In the past, I chafed at delays. When I was younger I liked to cover as much ground as possible; a day wasted here or there meant one less sight, city or even country, on my naive early itineraries. On my first trip to Europe, a decade ago, I enjoyed the cheap thrill of hitting up France, Germany and Spain within a week, before finally settling in Barcelona—my friends liked to call me Napoleon. Of course, like many of us, I have stayed on in a place simply because I had to. A friend and I were once trapped in Tawang because all taxis had been requisitioned for the elections, and took a helicopter out at last, three days after we had planned to leave the cold, wet outcrop whose attraction we couldn’t perceive; a strike in Paris gave me an unexpected few days full of surprise encounters in one of the most beautiful cities of the world; last month, a disappointment at the Kenduli Mela, now, overcrowded and commercialised, meant more valuable time in halcyon Shantiniketan.
A delay can mean wasted time, which with some serendipity might be redeemed. But now, I like to truly travel slow. Journeys seem to end barely moments after they begin, in this era of cheap air travel—so the longer route becomes even more necessary to tease out the kind of thinking that travel once provoked.
When I visited Mexico last year, I spent two months there after having planned for at least one other country now that I was in central America—in what became a grand tour of an incredibly diverse country. I had planned only a week in electric Mexico City, but stayed on for three because I’d met people I liked, and had only just begun to see the city’s abundance of museums. I had planned to circle sites around Oaxaca, but spent all my time walking through its colourful streets, and night after night in La Nueva Babel, a bar at which I found new musicians and friends on every visit. Hierve el Agua, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco unvisited, I was sated, still. I took a bus to San Cristobal de las Casas and another one to Merida.
Can one ever hope to gain depth, as well as width, as someone passing through? I’ve come to believe a kind of temporary permanence is possible. Some of us return to places seasonally; some live between two countries or continents; some spend work weeks in one city and weekends in another. Many build parallel lives in several places, all experienced in real time. A new sense of authenticity is invested in time and communities sustained in various sites in our life—whether they become the lonely, redemptive corner or the bustling centre of our consciousness.
As a traveller, you are often taking; taking from a place and the people who offer up their time to you, because they are kind or because a common friend has introduced you, or because they are curious or bored, or because you are from a place which has captured their imagination through a film or book. You are also giving: through consuming, you contribute to local economies. But it is when you stay on that you can consider being part of a place in a lasting way.
You get to know the local flower seller or earn your own nickname at the town’s favourite bar. Go to your favourite café daily, because you’re staying long enough to commit to its familiarity. Get involved in ecotourism; meet and sponsor a child’s education, help build a house or plant a tree. Read a book without the interruptions occasioned by a short trip— you may never forget reading Geoff Dyer while in Varanasi or Amitav Ghosh in the Sunderbans.
This is a kind of travel which may involve larger changes: quitting or modifying a job or taking a sabbatical, to manage months of travel time. Patience and humility are required to withstand the vagaries of freelance life and the potentially unreliable budget travel of a long trip. There are downsides: you’ll have to learn how to manage the garbage in Goa or the awfulness of paying an electricity bill in Italy, if you are there long enough. And you may need to reconcile yourself to seeing fewer places, as our time on earth is finite—but they will come alive in colours so vivid they won’t be forgotten.