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Travel with Purpose and Awareness

One of my editors had an old saying hanging on a sign behind his desk. “Context and meaning,” read the warning. Actually, my editor was older than the saying, but both had a serious point to make. The advice went to the heart of journalism: what was the story really about, and what possible worth did it have? Ergo, if the story were pointless as news, it wouldn’t be published in the paper. If the story wasn’t written in some sort of context to which the reader could relate, it wouldn’t be published either.

I’ve always thought about those two directives, not only in connection with my own writing but also as it pertains to my journey throughout life, and to the stories I write about my journeys. If the story has no meaning or context, what’s the point in writing it? More importantly, if your journey has no purpose, why do it?

After 30 years of traveling the planet, whether to beaches for well-deserved vacations or to new cities and countries to see the sights, I eventually came to the conclusion that a lot of travel is just pointless wandering. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a well-deserved vacation—“renting some sunshine” after many months of hard work in some dark northern climate where the sun never shines, rejuvenating body and soul—but it seems that so much of what we call tourism is a waste of time. Worse yet, it’s extremely damaging to the planet and to many of the people who depend on tourism for their livelihood.

Does this mean we should all stay home just to save the world from ruination by carbon pollution and exploitation? Not at all. What it means is that if we are going to spend a lot of time and money wandering the world we ought to think a little more deeply about where we go, what we do, and what impact we have upon the people we meet.

As I write this, I am in the final stages of planning for a journey to Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Certainly I’ll be enjoying the sunny weather, floating down the Mekong River, and trekking in the Himalayas, but it’s the thought of meeting so many new people that excites me.

On my list I have penciled in schools, prisons, orphanages, clinics, town dumps, hospitals, marketplaces, farms, and private homes to visit. There’s nothing wrong with learning some history and geography along the tourist trail, but ancient ruins and famous buildings and expensive museums have one thing in common—they’re all dead.

Meeting, interacting with, and befriending new people is what gives my travels purpose and my stories meaning. Each new story illustrates a point, fits into the larger puzzle, fills in the blanks of this broad canvas we call life. Every person you meet along the way can be a teacher, a guru, a guide, someone from whom we can learn much, if we just pay attention.

This is the last print issue of Transitions Abroad, so I want to repeat what I wrote about “intentional travel” in my first column. Intentionality describes both a mindset and a set of practices. According to philosophers, intentionality has five components. An action is considered intentional if the agent has a desire for an outcome, a belief that the action will lead to the outcome, an intention to perform the action, the skill to perform the action, and awareness while performing the action.

Whether we choose to be aware in our journey throughout life is entirely up to us. Traveling with purpose and meaning is a sure way to change the world, make it a better place, and become a better human being along the way, too. Have a great trip.

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