and I know much of how you’re feeling. Having been on the road for nearly 10 months now and with 1 month to go before returning to our country of origin for a few months it’s been an experience in so many ways. Mind management plays an important part and building up our online business at the same time has been a steep learning curve.

    But the stresses of working on the road are ultimately rewarding. I’ve been a travel photographer for some time now and our website is growing in numbers every day. We’ve even started sharing our advice on how to prepare yourself for the highs and lows of long term travel as I think people often overlook the fact that it’s not all plain sailing when you’re working and travelling!

    Keep up the good work.

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  8. Hi Barbara,

    This is a post that covers so much territory:

    – The struggle of writing while traveling – I know try to write and schedule many posts before I leave on a trip so that I can spend more time living the experience.

    – The choice of checking things off a list or immersing yourself in a culture. I go for the latter as well.

    – Whether one can burn out on travel. I have certainly been road weary in the past but it hasn’t diminished my desire to travel long term. However, the jury is out on my children. They traveled a lot with us. One was a 10 month trip. They don’t seem to be in a hurry to start their own travel adventures. I hope they do soon.

    Thanks for writing such an interesting piece encompassing so many issues.

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  9. I’ve never done this kind of long term travel due to work and family committments – I do a week, see as much as I can and then have plenty of time at home in between to sort myself out and upload all those photos. I’m amazed you try to keep up such a pace on your own blog – your articles are so detailed that one or two a week would be enough – but then again, there’s so much to share before you’re on to the next place.

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  10. Great article Barbara. This is exactly what we tend to do. We go, go, go for a little while and then our bodies tell us to slow down and we do. Slow is better. So far, we’ve been traveling for six months and we’ve only been to six countries. We feel a little unaccomplished but, on the other hand, we feel like we have really experienced those countries and know them and can make accurate decisions about whether we want to go back to them. More importantly, by traveling slowly, we have the opportunity to understand the people without making quick judgments about them.

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  11. I’m so glad you listened to your body – and that you’re feeling better now. I’ll do “speedy” travel if I need to and I feel it’s better than nothing, but I really prefer taking my time and (as you say) slowing down.

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  12. That makes a lot of sense that you’ve slowed down. I think it must be great to really take time to settle in and soak up the culture. My trips tend to be shorter, and often they’re a whirlwind of activity. I certainly couldn’t keep up that pace for more than a few weeks.

    By the way, that’s pretty impressive that you’re taking between 200-400 photos a day! Maybe you could do some posts abt photo techniques — I love learning new tricks.

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    • Liz:
      Interesting that you mention writing about photo techniques because I just added that idea to my list of potnetial posts a week or so ago. I have what I think is a very unique take on stepping into a particular photographic style and a story about how and why mine developed, as I made the transition from film to digital.Look for that post in the next month! And thanks for the suggestion.

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