There is something exciting about pursuing the goal of visiting as many countries as possible. Either for work or for recreation. At least, it often gives me a boost of energy, a rush of adrenaline and a great and very rewarding experience.
I like the dynamics and the fast pace of travelling to a country or countries for short visits. You travel from one highlight to another. Or from meeting to workshop, to gather information, share experiences, or organize training courses. This could be for a short and very intense period of a week or two, in the best case followed by at least a day to reflect and digest.
You experience everything to the fullest, colours seem more vivid, smells more pronounced, and you can be overwhelmed by everything that is different from what you are used to. Encounters with people may be short, but conversations can be deep. Sometimes you tumble into depths together, you share your deepest secrets or explore solutions to worldly problems. And sometimes you reach an unprecedented openness and a certain kind of intimacy you rarely achieve, even with your friends.
Although it all might seem great, this kind of travel has its shortcomings. You might end up visiting a lot of countries, and even know a lot about them. You might have the feeling that you know the world. And you certainly have a lot of stories to tell. But what have you really seen? What do you really know about the people you met and the places you visited? What do you know about what they do and where they go on a day off? What do they do when they are bored? And what matters to them? On those questions you keep silent.
So after many years of fast travel, I now try to embrace the charm of taking it slow(er). Staying for a month or longer in one and the same place (I know you can do it even slower, but it should somehow still suit me as well). Experiencing whether I can feel at home. Having the time to work and get bored. Maybe, exploring the direct surroundings. Or, more likely, as we did in Cochabamba, explore its various neighbourhoods by foot. Getting to know the cafes and pubs, and finding a regular where they know what we drink. And if we are lucky to know people who live there, like in Cochabamba, participate in parties, meet people for coffee or dinner. Just as you would when you feel at home.
By slowing down, in Bolivia, we got the chance to visit the parks where people go during the weekend. We saw how well everyone cares for the kids, and how couples freely walk hand in hand, obviously being happy in each other’s company. There was time to go to the cinema, and hear the comments of the boys during love scenes, taste different foods, participate in rituals, watch men and women play soccer and to get to know the neighbours and their dogs. And to visit various businesses and to some extent understand the pace of life and some of its challenges.
Slowing down also has its challenges, at least for me personally. Even though I really appreciate the way you get a better picture of a society, and can much more relate to the issues at stake, there can be moments of desperation, moments I want to pack my things and get on with it. Not that I don’t feel at home. Just because I want action, because I need new and more incentives, to feel comfortable. It is as if a hunger has to be stilled. A hunger which at times can make me feel grumpy and uneasy. A bad feeling I want to shake off. And when it really gets to me, all I see and hear is the ugly.
With more time at hand in Bolivia, I started to see (and got annoyed by) the rubbish piling up in the streets, to smell the open sewers and see how people care, or better, do not really seem to care for their environment. How they throw out rubbish of the bus, or just leave their rubbish behind them, even in their house or compound. I learned that the implementation of promising government policies and plans heavily fall behind. And through discussions, I became aware of the bureaucracy, the slowness of some processes, the difficulties to get paid for some of your services (and the effects of it) and the ongoing corruption. Work progress is going slower than expected. And (new) friends seem to let you down or contacts don’t seem to be so inspiring any more. The first curiosity and novelty is gone, and there comes a little rut.
But then suddenly the feeling can disappear, the balance between pleasant and unpleasant seems to be restored, and the pace of life seems to pick up again. It is the time I learn to see things from a different perspective. Find new energy to go for adventures, and realise there is still plenty to do, which I will not even be able to do before I leave again. And there is a new bonding with the friends. And then it suddenly is time to leave. Just when I am back on track.
And even though it still feels very tempting to go at a faster pace (and staying in my comfort zone), especially when I hear the stories of others and realise how much there is still to see, I will at least for a while try to stick with the slower pace we have adopted. Even though it heavily takes me out of my comfort zone, and sometimes makes me feel uneasy, I do enjoy the extra depth of a visit to a country and the additional memories I take with me when I am there for a longer time.