Slow and steady wins the race. This phrase is oft-overused and carries the connotation of hares and tortoises. However, it applies perfectly to my way of travel. That is not to say that I enjoy 10+ hour plane rides -- I simply enjoy 'slow travel.'
This means spending more time in a country or city than the average traveler. If you stay at a hostel in Southeast Asia, you undoubtedly run into handfuls of people visiting 5 or so countries in under three months, and visiting cities for two or three days at a time. I won't deny that I've done this when I have an itch to see a new place. In fact, I spent just over 48 hours in London, England. And I saw a lot. But the places I dream of returning to, the people I miss the most, the landscapes that fill my sketchbook are from the cities and countries where I really spent time. this usually means two to four weeks (the latter limited by my current funds and a U.S. passport).
For me, slow travel is when I can truly settle into a country, learn its customs, and meet its people as well as other travelers.
This also usually means that I am not staying in a hostel or hotel. Mostly because I could never afford to stay in such a place for too long. Better to spend two weeks living and working with an Austrian family an hour's train ride from Vienna. Better to create a makeshift family with three 20-somethings in the south of France, cooking dinner together every night. Better to bond with kids that can speak elementary-level English in Cambodia. (How I found such amazing opportunities.)
I wouldn't know how to count and say phrases in five or so other languages if not for slow travel. This way of seeing new places includes getting out of the touristy pockets where most people can speak some English. Also, it means really tasting a country, not eating at tourist-geared restaurants where the menu is not in the local language and everything is twice as expensive as the road-side shack.
This doesn't have to be in the middle of the country-side or even really after two weeks of travel. A friend at my hostel in Bangkok, Thailand and I sat down to lunch on a corner, where the red plastic chairs were filled with Thai business men on break. A fellow customer had to translate for me when I asked for my dish to be vegetarian.
So yes, taking more time to explore is better in a new place. But also, please explore deeply, finding the nooks and crannies of a new place. Travel to tiny villages and visit farms. Ask the woman at the market where to eat dinner. Get a little lost amid winding alleys and small shops. Drive until your car breaks down. (Yes, I have done that.) Learn to say more than 'thank you' and 'hello' in the native language. Talk to locals.
So take my challenge and really take the time to see a place and be there. Experience it.
This post was brought on by a conference I attended at Hostelling International in Washington, D.C. where Elena Sonnino of Live.Do.Grow. and Fran Holuba of the White House spoke about study abroad and young people in travel. Thanks for the inspiration!