The joys of slowing down and straying from the beaten path

I recently did a Q&A for Italy’s La Repubblica Sunday magazine, and the interviewer and I covered some interesting thematic ground about slowing down and getting off the beaten path. Since the interview is only available in Italian, I wanted to share my favorite outtake here:

Slowing down will also take your mind off of preordained “sights” and into the experience of the country. It allows you serendipity; it allows things to happen. It allows you to meet people, and new people are always more interesting than new sights. Thus, instead of just setting expectations and trying to live up to them, keep your expectations amorphous, and just be curious about everything. Ask questions, talk to people, learn a little bit of the local language, try new foods. Visit fewer museums, and go on more walks. I especially encourage people to get off of the tourist trail. It’s not that hard. Just travel fifteen minutes from any tourist attraction — be it the Eiffel Tower or the Giza Pyramids — and you will find yourself in a more interesting and authentic part of your destination. Try visiting towns or villages that aren’t in the guidebook, just so you can see what happens there. It’s amazing how curious and welcoming people can be — especially if they live in a place that doesn’t see many tourists. (People in tourist towns can be nice, too; they’re just more jaded to your presence.)

As I say in Vagabonding, this willingness to wander away from the obvious attractions can be more of an adventure than any bungee jumping or whitewater rafting experience. One should take care not to be reckless, of course — be aware of which neighborhoods are safe, for instance — but dare yourself to leave the lock-step tempo of the tourist trail. Just wander and let things happen. It’s in the unplanned and atypical moment where you will grow and learn; and it is these moments that you will remember the most. A couple years ago I went to Cuba for a month, and I experienced a lot of the typical things — salsa, mojitos, baseball, old cars, etc. But my strongest memory is making friends with some young Cuban bagpipers who showed me Havana. Their music wasn’t stereotypical Cuban music, and they were in many ways like the hipster kids you might meet in New York or Berlin — but they were still 100% Cuban, and they showed me a side of Havana that was far more memorable than the stereotypical stuff. So you have to be open to these kinds of experiences.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | May 11, 2009
Category: Vagabonding Advice

5 Responses to “The joys of slowing down and straying from the beaten path”

  1. Eric Says:

    You are 100% right when it comes to getting a TRUE travel experience. Travel books may help you see the big picture BUT to enjoy it on a personal level, you must make choices that do not follow the crowd. Going where the locals go (food, entertainment & relaxation) will help you see the true locale you are visiting. Keep up the GREAT work , Rolf!!

  2. Scott Says:

    I agree with Rolf on this. However, for my next trip I’d like to take Theroux-like trip through a continent, hopefully meeting locals along the way. Tough to do, but I’ve always had a goal of long-term overland travel where the journey is the destination. I think it’s hard to reconcile moving so fast with meeting local people, but I’d like to give it a shot.

  3. Says:

    I’ve always gravitated towards the OFF-BEATEN road when it comes to travel. Sure, there are specific sights I’d like to see such as the Coliseum in Rome or The Great Wall of China. But, I prefer to get to know the locals. That’s why I really travel. Who can I meet? What can I learn from them? How will my new found knowledge help me grow as a person? It’s not about the shopping, eating, or nightlife. Not that these aren’t fun and exciting. I guess I look at travel from a deeper point-of-view.