Slow travel: How to fall back in love with your city — even in a pandemic
The first time I heard the word “staycation,” I laughed. Who would take time off work to stay put, when you could use that time to get away and do things worth doing? Why spend money to stay, if you could use your money to go?
My attitude about this has changed quite a bit over the last few years, and particularly over the last few months. I once thought it was silly to stay in the same hotel two nights in a row when you could cram visits to two cities in that time instead. I thought that vacation hours were for active adventure, and sleep was for when you made it back home, out of time to explore.
In Kassondra Cloos’ new column series, she’ll share the revelations that come with “slow travel,” adventures that emphasize making time to absorb the life around us, to experience places and people and cultures, and be present in where we are and not where we could be or where we’re headed next. Give her a warm hello!
Now, I’ll book an Airbnb in my own city to more thoroughly explore a neighborhood walking distance away.
In June, while living in Mexico City quite past my initial plan to stay two months to work remotely and expand my command of Spanish, I packed a suitcase for the first time since February. I was living in an inexpensive apartment with two roommates, and I wanted to get away, to experience something new without actually going anywhere. I fantasized about waking up to a view of the tree-lined Avenida Amsterdam, a circular road with a raised walkway lined with leafy plants that create an urban jungle. I spent hours online flipping through photographs on Airbnb of homes once booked solid, now empty and priced like windowless basements.
I settled on a compact apartment in Condesa, the neighborhood next door to mine, Roma. It took 25 minutes to walk there, dragging my suitcase for a mile over uneven sidewalks. The wheels banged over every crack in the pavement, but thankfully the birds chirping in Parque Mexico were louder.
After I settled in, I realized I hadn’t lived alone since 2013, when I moved into my first apartment after college. The seven years after that were a string of living situations with friends, a partner, and strangers found on the internet. I had taken solo trips and stayed in hotels alone, sure, but when I sank into the couch at my staycation oasis, it had been months since I’d had a full day to myself.
In the morning, I took a long walk around the neighborhood, a place I’d previously passed through but never properly explored. I walked streets I’d never seen until they dead-ended, marveling at the art deco homes and the juxtaposition of old and new, then looped around through the tree-lined medians I’d come to adore. I sat down on a bench and watched passersby run with their dogs, cycle past, and have passionate conversations in Spanish.
It was my second staycation, at another Airbnb even closer to my shared apartment, that ignited an obsession with walking. I so enjoyed admiring the architecture around the city and stumbling upon new parks that I began walking an average of 10 miles a day. Sometimes I had a target, like exploring the neighborhood around Frida Kahlo’s former home, and some days I just walked until I got tired and then turned around. That was how I discovered the Ecoducto Río de la Piedad, a long pedestrian walkway above a busy highway. Even with the proximity of traffic, the Ecoducto felt insulated from the hectic world below. I delighted in watching bees pollinate the purple flowers lining the path.
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Each time I ventured out, I tried to wander down at least one unfamiliar street, almost trying to get lost. After years of relying solely on Google Maps, I learned how to pay attention to the details, commit them to memory, and find my way home without needing a GPS. If I knew how to get to Parque Mexico or Parque España, I knew how to get home.
The more I walked, the more eager I was to find corners I’d previously missed. I started looking more closely even as I continued to retrace old steps. Instead of just walking through Parque Mexico and marveling at the plants, I would sit for an hour and watch families playing fetch with their dogs, friends playing an interesting combination of soccer and volleyball, and vendors hawking cherries, bracelets and sweets. I started to recognize people, and found that spending a sunny afternoon watching them laugh together was often enough to cheer me up, too.
True, Mexico City was still new to me when the world shut down. I wasn’t trapped in a place I already knew by heart. I still had some runway space for intrigue and exploration. But I’m willing to bet that you do, too, even if you’ve lived in the same house for 35 years. The world around us is always changing, even if we don’t notice. New restaurants pop up, old houses come down. One neighbor gets a puppy who likes to greet passersby, another puts up a Little Free Library or plants a beautiful garden.
In the summer of 2019, on a visit home to see my parents, who have lived in the same house since well before I was born in 1991, I ditched my tradition of asking to borrow a car and started walking the two miles between their house and downtown Providence. I walked through neighborhoods I’d driven through hundreds of times but never set foot in, meandering around historic buildings and taking time to read the plaques. I saw my city from new perspectives and felt like I was getting to know it for the first time. Tourist attractions exist for a reason — there’s usually something worth seeing — but it’s always the locals who are least acquainted with them.
So this autumn, fall back in love with your city. Whether you stay put, trade homes with a friend, or book a room across town, leave your phone on the kitchen counter and venture out sans plans. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll spy something new, even if you’re retracing old steps.
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