A few weeks ago I wrote a guest blog post about how to Slow Travel Argentina. As I wrote, I started experiencing some revelation. On a surface level, I came to the conclusion that my most meaningful travel experiences have occurred when I spend more time in less places. It made sense – more time somewhere naturally means more opportunities to connect with the people and the places that represent the unique culture I’m temporarily inhabiting.
But, I think there’s more to it than that. I invite you to back up a bit with me.
At sixteen, I traveled to Israel with 30 other Israelis and Americans on a group tour. We traveled all over that tiny country and while it was still a significant amount of time, five weeks to be exact, I actually wouldn’t declare it “slow”. We spent on average 2-3 days in one place. But, it left a deep mark on me for life. Here’s why:
I will admit that throughout school, I was not a history buff. While I found stories of the past interesting, I didn’t find my history classes in school to be extraordinarily engaging. Geography and world cultures were more my speed. But, on this trip, I naturally absorbed the history of the country through a myriad of different hands-on, educational experiences. I hiked masada at sunrise and arrived to hear our group leader speak about the persecution that occurred below my feet. I entered the home of the first prime minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, and learned of his vision for the at-the-time empty desert. I then rappelled down the Ramon Crater, shared a meal with kibbutzniks and participated in an archaeological dig, all which brought his vision of the desert alive. Learning by doing.
Political, economic, social context
At twenty-five, I follow the news, but at sixteen, I knew very little about what was going on outside my mini-world. After sharing an afternoon with local residents in the Golan Heights region, I left with an understanding of the challenges between Israel and Syria. The grave responsibility of Israeli soldiers became tangible after spending a few days in the desert, dressed in an IDF uniform, running around with boulders and crying because I didn’t like push-ups or being yelled at in Hebrew (shocked?). My awareness of global politics, social issues and economic crises skyrocketed, but only because I was engaging in experiences that demonstrated this reality.
The media has a tendency to share one side – one general viewpoint – of an entire country. If you meet any two Israelis, you’ll know they hold seventeen different opinions. Spending day after day with my new Israeli friends meant that I was able to view each experience not only through my visitor’s eyes, but through a local lens as well. In addition to the many experts we had the privilege of engaging with, my Israel friends made each moment personal and unique. Their perspective, and friendship, was such an integral component to my connection to the country.
There are many reasons why this trip was so powerful for me. A huge part was developing a real understanding of my own heritage and Jewish identity. But, I only think this was made possible by the educational components that, woven together, created this transformative journey. It was the mix of learning, doing and connecting with the people and the land that has shaped the way I now find meaning in travel and why I think experiential travel can so positively change you.
In that same breath, I don’t think travel automatically changes you. I’ve had some beautiful vacations to Mexico and even Italy, that didn’t leave the same kind of mark. I didn’t walk away feeling like the country now held a little piece of my heart, like Israel, Spain, Peru and Argentina. I did feel like I got a great tan, though (wink).
Each traveler has his or her own style and purpose for each trip. What feels most important to me, now, is that I define that purpose before I go on each trip and that I set myself up for success. Do I want a week in the sun? Fine. But, I shouldn’t expect to come home having fulfilled a deep need for meaningful travel. And, sometimes I want a mix. You better bet you’ll find me bumming out in some beach town come December, but I know that overall, I want more from my next big adventure.
On my previous longer trips, I’ve either been on a group tour or studied abroad with some type of program. I don’t necessarily think that all travelers on study abroad or group trips leave with the same impact. It’s not automatic. For travel to change you, you have to let go of your assumptions and judgments, step outside of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself to learn and connect.
So now, as I’m starting to think about how I want to spend my days in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, I’m trying to piece together some type of experience that will leave me changed a similar way as Israel did in five weeks, Spain in six, Peru in three and Argentina in…well, a year. I believe it’s possible and I’m excited to share how I plan it, what works and what doesn’t starting now, while I’m gone and once I return.
Soon enough, I’ll be sharing some resources I plan to use to help do this. But, I need your help!
What are some experiences you had in Southeast Asia and elsewhere that left a mark on you? What resources do you use to “go local”?
Latest posts by Emily Moyer (see all)
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