Long ago in a land far away, Mark Twain in “Innocents Abroad” wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Since then, travel has evolved due to our globalized age. Thanks to cheap flights, AirBnB and open borders, many of us can travel easily to places our parents only read about in National Geographic.
That’s an amazing thing, but sometimes too much of a good thing leaves us feeling overwhelmed and dissatisfied. Sadly, it has gotten to the point where we must get creative to have authentic travel experiences. So many incredible places have become streamlined photo ops for people to cross off their bucket list from the comfort of a climate controlled vehicle. It’s now too often about getting the photo rather than being able to CONNECT with the different environment, people or context.
In Jordan, there is a long walk through the Siq, a narrow canyon made of wind and water swept sandstone, to get to the famous Treasury. So there’s a proposal to build a road for buses to take people right up to the Treasury. Of course it would be a benefit for the local community who want to get more people through and therefore more revenue. But then it means that something as incredible as a the Treasury becomes trivialised by how convenient it is to get to. That moment when you pass through the winding canyon and suddenly the Treasury is revealed before you through the sliver of the entrance is unforgettable. The awe you feel is compounded by the way you reach it.
The struggle MAKES the experience, without that, it is just a postcard moment, quickly forgotten and lost in the feed. It doesn’t have to be a physical challenge, but memorable experiences always challenge us in some way to be transformed.
Yet for every over-touristed version of a destination, there is still a way to be transported when you travel. To make sure that you experience more than an sanitized version, it’s best to get lost in someone else’s story. Being transformed by travel is always about the people, whether you bring them with you or encounter them along the way.
The ways to be transformed by travel come in as many forms as there are people in the world. It depends on where you come from, who you are and what you are seeking. It can be as simple as finally giving yourself the time to find peace; to think and rebalance. These kinds of retreats are often in places like Bali or other tropical locales. But really any remote location with reduced distractions will do. If you aren’t sure where to find them, you can start with a curated site like In This Life Wellness Travel.
Depending on who you are, you may feel more comfortable traveling independently, with friends or in a group. When you travel independently, you open yourself to meeting friends on the way as well as the hucksters that may lead you astray. Part of the fun is learning to tell the difference.
Make a Friend or meet a Huckster?
I once met a pair of young women in Tiananmen Square. They told me they were practicing their English and wanted to show me around. I was on my own and felt suddenly so welcomed in this strange land so I wandered with them for a while. They took me through Hutong alley ways to a tea house and before I knew it I was buying them fruit and tea. I knew I had been scammed, but in an odd way I felt like I had just paid them for taking me on a tour. I wouldn’t have gone down that way on my own and I wouldn’t have had such a beautiful tea ceremony. So I suppose they were new friends AND hucksters at the same time. We parted ways when they pressed their luck to get me into an art gallery. I will always remember them, I was so impressed with their skills in English and it was part of what motivated me to spend time learning more Mandarin.
Being willing to have experiences like that is the only way to truely allow for the power of travel to transform you. Transformation requires intention to come home permanently changed. This is often difficult to achieve on your own, which is why we look to those who have taken the journey before us to guide us through.
You know you’ve found the right guide because you find yourself willing to share your full story and follow them to places (physical or emotional) you never dared consider on your own. Of course, you may be one of those guides, one of the people who pioneers the discovery of the hidden places and shares them with the special people in your life. I’m one of those people and I recently led a group to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. I knew it would be hard, but that is exactly why we did it.
Few people are born mountaineers. The rest of us need a helping hand and even the most famous mountain climbers had teams that made their ascent possible. When I led our group of 8 to Tanzania I selected Hendry, founder of Afrikabisa Tours, as the operator with the right philosophy about how the porters should be respected and compensated. For us, the climb was once in a lifetime, for them it is a back breaking job that feeds their families for the season. Hendry wants to help them think ahead and save for future seasons. He works to humanize the men and occasional women who make accessible the otherwise unreachable summit. For the trekkers who have the will to overcome the lack of oxygen and unfortunate side effects to your appetite, Kilimanjaro reminds us that the simple things are precious: breathing, eating, drinking water. Nothing is easy on the mountain, which is why we go, because the exertion makes the reward that much sweeter. All eight of us made it to the top, beating the odds and our expectations.
I had expected to be physically challenged, but I was also challenged by the stories Hendry told about the working conditions of the porters. We made sure to give the right level of tips to the guides, cook and porters. Kilimanjaro is changing as the glaciers on the summit rapidly melt away. We know from seeing how reliant the community is on the water from the mountain that things will change when the glaciers are gone. We know that people like Hendry will be looking for ways to make his community strong and able to handle the change.
Learning to Change
Change comes at us very quickly these days, so it is no surprise that Bhutan, the land of “slow change”, is a destination for Westerners seeking new ways of thinking. Sophie Weldon of Humankind.Enterprises leads groups to Bhutan to connect with spiritual leaders who can only be reached by dangerous roads. Last year they almost didn’t complete a portion of their itinerary due to poor weather conditions in the mountains. You know you’ve got a good trip on your hands when part of it is uncertain!
Mountains represent a unique challenge, but there are many ways to experience an authentic journey that don’t involve months of physical training and heaps of expensive equipment. Sometimes the journey is in the mind and the challenge is just sitting still. I have found deserts to be the best places for sitting in silence. The heat and the vastness feel like a presence that pushes you to slow down. Cultures in deserts are often calm and slow.
Antesa Jensen of Adventure Awake recently traveled to Namibia to take her clients through the leadership coaching she delivers in a very unique way. The stark landscape provides the kind of backdrop that focuses the mind on things we often strive to avoid. Antesa represents a new kind of coach and a new kind of travel company. She creates an experience for her clients that matches the kind of transformation that they need to become fully realized leaders. Travel is an enabler of the transformation because it takes people out of their habits and into new environments. She has taken people to Georgia, Jordan, Mongolia, Greenland, and Namibia. Each time is a new journey and a bit of a mystery until you arrive. Reach out to co-create an adventure that aligns with your goals for yourself or a group. The full program can be anywhere from 3-12 months in total duration, with the in-person immersive expedition(s) scheduled to match your needs.
What is Transformational Travel to you? Do you prefer to be independent? Privately Guided? In a Group?
We could all use more “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things” to combat the divisive forces of our world so we can keep traveling safely and authentically. If you’re AFRAID to be challenged, it probably means it’s time to BE challenged.
Next trip, allow yourself to be transformed and come home knowing more than when you left; about yourself, about others, about the world. And maybe the time after that you can be the guide for others…