Moving through life, I jot down moments that remind me how the simply living can be a subtle and beautiful act.
Recent sights from Thailand include: A fisherman’s slow, puttering exploration of shallow waters late at night. A mother and daughter riding together on a scooter, the little girl’s arms and grin stretched out fully in glee. An orange-robed monk, moving with steady gate and bowed head as he collected his morning alms from a neighborhood street in Koh Samui.
Exploring any new place, I want to have the space to notice and enjoy these little moments of life, these snapshots of other cultures. I want to sink my roots in, wherever I’m standing.
I’m not the best traveler. Or rather, maybe I’m not the most conventional traveler. I love the fast-paced discovery of new places, the information download of tours and museums and classic sights. But, always, I want more time.
For three months, I lived in a small city in the vanilla-growing region of Madagascar’s rainforest. Though it was rugged and long, I loved my stay. It gave me room to sightsee, work, learn snippets of the language, and build a community.
The group I was travelling with became a family, all of us arriving from different regions of the world. Together, we laughed through bumpy truck rides to remote snorkeling beaches. We smiled over meals, both lackluster and brilliant. We helped each other bargain in market stalls and grab roadside snacks from bus windows.
In my slower-paced explorations, I have made so many dear friends. People whose homes are open to me across the country and globe. Fascinating conversations with like-minded people who I would never have come across without the opportunity of travel.
Usual travel tours are immersive, inspiring, and, dare-I-say, life changing. But my style of traveling shifted after that visit to Madagascar. I felt the power of self-guided exploration and integration time.
It takes me a couple of days to get my bearings. Staying a couple of weeks in a city, compared to a couple of days, means that I can fully land. I can explore the area where I’m staying and get oriented. Walk the neighborhood, explore side streets, sample all of the capuccinos in a five block radius to find my favorite.
Then I can choose my own adventure. It could be a visit to a temple or a cooking class or a trip into the countryside. Maybe, after a few jam-packed days, I just want to lounge in the sand or cozy up in a bookshop. With a longer stay, I feel free to chase my curiosities and safe to listen to my body’s needs and have a rest.
Short trips can be very sweet; they may just introduce you to your new favorite place in the world. And famous sightseeing activities are exciting, educational, and accessible. But in slower paced tours, what you might lose in breadth you gain in depth.
Investing time in one place affords a different kind of travel experience. Your perspective shifts when the focus is not to see as much as possible, but rather to soak in whatever surrounds you. You notice different things. Like the wrinkled hands of your fruit vendor. The way the breeze carries a fresh scent of dry earth down the street each morning. The sound of the birds, familiar yet distinct from what surrounds you at home.
“Community,” I once heard someone say, “is when footpaths run between people’s houses.”
Through my time in Thailand and those months in Madagascar, I’ve seen countless footpaths. I’ve traced them through unique environments and languages. They make a web spread across cultural landscapes, and I have felt like a part of it.
That is the gift of longer-stay travel. That is why I choose to live away: To shift from a witness of a foreign culture to a participant in it.