On my first day as a volunteer in Dharamsala, India, two tiny Tibetan children threw themselves at me, clinging to me for comfort and protection. It was then that I realized my job as a volunteer was primarily to provide support and love.
This was in 2006, on my first trip to India, when I was volunteering with the Art Refuge program. My role was assistant art therapist, and I was tasked with helping Tibetan refugee children adapt to life in India.
Every day, I arrived for work on the roof of the Reception Centre, the large, cavernous building that housed the refugees when they arrived in Dharamsala, India, via Nepal. My work there immersed me into the lives and culture of Tibetan exiles, forced to leave their homes in Chinese-occupied Tibet, in order to keep their traditions and identity alive.
My volunteering experience was eye opening in many ways, and an important part of the six-month journey I was on in India at the time. I grew, changed, and transformed in countless ways, and in those six months learned much more about the world than in all of my previous years combined. Inspired by that trip, I have been committed to travel long term -- and travel slowly.
"Slow travel" is a term that essentially means traveling with more awareness of your surroundings. It’s a way of travel that can give you time to more fully and deeply experience a place and connect with other travelers and locals as you explore the world. Meaningful for the traveler, slow travel can also help foster peace. Here’s how.
Traveling Slowly Bursts the Middle-Class Bubble and Opens Space for Awareness & Compassion
Over the course of my first trip to India, my perspective on the world -- and my sense of my place in it -- expanded beyond anything I ever imagined.
In fact, it was the first time I really gained a perspective of myself as a middle-class Westerner. I grew so much more aware, knowledgeable, and compassionate about the way more than 90% of the world lives -- with barely enough food each day.
Slow Travel Turns the “Other” into a Living, Breathing Person More Similar than Different
When we travel and come face-to-face with people from cultures very different than our own, we are forced to confront our biases, fears, and anxieties about them. Through interaction that immersive travel affords, they become “human,” rather than just walking symbols of their “exotic culture.” It is far more difficult to hate, ostracize, and want to harm people who seem more “human” than alien.
The Stories We Share After Traveling Slowly Break Down Barriers, and Create Space for Peace
In these days of social media, we all have the power to influence others. Through our travel adventures, our friends and family can see that flying halfway around the world and working or volunteering in a completely foreign place can be fun, safe, and exciting. Fears and unknowns start to dissolve in the face of these positive stories and examples.
Many people follow my journey as I travel alone in India, and I know from their comments and emails, that my example has emboldened them to do the same. “If she can do it, I can do it!” is their motto, and they’re right.
Slow Travel Transforms You & Creates Invisible Connections
I’ve spent a big part of my life in India over the past 12 years, and generally travel slowly. I often stay in one neighborhood -- for example, in Hauz Khas in Delhi -- for weeks at a time and get to know the people.
I wave at the woman who irons clothes in a covered stand and marvel that the huge iron is filled with hot coals. At first, the woman smiles nervously at me, and giggles. Over time, the nervous giggling drops away, and she waves nonchalantly. One day, I drop my clothes off for ironing and forget to pick them up, but when I get back to my guest house, she has delivered them. I didn’t even know that she knew where I lived!
It takes time to notice the details, like the coal iron, and to get to know the place and the people -- and for them to get to know you. At first, we only see the place from our perspective as travelers. But after some time, we realize that we are the interlopers, and we get a glimmer of how people might see us. This new and broadened perspective leads to stronger connections and more empathy, all contributors to peaceful coexistence.
Slow Travel Makes the World a Global Village
This may seem strange, but before I got on a plane and flew to India in 2005, I thought it was a mythical place, beyond the reach of actual reality. I had probably wanted to go to India since childhood, since seeing George Harrison and The Beatles with marigolds draped around them.
But I never thought I actually could, that it was possible, that it was within the reach of my grasp. And then when I first arrived and saw the Qutab Minar complex in Delhi turn pink at sunset, I thought I had entered the dream world of my imagination. I had to pinch myself: I’m really in India.
Manifesting your travel dreams is a powerful thing, especially when you travel slowly enough to have the place become real. This leads to more knowledge, awareness, and concern about what happens around the world, and a bigger personal investment in building peace wherever you are.