I recently met someone at a party whose dream was to go to India — but not for the reasons you might think. This middle-aged man said that witnessing people living in abject poverty might help him appreciate the things he had (or, I suspected, feel better about the things he didn’t have).
What he said made me reflect back on my own trip to India as an impressionable 30-year-old, when I was working as editor of a travel magazine. One of my assignments was to write about the Taj Mahal, but because what I witnessed while getting there from Delhi was so wildly different from anything I’d ever seen, I wound up devoting equal space to all that.
I’ve never forgotten the images, or my emotional reaction to the ceaseless flow of people, bullock carts, pedicabs, bikes, buses, trucks and even camels on the highway; the women in colorful saris balancing huge jugs of water on their heads; the children tending herds of goats; and the thatched-roof huts without electricity where families cooked over open fires fueled with dung.
I felt ashamed to be traveling by air-conditioned car, so after that leg of the trip I ditched it and boarded a train that took me north, to Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan.
From there I headed into the Thar Desert by camel, where I visited villages and interacted with villagers. That was, by far, the highlight of my trip.
This helped me realize that the party guy had a point. So much of how we perceive life is based on how we experience it, and it follows that the more we travel and immerse ourselves in different ways of life, the more we’re influenced by them. But, I told him, he didn’t have to travel all the way to India to appreciate living more simply and authentically.
(MORE: The Key to an Authentic Vacation: A Sense of Place)
The More I See, the Less I Need
More than any other single factor, traveling has shaped who I am. As the author of mostly guidebooks, I don’t make a lot of money. Contrary to popular belief, Frommer’s (for whom I’ve written eight books in 25 years) does not pay expenses. But I’d choose adventure over money any time, which means I have to live frugally to feed my travel-writing addiction. That entails going without what many Americans consider necessities: air-conditioning, cable TV and employer-subsidized health insurance.
Yet how can I say I lack for anything? I’ve seen people in Mexico living beside trash dumps for ease of scavenging, families in Hong Kong crowded into 250-square-foot flats with a single window, Thai villagers whose toilet was “anywhere,” and Togolese buying meat crawling with flies and chewing twigs as toothbrushes.
Many of us assume that people who have less are less happy, but to my mind, that is sheer hubris. When I stayed in Boracay in the Philippines before it was “discovered,” we visitors had to jump off the boat and wade ashore, where we slept in thatched huts on stilts. But what impressed me most weren’t the living conditions but rather the closeness of family, people’s obvious delight in slicing open a fresh coconut and in gathering for food and song around a fire.
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How Travel Shifts Our Priorities
Travel helps us live more simply not only by giving us a window into other approaches to material life is but also by compelling us to live in the moment. Sensory bombardment forces us to stay very present and be creative in navigating unfamiliar languages and customs. Things that consume us back home — jobs, homes, familial and social responsibilities — lose their thrall when we’re hiking up Mount Fuji in Japan, selecting the fish that will be our dinner in China or watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu.
When I’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks, my “real” life seems so far away and inconsequential that I often think that if I learned my house had burned down, my response would be to shrug and say, “Oh, well.”
Maybe that’s because traveling not only clears the mind of mental baggage, but also frees us of the burden of possessions. It’s a lesson in paring down your necessities to fit into a suitcase, and it reinforces the belief that what counts isn't what we have but what we experience.
Whether I’m going away for a week or a month, I take just one carry-on. I like having to make do with whatever’s on hand. I’ve learned, for instance, that a sarong can be a dress, shawl, beach cover-up, skirt or towel. A small suitcase also limits my purchases, imbuing each one with more meaning, like the glass-beaded necklace I bought in Chile or papier-mâché mask in Venice.
I’m not sure if it has been conscious, but all my “roughing” it on the road has influenced my way of life when I’m home in Kansas. After working for a few years in Tokyo, where most families live in cramped apartments that have washers (but no dryers) on the balcony, I got used to hanging up my clothing to dry and continue to do so now. They smell fresher, and I save money.
Other habits have stayed with me. Because getting around on foot is a way of life in so many parts of the world, including cities with excellent public transportation, I walk most places, even though I have a car. I dress warmly in my (purposely) cold home in winter, and it’s hard to see TV as anything more than a distraction. For me, frugality and travel have become intertwined. Living thriftily allows me to get away more — plus consuming (and disposing of) less is good for the environment.
Volunteer Vacations for Personal Growth
I had a thought for that guy who wants to see India to appreciate what he has. He would gain more — and feel better about himself — if he didn’t just observe people who were less well off but actually worked to make a difference. Volunteer vacations, for which participants generally pay a fee, give an authentic experience of another culture, reveal a different perspective of life and offer the deep satisfaction that comes from helping others.
It’s not unusual for participants to feel that they receive as much as they give, whether they’re teachers paired with overseas schools through organizations like World Teach, or retirees, students or families volunteering through church programs or such organizations as Projects Abroad. For longer commitments, there’s Peace Corps, where 6 percent of volunteers are older than 50, or Habitat for Humanity’s long-term international volunteer program.
(MORE: Volunteer Vacations: How to Be Sure You're Helping)
Of course, you don’t have to hit the road to expose yourself to new perspectives and lifestyles. You can watch movies or read books that transport you to a world completely different from your own. You can have life-altering experiences in your hometown working at a soup kitchen, school or food pantry. How about a visit to a neighborhood where different cultural groups enjoy life similar to their countries of origin? Or you can always set aside your workaday stresses, don a backpack and go for a long, soulful trek in the woods.
If you're willing to step outside your comfort zone — whether that means learning another language, joining a gospel choir or running for local office — you can wind up with a fresh outlook and possibly even a different path in life. It all depends on how you look at things. Even when the day comes that I’m no longer able to fly around the globe, I intend to continue learning about the world and myself, wherever I may be.
Beth Reiber is the author of more than a half-dozen travel guides, including Frommer’s Japan and Hong Kong.