The Power of Story: How Travel Creates Hope and Meaning

This is my first post in several months. I’ve been going through a lot these past few months, as I’m sure a lot of you have as well. Unfortunately for me, that meant my writing was placed in the background, which is never a good idea.

So, in the spirit of personal and creative liberation, I’m going to be changing up my format a bit, and opt for more personal, less polished blog posts. My aim is to achieve a deeper level of authentic sharing, and to simultaneously dismantle perfectionism and other limiting patterns.

Thanks for reading, for caring, and for your support. In the words of a dear friend and teacher, “trust the process.”

It’s January 25th. Something just happened to the world that feels too distant to be real, yet refuses to leave my subconscious awareness, like that nagging feeling right before you realize you’ve left your passport on a Ugandan minibus. Glancing at my news feed, I might as well be numbly staring at a flaming car accident. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

Enter Bangkok- a city that paradoxically lives somewhere between the dystopian futurescape of Bladerunner, and the sing-song fantasy of The King and I, which interestingly enough, is banned throughout Thailand.

I’m reveling in finding myself awash in new senses of smell, taste, and sound. Its exciting, and so utterly different from anything I know. Its my first time in Asia, and I finally remember what it feels like to be a stranger adjusting to the rhythms and customs of a strange land. I remember why I’ve chosen to live this nomadic, non-traditional, and often challenging lifestyle.

On my third day here, I wandered down a crowded alleyway full of food vendors offering the variety of incredible street dishes that Thailand is famous for.

Between bites of succulent chicken, perfectly cooked rice, and a pungent, gingery sauce (a lovely dish called Kao Man Gai,) a painful, dark presence slowly crept it’s way into my awareness. I pause, and take a picture of the foodie-heaven scene in front of me, chewing on my delicious chicken and rice.

Then a little thought infiltrates its way into my mind: “Why does any of this matter?” Just like that, a stone lands in my stomach.

How could I bring myself to post a trivial picture of a Bangkok street food scene amidst news of such global turmoil and political turbulence? How can I possibly justify the importance of my lunch against the soul-stirring struggle of Standing Rock? How do my travels have any significance in the face of the nightmarish scenario that my home country (and planet) now finds itself on the brink of?

Understanding the role of the traveler in our rapidly deteriorating world has been a deeply personal and constant inquiry that has, in some way, colored every picture, every article, and every word of my work.

My nomadic existence does nothing to directly benefit causes I care immensely about, such as indigenous rights, ecological conservation, and the Middle East peace process. Do my experiences and travels- or anyone else’s for that matter- make one ounce of difference in our supremely troubled world? Am I really doing anything that matters?

I know. Heavy, right?

After sitting with this uncomfortable question for weeks now, here is my answer:

The role of the traveler today- like the role of any artist who treads outside the bounds of mainstream cultural imagination- is to be a storyteller of new possibilities, and most importantly of all, a messenger of hope.

The Power of Story

Legendary Arab adventurer Ibn Batutta famously said, “Travel will leave you speechless, and then turn you into a storyteller.”

Every traveler inevitably becomes a living vault of stories. Today in our digital age, everyone is a storyteller in some way. As 21st century digital citizens, as artists and media makers, we have even more responsibility to discern how we wish to engage with the world, and decide what sort of stories we want to be telling.

Maria Popova, who’s world-class blog, Brainpickings, remains an endless source of inspiration and refinement, has written extensively on retaining a sense of hope in a world saturated with cynicism and darkness:

What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.

Our world is such that one can never truly escape the inevitable tide of current events. Rumor and news will always wash up on the shores of your awareness, no matter which far flung continent you have exiled yourself to, or how deeply you venture into a seemingly remote landscape.

For me, travel has never been about escape, but about discovery. Social media allows me to share that sense of discovery with my wider community, inviting others to experience my story, and to simultaneously create it with my communities back home and around the world.

The power of story lies in the potential to cocreate a new world, and for me, travel is by far one of the best ways to experience new ways of thinking and being in the world.

Hope

You know that Mark Twain quote about travel being fatal to bigotry and hatred? It’s cliche, I know. It’s also 100% true. Travel proves that the world isn’t as scary as our hometown friends (and often family,) would have us believe (a belief gleaned from their vast array of experiences, of course).

One story that comes to mind over and over again is that time when I found myself stranded in the middle of Tanzania with no money, no phone, and no one I knew within hundreds of miles. I won’t recount the whole story here, but that experienced proved to me, without a shred of doubt, that humanity is essentially good.

Travel hurls us into situations where our preconceived notion of “how the world works,” or of “how people are,” is reduced to ashes.

I believe wholeheartedly that travel is transformational. As a facilitator of transformational travel experiences for the last two years, I’ve seen young people evolve and change, as I once did, in the face of different cultures and challenging experiences. Without a doubt, travel offers young people with a rare opportunity to experience something akin to initiation- a painfully lacking facet of our modern culture.

The very fact that transformation is possible can become a story of hope for those seeking change in their lives.

This was a hard won reflection. Finding meaning in what I do is either like filling a bottle from a swiftly flowing stream, or from a stagnant muck puddle. I’ve also learned the hard way that we can only be of true service to others when our own cup is full.

Yet I keep coming back to the simple thought that somebody, somewhere, will be inspired by the words and images I create, and maybe one day will embark on a life changing adventure that will in turn change the world.

Now would be the perfect time to drop some played-out motivational slogan like, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” or “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Don’t worry, I won’t.

But what I will do is challenge you to think about what fills your life with meaning, to Find your Why, and invite you to start telling your own story, and the story you want to see in the world.

What story do you want to be telling?

Everything’s better together. Join the Travel Alchemy community email and learn how travelers can become powerful change agents.

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