Ugh. Why can’t I just go back to bed?
It’s early morning on this Mediterranean island back-road, and it’s going to be a hot one. Where sunlight is piercing the branches of the olive trees around me, it’s setting the dusty tarmac ablaze with white light, too bright to look at directly. The air feels thick and heavy, duvet-like, pressing down as the heat rises, and rivulets of sweat are already pouring stinging sunscreen into my eyes.
I’m know I’m on holiday and should be eager to explore - but I’m grumpy and uncomfortable, and I just want to sit somewhere with a cool drink and relax.
Time to start beating myself up for wanting to quit. Grow a backbone, man! I hardly know anything about this Greek island, and there’s no time to waste. No, what I should do is splash some water on my face, grit my teeth, and keep hiking.
There are villages to see, people to meet, foods to make me wonder what on earth I’ve been eating before now - and a whole island to explore, as it sizzles in the merciless heat of a Mediterranean late summer’s day.
But wait. Why exactly do I want to do it today, on one of the hottest days of the year?
Hadn’t I planned this whole trip in advance so I deliberately gave myself the option to not go exploring when it’s this unbearably hot? Haven’t I given myself the leeway to - as it were - take a holiday from my holiday, anytime I wanted to?
The previous week is a good lesson to remember here. When I arrived, lugging a miserably overstuffed backpack, all I wanted to do was stop moving for at least 24 hours. It was just half a kilometre’s walk up the mountainside from the bus stop to my apartment, but the sun was merciless and the slope was intense, and it took me the best part of a panting, agonised half-hour.
Arrival was a blur. I fumbled my apartment key out of a lock-box, collapsed in through the front door, stepped out of my luggage like a medieval knight shedding armour after a battle, stripped off and lay trembling under the aircon until I started to feel human again.
I could have laid there all day. I should have. But instead, propelled by the thought that there was so much to see and do, I took a too-brief shower and tottered on wobbly legs down into the sleepy village below. After a plate of moussaka and chips, I then spent a very uncomfortable hour walking around with a way-too-full stomach and the beginnings of heat exhaustion kicking in. The end result of all this was that despite being bone-weary, I didn’t sleep well that night.
Welcome to Greece, Mike!
Is that what travel is really about? Is it overexertion and stress, the kind that wipes you out for days afterwards? Is it about rushing hither and thither, making the most of every precious moment and adopting a “you’ll sleep when you’re dead” kind of attitude?
Somewhere around late 2016, after travelling exactly like that for six exciting but mentally and spiritually draining months, I decided otherwise, at least for myself.
Short-term kind of travel can be very hard on the heart. It doesn’t give you time to make many friends, to watch many of the rhythms of local life, to push back at your ingrained bounded awareness so you can really, truly see where you are. And for people pursuing my particular profession, it generally gets in the way of all the things that a working travel writer needs to do to find something worth writing about.
It’s also, beyond a certain point, just not terribly fun. Once the novelty wears off and you’ve drained all your supplies of adrenaline, your inner child starts yelling “are we there yet?” at a volume that’s difficult to ignore.
For the last three and a bit years, my antidote to this approach has been the long stay - where you visit somewhere worth exploring, and then you drop your bags and stay put for weeks or sometimes even months, until you feel like you’ve really done the place justice.
For two months in 2016, I stayed in a wooden cabin with my partner on the northern border between Spain and Portugal. Then we rented an apartment in the middle of Costa Rica’s San Jose for a year. Then I stayed in a place halfway up a mountain in Corfu for 9 weeks, watching the seasons turn with great drama, featuring spectacular thunderstorms that are a fixture of the end of the Mediterranean summer.
And this year, for almost the whole of the last six months, I’ve been here in Scotland - a month’s rental in a cottage turning into a six-month stay during the UK’s pandemic lockdown, spread between two wooden cabins on the same stretch of coast.
If the signs are to be believed, long-term stays like this are going to become a key part of the “new normal” of travel, at least for the next few years. The COVID-19 pandemic is currently making the world understandably wary of the actual travel part of “travel”.
Social distancing concerns will inform much of the infrastructure of the travel industry through this year and the next - and the psychological effects on passengers may last even longer.
(It’s also going to take a few years for international tourism to return to anywhere near previous levels - which, taking the individual’s perspective, presents travellers with a remarkable opportunity to see many popular destinations without huge crowds in the way.)
Nevertheless, we’re all going to be less inclined to be on the move, and a lot more attracted to the idea of already being somewhere.
So why not go somewhere nice and just...stop there a while?
There’s a strong money-related argument for doing this. Long-term stays and rentals are often much cheaper on a day or week basis than for short visits. (This was part of my motivation behind picking that cabin in Portugal, because it allowed me to stretch my budget and “travel” - ie. visiting somewhere abroad - for much longer than if I’d kept moving.)
Then there’s the physical demands of keeping moving. Giving yourself a few weeks to fully recover from jetlag can make you feel so completely yourself again that it can vastly improve the whole experience of your trip.
Spending a day on the beach, or idling an afternoon away sitting in a cafe and watching the world go by, can recharge parts of you in a way that even a long night’s sleep can’t achieve. Sometimes the best form of self-care is to just stop moving and chill out - and sometimes, that’s where the most enjoyable experiences are as well.
And occasionally, when you just want to abandon your virtuous & adventurous but increasingly unappealing plan to go walking on a horribly hot day and instead choose to sit in the shade and read a book, you can do exactly and precisely that.
I think to myself, why not? I’ve got another 5 weeks before I leave here. There’s absolutely no rush. If I want to “write the day off” (I internally chastise myself for this negative way of saying “taking a chill day”), then I’m definitely allowed.
Half an hour later, I’m in the shade with a jug of iced tea and my Kindle. In the afternoon, I go swimming. It’s all very different from the day I had planned, but it’s definitely a lot closer to the day I want. It seems that today, all I needed to make the right choice was the freedom to do so. There are definitely worse ways to travel.
We'll be releasing some long-stay programs in the coming months here at Wheel & Anchor...stay tuned to our newsletter for more information!