The Eat, Pray, Love Effect: Is Travel Really a Path to Self-Discovery?

It’s a cliché that’s launched innumerable diaries, books, and – more recently – a Julia Roberts movie: bored, unfulfilled or otherwise unhappy person goes on long journey to lands exotic and faraway… and comes back transformed, changed, matured. It’s the wanderluster’s variant of the Joseph Campbell hero-with-a-thousand-faces odyssey. But does it really work as promised or is it all overblown hype?

I, for one, was skeptical: I first encountered the “travel will change your life” crowd back in college, where it seemed practically every other person was snagging a copy of Let’s Go: Europe and heading off to the Continent for three months of partying, museums, and decrepit youth hostels. Upon return, these folks sagely insisted that “you’re not having a real experience until you stay somewhere where you have to take a second shower just to clean off what the first shower sprayed on you.” On the cavalcade of Europe’s treasures they shared equally unrewarding homilies: “I had no idea what I was seeing at [fill in the museum] but I figured one day I’d read about it in a book and say ‘wow, I went there!’”

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How was this a pathway to enlightenment?

In recent years another claimant has emerged to the travel as personal-growth throne: Elizabeth Gilbert’s runaway bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, which has spawned a moderately successful (if tepidly received) movie… and legions of fans who yearn to reproduce Gilbert’s personal voyage.

Except there too I had doubts: Gilbert makes no bones in the book about her overtly spiritual journey, going so far as to recount “a journey to God’s palm.” While no doubt heartening to those religious or spiritual types, what does this leave for the secularists among us? Not much, if the movie – where most of the heavy spirituality was toned down – is any indicator.

But there’s hope – both for those of us who never “got” college-age travel or who have no interest in a latter-day religious awakening. Life changing travel is out there for the rest of us. But how to find it?

Go it alone

Solo travel isn’t for everyone – but I argue that it should be. Sure, traveling with your friends or spouse is oftentimes easier, and I know many folks who’ve had remarkable travel experiences in a group… but alone, with the world unfiltered through the sensibilities or needs of your posse, possesses unique potency. In fact, I maintain that this, more than anything else, is what made author Gilbert’s journey what it was.

I’ve heard from numerous people who’ve said they’re too afraid or introverted to travel by themselves – and I can’t think of a better reason to do it than that. If indeed world travel is to elucidate and enlighten, why not start by having it help us conquer one of our most primal fears – the niggling phobia of being isolated, lonely, ostracized? If a world journey encourages the more uncertain or reserved among us to come out of their shell, then that alone is worth the price of airfare, accommodation, and sights.

There’s also a rich reward for all those “ships passing in the night” experiences that happen on a solo trip: when people are out of their element, in unfamiliar lands, they often (though not always) tend to be more open and forthcoming about themselves. This is the double-edged sword of friendships – and romances – forged on the road: they often make up in intensity what they lack in permanence. This is pay dirt for personal-growth seekers: just as the world offers a rich range of sights and destinations, so too can it offer interactions with depth and dimension so often lacking in workaday life.

Go for longer

This is a tough pill for Americans to swallow, caught up as we are in work, career, and the rat race. When asked to summarize hometowns in one word, actress Roberts (playing Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, the film) has this to say about New York City: “ambition.” In a country beset by economic instability, with one-quarter of its citizens granted no paid vacation time at all, and scores of others not availing themselves of the time they do receive, shilling for long-haul, multi-month journeys may seem ludicrous. But such journeys are especially necessary for Americans, if only to break the vicious cycle of the workplace experience: the relative absence of Yankees traveling overseas reinforces the notion that long-haul travels are a waste, not deserving of vacation time and certainly not of a longer, unpaid career break. Instead, we’ve become experts at the “efficiency vacation,” where five days of high-end travel becomes our only window to other lands.

Except nowadays it’s no longer necessary to choose between the high-end quickie vacations taken by career professionals and the rough backpacker-style travel we associate with student life; in much of the world, comfortable, mid-range accommodations offer another option to immerse oneself in a destination with a bit of comfort: consider a small inn that caters to local businesspeople in India or Southeast Asia. These are only modestly more expensive than backpacker haunts, a fraction the cost of international luxury chains, and filled with locals exploring (or doing business in) their home country.

With the need to cram in and splash out reduced, long-haul trips are much cheaper, on a per-day basis, than short-haul trips. The same is true of multi-destination or round-the-world airfare (or frequent flyer redemption for those of us with a stack of miles saved up): most airlines, airline alliances, and travel consolidators (also known as “bucket shops”) offer economies of scale for buying (and traveling) in bulk.

Write about it

Granted, not everyone’s travel tales will become fodder for a bestselling memoir or Hollywood film… but that doesn’t mean there’s no point to jotting down your experiences. Today’s technology offers near-unlimited possibilities for chronicling travel, from blogs to social networks to lightweight, inexpensive gear such as netbooks or iPods. For those unwilling to lug such machinery around, Internet cafés are ubiquitous around the globe.

But the real purpose of documenting a journey isn’t for Hollywood, Random House, or even for your family and friends. It’s for you. The act of recording an event allows the mind to crystallize it, to fix it in time, to better remember it and its impact on your psyche. This is the point behind all those shutter-clicking tourists at the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids of Giza: to amplify and heighten memory. The experience of documenting a journey need not detract from the journey, nor should it “take over” the trip itself; instead, it serves as silent second companion, a sounding board on which to capture memories, feelings, and experiences.

Journey with eyes open

This may sound like yet another banal platitude, but it’s not. A clever (fictional) example of this is John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction describing “the little differences” on a recent trip to Europe – in his case, ordering a beer and a “Royale with Cheese” at McDonald’s. In cleverly subverting the “dumb gangster” stereotype, writer/director Quentin Tarantino presents an individual who not only notices subtleties but celebrates them.

It’s commonplace today to lament that the world is globalizing, flattening out, losing color and uniqueness amid a sea of blue jeans, fast-food eateries, and Prada shops. But it would be a mistake to discount global diversity even in the face of economic integration and the World Wide Web. Nations and cultures retain customs and practices, and more often than not integrate their own ways into the mix. Just as Chinese or Italian food back home is often “Americanized,” so too are Western eateries and shops infused with local culture abroad.

This offers a unique experience for the global traveler: instead of sticking to familiar practices and establishments, or “going native” and immersing oneself solely in foreign ways, our increasingly integrated world offers opportunities to mix it up: In Bangkok, Thai street food rubs shoulders with Au Bon Pain. In Berlin, vestiges of the Communist past blend with post-unification-era glass skyscrapers. In China over Lunar New Year, the country’s celebratory television show – call it a local version of Dick Clark – has a lot to say about the burgeoning country’s image of itself.

On their own, each of these practices may not add up to much; they may seem like unlikely paths to personal growth compared with college-age party summers or months of intense meditation in an Indian ashram. But that’s looking at it backward: both the youths of my past and Elizabeth Gilbert in the present are using their blockbuster life-changing events to shorthand the many facets of their travel experience. In reality it’s all these elements, taken together, that help us learn and grow in our time away.

Read more about author David Jedeikin here.


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Older comments on The Eat, Pray, Love Effect: Is Travel Really a Path to Self-Discovery?

22 December 2010

David – I enjoyed your article and thought it was very well written. However, I felt that you were disregarding “college aged european backpackers” as not having real life changing experiences. Just because someone does the typical 3 month backpacking trip and all the touristy things does not mean it is not a real experience. If someone travels anywhere for one week or one year and they said it changed their life, who are we to cheapen that by saying their journey shouldn’t count on ones “pathway to enlightenment”

Tess Cunniffe
22 December 2010

i travel alone sometimes as i am a widow !i just wish they would scrap single supplement !i am not really one 4 hostels !they are fine !just dont feel safe

22 December 2010

Lovely piece. And I scoff at the people who say they are too introverted to travel alone – in fact, I think the more introverted you are, the better you will be at traveling alone! You won’t have the craving for constant companionship that some “extroverts” do, but that doesn’t mean people who just approach YOU on the road as well.

23 December 2010

Great discussion here! I’ve done the college-backpacker thing with friends (after semesters studying abroad in Europe and Asia), and I do think you learn some things about yourself but the experience is completely different than when you’re out there on your own.

My first trip completely alone was in Laos/Thailand/Malaysia/New Zealand and it was full of so many ups and downs where I was forced to look at myself, how I approach life and difficult situations, and make decisions about how I wanted to be. My first week traveling alone my parents were afraid and really wanted me to come home. I was having a hard time adjusting (I am a bit shy/introverted in general) and the offer of a plane ticket home was so tempting, but I knew I would regret it and I knew I would feel much prouder and more fulfilled in the end if I stuck it out. Not much later I met my first travel friend and spent a long train ride across Thailand having a great conversation with a brave, incredible guy who helped me keep going. The next two months were much more amazing than hard and lonely, and even the lonely times were experiences I’m thankful for. I took up a “Just say ‘Yes'” philosophy (remarkably stolen from graffiti I saw on a van in NZ) and found that following that, keeping myself open to all opportunities, invitations and experiences that I would normally avoid out of fear, was the most freeing and fantastic thing, and I did things and met the most interesting and memorable people I never would have otherwise.

That trip was what really convinced me to (again against everyone’s fears) go on a three month trip alone in South America. I have a journal entry from my alone time in New Zealand where I tell myself that if I ever have to choose between going on a trip alone or not going at all (or going on a tour or something like that) that I must choose going alone, no matter how scary it might feel, because it is the best way to experience the world. Re-reading that, I decided I had to do the South America trip, and I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

It’s true that you really see and experience the world in a unique and full-on way when there’s no one else to distract you from it or filter it through. You can spend hours just sitting on a bench in a square in some small town, just watching people, occasionally interacting with curious locals, and really getting an insight into a place and culture that you would never get otherwise.

I think these kinds of travel experiences hold their place in different times in your life. They can be a little bit “life changing” in the typical times (in college, post divorce) as well as other big moments, post-graduation, in midlife, in retirement, or when you don’t even think you need it. Long, solo travel always has its place, and life is always ready to be shaken up and re-evaluated.

For me, travel isn’t necessarily about changing your life. Many people who do a big RTW trip go home and go back to the same lives, almost as if they never left. For me, it’s about reminding myself that I can do anything, as well as remembering my place in the world: both how small it is as well as how much potential there is.

Britt Reints
28 December 2010

I appreciate the tips here for people who have, perhaps, struggled to have a transformative experience through travel. However, I think some of the suggestions – particularly about going longer – are misconceptions that prevent more people from even attempting it.

Get out the door. Go for a weekend. Drive further than you have before.

Do something new that you’ve told yourself you couldn’t, and chances are good that you will be changed.