This Guide to Thematic Travel is the first in a series of articles on SLOW travel. If you are traveling independently and/or solo, this travel style will provide unique opportunities to interact with locals and make new friends while participating in the activities that you enjoy the most.
I Travel Thematically
Since I travel alone, I am often asked if I get lonely. No…I meet too many people to get lonely. My new friendships come in various ways, but one method I use to seek out kindred spirits is to travel thematically.
If you are reticent or shy, thematic travel is a great tool to break the ice, both for people you meet and for yourself.
I now have friends all over the world, thanks to the way that I travel.
My theme for Peru was knitting and spinning. While in Chucuito, I enjoyed dropping in on Delfina who had the little shop down the street and who always had a hug for me. When her other friends visited, there was usually a bottle of cervesa being handed around while we knitted or spun yarn. More laughter ensued as the afternoons wore on, but the stitches remained even and the spinning never slowed down!
What is Thematic Travel?
What do you enjoy doing? Fishing? Woodworking? Sewing? Painting? Gardening? Birdwatching? Gaming? When you travel with a theme in mind, you seek out local people who share your interests.
- Search out walking group events
- Have coffee and embroider with a new friend
- Talk shop with a fellow photographer
- Find fellow chess players
- Help out in a neighborhood allotment garden
- Meet with knitters and spinners
- Learn how to cook regional specialties with locals
- Find other artists to sketch or paint with
- Attend star parties around the world
- Go open-water swimming with other enthusiasts
Timing and Location are Important
Of course, not every place you want to visit will be appropriate to your chosen theme. Although I met knitters in Sri Lanka, they are rare. If that is your theme, make your way to Scotland and Northern Europe. Fishing and gardening are seasonal, so keep that in mind when planning. However, photography and cooking are universal year-round activities. And of course, you should be near a body of water for swimming!
Some internet research will turn up the best locations. I found the village of Chucuito in Peru through an internet search. I discovered that the women of Chucuito are famous for their knitted titeres de dedo (finger puppets). So, I thought that I might be able to make some knitting connections there. Sure enough, when I got to Chucuito, the women were there on the plaza every Sunday with their knitted finger puppets. I ended up spending hours with these women knitting, spinning, talking, and laughing. And that is how I ended up living in Chucuito for a month!
Google is Your Friend
During your planning phase, go online and search for interest groups in your destination. Use a variety of search terms: “astronomy clubs Christchurch,” “star parties,” “observatories New Zealand,” etc. Even after you arrive, you can continue to search. Once after I arrived in Scotland, I typed in “knitting groups Glasgow” in the search bar. A couple evenings later I found myself knitting with a fantastic group of women at the Sparkle Horse Pub—and eating a great meal!
Look for shops that specialize in your interest. Google “Fishing supplies Perth Scotland,” for example. Write to the shop in advance; tell them a little about yourself and what aspect of fishing interests you and when you will be visiting; and ask if they can connect you with fishermen in the area who might like to fish with you. Sharing information about yourself provides validity to your request. (See “Introduce Yourself in Advance” below for ideas.)
Often, special-interest shops host events and classes or sponsor special-interest groups, so be sure to check for these on their website or when you write.
I also check out Meetup.com and Facebook. Some people like to use Couchsurfing.com groups.
There are clubs and Facebook groups for just about any subject you may be interested in. While I enjoy knitting, I am a notoriously avid lace knitter. I posted to my Lace Knitters Facebook group that I would be traveling to Europe with my traveling scarf and would like to meet other lace knitters. I got lots of responses, “I would love to meet you!” “Be sure to come to Cheltenham!” “You have to come to our Knit ‘n Natter group!” and Conny wrote, “You can stay a couple nights at our house,” without even knowing who I was! (You can read more about Conny here.) I gathered the names and contact information in a file. Once I knew the dates I would be in their town, I let them know when I would be there, and asked to meet at a local café and we worked out a time.
I arranged to meet Cassie, an Estonian lace-knitting designer, in a café in Parnu. We later confessed that we were each a bit reticent about the meeting. We were both surprised when we talked, knitted, and ate for FIVE hours!
Events and Attractions
Look for special events in your field that are happening at your intended destination and buy tickets. Better yet, volunteer to help! Spending the weekend setting up tables, collecting tickets or trash, or helping to park cars will result in a host of new friends. Be prepared to be offered meals, places to sleep, advice on what to see and where else to go, and great conversations!
Find museums and other attractions in your field of interest. With my theme of knitting and spinning, I visited the historic New Lanark Mill in Scotland; the Kenmare Lace Center in Kenmare, Ireland; Michell’s Fiber Mill in Arequipa, Peru; the Unst Heritage Center in the Shetland Islands, and the Haapsalu Lace Center in Estonia.
One trick for finding these places is to do an internet search on specialty tours to your destination. For example, a fan of Jane Austen might do a Google search “Jane Austen tour.” Once you find a company offering tours, read the detailed tour itinerary to find destinations. Then you can pick and choose the most interesting sites and visit them on your own.
This technique doesn’t always yield anything. And you probably don’t want to pay the exorbitant prices for such tours. But you may learn about some shops, sites, or events that you might not otherwise discover. And you can visit at your own pace. The tour site where I learned about the New Lanark Cotton Mill in Scotland had an itinerary that allowed only a couple hours at this UNESCO heritage site. I spent the entire day—and only left when they closed the doors!
Sign Up for a Class
Use the same “google” method to find classes, lectures, workshops, and demonstrations in your chosen theme. When I was planning to visit Edinburgh, I searched for “knitting groups Edinburgh” and found several to choose from. BUT…I also found out that the Edinburgh Yarn Festival—with tons of workshops and demonstrations—would be held during the time I would be in the area. I ended up buying a ticket for the weekend, knitted with people from all over the world, met some very cool local shepherds who invited me to come visit their farm, and purchased way too much yarn (ooops!).
Who are the Masters in Your Field?
Have you wanted to meet the author of that book you read last year about model railroads and it turns out you are going to be in their hometown on your travels? Don’t be too starstruck to reach out. The worst that can happen is they won’t meet with you. But you might be astonished at what comes your way.
Before traveling to Scotland, I had read In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski. Being a kindred knitter and spinner, I contacted her in advance, even though I was a little afraid she was out of my league. Nothing could be further from the truth: Debbie was welcoming and so very hospitable. Because of our common interests, we became kindred spirits! She is often away from home during the summer, so on my first visit I met the knitters and spinners in her local fiber group—these were the women who had test-knitted the patterns in her book!
On my second visit, we finally met in her hometown near Edinburgh. When I arrived, she gave me a warm hug and said, “Oh Cathy, we finally meet!” Not only that, we ended up becoming great friends and being invited as guest presenters together at the Roscommon Lamb Festival in Ireland.
Are YOU a Master?Contact those interest groups and shops in the locations you plan to visit, and offer to give a demonstration, talk, or class in your field. You will need some kind of on-line web page or brochure to describe your offerings and referrals or a portfolio to give validity to your credentials. I was astounded to learn that the women of Roscommon, Ireland wanted me to teach a class on lace knitting at their Lamb Festival! I still get messages from some of them telling me about the projects they have been working on.
Do it in Public!
If applicable, just pull out the tools of your trade in public and see what happens. Lay out that chess board in an outdoor café and make the first move. Display a little sign, “Play with me” in the country’s language.
In a small village in Peru, I was sitting in the town square spinning yarn with my hand spindle. Fredi, a young man in his early 20s, and his friend watched me with interest.
I asked if they could spin. Freddie smiled broadly and said, “si,” and he began producing super fine yarn with my spindle while his friend tried out another one that I had brought with me. Although they are used to a different type of spindle, the yarn they produced was perfectly even. Both men had made their beautiful chullos (hats) with colorful butterflies on them—extraordinary knitting with tiny stitches. I pulled out a chullo that I was working on and asked him to show me how he knits. He very patiently showed me the Andean method of knitting—running the yarn behind my neck and using my thumbs to wrap the yarn around the needles. After a while, Freddie and his friend returned my spindles and wished me “Feliz compleanos!” and went to play volleyball. It was a memorable 60th birthday celebration!
Introduce Yourself in Advance
Create some templates for emails and text messages which introduce you to groups and shop owners. That way, you can easily cut, paste, and modify them for the location or group. Tell them a little about yourself, include photos of you and your work. If you have already traveled before on this theme include a great photo of that trip.
Better yet, create a simple web page portfolio that you can link them to, like this one.
You can also ask them for recommendations to work into your plans.
Don’t ask too much on your first contact. Once they show interest, then you can begin a conversation. Before I left on my long sojourn, I already had invitations to coffee, group meetups, and even a place to stay!
Here is a sample email:
Be Prepared to be Referred Onward
Don’t be surprised when your initial contacts tell you about other people you should contact. So be sure to leave some flexibility in your itinerary. I met Lili at Utrecht’s Sticks and Cups Yarn Shop and we got to be great friends in the week I was in her city. I knitted with her weekly knitting group, drank endless cups of tea with her, and learned about her family’s amazing immigrant story. She told me that since I was going to Copenhagen, I just had to meet her good friend Charlotte. So, I did. And that was when I experienced a spine-tingling serendipitous incident:
First, an explanation for my non-knitting readers: I knit socks from the toe up, two at a time on one long cable needle using a method called Magic Loop. Not very many knitters knit socks from the toe up; not very many knitters knit socks two-at-a time; and some, but not a lot of knitters use the Magic Loop method.
Now for the story:
Lili at Sticks and Cups in Utrecht told me to contact her good friend and fellow knitter, Charlotte, when I arrived in Copenhagen. I did so and when we met and pulled out our knitting, we were BOTH knitting two-at-a-time, toe-up socks on Magic Loop needles—and BOTH using the same sock yarn (that Lili’s mother had hand-dyed) that we had purchased from Sticks and Cups in Utrecht!!! Charlotte, by the way, invited me to stay with her and her husband for two nights in their beautiful apartment overlooking Copenhagen’s harbor. And so, I made two more new friends! And Charlotte and I got some quality knitting time together!
Create a Thematic Travel Project
With a little thought, you can design a travel project for your theme that will link all the places you travel and people you meet. You will also have a very special memento that will always remind you of your very special trip. Here are a few ideas:
- Create a website with photos and videos, along with simple captions.
- Create a journal detailing all the star parties you attended—who you met, what you saw through those telescopes, star charts, new things you learned.
- Are you collecting supplies or tools of your trade while you travel? Keep records of each acquisition and the stories behind them. I was given so much fiber by fellow knitters and spinners that I would never remember their origins if I had not made an ID card for each item.
- Create a “passport” book with a 2–4-page spread page for each walking event you participate in, or open water swim you make. Record the names of new friends and their contact info. Log the mileage, new things you saw or learned; milestones you achieved. Log the places you visited, things you saw. Paste in ephemera, walking maps, and photographs.
- Author a blog based on your theme. Collect the emails of people you meet on your thematic journey and let them know when you publish a new blog post.
Important note regarding public blogs and social media posts (like Facebook): Be sure to get permission from people you mention or photograph to use their name and/or image publicly. In my project logs I included a couple check boxes in a form each participant filled out.
In the one instance where a minor contributed, I went a step farther and asked her father to sign a note in the log allowing me to use her photograph. I am glad I did. I turned out to be one of the most beautiful and moving images in the blog.
- If a blog seems too time-consuming or formidable, use social media to create mini-posts while you travel. My personal Facebook page became a way to quickly share my travel experiences with my friends and family in snippets of images, descriptions, and insights.
Can you draw or paint? Create a work of art chronicling each place you visit. When you return home, maybe you can do an exhibition!
Here is my favorite. A participatory project will draw in your fellow enthusiasts and link them to kindred spirits the world over. Here are some examples:
- Are you connecting with other artists? Carry a separate sketchpad just for inviting other artists to contribute their impressions. Keep a log for each contributor.
- Photographer? When joining others on a photo shoot, ask everyone in the party to spend a little time shooting the same subject. Then share all the interpretations on an Instagram page
- Computer Gamer? Record the games you play with people you meet and create a YouTube site dedicated to them. Again, keep logs of participants.
- Cooking? Ask other cooks to add their favorite recipe to your journal. Include photographs of the preparation and final product.
- Quilting or Embroidery? Ask your fellow fiber artists to contribute to or create a fabric square (all the same size) to be included in a quilt when you return home.
Be sure to keep a log of each contributor for these projects. As you continue your travels, keep all the participants up to date on the project so they can follow the work of art as it evolves.
Be Prepared with Little Gifts
Create or purchase little thematic gifts before you leave to give to special people you meet along the way. Tools of the trade are always appreciated. A fisherman might bring some special lures that only his local fishing shop carries, or some handmade flys. A woodworker could create some small wood carvings to share.
Just make sure your gifts are small and don’t take up much room in your bags. I was living in Hawaii before I left on my European trip. I made about 25 knitting stitch markers using local seashells and hand-painted beads. It was such fun to present them to my new knitting friends who had offered meals, lessons, and accommodation.
Are you a gardener? Trade seeds with your new friends. (This might be a little risky. Some countries do not allow seeds to be brought in, so they may be taken from you as you go through customs. But if you are traveling solely in your own country, it should not be a problem.)
Bring Business Cards
I was constantly asked for my contact information or blog address. It was very easy (and impressive!) to hand over a business card.
When I ran out of cards, I wrote my blog addresses on an index card that I carried in my bag. When I was asked for my contact information, I pulled it out and suggested they take a photo, or type it from the card into their phone. This prevented typos when they later searched for the sites.
Alternative Ways to Travel Thematically
There are many ways to travel thematically. In his blog post How to Travel with a Theme, Nomadic Matt suggests ways to choose an itinerary based on location, like “jazz in Paris,” or “food trucks in Portland.”
Let the destination decide your theme for you: like immersing yourself in the ins and outs of Port wine in the Douro Valley of Portugal, cheese in France, or Regency romance novel locations in England. A Harry Potter fan might go to Edinburgh to visit the places that inspired J.K. Rowland (There’s a great free walking Harry Potter walking tour there!) and then ride the Jacobite Steam Train (featured in the movies) from Fort William to Mallaig.
A long list of thematic tour ideas can be found here.
Expect the Unexpected
No matter how involved you get with your travel theme—a day, a week, or eighteen months, you will have some unforgettable experiences that can never be found on organized “be-back-on-the-bus-in-30-minutes” tours. In closing, here is one of my favorites:
I had just boarded a ferry bound for the Outer Hebrides in Scotland—a five-hour trip. I automatically pulled out my knitting bag.
Shortly, a woman accompanied by an older gentleman came over and asked about my knitting. It turned out that the gentleman was Norman Kennedy. I had not heard of him before, but I was about to become fast friends with him and Robin Baird. Norman is a famous spinner, weaver, and knitter. He has a passion for wool and singing and the folklore of both. As it turned out, they were all on their way to the Outer Hebrides to present a series of free workshops on spinning and waulking (a way of preparing wool) in several island communities. And, in fact the first two events would be held just two blocks from where I would be staying! I ended up meeting lots of local spinners and knitters and participating in a ceilidh (gathering), where I even sang a solo! All because I was not afraid of knitting in public!