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.

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

  1. You had me smiling all the way through your article. I did my last speedy trip in 1999 – 4 month through SOA. In the end, I was so exhausted, I spent 3 weeks in Hanoi and realized how much more I got from these 3 weeks than I did from the 4 month before. I wanted to see the whole world and knew there was never time enough to do so. But racing through the world is not the answer. You describe so aptly what’s important and why we want to travel.
    I wish you more “immersing travel moments” in Mexico!

  2. love this post – as i have loved reading of your stay in mexico. you’re right – the longer you can stay in one place, the more you can learn. glad you’ve slowed down!

  3. Great to hear that you embracing slow travel. There is just no better way to travel. Looking forward to reading your next blog.

  4. Barbara,

    Your decision to take time to immerse yourself in the culture of the countries to which you travel is brilliant. That to me is one thing that sets you apart as a world-class traveler.

    I could not agree with you more about travel being such a powerful tool for effecting world peace. It’s hard to hate someone when you come to understand and appreciate their culture.

    Thank you for being so dedicated to chronicling your experiences for the rest of us. You did a wonderful, wonderful job writing about Mexico. My parents are from there, and I was touched that a traveler would take the time to really see the country and not just collect photos and souvenirs as trophies. I wish I could print copies of your blog posts and hand them out to Americans who express their ignorance on the culture of their neighbors to the south!

    – Anis Salvesen

    • Anis: You just about made me cry. This is hard work but I do it because I love it. To receive a comment like yours means a great deal to me. Thak you from the bottom of my heart. Barbara

  5. As someone who is into their 4th year of an open ended, non-stop Round-the-world trip as a family, I couldn’t agree more with you! Despite visiting 32 countries, we have yet to experience travel burnout. I am grateful that I was warned by other RTW folks before we left that a year was just not enough time, so we planned around that.

    If you go to fast, you WILL burn out, get sick and you will so miss the whole joy of the experience. I agree with you that you don’t EVER have to stop traveling. I have good friends who have been traveling non-stop for over 25 years…but they do it slowly and immerse deeply as they go.

    I also loved Mike’s comment:

    “Learn the language, you unlock the culture’s collective mind, and you can *really* start digging”.

    I also love returning to places we love combined with finding new places as we roam the world. We are in Barcelona for a month now and it is our 9th time here on our world tour…each time we get to know it better and have dear friends here now. Spending 4 winters in the same small village in southern Spain where my daughter went to the local school was one of the wisest decisions that we ever made for cultural travel & we will always have connections to it and the people.

    I have to give you props with all that writing while traveling. I pull way back while on the move and one of my greatest pleasures of travel is being unplugged and in nature more.

    Take care of yourself and keep enjoying at YOUR best pace!! I’m like you, that I always plan more than is realistically possible, then scale back. It’s a good thing. 😉 The eyes are always hungry, but rest and reflection must be part of long term travel.

  6. It’s really great to read your all travel adventures in Mexico. There are lot of things to explore, specially wild life in Mexico is one of the most adventurous.
    Keep updating your blog.


  7. When I read this I couldn’t help but nod along. You’re preaching to the choir and the choir is me. When you make travel your mission then you have plenty of time to see the places you want to see. Let each one breathe on its own.

  8. This too has crossed my mind lately – the pace at which most traditional RTWs take. I’ve never done one but imagine it must all blur together after a few months. I too, feel that staying longer you soak up more of the regular life of a place.

    Personally, I believe much of culture is subtle – the way people get ready for work, or walk through the streets, treat you after a few weeks or months. What breakfast is like everyday in a small home.

    It’s difficult to see all of that when you’ve already got one foot at the next destination. Very thought provoking post, loved it.

    • Thank you all so much for your positive comments and support of this post. I really feel it is an important issue and it looks live everyone agrees with me.

  9. Wow, what an output rate at over 8 articles/posts per week. My congrats. I think the highlight lesson of your travels is the adaptability. You have enjoyed places in Mexico and so, simply stayed longer than you first planned. Adaptability is on eof the keys to an enjoyable holiday – equally if you don’t enjoy a place, move on quickly and no harm is done. Thoughtful article.

  10. Excellent article Barbara. Wow, you have been busy with 4 articles and the 4 on the blog per week. I can understand why you decided to slow down. I am glad that you are loving Mexico and decided to throw the itinerary out the window. We very much enjoy your insights.

  11. Good to see that you’re discovering a travel pace that works for you, Barbara. I’m sorry that you had to experience a minor health stress in the process. Please take care of yourself and don’t over-commit with the writing. I don’t see how you are accomplishing all that you are doing. My hat’s off to you.

  12. Barbara, I share the same view with you that travel is more about cultural immersion than just speeding through the sites. I am a connoisseur of long term travel and love to hang out in a place for a few months, meeting local people, finding the best foods, and sometimes even getting a job. For me the most rewarding way to travel is trying to relate to local people and really experiencing local life. Great article and keep it up!

  13. Couldn’t agree more. As you know, I’ve been looking at lots of travel blogs over the past, few weeks, and am appalled at the point of view of some of them, even well-known ones. It’s like “let’s party our way around the world”. When my nephew did a RTW some years ago I was so jealous, grounded, as I was then with a young family, but his blog soon revealed that he had travelled with blinkers, never really venturing from the shell of his own experience and attitudes.

    I can see why you distinguish between traveller and nomad. We used to distinguish between tourist and traveller, now it’s moved on even from that. That said, we each do what we can. You have come to this at such a good time of life. Youngsters need to return to insert themselves into the job market before they lose credibility etc etc, people with families need to establish stability when the kids get to school age, some people are limited physically and so on.

    Given my druthers though, I’d do exactly what you have done!! Please do take care of yourself. No point in abandoning the rat race to find a new form of it, even if you are doing something you love!

  14. No need to rush, Barbara. You will never see everything in your lifetime, but to run through as many places as you can squeeze in on one jouney would be equivalent to browsing through a travel brochure. You are doing it now the right way. And please take care of yourself. We miss you!

  15. Great point Barbara! When I originally planned my trip to Mexico, I had it all mapped out. When I got here, I decided to accept the fact that I would get “stuck” everywhere I went, which I loved. Guanajuato for 2-3 days… no way! How about 8 days, and that was too short. Same thing happened everywhere I went (as long as I liked it). Finally going to settle down for even longer in Mazatlan, let me know if you come back over this way.

    We aren’t travelling to see the sites and buy the trinkets, we are travelling to understand what else is out there in the world and to change our way of thinking. That takes time, so travel slowly.

  16. I’ve enjoyed your postings so very much and the discussions about when “more is less”. We’ve all heard someone say “If I see one more castle…” or “…one more church”. I personally like to settle down in one place for a month or so, never pack and unpack too often. If I find a good restaurant I want to go more then once. I want to meet people and talk for more than five minutes and if I like them, see them again. I want to shop in a supermarket and learn the local names for fruits and favorite dishes and watch the sun set over the same beautiful spot for more than one evening. And then I want to go someplace else and do it all over again some place else. And that spot for me is usually in Southeast Asia. And if I can say “Im not ready to leave here”…it’s been a perfect experience. I am fortunate that I’ve been able to do this..over and over again. Continue to enjoy..and savor..and learn…and love..what you do so well.

  17. So true Barbara. Words that anyone preparing and planning a RTW trip would do well to read. Like you, I have tended to plan too much in an itinerary. And like you, I’ve gradually moved towards cutting the speed and allowing more time in each place to enjoy and experience. Otherwise you run the risk of making travel little more than an arduous journey between A and B.

    Great post as always; glad you’re enjoying Mexico so much.

  18. Sounds like my trip 2 yrs ago, set the intention to make it from Mexico to Peru, ending with the Inca trail…well, you know the rest of the story…i will get back to SA, in time, for now back to Costa Rica for an extended stay…love Dizy

  19. I was wondering about that. You’re obviously loving Mexico, and each post shows you’re eager to know more. That’s a difficult call to shrug off.

    I’m glad you’re not. 🙂

    Very much on my mind right now, this topic.

    I’m with you. I want to see lots of places, but I want to sink deep into them. That’s the appeal for me: not seeing places, but *being* places. Fitting into different rhythms, experimenting with new ways of living. You can’t do that on a tight schedule. Take language. Learn the language, you unlock the culture’s collective mind, and you can *really* start digging. But I’m pretty terrible at learning new languages. I’d need extra time.

    So while I definitely want to go round the world, I don’t think I’ll be a RTWer. As Sherry notes, there’s a fuzzy, maybe invisible line between traveler and nomad – but you know in your gut when you’re on one side or the other. I’ve never been anything other than a traveler, and that’s not enough for me.

    Take your time. We’ll always be here, reading away. 🙂

  20. I much enjoy your travel adventures. I’m so pleased you chose health to speed. Stay well and keep up the wonderful accounts.

  21. You reAd my mind. I was just thnking that u had been in Mexico way longer than intended. I think I have personally switched from traveler to nomadic as I like to stay in one place for a while and then move on to a new one. It’s less abt the travel and more abt the culture! Enjoy the remainder of ur time … Slowly! See u at tbex!

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