The Eat, Pray, Love Effect: Is Travel Really a Path to Self-Discovery?
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.
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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
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.
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.
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Journey with eyes open
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.
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 life changing journeys:
- Getting Outside the Box: One Family’s Journey to Full Time Travel
- 10 Important Life Lessons You Learn from Living Abroad
- Rethinking Traditional Travel: 7 Tips to Break the Mold
- The Sliver of Light that Reminded Me Why I Love Travel
- Make Meaningful Connections (and Other Indie Travel Values We Love)