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Slow Immersion Travel: Learning by Experiencing

So many people have this idea of travel as something to be done either in short bursts (weekends, spring break) or as a much-saved-for, one year round the world trip, where they pack as many places into a year as they can (often spending 1-2 days in each location). While this is something that many people aspire to doing, there’s another way to learn about and experience the world.

Can you imagine a way of learning — by travel — that includes digging deep into cultures, eating locally, being kind to the earth, giving back as you travel, experiencing life like a local, and gaining a sense of ethnorelativism? Called Slow Immersion Travel, it’s a throwback to the way we USED to travel.

Slow Immersion Travel: Learning by Experiencing
Photo by Robin Benad. Adapted by Transitions Abroad

Slow Travelers Across History

Let’s time travel…to a world where travel was difficult, expensive, and fraught with problems. Walking was one way to travel, although if you were wealthy enough, you could ride via horse or camel. Sailing was another (take a look at Homer’s Odyssey for truly slow travel). Traveling usually followed trade routes, and was done for a specific purpose. Early travel writers include Spaniard Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217), who wrote about his pilgrimage to Mecca; Moroccan Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), an explorer who wrote about his travels In A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, and is considered one of the greatest travelers of all time; Pausanias (110-180), a Greek traveler and geographer who wrote Description of Greece; King Mu (died 922BC), a Chinese King who was an inveterate Silk Road traveler — and was said to have traveled 90,000 kilometers to the west to explore; and Petrarch (1304-1374), an Italian nicknamed the Father of Humanism, who is often also named as the "first tourist" because he traveled for pleasure. Don’t forget Robert Louis Stevenson, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Annie Londonderry, Lewis and Clark, Lady Hay Drummond-Hay, and John Greaves, among thousands of intrepid adventurers.

All of these inveterate travelers explored the world — slowly. They ate what they could find on the road or in settlements, stayed with locals (or slept under the stars), and learned about the people, places, and cultures they visited firsthand. For locals, meeting travelers was truly an exercise of hospitality — you opened your home to visitors, learned about the world, and helped them by feeding and housing them. Travelers didn’t really experience a rushed visit anywhere, due to the slowness of transportation and lack of tourism infrastructure. And, you can imagine that they truly got to know the soul of a people and place.

The Contemporary Slow Renaissance

So, barring riding on a donkey or camel and traversing small stretches of land slowly, or sailing around the world in a few years, as Laura Dekker has recently done, how can you emulate the kind of slow immersion travel that has that certain joie de vivre, a magical quality of truly being in the moment, connecting with people, experiencing all that life has to offer?

Slow immersion travel can take a clue from the founder of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini. When asked (in this magazine!) what was the mission of slow food, he replied:

"Our mission is more complex than people might imagine. By preaching the interconnection of gastronomy and politics, agriculture, and environment, Slow Food has become an active international player in the worlds of farming and ecology. We seek to link pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility by defending the biodiversity of our food supply, by promoting taste education and bringing together food producers and consumers through events and initiatives."

And the Slow Food USA movement notes:

"That is what real culture is all about: developing taste rather than demeaning it. And what better way to set about this than an international exchange of experiences, knowledge, projects?"

From that, and building on the footsteps of those historical world travelers, we can define slow immersion travel (which is, naturally, educational), as finding ways to connect with local communities, to create quality interactions with people, landscapes, and cultures, to expand your worldview by learning of and with others, to work together to exchange knowledge — all while emulating Petrarch in finding pleasure in the doing.

How to Plan Your Own Slow Immersion Travel Experience

But let’s say you don’t have 2 years (or so) to travel slowly by camel or donkey across (pick your continent). How can you utilize the concepts in today’s world?

1) Go local. Ideally, you’d head somewhere that isn’t a massive tourist attraction. That is one of the easiest ways to go local! If you must, must!, go to Paris, then be mindful of the fact that you want to experience life as locals do – stay in a non-touristy arrondissement, eat at local restaurants, look, and listen. Visit the library and see what locals are reading; ask the librarian for a schedule of local events. Stay with families through hosting programs, or in localized accommodations, such as Albergo diffuso in Italy, which are revitalized small towns and historic centers. 

The skyline of Alberobello, Puglia, Italy
The skyline of Alberobello, Puglia. Photo by Amy E. Robertson: Localized Accommodation in Italy.

2) Be open. Be open to new experiences — and practice ethnorelativism. As David Joshua Jennings notes, “It is in the nuance of the experience, not in books, not in geography, where the traveler’s El Dorado is to be found.” He also said, in a paragraph so full of beauty and intercultural genius that I read it thrice, “I tried my best to keep an equanimous mind, not to allow my judgment to seep in, not to interpret what was happening as a spectacle, but as a way of life I could not fully understand, to accept it for what it was, not to betray it. The moment my judging mind appears is the moment I am separated from the experience; I wanted to maintain an empty mind, free of expectation, free of difference between me and them.”

Turkish nomadic family in their tent
Turkish nomadic family in their tent. Photo by David Joshua Jennings: The Secret Lives of Nomads.

3) Help. Volunteer while you travel — and volunteer with locals, to assist them in things they need doing, instead of helping in ways that you think they need. At Casita Linda in Mexico, volunteers work alongside locals to help build houses for impoverished families. Each family helps to build their own house. This project? Changing lives — and teaching that hard work, persistence, and working together can truly make a difference.

Volunteers in Mexico build new house with name of owner on plaque.
Ceramic plaque with new house owner's name. Photo by Sandra Kennedy: Casita Linda: Building Houses for Mexican Families in San Miguel de Allende.

4) Seek out educational experiences. I’ve written on educating your 5 senses via travel — and can’t say enough about this way of traveling. Make it a point to learn while you’re traveling — from locals. Hire a knowledgeable guide to show you the best birding spots; take a cooking class; enroll in a morning language class in your destination. Whatever you do, talk with the people you’re surrounding yourself with; ask them about their lives, passions, ways of living in the world.

Pa Bobo Jobarteh with his Kora
Pa Bobo Jobarteh with his Kora. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk: Kora Sounds from the Griot Compounds in The Gambia.

5) Go slow. Of course! Ride a bike instead of renting a car. Take a barge cruise on the Seine, travel via camel in the Sahara, walk the Great Wall, take a safari in Tanzania, hike the Appalachian Trail, sail the Caribbean, climb Mt Fuji, follow the Hobbits in New Zealand, meander the streets of Italy. Sit and breathe. Whatever you choose, revel in the environment — each step shows a new side to the world.

Camels walking through sand dunes in Mauritania.
Camels walking through sand dunes in Mauritania. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk: Traveling Along Mauritania's Ancient Caravan Routes.
Don’t let your next trip make you feel like this:
Avoid rush hour at train station

Instead, choose something like this:
Peaceful river scene in a European town

Don’t you feel the joy of travel and the goodness of people around the world already seeping into your psyche? Make new friends, learn as you go, and actually enjoy your travels, instead of coming back frazzled. Yes, we can adapt those slow journeys of yesteryear into something that works for us — and makes the world a smaller, friendlier, more enjoyable place.

 More Articles by Dr. Jessie Voigts
Educational Travel and Pleasure Educational Travel: Ethics and Pleasure Educating your 7 senses: Adventure in sound
Educational Travel and Pleasure How Travel Can Change the World: One Journey at a Time 7 Senses Travel: An Adventure in Sound
Travel: A Lifelong Journey of Learning Slow Immersion Travel: Learning by Experiencing Educating your 5 senses via travel
Travel: A Lifelong Journey of Learning 8 Ways to Become a Better Travel Writer Educating Your Senses Via Travel

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