I’ll never forget the French couple I met in Amed, a laid-back diving town on Bali’s east coast. They were halfway through an eight month world trip that took in four continents and two dozen countries, and they were exhausted. Or the thirty-something American who had quit his job to travel the world for a year – 38 countries and a very tight schedule meant that he couldn’t linger in the peaceful town of Pai in Northern Thailand, however much he wanted to, because he had a plane to catch. Or the German guy who would get to a new city in the morning, sight-see all day, then be on the next bus out by evening. He claimed to have seen “all there was to see” in India in just six weeks. Just listening to them tell me about where they had been and where they were going made me feel tired, and all of them (with the exception of the German who seemed to do everything at top speed and feel no ill effects) told me they wished they hadn’t tried to fit so much in. They longed for some relaxation time, to go somewhere and not already be making plans to leave only minutes after they arrived.
In the world of long-term travel, it can be hard to escape from the “how many countries have you been to?” and “what have you seen/done/eaten/experienced?” trap. Backpackers of all nationalities seem to have got it in their heads that the whole point of an extended trip is to cram in as much as possible, regardless of whether they actually want to or not.
I call it Traveller FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. Travellers so concerned with missing out on the next great place/temple/bar/sport/view/experience that they never relax and take joy in where they are at that very moment. I have met many backpackers suffering from an acute case of Traveller FOMO. People who spent months painstakingly planning their trips and creating schedules so rigid that there was no way they could be changed without re-arranging the entire trip. They were ticking off the boxes – all the cultural sights and the must-do experiences – but I couldn’t help wondering how much they were actually absorbing. After all, all churches and temples and great views can start to look the same after a while unless you slow down and give yourself the time to take it all in.
I used to suffer from Traveller FOMO. When I first started backpacking in my early twenties, I was so eager to see and do everything, that it didn’t take long for me to start questioning my motives behind my trips. Did I really want to go to another art museum in my 5 week whistle stop tour of Europe? Or spend five exhausting days racing around Buenos Aires in a bid to see absolutely everything that was in my Lonely Planet? Not really. I did it for fear that I may miss out on something fabulous. I had an over-whelming feeling of “this is it” – that I would never get a chance to travel again and was therefore obliged to see and do everything, regardless of whether it interested me or not. I lost count of the number of times I travelled miles to see or do something only to find myself bored, exhausted and worrying about where all my money was going.
And then I moved to Madrid, and learned the delight of getting to know a new country, culture and language. Of spending weeks, months and years getting under the skin of a whole new world. Gradually, Traveller FOMO lost its grip on me, and I began to appreciate the unique joys of travelling slow. My “this is it” attitude was replaced by a calm acceptance that travel would always be a part of my life, and an understanding that I benefited the most when I took things slowly.
On my 15 month trip around Asia I visited only 4 countries. This slow pace gave me insights into the places I visited that were deep and real and lasting. I made a pact with myself to stay at least three nights in each place and if after three nights I still didn’t like it, I moved on. I rarely stayed three nights – I usually stayed anything between one and six weeks. I met plenty of other slow travellers. People who spent weeks and sometimes months in each place, just soaking up their surroundings, learning new skills, and taking the time to enjoy every moment instead of always rushing on to see the next place, onto the next big adventure.
I know that there is a lot to be said for packing a lot into your trip and I often wonder how much more I would have seen or how many more places I would have visited if I had gone against my nature as a Slow Traveller. But travelling slow affords you a totally different kind of experience, and if you’re on a long trip it gives you the time to process the thousands of new sights, sounds and experiences that are coming your way every day. There is an enormous amount of freedom in the ability to throw caution (and your plans) to the wind, and to simply slow down. It takes time to make friends and connections, and it takes weeks to even begin to get under the skin of a culture, but your time and effort will be rewarded one hundred fold with a deeper appreciation of the diversity, colour and beauty of our world.
About the author
Full-time traveller, part-time blogger/writer/editor, some-time yoga practitioner, unapologetic hippy and dedicated believer of the impossible, Olivia can also be found blogging about her travels over at her personal blog Leap Before You Look