Why Travel Doesn’t Have to Transform You (and some ways it can)

Chance favors only those who court her.

Charles Nicolle

Do you remember that part in the film Groundhog Day when the main character Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again? Each day he tries to court his beautiful, educated Producer, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell) by discovering exactly what she likes, what she reads, and what she drinks. In order to coax Rita into bed with him, Phil created a mental inventory of what makes her tick.  Phil even went so far as to simulate romance on a date with her by pretending to slip on the icy snow while taking Rita on down with him.

It was supposed to be that moment when an unexpected fall would make two people laugh and slowly catch each other’s gaze prompting an intense locking of the lips. However, it was not that. Rita saw right through this pretense of love and romance. 

I thought of that scene after reading an article in the Travel section of the New York Times titled “Can a ‘Transformational Journey’ Change Your Life? Our Writer Had Her Doubts” written by Charly Wilder. After reading it, I also had my doubts. Like Phil’s mental list of how to get Rita into bed, the author discovers that ‘transformational journeys’ are simply simulations of transformation cloaked in travel experiences. This has prompted me to think a bit about the purpose of travel as well as transformation.

Why transform at all?

Many travel companies want you to travel deeper and see the world through “new eyes”. This often involves experiencing a place and its culture(s) like a local – feeling a connection to a people’s history, its food, music, and way of life. That is the beauty, and for the most part, purpose of travel. But when it comes to ‘transforming yourself’ while traveling, is there a formula?

In her article, Charly travels to Portugal to embark on a transformational journey of her own with a company that provides “life-changing travel experiences” through meaningful engagement with a culture. Upon reading this, if I had hair on my head, I would have tossed it back while guffawing at the very notion that a fast-paced, week-long trip performing a formulaic self-discovery itinerary would change your life.

Beautiful blues in Alfama, Lisbon

The tour had all the right elements that a cultural anthropologist would look for to gain true engagement: cultural activities specific to the place visited; group rituals to feel a sense of achievement and belonging, while having participants go through what anthropologists would call a “liminal” stage; yoga for physical health and inner peace; a pre-trip set of deep, super-soul-Sunday-like questions to help you reflect on who you are and what you want; and guides (or informants) to help you navigate the culture.

I was struck by how these “transformational journeys” promote travel the way an anthropologist writes a grant proposal to fund their research. They offer a clear structure/plan/itinerary on how to understand another culture, how to explore, how to find yourself, and how to live. Invoking Elizabeth Warren, they have a plan for everything! They tap into our desire to get closer (to ourselves and other people) by traveling farther.

Me against a Berlin wall

But for anthropologists, the act of getting closer is a difficult process. Transformations or breakthroughs don’t come simply by wanting them.

But if you insist on transforming yourself through travel, here are five tips to do so:

  1. Make Room for Chance

We must not let travel become too systematized as to leave little room for unexpected chance encounters or serendipitous experiences. It’s like the annoying advice partnered people offer single people: “you’ll find love when you least expect it”. Punchable but kind of true.

In anthropology, transformation often comes with serendipitous moments, those fateful experiences we never planned for despite all our planning.  Anthropologists love the idea of doing fieldwork, going to far-off lands for an extended period of time to study a particular group of people. So, we write grant proposals detailing how we’re going to do just that in order to get funding; but when we end up at our field site, we become Hemingway at a Pamplona bar, drinking and aimlessly collecting random experiences.

Despite a somewhat clear idea of what we want to do during our fieldwork, most of what we do is left to chance. The world is randomly chaotic and we learn that we must welcome that chaos.  We quickly realize that if we stick to the script too much, we won’t discover what may be right in front of us – that thing or idea or person we couldn’t have imagined discovering.

2. Slow Down, You Move too Fast

There is a slowness to chance that needs to be heeded while traveling. Although some sort of itinerary is needed, travel shouldn’t feel like you’re working. It should challenge you, make you feel tired, but it shouldn’t abide by the same tempos you have at home. Transformation is not achievable if you have a rushed itinerary, even if that itinerary involves meditation, sound healing, and yoga on the beach.

Walking in Vienna

3. Don’t Overthink It

Wellness and transformation seem to have been usurped by structure and rapidity.

We are encouraged to think too much about changing or reinventing ourselves. Travel, much like love, shouldn’t be burdensome. You shouldn’t have to try so hard to feel something. Packing every single type of cultural experience you can think of while abroad does not mean engaging with another culture. All it means is that you are checking off a list – something you probably do at home or at work or both, every day.

I don’t mean to sound judgmental. In fact, my intention is to do the opposite. Travel, in and of itself, is enough. Growing or transforming or living your best life or whatever you want to call it is great, but sometimes you just want to be away so you can hear different sounds coming out of people’s mouths or a metro, a cart, a donkey;  surround yourself with people you don’t understand and don’t understand you; and embrace the feeling of being somewhere else. Unless you are writing a dissertation on the politics of the far-right in Western Europe, don’t take your itinerary too seriously.

4. Lose Yourself and Be Present 

The point of travel is not to think about transforming yourself. To travel is to put a mask on and lose yourself. The problem with being an adult is that we become too familiar with our “self”. Compounded with that is that fact that we live in the age of me, me, me, me, me, and more me.

We have become wannabe masters at displaying, defining, knowing, and marketing ourselves, so much so that we become a simulation of ourselves.  For what? Or for whom? Facebook? Instagram? Snapchat? Our ego, “with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries?”, as Michael Pollan aptly states in his book on the beneficial effects of psychedelics.  

Even this blog is an attempt to define, fashion, and exploit an image of who I really am.  It’s exhausting! We spend so much time structuring our lives as an individual that we are unable to escape ourselves! So, instead of focusing on exploring the many selves we can be, we end up becoming more like our own business model.

But let’s face it, you can’t really escape yourself. Even if you intentionally think about how you want to change yourself, you are still thinking about it in terms of your present self.

To lose yourself while traveling is to let go of the past and not worry about the future. The focus on transformation is just another form of thinking about the future and the past while preventing you from living in the present.

This is because ‘transformational journeys’ make you think about and decide who you want to be. That’s sweet. But the beauty of travel should be the opposite – you shouldn’t have to think about who you want to be. Transformation takes work and you are not there to work, you are there to let go – for at least a brief moment.

Lovers off the Seine, Paris

5. Be 15 Years Old

Transformations take a lot longer than a 10-day trip. It is messy and being messy is easier when you are young because you don’t have that mental arsenal of solutions to prevent the stupid mistakes you will most likely make – all those things that actually make you live and transform.

As we get older, with every thought and every desire, we tend to anticipate a certain set of outcomes. It’s like someone who has been burned by past relationships, so each relationship thereafter they become more and more cautious, take less risks because they anticipate everything that could or might happen. We tend to call this “maturity” and scoff at our stupid, younger, crazy selves. But because we are often so connected to our “brand” we find it hard to connect to something or someone else.

Since our senses are heightened during travel, that places the focus on everyone and everything else.  Travel, in this way, is a form of love – transformation, a mere side effect. What is love but a connection to someone or something else, a sense of selflessness, and a total abandonment of your self?

Vienna’s most popular market – Naschmarkt

We live in a world where the perception of transformation is king: fat to thin, rags to riches, single to married, unwoke to woke! We love a good transformation tale, but is transformation always necessary? Our world might demand it, but we don’t always have to be transformed.

‘Transformational journeys’ are just another example of simulating meaningful change; they have all the elements of transformation, but in the end, nothing. In fact, true, meaningful engagement requires time, people, and complexity.

The only thing I truly miss in this age of coronavirus is travel.  Our current shared context only highlights the fact that the joys of travel are not transformational but simple: eat, drink, breathe, think, walk. Ultimately, you don’t travel to transform, you travel to experience, to live, and to love.

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