“You know, for me, this is what travel is about.”
“What?” I asked. Is it the sunset? The rough camping on this white beach of the Tapajós River? Is he looking at some birds? Enjoying his cup of coffee? I wondered.
“That man, this afternoon, Jeff. How he walked up to us, how we chatted, and how he told us about that igarapé (stream, or narrow river) here down the beach that we should visit. It’s clearly a place we would most likely have missed. That’s what I like, connecting with locals and learning from them about their surroundings instead of a guidebook telling me which waterfall or beach I should visit,” Coen responded.
We both fell silent and reminisced about our travels in Brazil, which more than any other country we have explored without a guidebook. Locals like to invite us into their homes, share their meals, and love to point out the beauty of their country.
“Brazil e muito bonito, não?” they exclaim, and then enthusiastically talk about places or landmarks we shouldn’t miss.
Brazil Without a Guidebook
Our guidebook was, in fact, the reason to not visit Brazil in the first place. In 2007, as we were about to enter Brazil from Uruguay, I had perused the Lonely Planet and concluded that there wasn’t really anything there: Carnival, the Amazon that was being destroyed, beaches and criminality. Why bother?
So, coming from Uruguay, we drove just to Porto Alegre in the far south of Brazil to visit our friend Leo, with the intention to subsequently head south to Argentina.
“No, you have to see Brazil! You have to visit places X, Y, and Z. I have addresses for you of people you can stay with.”
Leo’s enthusiasm for his country was contagious and we followed his suggestions. The guidebook disappeared and for four months we only followed tips from locals. It brought us from the far south of Brazil to an eco-lodge in the Atlantic Forest, to a Dutch colony in Brazil’s rural areas of Paraná, to São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, the colonial churches of Minas Gerais and the Pantanal wetlands.
We were sent from a friend to a friend, invited by people we met on the road, and received invitations through the Internet, among which a remarkable one from São Paulo’s Toyota Club to join them for a 4-day regional meeting.
We have returned to Brazil several times since and all visits have been characterized by that same travel mode: minimal use of a guidebook and lots of tips and sharing with locals.
You Can’t Buy Slow Travel
One aspect that sets slow travel apart from fast travel is that you can’t purchase it. You can’t go to a tour agency and say, “I’d like to buy an organized tour which allows me to get lost, to be open to people I meet along the road and take it from there.”
Well, you can do that, obviously, but I doubt a package will be presented to you. Of course, an organized trip can be marketed as slow travel, but really that’s more about traveling slowly (which is a question of speed instead of a state of mind) instead of cramming lots of to-do lists in an itinerary. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. It’s just not slow travel.
To me, slow travel implies creating our own journey, all by ourselves. It means we allow the day to unfold as it does, and be happy with it. That doesn’t mean we have to sit on a bench and wait for the day to happen, of course (although interesting experiences could result from doing exactly that).
It does mean if e.g. we had planned to tour the city sights but meet a local who offers to take us to a family dinner which enables us to share time with a local family and taste regional dishes, we consider taking him up on his offer. Whether we do so or not may depend on a number of aspects, but in slow travel you have a mindset of letting go, in this example, of visiting those sights, in return for a unique experience. We’ve found Brazil an easy and gratifying country to do exactly that.
Back to our afternoon talk along the Tapajós River. After our meeting with Jeff we changed the itinerary of our daily early morning walk on the beach. We turn left instead of right, into the forest, and were in for a lovely walk that crossed a beautiful black-water stream. (We forgot to take a picture though, so I’ll just share some images of sunrise and sunset moments along the Tapajós River.)
Of course 10 people, 10 opinions. Above is just mine. What do you think? Is slow travel something you can buy? Do you think slow travel encompasses more or something else than creating your own journey?