Learning to See the World

Learning to See the World

Hello and welcome to slow travel week, friends! I’m in the middle of a two-week trip to NYC and Toronto (currently in Toronto), which are just two of the four cities I’ll be spending time in this month. As such, it makes sense that November’s slow living experiment is “slow travel”—and I have a handful of posts I want to share on this topic.

You’ll find two written by me on Tuesday and Friday. But when I put out a call for guest posts in the summer, I received three related to travel. Based on the stories told and lessons shared, I found all five posts fit so well together that I’ve decided to share them all in one week! That’s right, five posts in one week. Slow travel week. ;)

The first is a guest post from my friend Holly. I think you’ll find it’s the best place to start.

The regret started to creep into my thoughts as I drove the rental car south on highway 2. It was day 3, and we’d left the charming Art Deco city of Napier, New Zealand, early that morning. We were headed to Wellington for an overnight stay before boarding the ferry to the South Island. The spring sunshine cast a gentle light across my husband’s face as he slept in the passenger seat, and I found my eyes drawn to the small cafes of roadside towns, and the signs for wineries and hidden treasures just off the beaten path. I knew we had no time to spare, not if we were to keep to our timeline. But my heart cried out to stay.

I kept driving.

You see, I’ve always been a purposeful traveler. Since my first opportunity, an 8th grade class trip to Germany, I’ve felt the drive to see as much as I can, to make every effort to cross things off of my list and mark them as accomplished. And my type-A sightseeing wasn’t restricted to big international trips. When my family came to visit me in Boston, where I attended university, I marched them all over the city on a blustery day, until all of our feet ached and we opted out of the dinner reservations at the nice restaurant in lieu of couches and comfort.

As I checked more countries off of my list, I stayed focused. On work trips, I’d wake early to squeeze in a run around the city, or stay late to catch the closing hour at a museum or gallery. My coworkers were taken aback when I’d recount my stories of discovery, uncertain how I’d managed to squeeze in so much in so little time. If Alexander Hamilton wrote like he was running out of time, as Lin-Manuel Miranda put so beautifully to music, I traveled as if pursued by the same relentless beast.

This intensity was manageable when I traveled solo, although I often finished a trip feeling tired and strangely dissatisfied. But when I began to travel with my partner—now my husband—it became a point of conflict. Should we stay in our nice hotel room, with the windows open and the sounds of the sea in the distance for a relaxing nap before a walk to dinner? Or should we venture out once more to see another museum, church, piece of history? Whenever I compromised and allowed for the nap, my mind would continue to race, fueled by fear of what I was missing, unsure whether I’d be back in this destination, wondering if I was wasting my precious time.

It wasn’t until our trip to New Zealand in 2015 that I finally began to understand and wrap my head around this fear of missing out and how much it has colored my experience of travel throughout the years. It was on this trip that I began to look at “missing out” through a different filter, and to see how changing my approach to travel would actually allow me to have a much richer experience. I started to understand that the very question of missing out is a false one when it comes to travel. It’s like trying to solve a math equation, and expecting the response to be a poem.

But when I planned our trip to New Zealand, I hadn’t learned these lessons yet. New Zealand had been a dream destination for years. We had about 10 days for the trip, and I was intent on seeing as much of these amazing islands as possible. Even as I built our itinerary, my inner voice started to whisper to me that it was too much. I countered that we always enjoyed road trips. Ultimately, my planning brain won out, and we boarded the plane with 10 full days of trains, tours, boats, cars, busses, and even a helicopter ahead of us, everything planned out to the hour. We would see the main cities, the big attractions, and enjoy a few adventures. We would SEE New Zealand.

By the third day, it began to fall apart.

We spent a full day in the car without enjoying the main excursion planned for the day—exploring a cave. The overnight rain had flooded the caves and the guides assessed it wasn’t safe. We could try again tomorrow, they said. But we had reservations on the other side of the island, so we drove on.

We went for an evening run in Rotorua, the land of geysers and hot springs and sulfur, and spent an evening soaking in the thermal spas. But this relaxation was tempered by the early-morning wake-up and the need to get to the next destination. We both wished we could stay a little longer, see a little more.

By Napier, I was starting to see the impact of the itinerary in real time. Our hotel overlooked the ocean, there were wineries and fine restaurants and a lovely coffeeshop steps from our door. I wanted to stay here, to linger, to experience this town over a few days. Instead, we drove on.

I think it’s important to share that our trip to New Zealand was still an amazing experience. The occasional arguments and the stress of constant movement were overshadowed by the beautiful scenery, the delicious food, the nerdy joy of touring Hobbiton and our delight at the prisma green hills and sheep, sheep, everywhere sheep. We were amazed by the deep orange-yellow color of egg yolks from local chickens, impressed by the free water dispensers and glasses at every cafe, and welcomed by the friendly people at every stop.

But by the time we approached the end of our itinerary, something important had shifted inside of me. I called ahead, and cancelled the rest of our plans. I extended our rental car. I paid extra to stay another night in our final hotel.

And there, in a small town on the southern corner of the south island, I embraced the art of lingering.

We walked the main street. We visited the same cafe for breakfast two days in a row, savoring the coffee and the eggs. I went for a run along the shores of a lake, the forest sheltering me and soft bark carpeting the trail. We sat. We read. We savored. We ate an incredible meal with local ingredients and delicious New Zealand wine. While two days was far from enough time to truly enter into a relationship with this town and its community, it offered me an alternative way of traveling, a different perspective on what I was actually missing while I was so consumed with FOMO, and a vision of how much richer traveling could be.

Several years later, when I think back on this trip, I think it’s meaningful that the two moments I remember most aren’t the helicopter flight to a glacier or the glass of ale at the Green Dragon. The moments that stay with me are the sensation of my heavy heart in the car, driving southbound; and the perfect last day in Te Anau. I learned a lot about the history, people, culture, and nature of New Zealand on this trip; but I learned something perhaps even more important about myself.

This lesson hasn’t waved a magic wand over my life. When I travel, I still experience this anxiety of missing out. I still plan itineraries that encompass entire countries, all of the places and all of the things. But now, I’ve learned to take that plan, and distill it down. I’ve learned to ask myself some important questions that I’d love to share with you.

  • If I had to choose one experience in this country, what would it be?
  • How can I find a way to authentically enter into this place?
  • How can I design my trip—from my lodging, to my transportation—to maximize this experience?
  • What decisions will help me enjoy parts of the trip that I can’t anticipate from here?
  • Did I include some buffer time, for an unplanned exploratory run, a rough day of jet lag, an impromptu meeting or a delayed connection?
  • Is this a trip that meets the needs and expectations of myself and my travel partner(s)?

I’ve also learned to turn these lessons to my everyday life. It’s ironic that my driving pursuit of seeing everything when I’m on the road was mirrored by an indifference to sites closer to home. I’d realize that years had gone by without ever making it to that one museum, or that certain restaurant, or that specific park. So while I’ve tempered my younger travel persona and begun to identify the type of slow travel that works for me, I’ve also tried to engage more intentionally with destinations closer to home. Whether this means prioritizing a visit to a museum opening, stopping to enter into conversation with a local artist, or simply appreciating the diversity of unique, beautiful places within an hour’s drive, I’m slowly learning to truly see what’s in front of me.

As I look back on my past travels and look ahead to those in front of me, I think of the well-known quote from Marcel Proust:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

While I don’t intend to stop seeking out new landscapes, I hope that I can carry with me this new sense of perspective that will let me see more deeply the truth and reality in each destination.

Holly is a writer and yoga teacher who recently made the leap to a freelance life in northwestern Montana. She’s traveled to 37 countries so far, and has a relaxed itinerary planned for her next trip abroad. You can connect with her on Instagram and at her blog.

  • I absolutely love the questions for reflection – I’ll definitely use them when I start traveling next month!

  • Hahaha. I hear you. My first European trip was a marathon like that. Now, when my mom and I travel we roughly alternate what we call “sampler platter tours” which is a high level overview of a larger area, often as a cruise. Then, the areas that speak to us get added to a short list of places we’d like to go back to. So… Sampler platter tour of Spain and Italy, then a few years later a month in a small town in Tuscany. Sampler platter cruise of Greece, then five years later, three weeks in Chania, Crete. That way we get a little of both worlds!

    • I recently returned from my very first, much anticipated overseas trip. I booked a 10 day bus tour of Portugal, mainly to counteract my fears of having to figure out the details myself.
      It was a great trip with a lovely group of people and a fabulous tour guide. That being said, I don’t think I will do it the same way again,as nearly every time we stopped I was reluctant to get back to the bus. I wanted to linger in the sidewalk cafes, and wander through the villages. I wanted more time to watch the people and interact, to slow down and enjoy.
      I found Portugal to be amazing and I love that I saw bits and pieces of the whole country, but it has left me hungry for more quality time spent there. I think it is no coincidence that my favourite parts of the trip were when we stayed a few days in a city before moving on. I had planned to go somewhere else next time, but it may just have to be Portugal again at a slower pace. I think the sampler platter idea is fantastic! I had not put it in so many words but I think it is a great approach. I am glad I have figured this out on my first outing, only a little sad it took me 46 years to get started.
      Thanks for a great and very relateable article.

  • I’m from NZ and have travelled a lot there before i moved to the UK over 20 yrs ago, there is definitely a lot to see and do. I remember those types of trips myself, rushing around for 2 weeks and feeling tired at the end from all the driving and needing a holiday from my holiday. But then having a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that i hadn’t somehow seen or done something that would’ve made the holiday good or meaningful. I’m glad that you got to slow down and enjoy some of the treasures to be had and that it changed how you travel. I hope that you can someday get to go back to NZ and spend months to really savour your time in my homeland!

    • Thanks Joy! What a lovely place to call your home! My husband and I look forward to a return trip to really soak in and savor over a longer period of time. Some day!

  • Beautiful post, Holly! My partner and I love to travel and as the chief itinerary planner, I often get anxious about not being able to see/experience everything. We’ve gotten pretty good at picking a few places as bases in which to stay for a few days instead of constantly being on the move. We’re planning a six week trip to New Zealand in early 2019 (along with about a month in Australia), so I will certainly be bookmarking your post so I can come back to your questions.

    • Wonderful — I hope your 2019 trip is simply fantastic. I’ve only skimmed the surface of Australia, and it’s another place I hope to spend some extended time some day. Thanks so much for the support and comment!

  • This is a lovely essay. I particularly enjoy your writing, Holly, which evokes so many images and sensory detail. I have found myself in the seat of FOMO, pushing not only myself but others to rally hard and visit as many sites as possible, only to find myself exhausted by the end of a ‘vacation.’ Joining the Peace Corps helped curb that. When one travels in a developing country, keeping a strict schedule is impossible. My type-A personality took some serious hits in those years, and I can’t say I made it especially pleasurable for my co-travelers, but over time, I learned to slow down, settle down and enjoy the unexpected. I took my daughter, then 10, to China for a week a few years ago. My goal: see one thing a day. That’s it. Otherwise, we rested in our hotel, sat by rivers, chatted with locals and actually enjoyed getting lost in the old hutongs. Your essay reminds me of how important it is to embrace the unexpected and how lovely it is to sometimes get lost. :)

    • Amy, I love your perspective of choosing to see one thing per day. And yes — I’ve also found traveling in developing countries helps to cure Type A brain! At least to a certain extent. Great to connect and I look forward to reading your blog as well. Thanks!

  • Love the blog and think it is amusing I have had a similar experience and in Australia and NZ at that. The problem was since it takes so long to get there we decided to do both. After being on a plane or train almost every day when we got to NZ we cancelled everything but the rental car and just drove from the S to N island and for the first time beginning to relax and enjoy the trip. I did learn a lot from that. Now I’d almost rather just stay somewhere for awhile and try to see things more as a local rather than a tourist.

    • Cathy, I agree that the distance traveled seems to intensify the “need to do it all” pressure. I’m glad you were also able to reroute mid-trip and find a bit more relaxation!

  • I love this post! I might be biased (I’m from NZ, living in the South Island) but I feel like everyone who comes to do an intense road trip ends up changing plans and chilling out and just taking it all in. A lot of things to see and do here rely on the weather, which tends to temper plans and you have to adapt to that lifestyle…but….I would like to think that it’s just our awesome relaxed personalities and way of life that sinks into to your bones when you get here ;)
    I hope you guys come back again and get to experience some secret sweet spots. We love visitors! happy travels.

  • I totally resonated with your post! I am very much a traveler like you, trying to fit it all in, because, what if we don’t get a chance to return to that country? With kids, I’ve been forced to slow down, which is probably a better way to travel for all of us. We take more time to enjoy 1 or 2 things a day, or just do something fun in a new place. NZ is on our bucket list to visit, and I’m afraid I’m of the same mentality to see it all! Will have to remember not to try and do everything when we get to go!! Thanks for the great food for thought.

  • This is absolutely lovely! I usually get anxious about missing things (what if I NEVER get the chance to do it again???) when I travel but I am hyper-aware that having time built in for leisurely detours or exploring or sitting in a cafe and watching the world go by would probably make the experience better. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition in my head haha. I planned a 5-day trip to the Azores with a few family members earlier this year, and my ideal itinerary was definitely HEAVY on the number of things I wanted to do even though I didn’t want to have a trip where we packed a ton of things into a few days. Good thing it was a tiny island so we had time to drive leisurely around it while doing most of the things I wanted to do and still having time to stop at all the overlooks just for fun! ;)

  • Wow, this resonated with me. I am really trying not to over-schedule my vacations, but it has been a learning process. It helps that my husband is not a planner and really likes to go with the flow. We’ve slowly been moving closer in this regard (he participates in loosely planning the highlights we want to see, I schedule less and don’t freak out when we don’t have “plans” for the day). I’ve noticed that I put a lot less pressure on short weekend trips, and am most at risk of trying to jam-pack vacations overseas because they feel like “once in a lifetime” opportunities. But they’re not. And even if they are, what’s the point if I don’t truly enjoy them because I’m too busy rushing to the next must-see sight?

  • Great post! I love to travel, and travel mostly alone these days, and my favorite moments are always those when I end up people-watching in a café or randomly walk into a street market, shop or exhibition I had never planned.

  • Amen to this post! I have struggled with serious FOMO myself and have rushed around every destination trying to cram in as much as possible. It wasn’t until I met my now husband that I began to slow down. You see, he loves relaxing in cafes with a coffee, taking in the atmosphere of a place while people watching. And I have to say, now I’ve seen the other side of the coin, I much prefer slow travel to racing around like a headless chicken.

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