You’ve heard the stories, read the memoirs, and seen the movies. They make it look and sound easy to “transcend”. To become enlightened by travel. Let’s be honest, you will still be you upon your return home. With that said, travel can be a transformative experience. But it comes in subtle and unexpected ways. If you are traveling on a journey of personal growth, there are some basic principles you can keep in mind to help gain the meaningful experiences you seek.
First, I must say that there is nothing wrong with meaningless travel. In fact, sometimes a simple break from life is exactly what you need. Sitting on a beach, sipping frozen margaritas, and clearing your mind of its daily clutter is nothing to scoff at. Even along my long-term travels, I sometimes need a few days or a week of that sort of escapism.
But for those of you looking to gain the most meaningful, memoir-inducing, life-altering travel experiences possible, this post is for you. Meaningful travel is not about impressive stories you can go home and tell everyone about (although it will create those moments). It’s finding a deeper understanding with the world we live in and our place within it.
While we learn about places, history and cultures through first hand experience, we inevitably learn about ourselves as well.
Some people set out on a of journey specifically to “find themselves”. If I am being completely honest, I find those people mildly annoying. Self-discovery, in my experience, is not something you can try to do. It is something that happens naturally over long periods of time.
My personal journey started as a sort of medicine for my broken heart after the tragic loss of my mother and inexplicable ending to the “love of my life” (the latter one we can scoff at). My goal was never introspection and self-discovery. Those things are just inevitable after your life gets flipped upside-down. Travel or not.
But after 3 years of nomadism and wanderlust, I’ve picked up a few skills and insights into how to make my travel experiences really count. When I utilize these 7 principles, my experiences are always more enriching. I think yours might be as well. It’s a simple check list to ensure that you are making the most of your wanders. I can’t always check off everything on the list, but I always aim to. So without further ado…
1) Thoughtfully Examine Cultural Differences
The first step in any new place is to observe. Keep your eyes, ears, taste buds and mind as open as possible. Simply take it all in.
Notice what feels new and different. It could be anything. Some examples:
- public transportation systems
- tipping expectations (or lack of)
- architectural styles
- clothing styles
- economic status
- flavors and cooking methods
- how people purchase groceries
- political climate
- signage and advertising
- recurring design elements
- how local people appear to interact with one another
- unique customs, beliefs, or supersitions
- how women are treated
- how animals are treated
- general community values
- shops and restaurants open late (or close early)
Some places are bound to be more drastically different from your normal than others.
Without passing judgements, consider what you like and what you do not. What elements from this culture do you prefer over your own? What elements could possibly work their way into your life when you are gone? Perhaps a new recipe, game, hairstyle, or philosophy? What elements of the culture irk you? The truth is, if you look hard enough there is both good and bad in all places. Recognize that different is not better or worse. Eliminate black and white from the spectrum and examine all the shades between.
Then, it’s also important to do exactly the opposite. Consider what is the same. What cultural values does this place share with your home? After all, we are all human beings just trying to get by as happily and comfortably as we can. When you get past the culture shock you will likely find that your culture and this new one have a lot more in common than meets the eye.
2) Get to Know Local People
For some people this comes naturally, and for others it’s a challenge. When I started wandering, this was hard for me. I had dreamed of the locals I’d befriend along the way… But initially, I was only meeting other travelers in hostels and on tours (not to say they aren’t lovely people). But given some time and practice, I’ve gotten better at getting to know local people.
Why Should I?
The places where I have made friends with locals have always been the most special and memorable places.
Examining cultural differences (principle 1) will have considerably more depth if you are welcomed into the culture you seek to understand. Also, when you inevitably reach a point of introspection (principle 3), you will have far more to thoughtfully consider after the exposure to vastly different circumstances. Beyond that, making new friends is always a huge reword.
Meeting local people is crucial if you want to truly understand a place you visit. It’s one thing to hear about mindsets, attitudes, lifestyles, and customs of a culture. It’s another thing to experience it; to be invited into it. Simply visiting a place does not automatically expose you to it’s culture. You have to work at that.
You mean, local people aren’t falling at your feet to be your best friend? How shocking! There are very few places I’ve been where the locals go out of their way to meet tourists (although there are exceptions, it basically doesn’t happen).
Great opportunities to dig a little deeper: Chatty cab drivers, bartenders and waiters/waitresses, hotel/hostel/homestay staff, a friendly tour guide. If you connect with a particular tour guide, invite them for a bite to eat or a drink after your tour ends. If they say yes, (and you are able) pay for them as a thank you for a job well done. I’ve made wonderful connections with tour guides around the world. Don’t be afraid to swap email, whatsapp or facebook info!
I am still connected with the lovely Patrizia, my first tour guide in Rome on my first overseas adventure 8 years ago. My boyfriend was my survival guide in the Bolivian jungle. I am friends with my tuk-tuk driver from Angkor Wat; we stay in touch through facebook. The list goes on and on…
Here are some openers that I have had a lot of success with:
- Ask questions:
- How do you feel about your president (prime minister/king)?
- Do you vote?
- Always be respectful when asking about politics. You never know someone’s personal beliefs until they share them with you. Often small prompts like these are enough to get a lot of insight in return. People are usually happy to tell you if they feel their government is “corrupt”, “stupid”, or not working within the interest of its people.
- Do you have children?
- This one often prompts the showing of photos, and offers a chance to learn something about family culture in a new place.
- Do people marry young? Are marraiges arranged? Does wife/husband have a job?
- Has this person always lived there or did they move for opportunity?
- How did you become a tour guide (How long have you worked in this establishment)?
- Do you have children?
- If they speak a different language, ask for help on how to say a key word or phrase. “Thank you”, “Cheers”.
- Ask for their recommendations for things to do, see and eat in their hometown.
- Listen to the people who live there, rather than only other travelers and guidebooks. You may discover special local treasures that other tourists don’t know about.
- Talk to them:
- Tell them about something you observe that is different where you come from.
- You will likely get surprised reactions, like “Oh no, not here. Here we always…”
- Tell them what you like or appreciate about their culture.
- Flattery will get you everywhere.
- Tell them why their home interests you. What prompted your travels?
- Share a funny or unusual story from your travels (especially if it happened in the country you are in)
- Tell them about something you observe that is different where you come from.
Long plane rides, long bus rides, long hikes through mother nature’s playground…
There’s a lot of time to be lost in your own headspace when you travel. The longer you wander, the more inevitable it is. The mind can be a scary place to get stuck. Sometimes we travel to get out of it. But the mind is a funny thing, and it will follow you. My suggestions is to let it. Let your mind wander as much as your eyes and feet.
I will shyly admit to you that I have cried a lot on my travels. I’ve cried tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears of triumph, and tears of confusion. I’ve cried when I’ve reached the peak of a difficult hike, seen a beautiful sight, or achieved a long-term bucket list goal. I’ve cried when I’ve had sad realizations, and when I’ve made the mental decision to “let go” of something or other. It’s all part of the journey, and I welcome it.
I am not instructing you to run around and cry everywhere. That’s only necessary if you need to. However, I am suggesting you allow yourself to feel the feels and think the thinks.
Travel is most meaningful if you are asking yourself major questions along the way.
- Question your choices.
- Question your customs.
- Question your beliefs.
- Question your lifestyle.
- Question your relationships. All of them.
- Question your priorities.
- Quesiton your future.
- Question what you want.
- Question what led you to where you are in this very moment.
Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have the answers. The answers that are the toughest to answer, will come to you slowly over time if you need the answers.
Examining yourself and asking the hard questions in foreign settings, far from what is familiar, is a unique opportunity. Think of an artist, or writer who can’t see the beauty of their own work until they have walked away from it. Or think of work-a-holic that can’t measure their own success. Think of anyone in a failing relationship that refuses to let go, even though it’s so clear to the people on the outside looking in. Removing yourself from all things familiar for an extended period can give you perspective that you simply cannot have when you are in the middle of circumstance. Observe your life as if you are a spectator. That’s hard to do while you are also living it.
Time and distance are amazing tools for introspection. Travel provides them. But travel can provide introspection in other ways too. What you learn and observe in foreign places can alter or shed light on the answers to your difficult questions.
@intentionaltravelers (one of my favorite traveling couples on Instagram – give them a follow) said the following in a recent post, “When traveling, ask yourself: What is this place trying to tell me about myself, about life, about the world? Transformational travel is an investment in yourself, and it should lead toward making a positive impact on the world you inhabit.”
4) Make a Positive Impact
First, I want to briefly touch on what it means to make a positive impact. Sadly, it may not be as clear as it should it be. Even if you have the best intentions, many helpful travel missions do more harm than good.
Voluntourism is a growing industry. If you find an agency online offering a volunteer experience that you have to pay for, be weary. These places are a tourist business. They cater to you, the tourist, and aim to ensure your best possible experience. A truly charitable cause focuses all of its energies on the needs of the people, environments or animals they serve. Not yours. Many studies suggest that short-term volunteers with children and orphans can actually be harmful to their development. If you choose to do a voluntourist trip anyway, (because you want the experience of working with elephants in Asia, or a closer look at a schoolhouse in Africa), be informed. Know that this is about your experience rather than making a genuine positive impact.
That’s a bit discouraging isn’t it? It was for me when I first started researching volunteer abroad programs.
Know that you can make a difference just by being a world traveler.
Make a Positive Impact Without Even Trying
A lot of travel destinations have struggling economies. In many areas, the only major industry is tourism. Your presence there can be helpful in and of itself. But make wise choices.
You can make a small positive impact through your purchases and activity choices. Help spark local economies by buying locally made products. Eat at locally owned and run restaurants. Take tours or go on excursions with locally owned and run businesses.
As discussed in prior principles of meaningful travel, you can make an impact by showing respect to local people, making friends around the world, and simply being part of the force that breaks down antiquated stereotypes. You increase diversity and cultural awareness.
People who live in touristic areas tend to have a love/hate relationship with tourists. On one hand, tourists can be ignorant and annoying. Tourist presence has already drastically altered the local culture. But tourism is also the livelihood of their town (or city) and crucial to their well-being. There is no end to the importance, as a tourist, of showing the local people kindness, and respect towards their customs and beliefs. Even if it is different from your own way of thinking. We have a unique opportunity and responsibility as tourists to open doors, minds and hearts around the world. We are representatives of where we come from, and if we use the opportunity wisely we can help (little by little) break down barriers and stereotypes.
But that can only happen if we are willing to open up to the local people who host us, and show them respect.
The contrary is also true. Do not be one of the tourists that gives “tourists” their bad reputation (you can find many examples of them in my amusing post, There Are Some Crazy-Ass Backpackers Out There.) If you disrespect a culture you are doing harm rather than good. Even if your religion, customs or personal beliefs are different from that of the community you visit – never behave, speak, or dress in a manner offensive to those you visit. If you run around in a drunken stupor causing a scene in the streets (unless you’re in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand) you’re only harming the image of where you come from and exacerbating negative beliefs about you and your culture.
Behave responsibly and respectfully. I cannot stress this enough.
“But I want to do something”
I get it. I realize for many of you wonderful altruistic wanderlusters, simply buying local and “being the change you wish to see in the world” won’t feel like enough. You want to actually do something. Do not despair. There are wonderful ways to help the world that won’t harm anyone, and won’t burn holes in your pocket.
You can seek ways to help. But use discretion.
One of my favorite travel bloggers, Lianne Bronzo of liannebronzo.com does a phenomenal job helping her way around the world. She finds most of her jobs through helpx.net.
Lianne has run the gamut of vollunteering: teaching english in Japan, working on sustainable building projects in Indonesia, helping dogs at a shelter in Thailand, keeping local elderly company in Australia, and much more. Don’t forget to check out her travel blog, too!
Programs like helpx and workaway are online resources that connect travelers with people looking for temporary work. Usually, jobs on these sights are exchanged for free housing and meals, although the parameters vary from job to job. Some opportunities are more “work-y” and others are more “volunteer-y”. You can find work on organic farms (WOOFing), in hotels or hostels, animal shelters, construction projects, gardening projects, teaching or tutoring english, etc. You can find wonderful ways to make a difference in communities around the world while also making your travel expenses cheaper.
Both of these programs charge a small annual fee. If you plan to put either (or both) to use, you will more than make up for the fee you pay.
The only drawback I have encountered on these sights is for the flighty plan-less traveler, like myself. The majority of jobs here require advanced planning. So if you never know your time-table, these sights are more challenging. There are options for last-minute, ready-now work, but they are fewer and harder to come by.
Clothing for the Amazonian Children
If you travel like me, there are still ways you can practice altruistic travel. But my way won’t come up as often, and you have to search for it. It’s entirely possible that while you spend a decent chunk of time getting to know a place, you will recognize a need within a community. If you do, you can ask yourself “is this something that I could do anything about? Could I make a difference and help fill this hole? Or at least make the hole a little less deep?
- Never assume that your help will automatically be welcomed or appreciated. Many small local communities take offense (and reasonably so) to foreigners coming into their home and telling them what’s wrong and trying to “fix” them. Use discretion, and talk to local people about what they want and need.
I have barely written about this until now, because I don’t like to come across as high and mighty for doing something nice. But I would love to see other people do similar things on their journey of meaningful travel, so I will share my example.
Story time: In the spring of 2016 I was living in a small touristic Amazon town in Bolivia for a couple of months. In that time, I had the amazing experience of hiking deep into the rainforest with two local indigenous jungle men (and a lovely doctor from Singapore) for 8 days. After several days of surviving, we came upon the home of an indigenous family who harvested bananas to trade with other native families. They welcomed us with smiles under their 4 post hut with no doors or walls. They built a fire and we prepared plantains, fried bananas, corn and fish in banana leaves (see the title photo for principle 5, coming up).
I anxiously watched a toddler run around wearing no pants or underwear, with a small, sharp machete in his hands. The children were plentiful and shy. Seeing a white girl with a camera was probably very strange to them. I did not photograph them. I did not want to treat these people as if they were on display. My guides thanked me for it later, explaining that they deeply hated when “gringos” visit these communities and photograph the children. Usually, the photos ended up used for exploitative purposes in the name of a “cause”.
I didn’t walk away feeling sad for these people. In many ways I was in awe of them as we floated away, down river on our make-shift balsa raft. I was amazed at a community in 2016 that didn’t need money to survive. A community where money was actually useless. A place where women don’t wear make-up and aren’t expected to shave their legs twice a week. An innocent world where neighbors help neighbors and everyone is equal. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
But, as discussed in principle 1 of meaningful travel – there is good and bad, pros and cons in every lifestyle. While we rafted on, Diego, one of the native guides, explained that the communities in the jungle were facing a problem. Even though there were schools in the jungle, many of these children were not able to attend. There were a number of factors for why. One of the main reasons was surprisingly simple. The kids in the jungle didn’t have clothing to wear to school, so they didn’t go. But the native community was in agreement that the children should get an education.
When we arrived back to civilization, Min, my doctor friend, and I kept thinking and talking about the experience. And together, we came to a realization. The kids not having clothing for school is a problem that is within our power to do something about. Maybe not long-term, but we could certainly do something to help the children in the jungle right now.
So I created a gofundme account and reached out to my friends and family. I explained the situation and asked for any small donation people could manage. With the money raised, I went to the big city, La Paz, and bought close to 50 complete outfits for ages 5-15. We individually wrapped complete outfits to be passed out and dispersed amongst the children in the native community.
I did not want to come off as the white girl telling the community that they needed me. So rather than showing up with my clunky camera and delivering the clothing myself, I sent my local indigenous friends to deliver the clothing. Because they are already accepted members of the community, they took photos and videos, which were delightful for me to see. Some of the kids opened their packages immediately and put their new clothing on before the next child even had theirs in hand. This is a project I hope to do again in the future 🙂
My Approach With the Amazon Children
If my approach sounds like your style of positive impact, here is a vague outline of the steps I took.
- Identify a need in the community.
- Recognize a way that you can help.
- Discuss your ideas with local people.
- Get locals involved to ensure that your efforts are accepted.
- Use discretion, and approach your mission with respect.
Positive Impact Through Sharing
Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power of sharing about your experiences. Keeping a travel blog or vlog, writing a memoir, and talking to people about what you learn can make a positive impact beyond the places you visit. You will gain insights that could potentially inspire others to make positive changes. Even simply inspiring travel plans can be a small but meaningful impact. 🙂
5) Push yourself
Do you want to make your travels even more special and memorable? Than this a crucial step. Every time you do something outside of your comfort zone, I can almost guarantee, will be one of the experiences that stand out most for years to come.
This is a broad idea. What is outside of my comfort zone may not be outside of yours, and vice versa. You have to ask yourself what would feel like a stretch for you. And then go out and push that limit.
Simply traveling to another country may be out of your comfort zone, so don’t downplay that accomplishment. Traveling solo, eating solo, and doing activities solo may be hard for you. If it is, and you can overcome it, hell yeah!
Maybe those things are easy for you.
- you have a fear of heights. Then, go walk your booty across a high suspension bridge!
- you are shy and talking to strangers is hard for you. Then, go stay in a youth hostel with a social reputation and open up to someone!
- your a little out of shape and a physical challenge sounds beautiful but daunting. Then, sign up for it and go!
Can you have a wonderful, meaningful journey without pushing yourself? Yes, I suppose you could. But it could be more. And why end your journey knowing it could’ve been even more?
Nothing can replace the realization that you have far fewer limitations than you previously knew. It is a very liberating thing to realize. We all have certain real limits. I am a type 1 diabetic, for example. But I have learned through my journey, that most limitations are fictional and only exist within the confines of the mind. I’ve learned that my own capabilities are far stronger, while my fears are actually much weaker, than I ever knew. I mean, look what I can do! I know, because I’ve done it.
How do I Know if it’s a Good Idea?
Say yes to adventures. But be smart. I will never advise anyone to put their safety, health, or livelihood in danger. Please, thoughtfully assess situations and opportunities that arise. Do challenging things with professionals and proper equipment. Do not trust everyone you cross paths with. Do not look for danger.
Ok, enough of the do not‘s. How can you decide what to do?
I ask myself a simple question:
“Will this make my life feel richer (fuller)?”
If the answer is yes, I go for it. Even if it scares me.
Sometimes I even imagine myself as an old lady looking back at the years of my life. And I try to imagine how I think that older, wiser, and more decrepit version of me might look back on this experience that I am contemplating. Would I regret the experience? Not likely. Would I be proud of myself for completing it? Possibly.
Then there is no real reason not to go on that week long trek. There is no real reason not to jump off that treacherous cliff at the end of the canyon tour. There is no real reason not to snorkle with sharks. There is no real reason not to sleep under a mosquito net on the jungle floor.
I don’t know about you, but I measure my life in experiences. That means to get rich, I need to go out and do stuff.
6) Listen more, Talk Less.
When people become good at this it can greatly improve their experience of the world, weather traveling, or at home in daily life. But this is about travel, so here’s my pitch.
You have the opportunity to meet a lot of people when you travel. Weather you are getting to know locals or befriending other wandering souls like yourself, there is incredible value in closing your mouth and really hearing what people have to say. Don’t wait to insert your message between every thought. Don’t relate everything you hear back to yourself. It doesn’t make you “relatable”. Most things in life are not about you. 🙂 Isn’t that a good thing?
You have far more to gain by learning about other people than you do by going on and on about yourself. Not everyone you meet will be a big talker. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an interesting story to tell. If you find yourself with someone on the quiet side, ask them questions about who they are. What is their life like? Where do they come from? What brought them to this place in this moment?
You are on a journey to learn about the world, so open your ears and mind to it. Every person you meet is an opportunity to learn something new. While you travel, you will meet people from all over the world. Maybe you are in Istanbul, learning about dolma and hashish. But you can also learn about the Berlin techno scene from the lovely German couple at the table next to you. You could learn about health care in Singapore, while camping in Bolivia. Listening more means knowing more. It means gaining more from the people around you. So take, take, take!
If you talk at people about your own experiences day after day, you won’t gain nearly as much insight into the world. And you may, unknowingly, come off as just damn obnoxious.
I will be honest with you though, perfecting this skill is both a blessing and a curse.
The better listener you become, the more you will start to notice how many bad listeners there are floating around in this world. You will start to see that many people are not curious, do not ask questions, and only want to talk at you. They don’t even know they aren’t talking with you. You also have knowledge and interesting experiences to offer that they miss out on. When others don’t ask any questions or show interest in getting to know you, it gives you an important insight into their personality. These qualities become more blaringly obvious the more you practice active listening.
In a way, even this is positive in the end. Although you may find more people irritating, this can be a helpful tool in sifting through who has potential for real, honest friendship and who will be merely a passing acquaintance.
7) Let go of Expectations
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll here it again. Expectations are the killer of all good things. The same goes for travel.
The places you visit with the least expectations, can easily become the most exceptional parts of your journey.
But beyond that, don’t expect to “find yourself” on some grand journey of self-discovery. If you are trying to reach some enlightened form of yourself, you’ll probably be faking it. If you expect to discover all the answers to all your tough questions, how will you feel at the end of this chapter when you actually have more questions than answers? It’s a likely outcome.
So, don’t do that to yourself. I know this is cliche. But meaningful travel truly is about the journey. Not the destination. If you’re doing it right, the destination is insignificant. Meaningless. So let go. Enjoy the ride. Make today count. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
Good luck on your personal journies! Please share your road with me! I feel a kindred connection with all wandering souls out there and I welcome your story anytime!
Now get off the damn computer. Go out there and GET LOST & BE FOUND!