The idea of slow travel is not new but it’s rarely associated with families. Presumably it is considered that a journey any longer than half a day would place impossible demands on parents used to convenience, and unbearable strains on modern children used to a static digital life. Not so. Slow family travel is an extraordinary opportunity to share new experiences, exploring new cultures, new landscapes, new wildlife and, perhaps most exciting for our family, new food.
We discovered the benefits of slow family travel quite by chance. In 2005, my contract as a nurse in New Zealand came to an end and, having some savings and no immediate work prospects, my family and I had the opportunity to return to the UK in a leisurely fashion. We organised a route via Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and India and took three months to do it.
When you travel slowly your memories are different. Time allows the minutiae of everyday experience to blossom, but also gives opportunity for the truly extraordinary to rocket in out of the blue. So, Australia for me, is the discovery of a nest filled with the bluest of tiny wrens, and Indonesia the variety of exquisite canang sari (offerings to the gods: flowers and rice in a woven palm leaf basket) on every doorstep and street corner. Malaysia recalls the lacy veil of a live conch creeping through the clearest water, and India, the subtle ritual of the thorough twice-daily river ablutions of the people of Kerala. Sure, Sydney Harbour and all the other typical tourist stuff was great too, but that’s the beauty of slow travel, as it allows you to tick those off as well if you must. For us, exploring a wide range of food along the way was very much part of the plan, and a highlight for us was to discover that in most of the countries we visited, vegan food was not only extraordinary and delicious, but surprisingly easy to find. Bali provided stir fried tempeh with crisp vegetables and a deeply savoury spicy peanut sauce, Singapore: noodles with tofu and chilli eaten at a bench in the street in China Town. Penang had its own version of laksa – a fiery fresh soup of coconut milk, fine noodles and shredded vegetables, while southern India’s masala dosa – a rice and lentil pancake served with potato curry, coconut chutney and a hot lentil sambal –quickly became our breakfast of choice.
Slow travel also provides a wealth of different opportunities to educate your family and yourselves. The time and necessity to introduce an element of teaching to our 10 year old daughter on our travels allows us both to recall a wonderful afternoon on Manly beach, Sydney, creating a scaled down version of the solar system with sandcastles and shells. A morning in a Bali library learning about the heart allowed us also to marvel at signs reminding potential thieves of the bad karma they might invite. And, even though our son was only three when we visited Penang, he still talks about a fantastic beach lunch near Penang where a local snorkelling guide astounded him with the creation of a grasshopper with a segmented body and feelers made entirely from one bamboo leaf. I’ve never before or since felt so close to my children as during those three months. Part of the pleasure was learning together and during our travels we took the opportunity to attend local cooking classes whenever we could with our daughter. Together we learned how to make vegetable fritters, fried tempeh, sauces fragrant with fresh chilli, coriander ginger, galangal and coconut, sweet rice porridge and pancakes flavoured with wild green leaves, and the secrets of producing the best chapatti. A particularly memorable experience was an afternoon of cooking with a local farmer’s wife in the mountain village of Munduk, Bali. Though we had no language in common, we produced not only a banquet for the whole family, but the dishes the food was served upon, constructed exquisitely of woven palm and banana leaves.
‘Not everyone has three months’, you say. But our trip was so inspiring that since we’ve been back in the constraints of regular employment we’ve applied the slow travel philosophy to our two-week holidays too, with great success. Travelling entirely by train and ferry last year last year enabled us to experience a blast of city culture in Rome and Madrid en route to Morocco and Sardinia. Even in the most carnivorous of countries, you can usually find something to eat in a city, and children are always especially pleased to be part of the late eating culture that’s part of many Latin cities. In Madrid, after an early evening wander round the buzzing city, we ate at 11pm at Yerba Bueno, a really classy vegetarian restaurant with a Californian raw-food vibe. We needed to be well fortified for the long walk back home carrying a five-year-old who had peaked rather too soon and nearly fell asleep in his orange soya sorbet. Our children consider sleeping on a train to be the height of excitement, and we’re not averse to waking to a room service coffee in bed as postcard Tuscany passes by the window, though we tend to avoid the muffins and tinned foie gras. We’ve all come to realise that there’s no better way to arrive than stumbling into the heart of a foreign city in the early morning, and watching the city day unfold while eating an unfamiliar but delicious breakfast at a street side cafe.
We discovered that slow travel with children brings you so much closer to the locals than any previous faster travel without them. Throughout our travels on public transport, people have approached us simply to chat about our children, to admire our daughter’s fair hair or to share a smile about the antics of our four-year-old son. My wife is particularly delighted with the contact our children bring her with other women; certainly, if it weren’t for the children, many of the women we encounter would not have even had eye contact with us. For her, our children provide a route into the local woman’s domain – the kitchen, where, under the pretence of explaining about our daughter’s food preferences, she spots the method for baghrir (Moroccan pancakes), sees how to peel a mangosteen or discovers the price the locals pay for saffron. We take plenty to do on long journeys and our craft attempts, usually activities from a children’s’ magazine, often attract some interest. I’ll never forget the expression of the Moroccan man who gingerly picked up a recently glued together Sizzles the dog from under his seat to return it to its creator. Indian trains regularly provide delicious and usually vegan food experiences as the family sitting opposite you press you to share their home cooked picnic as a precursor to practising their English, and we learned to take quantities of fruit with us in order to return such convivial generosity.
Slow travel seems to have a positive effect on how your family interact. People say that the family holiday is said to be one of the most stressful point of the family year. Used to being together only for brief moments during a normal day, it’s almost impossible for families to behave harmoniously when pushed together into a two-week space of ‘relaxation’ with the pressure on for instant gratification. We found that taking unhurried time to arrive provides a framework of travel for the start of the holiday where we can mellow into each other’s company. Getting out of the routine of everyday eating and established food preferences is extraordinarily liberating, and our children surprise us regularly on holiday by trying food that we would never get past their lips at home. We try not to bat an eyelid when it happens, but it’s both a treat and fairly entertaining to see our fusspots broadening their food horizons with such gusto… olives, curries, aloe vera cocktails, weird and wonderful fruit and veg, even the fabled repulsive smelling durian, which, believe me, is not for the faint-hearted.
So where next? To be honest we’re already thinking about how we can wangle another three-month trip, but, in the meantime, we’re off to Saxony next summer, via Paris and Berlin. Friends have suggested that Germany’s meat focussed cuisine may be just a step too far for us, but we’re already thinking about a fantastic vegetarian Mexican restaurant we’ve read about in Berlin and if we’ll manage to get our children to eat one of those gherkins the size of a banana.
Stephen Riddell lives in ‘the coolest village in Britain’ according to The Times, and divides his time between writing and community nursing in rural south west Scotland. His philosophical approach is to experience life in its fullest sense and he’s travelled widely and worked as a musician, taxi driver, Persian carpet stacker, recycling officer and a host of other things. In recent years he has been focussing on passing on his enthusiasm for existence to his own children. He is interested in alternative ways of living as a family which combine self fulfilment and ethical sensitivity.
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