Travel can be transformative. For the 3 of us -- Jen, Amanda and Holly -- taking a yearlong, round-the-world trip literally changed the course of our lives. In destinations such as Peru, Kenya, Cambodia and Australia, we were able to push the pause button on our typical daily routines, to tap into long-dormant passions and rediscover what made each of us feel energized, inspired and alive.
But it wasn’t until we’d returned home to the US that we realized just how much the trip had shifted our priorities. Work no longer came before all else; making time to connect with loved ones and pursue personal passions became paramount.
You don’t have to travel for as long (or as far) as we did to return home forever changed. With these 10 transformative trips, you can alter your worldview, learn a new skill, help a community or organization in need, reconnect with nature or tap into your spiritual side. Just sign up, pack up -- and get ready to make a positive change.
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For years, I'd been practicing yoga in cramped studios throughout NYC, relying on the practice to make me feel more balanced when work or bad habits threw me off center. Still, I’d never really been able to quiet my mind during the meditation part of class. So I dedicated an entire month to trying to master meditation on a stopover in India during our yearlong trip. The Sivananda ashram in Southern India lets you choose programs of 1 week to 1 month, or more. While the ashram’s schedule is rigorous -- you’ll wake up before the sunrise for hours of meditation, chanting and yoga classes and repeat it all over again before bed --it allows you an uninterrupted stretch of time to simply breathe, meditate and reflect. The course was designed by generations of spiritual leaders known as swamis to cultivate positive thinking and “inner peace” through ancient yogic techniques for balanced living. My biggest triumph was finally being able to quiet my mind for more than a few seconds; now I regularly tap into that skill whenever I want to find a sense of calm.
Sometimes it takes getting out of your daily routine to jumpstart a healthy lifestyle change. Whether you want to shape up, find more work-life balance or kick a bad habit, a trained “Destination Coordinator” at the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Lifestyle Spa in Weston, FL, can create a specialized retreat based on your personal needs. She’ll work with you to put together a program of lifestyle classes, interactive workshops and wellness treatments. Fitness options include Pilates and dance classes. The spa also has a number of treatments that can help bring you back into balance, such as the “Stress Melter Ritual,” which includes an olive oil-salt exfoliation, aromatherapy wrap and Swedish massage. Though I was never much of a chef, while visiting I opted to expand my cooking skills beyond heating up frozen veggie burgers and left able to make healthy-but-delicious dishes such as Moroccan-spiced salmon.
I’d always dreamed of making it to Antarctica, and to get there I signed up with a nonprofit organization called People to People. Kind of like study-abroad vacations for adults, this company offered a trip to the seventh continent that lined up top experts to lecture onboard about glaciology, marine mammals and the region’s politics. People to People’s program destinations change yearly, but you can always take a cruise to Antarctica through Polar Cruises. Most tour operators set sail from Argentina’s Ushuaia, the southernmost city on earth and the gateway to Antarctica. A trip to the South Pole is like the real-life version of “Animal Planet.” Where else can you float past seals sleeping on icebergs or plop down on a snowy beach where curious penguins climb right onto your lap? After living for so long in the “concrete jungle” (ak.a New York), being in such a pristine landscape -- and so close to unabashed wildlife -- made the importance of protecting our planet really hit home.
The ability to communicate with a stranger in another language has always seemed, at least to me, like some kind of superpower. After all, just a few key phrases can unlock doors and change the entire direction of a journey. That’s why I’ve always dreamed of improving my Spanish in a place like Guatemala, a country where the dialect is slow and clear and there are dozens of credible language schools to choose from. The cities of Antigua and Quetzaltenango (Xela) are 2 of the most popular centers for Spanish study in Latin America. Interested in volunteering while you learn? Choose a school in Xela, which is located in the mountains and surrounded by small Mayan villages. If you’re itching to explore the rest of the country, Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage site just 40 minutes away from Guatemala City) makes an ideal jumping-off point for other adventures. For a portal into dozens of language schools in Guatemala, visit Guatamala365.com.
I was still in junior high when “Save the Rainforests” first became a hot conversation topic and a trendy T-shirt slogan. Sadly, the buzz back then did little to address the issue: More than 20 years later, logging, farming and climate change are still ravaging ecosystems and laying waste to primary forests. Rather than simply talk about change, you can take part in preserving what’s left -- and even restore what’s been removed -- through EarthWatch Institute’s program in Borneo. The country’s rainforests are some of the world’s most diverse, and they’re home to the world's most iconic and endangered mammals, including the Sumatran rhino, clouded leopards and pygmy elephants. Through the program, you’ll be invited to join researchers and scientists, trekking deep into the forest to assess its structure, how key plant and animal groups have been impacted by man and how this disturbance has affected soil moisture, decomposition and soil erosion.
Although I’m a writer by trade, I’ve always been fascinated with the swiftness and succinctness of capturing a moment through images rather than words. Why elaborate when a photo can say it all? Shutterbugs can learn to improve their technique at home, but for the travelers among us, nothing can replace the experience of being in the field -- particularly when that “field” is Taos, NM. During a weeklong workshop offered by the International Center of Photography, you’ll learn about color, light and composition in the same raw desert landscape that inspired legends such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin and Eliot Porter. Shoot subjects include the Rio Grande Gorge, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains area, historic churches, local festivals and the city of Santa Fe, NM.
Interested in giving back, but daunted by the options out there? I can definitely relate. It was a lifelong dream of mine to volunteer in Kenya, but I wanted the experience to be highly personalized, not packaged. So during our yearlong trip, Amanda, Holly and I chose to work with a smaller US-based nonprofit, Village Volunteers, which partners with local Kenyan organizations to serve villages in need. Whether you’re interested in youth education, environmental conservation, women’s empowerment or rural health care, founder Shana Greene will help you develop a customized program that best fits your timeframe, budget, skill set and passions. And the ultimate reward is knowing that your efforts will help provide sustainable solutions for the community.
Since earning my scuba diving certification several years ago, I’ve often described the activity as an otherworldly, life-changing experience. I’ve logged some pretty incredible dives such as exploring the rusted remains of sunken ships and swimming with a school of reef sharks. Now, there are even more meaningful ways to interact with the ocean. According to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), volunteering for a Project AWARE conservation dive will broaden your perspective of the sport and help preserve and protect the planet. Scuba divers can help with projects such as cleaning up marine debris in Zakynthos Island, Greece, or replanting a damaged coral reef in Malaysia. Not scuba certified? Find out how you can take the first step to becoming a diver at PADI.com.
Since I first set foot on a soccer field at the age of 5, I fell head over cleats in love with the sport. While I stopped playing competitively years ago, I still indulge in the occasional street “match” with local kids overseas, who get quite a kick out of playing with an American woman. For fellow travelers who want to lend their soccer skills to children in need, Projects Abroad offers a multi-week volunteer coaching program just outside of Rio de Janeiro -- with limited or no experience necessary. Soccer provides a welcome distraction from poor living conditions and can help steer children away from drugs or gang life. You can serve as a mentor to Brazilian boys and girls, while also perfecting your Portuguese through one-on-one private language classes.
After returning from our round-the-world trip, the 3 of us vowed to travel together once a year for the rest of our lives. And after hearing from innumerable travelers that hiking the Annapurna Circuit is a truly transformative experience, we’ve nominated it as our next big group adventure. Considered one of the top 10 treks in the world, this 17-to 21-day high-mountain hike traverses 4 major regions in Nepal, several Buddhist villages and Hindu holy sites, including the area’s oldest monastery. You’ll pass through lush forests, terraced farmland and snowcapped glaciers, reaching above 17,000 feet and crossing the world’s deepest gorge. While the trail grade is ranked moderate to strenuous, it’s is also a “teahouse trek,” meaning you can stop in towns along the way to eat, drink and sleep -- so even less seasoned hikers can take the journey. Geographic Expeditions offers customizable, soup-to-nuts trips with porters and a hired guide who provide a true sense of the region’s history and spirituality.