Since late 2015, I’ve spent about a third of my time traveling the world solo.
It began with walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage through Spain, and led to a couple extended travel tours through Central America.
Throughout, NuMundo has provided a compass for this Central American journey, helping me find earth-based communities, permaculture centers, and even a cacao farm to visit. That’s what they do—maintain a database of “impact centers” where visitors and seekers can go to learn practical skills for living a more holistically sustainable life.
NuMundo also introduced me to the idea of transformational travel: exploring the world with the intention of learning, growing, and healing.
I’ve learned immensely from my travels. I knew I needed to go by myself, even though the idea scared me to death. I needed to put myself out in the world and learn how to get through whatever strange situation might appear in front of me.
I’d like to share some reflections on what I learned on the road of exploration:
1) It’s important to have a mission when you travel.
When I walked the Camino de Santiago, my mission was to overcome mysterious long-term illness. When I went to Central America, it was to visit intentional communities and permaculture centers.
Having a mission in travel is akin to having an intention in ceremony. It provides a context and framework for the experience to come and sets the stage for something meaningful to happen. Anyone can see the world just by buying a plane ticket. Hostels everywhere are filled with people partying by night and taking guided hikes or bike rides during the day.
If there’s no deeper mission, our default is to just visit someplace warm, or to go along with a friend or partner’s travel dream.
These kinds of trips are forgettable.
Visiting a place with a sense of mission is far more important than choosing a photogenic or trendy destination. It makes it possible to connect our individual soul with the soul of the world.
2) Sometimes you need to stay for a while.
On my first Central American journey, I began with a month in the village of San Marcos la Laguna at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Then I moved to the earth-based spiritual center InanItah on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua for another month.
I was accustomed to trips that were all go-go-go, every hour filled with scheduled activities—the kind of “vacations” that beg another vacation just to unwind! It seems we Westerners can’t help but take the hustle and bustle of modern life with us into communities that move at a slower pace. The tendency is to approach a place and its people with the same consumerist mindset that drives life back at home.
In reality, it’s impossible to get to know a place, its people, or its culture in a day, or even a week. And the greatest rewards aren’t waiting in a souvenir shop.
Additionally, if we’re on the move all the time, we’re not really getting to know ourselves.
Slowing down when we travel and rooting into a community gives us a chance to examine how we navigate the situations that arise there. It allows us to explore one step at a time, watch our feelings, and deal with the uncomfortable ones instead of avoiding them with constant social interaction, substances, or more movement. (Note: The flip side of this one is avoiding unstructured or unpredictable movement! Sometimes getting totally into a flow in international travel can be illuminating and educational in a different way.)
3) Things go wrong. Breathe through it.
Crossing the border from Costa Rica back into Nicaragua, I once did the math wrong on a currency exchange and got gypped about $80. My mind rushed to a script of, “How did I let that happen?” There was an urge to turn back time and make it right. But that’s never possible.
What really gets me through such moments is taking deep, slow breaths—in through the nose, down into the lower belly, and out through the mouth to release the body tension tied to feelings of shame and regret.
In transformational travel, we encounter so many people that we’re bound to have a wide array of experiences. Not all of them are pleasant. But that’s how life is.
Dealing with this far outside our comfort zone is like spiritual warrior training for when we get back to our local culture and day-to-day routine. We can then feel more centered and spacious, and better able to handle whatever life throws at us.
4) It’s okay to get lost.
In the middle of my four-and-a-half-month journey through Central America in early 2016, I suddenly felt very disoriented. I had intestinal parasites, the cacao farm I wanted to visit wasn’t receiving guests, and a volunteering gig at a therapy center felt more like being stuck with a cult.
I ended up spending about ten days in a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica, visiting doctors’ offices, going to museums, and watching a movie in a theater for the first time in months. I had lost track of my mission, I thought!
I kept wavering about what to do. Maybe I’d shoot back up to Lake Atitlan, where I knew I’d find some sense of community and deep connection.
But instead I stuck it out through the feeling of lostness.
Walking around San Jose, I breathed deep and let my gut lead me through the city. I had to tune back into my core intuition on a small scale before I could find direction on a large scale about my next travel steps. As soon as I stopped trying to figuring everything out all at once and eased into the weirdness of the present moment, I got to visit two permaculture centers and a cacao farm in the jungle west of San Jose.
By that time, I knew why I’d really be going back to Guatemala—to take a three-week tantra immersion course. I felt tuned back into the mission of my journey, and it was taking on new shape after three months of exploration.
Getting lost and feeling discomfort in a foreign place might have been the most important part of my whole trip.
5) You can never predict exactly how you’ll change.
If someone had told me in early 2015 that I’d be able to walk 410 miles on the Camino de Santiago, I would have said they were nuts. That’s because my self-image and belief system said I’d be stuck with chronic illness forever, and that even walking 40 to 60 miles would be an accomplishment.
But by taking measured action, I shifted my whole reality and made real strides to overcome chronic fatigue and pain.
Again, if someone told me I’d now be leading cacao ceremonies that weaved in tantra and other self-development practices, I would have given the same response. I went to Central America wanting to learn more about cacao and tantra, but I had no idea how central they would become in my work.
It’s not that I was resisting these things in the past. Rather, three years ago they were totally off my radar of what was possible!
The mission or intention of a trip is important, but honoring what we learn through the experience and carrying it forward is even more crucial.
With transformational travel, we gain more direct experience of the world outside our usual bubble, which results in deeper awareness of the global situation. It’s common to take back inspiration for projects or collaborations, especially ones with an element of social impact.
And if you’ve stayed long enough outside your comfort zone, you’ll likely gain a new idea of who you are—that is, a slightly different sense of identity and purpose that will shape your life moving forward.
Just keep in mind that it might surprise you. And there’s no way to undo the transformation. There’s no going back, and that’s fine.
There is always something to learn, no matter how hard or confusing the trip. And it can only be learned through this kind of world exploration.
All photos courtesy of the author. Bio photo used with permission from the photographer, Melissa Henk.