Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is Heather Richards, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!


Slow travel is the best travel to me. It's hard to come by, and I think any travel is better than none, but to me, a quick week in Istanbul or a few days in Athens is so unsatisfactory. I'm left with some good times, great photos, and a yearning to learn so much more. 

Slow travel gives you a chance to be acquainted. You get a favorite little shop, and routes that you walk. You get a routine. If you are volunteering or teaching, you have responsibilities and deadlines and a work schedule. This might sound like the opposite of travel - all of the terrible daily regular life stuff that you were running from. But in a new country these little slices of "regular" life feel fresh and different. You name all your favorite stray animals. You know which store sells the cheapest eggs or which restaurant won't make you sick. 

 I travel to know the culture just as much as to see the sights. To me, coming away with an experience with local culture is far more important than a selfie in front of Big Ben (though I've definitely done that and I am not ashamed at all).

 A week in a place teaches nothing cultural except perhaps how people react to lost tourists. (Unofficial Observations: Yerevan is really friendly, but they don't usually speak English. In the Dominican Republic they will help you and then make you pay them by using guilt or persistence.) 

I think my love of slow travel is connected to the anthropologist in me. (Full disclosure: I'm in graduate school for anthropology right now!) Anthropologists have to spend two years in a different community and get at least one disease. They stay for around two years so they may see situations repeated - New Year's Celebrations, birthday parties, harvest rituals. They get a disease so they can have bragging rights. (Check!)  They study traditions and religion, local economies and kinship, gender relations and agriculture. The point is that the anthropologist, while always an outsider, should be so familiar to everyone as to be almost invisible. A part of the landscape. This familiarity allows them to understand and have access to the culture in a way which would not be possible for a tourist or distinguished guest.

The familiarity of schedule can do the same. It is only through routine and repetition that you as the traveler start to see patterns. I learned when my neighbors burned trash and when the preachers led revivals. I literally timed my evening walks by when the cows came home (have you tried to take a walk through a herd of cows? It's not pleasant). 

The benefit of slow travel is that you come away knowing something. You don't come away with just a fun story and a new profile picture, you don't come away with just a whirlwind idea of old churches and sweeping landscapes, you come away with knowledge, knowledge that changes you and your perceptions.

 Maybe the knowledge changes you because you've realized that how you do things isn't "normal" or "natural", it's cultural. Maybe the great scope of a history and people that you never knew about humbles you. Maybe knowing your neighbor's story shifts your priorities. Maybe you discover new passions from learning of art or music you never knew about. Maybe your heart breaks a little, and maybe it rejoices. 

My professor once told me a story about how World Bank officials, who make huge decisions about foreign aid, will be sent to stay in the place they may be allocating aid to. The length of that stay? Usually around three days. Three days.

In three days, you might be able to pick up several new facts and five new misconceptions about the people you are staying with. In three months, all of your preconceived notions and outsider biased misconceptions are shattered (hopefully) and through experience and relationship and study, you actually know a little about what that place and that community is about

Why I love anthropology is because it is firmly against outsider arrogance. Anthropologists don't claim to know a place until they have been there for years. And even after years, they would never presume to truly understand what living in that culture means. They are always aware of outsider bias.

We praise travel as a means to destroy prejudice, but "quick" travel can build it as well as destroy it. What does someone who spends a week in Port-au-Prince, Haiti actually know about the Haitian lived experience? What do they know from a week spent in museums Paris or Shanghai about the culture and values? Nothing probably, but now they think they know something.

 Assumed knowledge is more dangerous than self-aware ignorance.

(It's also just obnoxious. I know. I was almost that person.) 

I could give examples of times when assumed knowledge was dangerous -  from historical colonial rule or anthropology or recent international development, but then you would be depressed. 

I lived for six months in Peru, four months in Georgia and another four in the Dominican Republic. I do not presume to fully know the lived experience of being Peruvian or Georgian or Dominican. But through study, reading, immersion, and really just time, time spent in long, slow days sitting on stoops and around kitchen tables, I did come away with knowledge that changed me. The sense of healing from violence and connections with the land in Peru, the ancient depth of history and pride in Georgia, the constant hustle and social intensity in the Dominican Republic. I don't know much, but I know something. And I know far more than from my whirlwind trips through Istanbul, the Greek isles and Armenia.

Quick travel can be amazing. It can be fun and life changing. It can be a needed escape or relaxation or mind-shift. It can raise questions about what you are seeing and experiencing, but remember, you aren't always getting answers. You aren't always getting depth of knowledge. I'll always choose quick travel if the alternative is no travel, and often those are the choices. But slow travel memories are my favorites. Slow travel is what made me who I am. 

Maybe you don't care about cultural insights, or culture at all. Maybe you really do just want to see sights and nothing more. Well, I think you are entirely missing the point and also missing out on a lot of fun, embarrassing stories, friendships and changes to grow. But you probably think I'm an overly academic weirdo who probably made up their field (anthropology, what??), so I guess we're even. 

Maybe you would love to experience slow travel and gain cultural insights, but don't have the time. Often, life is too fast for slow travel - or even slow travel might not feel like enough time. How do we slow our travel down enough to garner meaningful cultural insights and come away with some local knowledge?

Some slowness tips:

1. Read. Get a novel or an in-depth non-fiction account about the place you are visiting. NOT a travel guide - those are well and good, but I'm talking about an in-depth cultural study. Get something by a local author if possible. Or maybe the book that every school kid is required to read while there, whatever the locals find essential reading. Read it before you go if you can, as it will open your eyes to phenomenon you otherwise might overlook.  I read Bread and Ashes while in Georgia, and In the Time of the Butterflies and Feast of the Goat  after my time in the Dominican Republic (I couldn't find them in country - but after is better than nothing!). 

2. Have a free day. If you are only passing through, but have a little extra time, build in a non-scheduled day. If you are there for a few months but are kept super busy, clear your calendar for a day. Don't sight see, don't go on a tour, don't call home. Just wander. Sit in the square. Take a walk. Talk to vendors. Read that book in a plaza. Run a few small errands. 

3. Study the language. This is touted all of the time, and it's true that you cannot understand a culture without understanding a language. Study before you go and while you are there. Even just a few phrases will help. Slow down by having a slow, stilted, grammatically erroneous conversation with a local. 

4. Ask a local AND do the tourist stuff. Sometimes, locals never get around to their own tourist sights (I've done that...), but they might know the very best little pub. Tourists sights are usually popular for a reason and bring insights of their own (here's looking at you Hagia Sophia - you blew my mind.) Try to do both. 

So take it slow. Sip your tea. Chat with your neighbor if that's culturally appropriate. Read books. Be open to change.

And maybe study a little anthropology while you're at it. 


  1. Hi Mary! I really enjoyed this post- it's quite interesting to see how different writers tackled the Blog Carnival posts in unique ways. I love the notion of simply sitting outside a cafe and people-watching for hours as a way to understand a place (bonus points for conversing with the locals!)
    I love that Cambodia is on your top ten list- it's an incredible country. If you're looking for insights on where to visit, I'll be happy to chat with you! (It's also a good motivator for me to write a blog post about my time there :) )

  2. Beautifully written Mary Ellen! I can see how anthropology and slow travel go hand in hand. I really like how you pointed out that spending three days in a new place will probably give you a bunch of misconceptions and assumed knowledge - so true.

  3. Thank you both so much for reading and commenting! I hope my travels allow me some slow time in Cambodia in the future!