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The Road Not Taken Slowly Enough

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Am I a tourist, or am I traveler?

Is it a positive or a negative to be one or the other?

The word tourist conjures images of the worst of us; the herded busloads of fanny packs streaming through the world’s greatest places, snapping incessantly, and giving no heed to cultural norms.

The other might project an equally irksome depiction of a long haired backpacker, adorned in spiritual tattoos from drastically contradicting philosophies, looking down upon the lesser tourists, as they search out the “authentic” and are quick to correct anyone who claims they are one and the same.

We strive not to be seen as the former, sometimes guilting ourselves into feeling like frauds for grabbing a Starbucks in one of the world’s more exotic places. Yet, we err on the side of caution when telling our “lesser-travelled” friends about the more “off the beaten track” experiences we’ve had at risk of sounding pretentious.

The truth is, few people ever give themselves the opportunity to see the kind of traveler they are.

It’s hard with the time we’re given. Until we’re able to step away for a good length of time, experiencing a place in your own way is severely limited by a multitude of things. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get the feel of a place from a long weekend, or even a couple of weeks.

My first trip to New York was exactly what everyone’s first experience of New York was. I went up the Empire State Building, saw a musical, took a selfie in Time Square, saw the tree at the Rockefeller Center, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, and stood in line to take a picture with bull on Wall Street. I was a complete tourist. And I had a blast! I came back proclaiming how amazing the city was, how eclectic it felt, and the energy of those New Yorkers, oh my God, coffee and a bagel, please, and a cheese slice cos that’s how they do in NYC. But I had no idea. Zero. All of those things are fun, but they don’t make a place.

It wasn’t until I returned for the 4th, 5th, and 6th time - sometimes for work, and for longer periods, that I got any grasp on the city. I stopped going to the tourist spots that define a city from the outside, and let myself just sort of exist. Suddenly I’m in quiet bars, finding better food, amazing little shops, and parks that aren’t filled to the brim.

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I started to get an idea of what it might be like to actually live there. And let’s face it, I still wasn’t there long enough to truly understand.

We’ve all felt it. Two weeks fly by on our yearly vacations because they’re packed with the guide book’s recommendations. We don’t stop, because it’s all the time we have there. We want to see everything, and that’s good! The big tourist spots are there for a reason. Don’t ever let anyone guilt you into thinking it’s lame for waiting an hour to see the Mona Lisa, even if you don’t understand art. Let yourself decide if it’s lame!

But it’s hard, if we’re being honest with ourselves, to leave a place feeling totally satisfied when we’ve barely had a moment to stop and appreciate it. We’re all tourists in these situations, but we’re all yearning to be travelers. And there’s a way to find the glorious happy medium.

Slow travel. Slow, deliberate travel. Travel where you have the luxury of time. Time to consider. Time to see. Time to think. Time to exist somewhere.

I hadn’t properly felt the difference until I left with my girlfriend to travel full-time. We teach English online, after earning our TEFL certificates with ITA, and can move around the globe almost at will. We only work on the weekends, leaving Monday to Friday wide open.
And it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.

We typically stay in a city for a month at a time, finding a monthly rental outside of the city centre. Our monthly salary between us is enough for us to live comfortably, often in better apartments than we had at home, do everything we want to do, and still save money.

This is wonderful at face value, of course. Traveling full-time is a dream many of us have, but don’t realize how easy it actually is. But the greatest gift is in the pace of it all. It allows us to find a beautiful, unhurried rhythm in our exploration of a new place.

Gone are the frenzied sight-seeing days, where the world’s greatest cities turn into a blur of tourist traps and souvenir shops. In its place, relaxed and engaged immersion.

Take our time in Beijing, for example. We were oblivious to the approaching national week celebrations on our arrival, only finding out when met with a blockade outside of Tiananmen Square preventing foreigners from entering for the next twelve days. On a typical two-week venture to the Chinese capital, the Forbidden City, the Square itself, and the surrounding museums would have been at the top of the list, meaning a large chunk of an itinerary is thrown down the toilet. For us, it meant a few days of exploring some other areas of the city. We were able to spend the night camping on the Great Wall, venture outside the city to visit the sight of Peking man (often skipped, but we’d highly recommend), leisurely days with no set agenda, and exploring our area of Fangshan.

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We found restaurants we loved, woke up when we felt like it, and took the days as they came. A few afternoons were spent reading in our favorite coffee shop, where a tortoise wandered around our feet. One day that we’d intended to be a big sightseeing day wound up with us in one exhibit in the Chinese History museum for four hours, promptly followed by a night of cocktails and a pub quiz in Sanlitun. We woke up the next day and wandered through the things we’d meant to see the next day. And after all that, the square opened up, and we took three more days to see everything around the square.

There’s no rushed feelings, or perception of missing out. In reality, we’re able to get more from the individual experiences simply because we don’t have a structured itinerary looming after each stop. There’s no exhaustion from 12 hour days, ample time to try any food we’ve fallen in love with multiple times, and above all, the freedom to choose without fear of missing out. I promise you that deciding a queue is too long and grabbing a beer instead, happy with the full knowledge you could swing by again the next week, begins to feel like a super power.

It’s not without its faults, of course. Allowing yourself to get into the mindset is the hardest facet of this type of travel. We’re conditioned to feel like we have to go 100% and see everything when we’re in a new place, and initially, when you have your first lazy morning in a new country, you might have the lingering sense of wasted time. But the realization that you have the ability to be as lazy as you might be on a Sunday morning at home, and still step out into a foreign city when you emerge from the darkness is a calming one.

It’s hard to picture a month in one place when you’re only interested in the top ten things on Tripadvisor: people get through all of the big stuff in a matter of days if they plan well! But learning to make the most of the free time you have is an important skill, as well as an important reflection period for yourself. If you strip your life back, and take enough time, you’ll wind up gravitating to the things that make you happier, and much more fulfilled.

Even the traditional gap year backpacking jaunt doesn’t generally offer this style of travel. This group of post-college wanderers, that we traditionally associate with the negative connotations of travelers mentioned earlier, typically bounce around a high volume of low cost countries. They spend a long time traveling, but it’s definitively not slow travel. And although they certainly possess more freedom and time than their package dealt counterparts, they’re still bound by the confines of money and time, even if a hostel can put them up for a little longer with work. You might even notice the similarities between the swarms of backpackers accosting the most popular “off-the-beaten-track” spots (oxymoron much?), and busloads of tourists being ushered into the more typical attractions.

For the record, I’m not condemning either kind of travel, I’ve been both a fanny-pack toting tourist, and walked the extremely well worn unbeaten track, and I’ve loved them both. But my lifestyle now has made it very hard to be either of those again.

Steven-Cruse-Mongolia-1But I’m also not suggesting you have to travel like we do to experience slow travel. Even a two-week trip can be slowed if you’re willing to put the effort in. Picking one tourist spot a day, and allowing the rest of the time to yourself is a great way to dip your toes in the water. Or even returning to a city you’ve already been to for a long weekend. That speaks to my New York example, where you’ve seen all the major stops, and can enjoy a leisurely bimble around and see where the time takes you.

If you’re reading this article, it means you’re interested in TEFL, and if you don’t want to travel like we do, moving abroad becomes the ultimate slow travel experience. Many of the alum that we’ve connected with live as expats in China, South Korea, Europe, and South America. It’s not what we wanted, because we were trying to escape the 9-5 (not just shift it to another continent), but for others, it offers arguably the most immersive experience in one place. We’ve met many people on our own travels who originally came to a country as a teacher and wound up staying permanently.

The tourist and the traveler, are most certainly caricatures that we all help embody at one point or another. But they’re a product of society. In a world where everyone had infinite time and money, few of us wouldn’t go out to see the world. But in ours, adventures are limited to exciting bouts of freedom that demand excess and organized expenditure. A piece of paper saying I can teach English helped free me from those labels, and even more so, that lifestyle.

Frost said that taking the road less traveled by made all the difference, and he's not wrong. But I’d also suggest taking whatever the hell road you feel like, and taking your time about it.
You’d be surprised what everyone else missed as they were rushing by.

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