The grandmother sits at the edge of the bed she just tuck her grandson in.
"Are you ready for your bedtime story?" she asks.
The kid shakes his head yes. It's the part he most enjoys about sleepovers at his grandma's. That, and her cooking.
"Good, then let me tell you the story of the Tortoise and the Hare."
Because his granny is the best in the world, she doesn't deliver the usual story of the race between the two rivals. She twists the plot, and the race on the road becomes a race across the world.
The first animal to come back to the exact point where they are standing now after traveling around the globe will be proclaimed the winner.
Ears and eyes wide open as the words flow from her grandmother's mouth, the boy doesn't just listen passively. As he swallows every word, his brain starts his creative work, and he can see it all happening in his mind.
Of course, the pretentious hare doesn't want to simply win the race:
He wants to prove that he can do so AND visit every country on the planet at the same time.
Every time he steps into a new country, he crosses it off his list. "100 countries left... 50... 10..."
As he reaches the last country before getting back home and winning the race, he decides to get some rest. Traveling this fast was exhausting, even for a quick runner like him.
He lies down under the shadow of a tree and falls into the arms of Morpheus.
Meanwhile, the tortoise is taking her time. She's not going to go through every country: instead, she stops only in a few places, where she makes friends and takes the time to eat to keep her energy levels high.
(What did you expect? A grandmother is telling the story, of course food is involved...)
The tortoise's new friends accompany her to the border of the next country, where she makes new friends, who also give her their support until she reaches the next border.
Finally, she arrives where it all started and wins the race. The hare is nowhere to be seen, so the tortoise sits under a tree, waiting for him.
As the hare arrives, running as though a hunter were on his tail, mad at himself for sleeping so long, the tortoise welcomes him on the finish line, with a large smile.
"So, what is the moral of the story?" the grandma asks her grandson.
The boy pauses briefly to think about it and says:
"The tortoise is a much better traveler than the hare."
Tortoises Travel Better
Funny how the mind of a child works, right?
While this isn't the answer that his granny expected, it was impossible for her to deny the truth in her grandson's words.
Nevertheless, she liked to challenge him, so she asks for an explanation.
"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?" the boy replies, "The tortoise made many friends, tried food that she didn't know before, and learned many things from the new friends she made."
The grandma, proud of the boy, hides a smile and asks seriously:
"But the hare visited all the countries in the world! Surely he learned more than the tortoise."
"I don't think so," the kid replies. "He didn't take the time to stop anywhere or talk to anyone!"
At the ripe age of 10 or so, the boy had the wisdom that was missing in most travelers twice his age and more.
And it is a problem, isn't it?
Head to your favorite social media for a second. Look for self-proclaimed "expert travelers" who boast "50+ countries visited" or more. They're beyond counting.
Now how many do you think actually know the countries that they have visited?
Not that many.
Here's one of the problems without the new generation of travelers:
We want to do it all. Fast. No time to waste. We need to go there, and see that, and take a selfie in front of this monument!
And tell the world about it. Publish a picture of us on the Great Wall of China and say that we know the place like the back of our hand.
We've spend a weekend in a city, so we're now officially experts on this destination! So let us help you out in case you want to head there yourself, otherwise you will waste your trip:
"The 10 Best Restaurants in Tokyo"
"The 15 Most Amazing Places to Visit in Venezuela"
"What You MUST Do When You're in Tanzania"
I'm guilty of writing some of these myself...
What happened to taking our time?
I'm intimately convinced that when it comes to travel, less is more. And I'm sure that deep down, those travelers doing 50 countries a year know it too.
I follow, read and talk to both kinds of travelers: those who take their time, stay at the same spot for a while before coming back home or moving on to their next destination, and those who are always on the move, a couple of days here and there, sometimes a week. And the difference is notable.
When telling you about their trip, the first ones will have tons of anecdotes on how the locals behave, what's their state of mind, what it's like to live in this country versus another. They'll be able to provide (really) useful tips, recommend activities and addresses that you wouldn't find anywhere else. They could tell you stories for hours! You know by reading or talking to them that they've had an authentic experience, a real taste of a foreign culture, and that they do know the country that they visited.
When talking to the fast-moving kind, however, it doesn't take long before you get to the bottom of what they have to say. You've barely scratched the surface that they already run out of content! Very little of what they report can't be found in the Lonely Planet or any other popular guide book.
In a sense, I get it:
The world is huge, there is just so much to explore, what choice do we have but to speed things up if we're to see it all in this one lifetime that we have?
My problem is that I believe it to be a vain enterprise. I've asked myself this:
What would make me grow more as a person and make me happier: seeing all the attractions that TripAdvisor recommends in a given country, or knowing the in and outs of one city?
I can think of no reason why the first option is better, apart from the fact that it allows you to update you resume and social media profile with "visited X countries in Y days".
That's why tortoises know better: they are light-packers who take it slow and take the time to savor every moment.
Go With the Flow, Don't Fight the Current
It does require a lot of self-discipline and willpower, consciously saying "no" to some so-called "must-dos and must-sees", which others will undoubtedly call a missed opportunity. But I think that there are sacrifices that should be made.
I remember an afternoon in China. My friend and I were having tea with the owner of the hostel we were staying at. She was a middle-aged woman who had spent her entire life in this village close to Dali in the province of Yunnan.
The conversation gets to what are plans for the next days are. We had planned it all: going to the old town of Dali, take a scooter ride around the lake and visit the 3 pagodas (the main point of interest in Dali). This was the plan, although we had already seen quite a few pagodas during our travels across China, and these didn't seem to be much different, except for the fact that there were three of them.
As we voiced these concerns and our lack of enthusiasm started to show, the owner explained that the pagodas really were beautiful and that all the foreigners coming to Dali were going to see them.
She also told us that several of her relatives would arrive for their semi-annual visit, because it was the Golden Week (one of the two weeks of national holidays in China). They were bringing food from their respective regions and planned to have a huge meal. The children would be there too. And if we ever decided not to go to the three pagodas, we were more than welcome to join the celebration!
Guess what we did?
We did what every average traveler would have done: we went to see the 3 pagodas and do most of what "has to be seen in Dali" according to multiple online guides. It was nice. The pagodas were indeed impressive.
But I can't help thinking that I missed an amazing chance to get a better understanding of the complex Chinese culture and get a truly authentic experience. Not to mention the food...
So what's my point this time?
We're so adamant about seeing it all and not deviating from what we "have to do and see and eat" that we don't even let the door open to what has the potential to be genuinely amazing experiences.
We're afraid when plans are changing. What if we're missing on something huge? After all, every online guide, every travel blogger who wrote about the region said that we "have" to see this and do that!
I say that we should be more flexible and go with the flow. It boils down to adaptation and our ability to accept change, embrace it with positivity.
Your Airbnb might be canceled, but a local could offer to host you instead, as it happened to me in Tanzania. Your flight might be delayed or canceled, but you could get a compensation as a result! What's not planned doesn't always suck, on the contrary.
Don't think that I'm saying you shouldn't make a plan or avoid the main attractions in your destination! Do both!
But in case an opportunity for something more original presents itself, trust your gut and go for it: I'm certain good things will come out of it. Even if it turns out that changing your plans wasn't the best idea you ever had, I'm sure the memories will be more valuable and the story you'll make of it more interesting.
What sounds better?
"I was in Paris, we saw the Eiffel Tower, took a selfie in front of it, it was great, so beautiful, Paris is amazing!"
"We were planning on going to see the Eiffel Tower, but a guy at our hostel told us that there was an open air concert with a band of grandpas! You've never seen anything like this before!"
If you say the first one I'm going to get mad. Everyone, tourist or not, takes a selfie with the Eiffel Tower! Everyone can tell the same uninteresting story that doesn't bring them anything and doesn't create a valuable souvenir (I mean, let's be honest, it's a tower in metal, what's so amazing about it?).
Maybe this unplanned stuff won't be worth it in the end, but following your curiosity will often lead to better outcomes, even if you can't see it then.
Here's another story of my trip to China:
There was a monastery that we wanted to visit, only we couldn't find the bus to take us there. So despite recommendations to do anything but that, we accepted the offer of a man to take us there, wait for us and take us back to the city, for what he said was a good price. We bargained a bit, he accepted a revised price and we hit the road, thinking that we had made a good deal.
After visiting the monastery, he was waiting for us as promised. Only this time, the bus was there, and they were charging way less than what he wanted us to pay. Realizing that this guy was a con, we offered to pay only half of the money (he had taken us there after all), and go back with the bus.
He didn't like that at all and got aggressive. He was threatening everyone who was taking our defense. Because of that, no one would help us, and the bus left without us. We had no choice but to drive back with him. It wasn't over yet though! He took us to a meeting point where other crooks like him were gathering, leaving us no choice but to give him the money, even though he wasn't taking us back to the city.
It was awful.
Why? Because none of it was planned and we will remember this story for a long time and keep calling that guy names for a long time. I'm sure my grandchildren will hear about him one day! This is so much more interesting than "we took the bus, visited the monastery and came back, it was nice".
Go with the flow, accept what happens, take the positive that comes out of it. You will be a much more interesting traveler (and person) and really feel like you've lived.
It's Time to Travel Better
In the end, what's the point of this post? Travelers can do whatever they want! Maybe I just don't get it. Everyone is free to opt for the travel style that best suits their needs, right?
My problem is that we don't hear enough from travelers who actually have something interesting to say. Most travel bloggers that you hear from are the "50 countries and counting" kind. Sure they give their opinion about the places they visit, they shoot cool videos that inspire other travelers to go there too...
But that's not enough. There isn't much value in what is easily accessible online. It's like every blog is a copycat of the others. Every travel guide has the same general information.
So much so that people who start traveling believe that this is what traveling is all about and that their trip won't be a success if they don't do all the things that they've read about.
This is so wrong!
One exception I love to follow is Derek from WanderingEarl.com. He's been traveling since 1999, spent over 6000 days on the road and visited over 100 countries. That's not what I care about: I love his stories, because he makes a point of living among the locals and always has great anecdotes of what it's like. Recently, he started slowing his travel pace down and staying longer in the same place. His most important travel rule sums it all up: look up. When you travel, keep looking up, and actually see what's around you, from the people to the architecture and the smallest details.
"By noticing everything around us, we gain a deeper understanding of every destination we visit. And at times, often when we least expect it of course, we might even see something so interesting or breathtaking or perhaps life-changing, that the experience will stay with us forever."
Derek "Wandering Earl" Baron
Everyone is free to do as they please.
Just ask yourself if you wouldn't be better off trying out things that you haven't heard of. I'm confident that you would find way more happiness and make better memories by taking things slow, following your gut telling you to welcome a change of plan and making the conscious effort to notice the world around you when you travel.
Let's travel better, shall we?
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