Slow Travel In A Fast-Paced World

By: Michael Youngblood, Co-founder of Unsettled

The idea of “slow travel” first hit me 15 years ago. When I looked like this.

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I was 18, obviously care free, and riding my 10-speed Schwinn bicycle across Europe at the leisure pace of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per day. I took the time to go to the small towns. You know the ones…they aren’t listed in your Lonely Planet index.

I shopped at local markets that were 100 times smaller than my American supermarkets, and I often got invited back to a stranger’s home for dinner. Whenever I could, I bought my provisions straight from a farmers market, and was burning about 5,000 calories every day.

One evening in Austria, after buying sausage, eggs, and some bread from a farmer, he invited me in to stay the night. That was until he caught me flirting with his daughter...after which I was promptly demoted to sleeping in the barn.

In many ways, this trip was the antithesis to the typical ‘take a train around Europe at lightening speed and sleep in a different hostel (and often with a different person) every night.’

It was slower. More intentional. Probably more sustainable (on my body, as much as the earth). And definitely more thought provoking.

Fifteen years later, I still ride bikes (and eat) nearly as much as I did back then. That trip changed not just how I travel, but more fundamentally it’s changed how I approach life from the smallest day-to-day behaviors to the biggest decisions I make.

The author and Co-founder of Unsettled  in front of the cameras, and on a bike, for Forbes earlier this year

The author and Co-founder of Unsettled  in front of the cameras, and on a bike, for Forbes earlier this year

Slow travel is one of the least talked about trends in travel today. Yet I believe it will have one of the greatest positive impacts in the travel industry in the next decade.

Behind the scenes at Unsettled, I see this trend, and its potential impact to change the way we travel first hand.

Our coworking retreats bring together about 25 strangers in one location to live, work, and experience life together for 30 days. It’s the length of time that makes this an extraordinary opportunity to experience a place as if you were living there.

In many of our locations, participants go shopping at the local markets and farmers’ markets for our family dinners. In other locations, they brainstorm with local entrepreneurs and attend conferences and meetups, just like they would at home.

The most exciting part for me is to witness the power that this has on the authentic exchange of ideas, values, and, ultimately, on our world views. Our participants are at least as likely to shop on “main street” on a Saturday morning, supporting a hardware or computer store, as they are to go to a touristy hotspot that evening.

And herein lies the difference. A typical “sun and fun” vacation supports a sliver of the economy. Stay for 30 days and you have to take care of yourself as if you lived there, because it’s more than a vacation. To a certain extent, however, it’s a decision that has to be made; a mindset that you have to have. Do you want run around Instagramming from one beach to the next? No judgement if you do (okay, I’m guilty to have judged an Instagram boyfriend or two) because that’s where you find enjoyment and thrive. The point is, before you leave to travel, for any length of time, make sure you think through your intentions behind this trip. Ask yourself why you’re going and how your frame of mind will help you reach those goals.

Slow travel is a choice, and that’s the beauty of it. If you are privileged enough to travel for leisure, then you have agency to decide how you travel. If slow travel is, indeed, a fad like “slow food” is (or was, I can’t keep up), then it is a mindset more than anything else. Every traveler and every participant on an Unsettled retreat has a choice to make: Are you going to ‘fill’ your time by zig-zagging as fast as you can through one month by going from one sight, beach, or restaurant to the next? Or are you going to slow down, take a walk, ride a bike, do less, and maybe, just maybe, be more?

Take it from me; it’s fucking hard to do less while living somewhere new for a month. But I admit that whichever way I decide to live, on an Unsettled retreat or on my own, it’s a choice that I make. I’ve learned the more rewarding way for me is to spend more time in one place and less time running around trying to see or do everything.

When I spent a month in Bali earlier this year, I spent 3 out of 4 of my weekends on the same beach. It’s a simple beach, absent of any  fancy resorts. It’ll probably never grace the cover of Conde Nast or National Geographic, but it does have fewer tourists, less crowds, only a few restaurants, good surf, and spotty internet that’s just good enough for me to keep my inbox under control (okay, that last part is a lie; inbox is never under control).

Hanging-ten!

Hanging-ten!

Spending more of my time on that no-frills beach has had a major impact on me though. I surfed with more locals than visitors, and met up with the same local surf team each week. One of those surfers was deaf and mute, and possibly the happiest guy I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t have surfed with him and formed this friendship (and personal impact) had I rushed off to another beach to “see” all that I can.

If you ask me, he has impacted me greatly because he found deep, internal happiness despite a daily struggle (my perception not necessarily his) to communicate. He was chill in that surfer from a small island kind of way. He had everything he wanted right in front of him and no greater expectations. He had no place to rush off to.

I don’t put much value on the idea of “digital nomads,” or even “slow travel” for that matter, even if I seem to be championing this movement to some extent. For me, this is truly a question in the art of living. It’s more a question about if one can find empathy, respect, and happiness for himself and for the people and places that come in and out of his life.

In true Unsettled form, I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned while traveling to my life when I am a little more settled. Like millions of others, I find that traveling helps me challenge the status quo, but what’s the use of challenging the status quo if nothing changes from it?

In the midst of launching Unsettled last year, I moved from New York City to a town of less than 10,000 people that you’ve never heard of in North Carolina. Why? Because traveling slow has shown that it takes me time to build relationships. It takes time to discover one’s purpose and place in this world, and it’s in discovering this purpose that personally gives me a sense of meaning and fulfilment in life. I made this choice, because I discovered what works for me, and decided to fully pursue it.

The next time you embark on a journey - whether it’s in your own backyard, or thousands of miles away, remember to not just to stop over, but to slow down. Remember that you have a choice. Forget what you should do, and listen intently to what you need to do. It might change far more than just how you travel.