I once cursed the very existence of Thomas Kuhn, a 20th century academic who shook up the scientific world with his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” He gave us the concept of the paradigm shift that has moved from the realm of changing scientific models of understanding into the most mundane corners of our social lives, from shifting fashion trends to the music scene to the advent of the age of social media.
As a college freshman I didn’t care. Kuhn was a thorn in my shoe. Conscientious student that I was, I slogged through his verbose tome an insane total of four times, determined to master his argument. Then I wrote the most painful academic paper of my life. I may have understood Kuhn and his important ideas, but that didn’t mean I had to like him.
Twelve years later, I’ve changed my tone. Without Thomas Kuhn, I would not have the vocabulary to even begin to define this stage of my travel writing life.
I am undergoing my own wrenching, confusing, world-shaking paradigm shift in my footloose and fancy-free travel world.
Gone are the days of epic weeks-long backpacking trips through huge swathes of our world. The reality in the crowded, saturated market of the freelance travel writing world, especially in this economy, is that you still need money. Sleeping at hostels in creaky bunks or stacked like matches in an overnight train couchette only stretches your dollar so far. It still takes money to travel. More money than I currently earn from my writing.
And so I work a part-time day job at the local theater in my Wisconsin home base, a job I cherish, allowing me to immerse myself in dazzling theater when I’m not on the road. But this is still a conventional job and a brick and mortar building, and in this economic climate, I cannot afford to leave it. This job pays for the luxury of calling myself a freelance travel writer.
As expectations and job responsibilities change, I am faced with a truth. An unstoppable paradigm shift, no matter how much I struggle against it. So it’s time to stop the struggle and accept the new paradigm.
I can no longer travel for multiple weeks at a time.
This has left me pondering how to approach my travel. I know what I want to gain from my encounters with the world. An intimate understanding of the people and cultures I visit. An authentic experience of their cities and communities, beyond the rapid rush through the well-trod tourist path. Friendships and connections forged to last a lifetime; music, literature and festivals absorbed; snippets of language learned until I can greet strangers and order food without thinking in the local tongue.
This takes time. Patience. A leisurely pace that allows me to absorb and know a place.
Add to this my very real physical challenge living and traveling with fibromyalgia. I physically cannot rush through a 12 city two-week Grand European Tour with the swarms of other tourists who pack the classic sites during the insufferably hot months of July and August. I would flare out so quickly, most of my precious travel time would be spent recuperating back in my hostel bunk.
No, the conventional American approach to travel, with every minute accounted for, will not do. I need a completely new paradigm, fit to my needs and desires.
So I ponder and contemplate, think aloud in bursts of chatter that startle the cat, scratch my pen and brainstorm. A new travel paradigm is beginning to form, one that just might work. And it starts with a simple truth I never wanted to admit to myself.
The world is too large and diverse for me to even begin to experience every people and culture and community in one lifetime.
That’s a difficult truth for a wide-eyed, insatiably curious perfectionist.
My new paradigm is still in its infancy, a barely formed concept, but promising. I will encounter the world in sedate, leisurely chunks of time. A long weekend in one city, with a focus on living like a local. A trip to the markets, an afternoon at the art galleries, a picnic in the park, a night on the town. A week or two to meander through a small country or a region. Bike rides between Dutch towns or hiking between the sheep farms of Greenland. Renting a flat in a city for a couple of weeks and learning the local language. I lived in Portland for the first 18 years of my life and I still discover a new side to her every time I go back. Take the pressure off doing everything and the opportunities to really know a place begin to appear.
I’ll use the rare chunks of three weeks that come my way for more ambitious endeavors – chunks of the Trans-Siberian railroad, trekking the Himalayas, New Zealand or Australia. For now, I’ll knock on the world with a lighter touch. My mantra is to slow down and engage in the local life around me. Even if it means I miss something, chances are I’ll be too enriched by what I do encounter to notice.