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Traveling With Purpose

When the 'why' is as important as the 'where'

By Elaine Masters

The fierce maw of a giant stone snake virtually jumped out of the email invitation. I was startled, then exhilarated, then deflated. The jaws were attached to an ancient pyramid in Teotihuacan and the invitation was to the kind of cultural immersion I’d longed to take. Getting there seemed impossible. I didn’t have the funds to travel or do much of anything independently at that time in my difficult marriage. Yet two months later I walked out of customs in the Mexico City airport to rendezvous with a group of strangers.

The trip changed my life. I took a leap of faith and joined clearing rituals; learned about dream work based on Nagual traditions but knew none of that before signing up. There was no way to anticipate that sweating through a medicine woman’s ceremony in her backyard lodge would inspire me to take better care of myself or that climbing the stone steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun would crack my heart open to divine beauty and wonder. I made friends with the “Angel of Death,” as the tradition taught, and let go of what no longer served. That I returned home a different woman – energized, clear and inspired, surprised no one more than me. Within a year I found a way out of my disastrous marriage, located a wonderful apartment, and eventually, at 55, found a true and lasting life partner.

Equinox dancers in front of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

As the pandemic ravages subside and travel resumes, the desire to fulfill bucket list dreams is more intense. There’s a lot of talk about authentic, experiential, and interactive travel but the best trips have a greater good at their core. Tourism is turning away from ‘green washed’ volunteer travel to focus on more substantial, local benefits. The over-tourism of traditional destinations is also pivoting. There’s little chance to resonate with Michelangelo’s muse when you’re being jostled through the Sistine Chapel, shoulder-to-shoulder in a river of rubberneckers. Whether we travel alone or in groups; attend lectures, do fieldwork, arrange homestays, at its best, purposeful travel helps us learn about ourselves as much as the places we visit.  

Expat for Good

An American ex-pat, professional photographer and writer, Abby Synan has been traveling solo for years. I was inspired by her professional and personal perspectives during our Purposeful Nomad tour of India’s Rajasthan region. “The more I’ve traveled,” Synan says, “the more I saw a pattern; that I was drawn to ethical, responsible and genuine experiences. Trips I’ve been on with Purposeful Nomad have carefully considered local connections, ensuring more meaningful and mindful experiences. They do a great job melding ‘vacation time’ with educational or informative topics peppered through.” 

The trip was my first and possibly last chance to see India. It was a women’s trip, my partner wasn’t interested or free to travel, and like Synan, I wanted more immersion than gawking at India’s landmarks from a bus packed with foreigners. I wasn’t disappointed. On one warm afternoon in Jodhpur, we blended into an International Women’s Day march, singing and dodging fistfuls of pink Holi powder with the women and girls of Sambhali Trust.

Caitlin Baez, founder of Purposeful Nomad, says that Sambhali Trust, “gives Indian women an incredible opportunity to let their voices be heard and to be proud to be a woman,”

Baez confided that it was one of the most powerful moments in her travels. “It was truly moving to see such joy, pain and perseverance in the faces of those who marched. Being there and feeling all that power humbled me greatly and has only solidified my view that the world has so much to teach us,” says Baez.

From the Burbs to Africa

Sonia Marsh knew that raising her sons in the materialistic suburbs of Orange County had its limitations and eventually convinced her family to ditch it all to live in Belize for a year. It led to a year of “fears, defeats and setbacks,” she writes in her book, ‘Freeways to Flip Flops”, 2012. For all the struggles, the experience knitted them into a closer family. 

Vivendra Singh Chouhan, Sambhali Trust Tour Host and Caitlin Baez, Founder of Purposeful Nomad, in front of the Sambhali guest compound in Setrawa, India

The boys are now grown, and Marsh took her empty-nest freedom to serve in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. “Teaching orphans and vulnerable children, and seeing the hardships they endured, walking 3-4 hours a day to get to school, no electricity, no running water, scarce food, and a village where young people died of AIDS-related causes, I became grateful for what I had,” she says. “I quickly learned to become my own best friend, as there were times when I had no one to talk to. It was lonely, but that was part of my own growing process.” 

The trip didn’t dampen her wanderlust. She now lives in England for half of the year while teaching French students online. In six months, she’ll return to the US to encourage timid-about-travel baby boomers through public speaking and publishing. “They want to learn about other cultures and environmental issues which impact the future of our planet,” Marsh says, ”We all want to find our own purpose, and there’s no better way than getting outside our daily routine and experiencing new adventures.”

Into the Sea

Jenn and Ed Coleman longed to get outside of daily life and spend more time in the ocean. The solution was to devote vacation time to giving back. After Ed took a job in Florida where they could dive more, they looked for a group to help work on ocean issues.

“We feel it’s always better to work with a local, reputable organization. They are more in tune with the core issues and more likely to make lasting change. In South Florida, Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, STOP has saved over 280,000 baby sea turtles in the seven years they have been in operation. They fulfilled even our wildest expectations with their commitment and passion for sea turtles while working every night, all summer long. We joined a small team of volunteers to monitor at-risk nests on Fort Lauderdale Beach. These are nests on the cusp of hatching in an area of high light pollution. Even after several sleepless summer nights, we still felt awe when the babies emerged from the sand to make a run for the sea.” Now Jenn and Ed keep purposeful travel in mind for future trips. They’ll soon explore the Gulf Shores of Alabama, to learn about their new artificial reefs with the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability.

Toys for Thailand

Maria Miller has been working for twenty years with the hill tribes of Thailand. “Since 2005 I’ve made over 30 humanitarian trips with various groups of volunteers. We started out in the tsunami-impacted areas in the south and focused on supporting tribal schools in the north for over a decade. Toys for Thailand, our small humanitarian project, currently works in collaboration with over 65 schools in Mae Hong Son province,” says Miller. Ninety-five percent of funds raised directly provide student scholarships, vocational, and recreational resources. The charity also sponsors the annual Small world festival in downtown Mae Hong Son.

“I’ve served as the executive director, treasurer, and soon,” Miller says, “will be transitioning to retirement.”

But before Miller retires, she had one more mission, to bring her young nephew to Thailand. “In 2019 my 22-year-old nephew, Giacamo, was my traveling partner during our three-week Thailand sojourn. He helped carry my bag and supplies to the eleven Tribal schools we visited, eager to experience everything and eat just about anything. He played soccer with children at the Toys for Thailand schools, even in brutal triple-digit heat,” she says. “He made new Thai friends and developed an appreciation of Buddhist philosophy and Thai culture. He learned to navigate a foreign environment and become more culture curious and competent. The discomfort and the unfamiliar helped him grow and just may change the trajectory of his life.”

Purposeful Travel with Experience

“Our Changing Planet, is aimed at helping participants understand the local impacts of global climate change, and more importantly, outlining actions communities are taking to mitigate and adapt to these changes,” says Road Scholar spokesperson, Despina Gakopoulos,

Not all of us will go solo or move to another country but our drive to purposeful travel perseveres. While the time for back-packing may have gone less physically challenging options are increasing. Companies like Road Scholar offer a wide variety of options. The 45-year-old company is the world’s largest educational travel organization with over 6,500 programs and just before the pandemic, released a small series of specialized trips.

Author, Elaine Masters, before the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico

Gakopoulos is also excited about their new long-term travel and service trips. The independent living programs allow travelers to experience daily life like a local during the week, browse markets and practice the local language; then on weekends have the option to join Road Scholar leaders. Another series sets up work projects where active travelers can teach, dig for fossils, and restore habitats. 

Scientific Spirits

Not every trip begins purposefully. I’d always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands and joined a small ship cruise with Latin Trails. In the evenings, our assigned government naturalist talked about each island’s history and wildlife. Climbing out of our dinghy one morning to find a newborn seal pup on the beach was unforgettable. As we headed up the trail, our local guide, Guillermo, showed us how to navigate around another young seal napping mid-trail. All in our fifties or older, we stepped carefully, well aware of how precious the fragile space was. It’s one trip I’d never make without the guidance of an experienced company that uses tourism to safeguard the environment and support local workers. 

Setting their sights on the planet’s poles, Viking Lines has created a trio of new boats with floating labs in their holds. The workspaces were created for resident scientists including biologists, botanists, geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers and ornithologists, polar experts and researchers. As the cruises begin in 2022, there’ll be lectures from the 25 experts on board including scientists from the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But Viking has gone beyond organizing traditional cruise interactions and carefully curated guest opportunities to participate in data collection an essential part of active research programs. 

Kumano Blessings

I continue to seek out ‘power centers,’ whether they’re World Heritage sites or geographical anomalies. Just before the pandemic, I traveled through Japan with my sister. She wanted to experience art installations in the Setouchi Islands. I focused on the ancient, Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. Since prehistoric times, the Kumano has been a sacred site on the Wakayama peninsula. Retired emperors, philosophers, and artisans have taken to the arduous trails. Most take weeks, trekking forest paths between ryokan guesthouses and onsen baths. I did what I could in two days.

While my sister rested her feet at our hotel, I choose to hike to the revered Nachi Falls, beginning in the lowlands. Climbing through old cypress groves to reach the mountain top temples left me breathless. It wasn’t just the climb, at the pinnacle I entered an annual festival and found the usually austere temple bustling with families, dancers, vendors, and ceremonies. I was welcomed into the swirling scene with a cup of ceremonial matcha, then watched as hundreds of elders-to-students dressed in medieval costumes climbed out of the forest and spilled onto the temple grounds The annual procession is the re-enactment of the Imperial March. I had planned to visit the waterfall, the longest vertical drop in Japan, and pay my respects at the temple. Sweaty and seriously underdressed midst the kimonos and costumes, I was one of the few Westerners and nevertheless encouraged to participate. My heart still swells in gratitude and wonder. 

So much has changed since the pandemic broke but travel is resurging. It may take longer to get from Point A to Point B these days but that won’t slow my purposeful travel ambitions. It’s time to emerge from discombobulating months of isolation and endless internet immersion.

I’m stepping through the door with purpose; slowing down to lend a hand, to listen, to watch. Taking the time to engage with the world and each other is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and the planet.

**All photos within the article are by Elaine Masters

About the Writer

Since writing a poem in high school that began, “So much to do, so little time,” freelance writer and digital creative, Elaine Masters has felt her days were numbered. Some 50 years later she still pushes against time, packing her days with projects across platforms and has garnered awards for writing and videography. While embracing the safety rigors of the pandemic, she continues to travel and is plotting international dive trips with her fishmonger partner.

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