Let me start by offering the disclaimer that I have no particular use for what is commonly called a “vacation.”
“Vacation” is for people who find their vocation unpleasant, and desire to “escape” as often as possible.
For these folks, sitting on a beach is probably the most appropriate option, because the idea of working while on “vacation” would seem repugnant.
I would ask these good people why they despise their jobs and need to escape. I would also ask who and what are enslaving them and why they keep showing up to a job they dislike every Monday AM.
But that, perhaps, is the topic for a different essay.
Instead, I will explain why working on a farm beats sitting on a beach; or why slow travel is more rewarding than tourism of the conventional sort.
1. You can stay longer
If you’re working on a farm, you typically stick around one place longer than the conventional tourist.
You’re able to attain a deeper understanding of the environment and culture. You will come to appreciate a genuine and meaningful sense of place.
You will also have time to truly relax, and because you aren’t flying frantically around a country or region, you will not be responsible for unleashing tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Experiencing the natural rhythms of place is a great joy of slow travel and farm work.
It’s something most conventional tourists never notice, because they turn up and leave during the “tourist season,” which is when the weather is most conducive to the particular activities for which the area is marketed (e.g. skiing, golf).
2. You can travel cheap
Conventional tourists pay a huge premium for food, accommodations and entertainment, which are located in the tourist zones.
Sometimes, in places like Laos and Bhutan, the tourist zones are only 3 or 4 streets in the whole country – and it’s commonplace for tourists to spend more money in one week than most local farmers will see in one year.
If you avoid the tourist zones by living and working with a farming community, you will get room and board for next to no money, regardless of whether you’re in an industrialized or “developing” country.
Often you can arrange some kind of work-trade in exchange for a place to stay. This makes it feasible to travel for months at a time.
3. You can experience reality
Even though slow travelers are still tourists in a foreign land (and don’t be tempted to forget this), we get a deeper glimpse into what “real life” is like for the locals.
Mostly, conventional tourists experience the “show” that locals and foreign corporations put on to attract tourists. In tourist zones, food, lodging and entertainment are very much akin to what we’re accustomed to in the West.
In tourist zones like Bangkok’s Khao San, there are Irish Pubs and Internet cafés, sushi restaurants and hamburger joints, air-conditioned rooms and bookstores that only sell guidebooks. Khao San is in Thailand, but it could be anywhere.
Tourist guidebooks like Lonely Planet, while useful, aren’t helpful in avoiding these areas, since many tourists have the same book.
To find a more “authentic” experience, you have to make the effort to do what the conventional tourists aren’t doing, and go to places where entrepreneurs have not yet recognized the potential for snaring tourist dollars.
At least to-date, rural agrarian communities are one such haven from shallow commercial development.
When you get off the tourist trail, you MUST take great care to respect the cultural values of the local community. Flaunting material wealth or otherwise disturbing the peace is not cool.
4. You can enjoy a deeper, meaningful experience
When you work on a farm, you and the locals are working together.
You share a common purpose, whether it’s building or repairing a home, planting or harvesting a crop, foraging for edible plants and fungi in the forest or tending the animals.
You are participating in the ecological cycles of that particular place, and helping sustain livelihoods – your own as well as those of the community.
Slow travel promotes a sense of place and interdependence within the community and local ecosystem. When you share this experience with the locals, you come to know what is valuable to them, and what is valuable to that place.
You may directly witness changes that have taken place in the community and in the local environment due to the actions of far-away governments or corporations.
You will understand what “globalization” actually means, and what the DOW JONES INDUSTRIAL AVERAGE actually measures.
Through your work and participation with the community, this knowledge will mean something to you, since you will bear witness and feel sympathy for the victims.
5. You can get an education
Slow travel promotes a deep, insightful kind of learning that you can’t get in school, a true education that is also denied to the conventional tourist.
Insights such as those gained from slow travel are what make for the “life changing experiences” that many people seek when they go abroad.
You will return home transformed, a new person with fresh insights into the world and a broader, deeper context and meaning for your life.
I have found the following resources helpful for engaging in productive and educational slow travel:
- The International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC)ISEC conducts homestays with villagers in the remote Himalayan mountains of Ladakh in northernmost India. The villagers still practice ancient traditions of subsistence agriculture and enjoy a very high quality of life, although “development” and “modernization” over the past few decades have brought on some unfortunate changes. “Learning From Ladakh Farm Project” participants also benefit from thorough and interesting discussions on economic globalization and the effects of globalization on traditional cultures.
- The Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, West Bengal, IndiaThe Center, run by ecologist and critic Debal Deb, maintains an agricultural biodiversity research station in rural West Bengal. The farm and attached seed bank strive to reestablish genetic diversity in rice and promote organic farming throughout the area. Working with the Center offers opportunities in farming, plant breeding and genetics research, as well as political activism to resist the malignant influence of corporate biotech operations in India.
- Pun Pun Organic Farm and Panya Sustainable Living Project, Chiang Mai province, ThailandPun Pun offers 10 – 12 week internships during winter months in organic farming, seed saving, natural building and appropriate technologies. Panya hosts courses in permaculture throughout the year in addition to gardening and building internships.
(Editors Note: Read about my experience at Pun Pun and Panya here.)
- Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF)An online database of organic farms around the world that offer internships and work exchange accommodation.
- Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), International Permaculture DirectoryTwo more useful directories.
- MatadorTravel.comConnect with like-minded travelers and grassroots organizations.
Thanks for reading. Your comments are very welcome.