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When I first lived abroad after college then when I first backpacked around Southeast Asia, my budget was tight. I wanted to squeeze everything I could out of every dollar, pound, euro, baht, rupee, whatever, and make my money stretch as far as possible. I did a pretty good job at it. I also skipped a lot of things and places I would have wanted to experience…I saved money, but I was always missing something. Today’s post, by my friend Laura from Sullivan and Sullivan and Moveable Feast Retreats, is about not missing that something. About traveling well and having a hell of a good time in the process.
Our little group huddled in the Irish rain outside Dublin’s sprawling Trinity College, discussing our options for the afternoon.
We were 20 years old, broke as hell, trying to backpack through a world that demands money at every turn. Three of us wanted to spend €7 to see the Book of Kells. One of us wanted to save his euro for beer later. We were at a standstill.
As we debated the relative merits of cultural history vs alcohol (a tough battle, no matter how you slice it), a group of American retirees shuffled past us, dutifully following a rain-jacketed tour guide who dutifully held a red flag into the clouds. She was telling them the facts— and nothing else. Sweet baby Krishna these people looked bored as hell. Trapped in their unwieldy group, they could say they had “done” Trinity University— but how much had they really experienced? I felt like I’d gotten booped on the head by the Fairy Godmother of Travel Wisdom.
“We’re paying the damn €7 y’all,” I announced, grabbing wrists and dragging my fellow backpackers into the hallowed halls. We didn’t have 50 years to wait to come back here, blindly dragged in a soulless tour group. We were here now.
You know how many times I’ve thought about that €7 since that day? Yeah, that’d be a big ZERO. You know how many times I’ve thought back in quiet wonder at the incredible art and skill and historic value of the Book of Kells? A lot. A lot of times, and definitely €7 worth of times.
These two extremes of the traveler experience each have their relative merits.
The scrappy wiles that develop from the backpacker lifestyle are invaluable: how to negotiate prices of everything from hostel rooms to street food, how to fake your way into restaurants that are too fancy for you, how to happily wander the side streets of a new city with no clue where you’re heading and no one to answer to. There’s a freedom and wildness to this life that is so sweet. But there are limits to the things you can discover when your main priority is saving a few pennies at every turn, when huge swathes of a culture and place are hidden from view. I have strong regret that during a trip to Portugal at 22, my best friend and I literally showed up with next to no money— and spent the entire trip drinking free port from winery tours and eating cheap baguettes and cheese from grocery stores. We never even tasted bacalao, because the thought of spending $10 on a dinner instead of $1 was too painful. I look back and think, what the hell do I care about those $9 now? I’ve still never tasted bacalao, DAMMIT decade-ago Laura and your cheapo travel philosophy! Traveling too cheaply just makes you feel like you’re… missing something.
Then there are the luxury tours, which make your life smooth as butter. Everything from transportation to sleeping arrangements is handled for you. You never wonder where you’ll sleep that night, where you’ll track down your next meal, how you’ll get to the historic monuments on a map you can’t read. And you’ll probably also never meet a local innkeeper or have a sidewalk conversation with a grandma on her front porch. It’s simple, it’s luxurious, and it can so often veer into a dully sanitized version of whatever culture you’re actually trying to see. You remain separated from the gritty streets that create the soul of a place, you most likely are eating at places that the locals make fun of for being overpriced and underflavored, and just like the extreme budget traveler, with big package tours you just have the sense that you’re… missing something.
It’s from seeing both these sides of the traveller’s dilemma that we hatched the dream of Moveable Feast Retreats. Why not strike a balance? we thought. Why not find a way to dive deeply into a culture, wander the back streets, eat food from the local garden, hear music written right where you’re sleeping, experience the deep complexities of a beautiful place… without the twin plagues of skimming lightly over a culture because you haven’t invested in a beautiful experience OR have invested too much and are separated from that deep pulse of where the culture lives?
Moveable Feast draws on Hemingway’s philosophy of eating the food, drinking the wine, and “sleeping well and warm under the stars.” Not spending exorbitant amounts of money on an experience that doesn’t feel quite real, and not missing out on the Book of Kells because you’re scrimping €7. There’s a balance to be struck here, and our inaugural Moveable Feast Retreat this October will celebrate all things France.
You can read more about this yoga/photography/wine/ancient cobblestone adventure here, and when you’re ready to sign up… head here and let’s get this party started! We’re saving you a spot on the castle, but they’re going quick… come travel well with us. We can’t wait to meet ya.