Be the Snail

Ask any number of kids what animal they’d most like to be, and I can virtually guarantee you that you won’t once hear “a snail.” Snails are not fast, ferocious nor sleek. They are not colorful, comely nor cute. They do not inspire awe like a soaring eagle, nor joy like a leaping dolphin. They are not powerful like a bear nor wise like an elephant. They don’t possess the grandeur and mysterious intellect of a whale. They are not carefree and beautiful like a butterfly. So why would one wish to “be the snail?”

I wish to be the snail for two very simple and obvious reasons. Ask those same kids what comes to mind when thinking of a snail, and they’ll almost surely respond “they carry their home on their back”  and “they’re slow.” Maybe you’ll get a comment about a gross, gooey trail as well, but we’ll leave that for another analogy another day. 

Like a snail, I do plan to carry my home with me for a year or more. I’d rather think of myself as a snail than just another smelly, unkempt backpacker – it lends a greater sense of nature and purpose to my upcoming lifestyle. Mine is also my literal home, rather than a temporary, figurative one. My wife and I sold our home a few months back and since have been living in an odd limbo state where it’s difficult to answer the simple and common question “where are you from?” United States, yes, though we most recently lived in London. I was born and raised in the SF Bay Area, though I’ve not lived there for many, many years. I quite literally have no home and outside of a couple of boxes stored with family, everything I own is in a backpack.

While this independent snail’s life is liberating and exciting it is also disconcerting. For the first time I will have nowhere to return to. Nowhere to drop my bag, flop onto the couch and think “I’m home.” That lack of foundation is a bit psychologically disturbing when I stop to truly think about it. I am rootless, homeless, completely free. You would think such freedom would be exhilarating, and it often is, but it also comes with an unexpected sense of emptiness and fragility, as if a big wind could swell up and blow me into nothingness. I don’t belong anywhere so how could I be missed? I’m not meaning to overdramatize things, though. I’m very eager to see how my lack of a home port feels once I’m truly on the road. 

Slow: I want to be slow. I want to travel slowly. I want time to savor and explore where I am for I may never be there again. I surely will never be in that moment again. Just as “slow food” is a fast-growing culinary movement devoted to local, natural and sustainable, so is slow travel an increasingly popular type of long-term travel, and one which, coincidentally, is often tied to ecologically sustainable and culturally-responsible travel. That last sentence makes it sound terribly proper and incredibly boring, though that’s far from the case. 

Last time I traveled long-term was in 2008. My wife-to-be and I traveled for 18 months through Central and South America as well as South East Asia. The first few months I was so excited to see “everything” that I couldn’t sit still. Go go go! We can’t stay here for more than a day or two, because there’s this-and-that to see elsewhere. The guidebook says not to miss “there” so what are we doing “here”? I can’t believe Talor, my wife-to-be, remained just that – I must have been a horrible travel partner. It was all about speed and seeing everything you could, even if you only stayed long enough to take a photo and then dash on. I deathly feared “missing something” – so much so that I missed nearly everything because I was in such a rush to get to the next “don’t miss” locale. It’s a very tiring and stressful style of travel.

Prior to leaving on that trip we picked up a great guide to long-term travel, Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. This is not a travel guide at all. It is a guide to the proper mindset for long-term travel, and how to get the most out of such trips. We carried the book with us and every time we found ourselves getting frustrated, tired or simply burnt out (happens more often than you’d imagine) we would reread the book and feel rejuvenated and rebalanced. The one bit of sage advice which still resonates with me today was “slow down.” Potts’s answer for nearly every travel woe is “slow down.” And once you’ve slowed down, slow down some more. That message took a long time to dislodge my speed-travel mindset, but between Talor’s urging and Rolf’s authority, it eventually sank in. I did slow down and we enjoyed ourselves so much more for it. We had planned to “see the world” in 12 months, but instead we made it only to South America, but truly relished the voyage. So much so that we extended our trip 6 months and slowly toured South East Asia.

So for this next trip I plan to take my time. I mean REALLY take my time. I hope to spend at least several weeks anywhere that interests me. I want to get the know the people and participate in their lives a bit. Perhaps volunteer or help out along the way. Early into this trip I’ll be making a small detour over to Pom Pom Island. This is a tiny island (one third square mile) off the huge island of Borneo. On Pom Pom is found the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) where one can volunteer to help rebuild coral reefs, protect sea turtles and sharks, all while SCUBA diving to your heart’s content. The average volunteer spends two weeks on Pom Pom. I am planning to spend 4 to 6 months on the tiny island to fully participate in their important projects and get my dive master training at the same time. (See my other post of such positive-impact tourism projects.) That is what I mean by slow travel this time around. As Lao Tzu said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” 

And perhaps – just perhaps – if I travel slowly enough – I will find home along the way, or the way will become my home. Embrace the snail. Be the snail.