From the moment humanity invented commercial flight, travel has sparked imaginations and informed dreams, giving us all the potential to live out the life of a shiny-eyed adventurer. This has been especially true in recent years. Millennials are fuelling the so-called “experience economy” – choosing to spend money on experiences rather than material goods – and this is because people are starting to place more value on the things that will create more meaning in their lives.
Travel is a key part of this. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the travel industry has been growing faster than any other sector. This has led to some inevitable commercialisation of the concept, with identikit resorts and tourist traps becoming more commonplace, but this doesn’t mean that travel can’t still be a transformative experience. Here’s some of the ways travel can change your life.
For those with busy high-stress lifestyles, visiting a stripped-back retreat can be a meaningful use of limited time. We may feel more relaxed after a week by the pool, but a retreat takes that same week and promises something far more, from spiritual growth to transcendental self-discovery. There’s also the chance to get in shape, with some retreats focusing on healthy food and exercise, and perhaps kick-starting an entirely new way of life.
Picking your Retreat
Whether you want to learn yoga, use meditation to ease your stress, or simply find some peace and quiet, there’s a perfect retreat for you. Here’s a few things to consider in order to make the right decision.
Find a retreat that matches your experience level. Some meditation retreats are hugely intense, requiring constant silence and hours of sitting on hard and unforgiving floors. This kind of thing may result in a spiritual awakening for the experienced meditator, but is far more challenging for someone who’s only been meditating for a few months. Others are a chance to unwind and perfect for beginners, but will be unfulfilling for people with years of practise under their belt.
Research your teacher. Some people who teach meditation have been on a short course, while others have dedicated many years of their lives to learning, travelling and meeting spiritual leaders. There will be value in what a less experienced teacher has to say, but with far more knowledgeable practitioners available, it seems a shame not to pick the most accomplished you can.
Get the medical green light. If the aim of your retreat is to become healthier, remember that some health-focused holidays will require the thumbs up from your doctor, especially in they involve extreme diet change – such as juice detoxes. Your fitness level is also important, as exercising from dawn until dusk is no joke if you’re not used to it.
Becoming a Better Person
Modern life puts a lot of strain on many of us. Trying to make ethical choices and a lack of social feeling is making many people feel anxious and alienated. We may be able to go on holiday and forget about it all for a while, but the wider issues of can still be in the periphery of our thoughts. Furthermore, our awareness of the environmental wastefulness of lots of traditional holidays adds an extra sense of guilt to the mix.
Voluntourism is a great option if you want to see the world but find it difficult to switch off your brain and just enjoy a location. If you find it hard to relax in a five-star hotel when you know poverty and despair is just outside your door, giving up your time could turn your holiday into a positive force for the good. Furthermore, as well as helping others, you may well see, learn and do things which will change you for the better.
Choosing a Voluntourism Holiday
There are many voluntourism opportunities out there, and there are some things to watch out for. Travel providers sometimes misrepresent what they offer, both for the volunteers and the people they intend to help. Research published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism suggests the more expensive options are sometimes the least responsible. So how do you make sure your work actually has an impact?
Be committed to transparency. Make sure you ask for a breakdown of where the money you pay to go on a voluntourism holiday will go. Transparency shows that a company truly has people’s (or the environment’s) best interests at heart. For example, People and Places always publishes its figures, and a huge 80% of its profits goes back into the community.
Do your research, and ensure that any previous projects have been a success. Furthermore, try to find out the long-term goals of any initiative. You can even connect with other volunteers over social media and find out what their feedback is, seeing where they most felt they made a difference.
Commit the right amount of time. Data inputting or collecting information in a conservation project may only need a few days or so, whereas teaching abroad or anything heavily community-based could be something that requires months. It’s recommended that you don’t volunteer in orphanages abroad at all, because the constant stream of new people can be psychologically damaging for small children.
In the same way the wellness resorts act as an antidote to the stress and pressure of modern life – allowing us to consider our mental and physical health more carefully – “experiential” travel is an antidote to the cultural obliviousness travellers may have been guilty of in the past. Many people are finding themselves unfulfilled by a consumerist mind-set, and want something deeper and more human. In this search, getting off the resort and actually experiencing a country can make all the difference.
Having an experiential holiday
Having an experiential holiday isn’t something you can write a definite guide for, but here are a few tips to get you started.
Stay off the beaten track. Wherever you can, choose the less obvious option. Rather than heading to the “must-see” sights or restaurants mentioned in guides, ask for recommendations from the people who live there. This way you can stumble across a surprising treasure, whether that’s a street food stall or an invite to dinner with a friendly family. For an idea, think about where you live and your own insider knowledge about that area – it’s often vastly different from the “official” guides.
Don’t be too hung up on sightseeing or ticking experiences off the list. If you’re enjoying yourself, having interesting conversations, and are quite happy where you are, you don’t have to cut this short just because someone back home told you simply must see such-and-such. Follow your instincts rather than preconceived ideas.
Stay safe. Remember that keeping safe is a priority, so make sure you are clued up and prepared before walking down “the road less travelled”.
By choosing to see the country beyond its hotels, you can have a far more enriching experience, maybe even coming home wiser and more culturally aware than when you left. This could be seen as a kind of self-indulgence, but when the results are greater cultural appreciation, it can’t really be a bad thing. With the right amount of care and thought, you can find yourself on a fascinating and fulfilling adventure, enjoying something completely unexpected.
Photos by Ian Schneider, Dariusz Sankowski and Toa Heftiba via Unsplash