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Friday 30 September 2011

Traveling to the next chapter

Bamboo railway, Cambodia
“I’d love to get away for a while, but I don’t want to travel on my own.”

I hear this a lot.  As people rethink their lives post-divorce, post-bereavement, post-separation, post-depression, post-the-old-life, they often want to travel.

Sometimes travel is just an extreme form of avoidance.  Hey, rather than just avoiding my family, why not avoid my entire country and everything in it?  This is fairly easy for any therapist to detect.

More often, travel is a punctuation mark between chapters of a person’s life.  “My life as an accountant is now over.  I need to move on to what comes next.  But first, I need to get some perspective.”  Travel can be the equivalent of sorbet: something to cleanse the palate before the next helping of life.

Sometimes travel is the next chapter.  “Now that the kids have moved out, I’m going to see the world.”  Or teach English in Japan.  Or volunteer for an agency in Africa.  Or do a house-swap with an Australian family.

But there are barriers.  “I want to travel, but I don’t want to sit in sterile Holiday Inns all day long.  But I don’t want to get myself in over my head either.  And how am I going to know whether it’s okay to walk around in Phnom Penh after dark?  Plus, I don’t know the language in any of the places I want to go, and I don’t want to spend three quarters of my time figuring out where to stay, where to eat, or how to get to Mamallapuram.”

And if the person is solo, “Will I have much fun anyway?  Will I meet anyone?  Will I just spend the entire trip eating at tables for one and noticing all the happy people around me?”

When issues like this come up, I have a recommendation in my back pocket.  Small group tourism.

This calls up bad associations.  “Great.  ‘If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium.’  Getting up at 5 in the morning to load my luggage onto the Greyhound to traipse around Europe with a bunch of other people who want to say they’ve traveled but don’t really want to experience anything.”

Not so.  Imagine being met by someone who lives in the country and knows where to stay, where to eat, and how to get to interesting spots you’ve never heard of and that don’t appear in the travel guide.  They do the research.  They travel with you.  And you never have to find a hotel or a restaurant if you don’t want to.  There’s a small group of you, and you form a short-term family of sorts.
Overnight stop accommodations, outback Australia

Imagine someone who knows that if you turn right at the next unmarked crossing, then left, then right again onto the dirt road, then over the old bridge, you can visit the family that lives on the site of an old mine?  Or that of the seven sticky-rice makers along a road, the fifth is the best?  Or that if you arrive at the volcano after dark, you can see the glow from the crater?  Or that the deserted-looking building over there is a pub, and that tonight people will come from the desert for miles around, because tonight is the night the visitors from the small-group company will be there?

Imagine being able to be by yourself for a big part of every single day if you want, but being able to hang out with others if you’re feeling more sociable.  Imagine any meal you like being family-style.

The big-bus tour companies are still out there, but more companies are employing local guides, using local transport, and roughing it a bit to give you a real feel for the country you are traveling in.  And if you like the place, you can stay after the group has disbanded, and travel on your own.  Whether you travel solo or as part of a couple or a family, there is a small-group experience that probably suits your taste.
With Intrepid in NW Cambodia

One of the best of these companies, in my experience, is Intrepid Travel (, which offers trips all over the world.  I’ve traveled in SE Asia with them.  Many friends, colleagues, and clients have used them as well.  The maximum group size is 14-16.  At minimum, Intrepid’s site is a great resource to find out about countries you want to visit.  It’s a helper for people who want to start building their “dream list” of places to see, and for those planning their own solo travel.

There are other organizations that specialize in certain countries.  I’ve used several of these to see the backroads of Australia, and have always liked the trips.  They may not be the thing for those who feel that the main thing they want in travel is a high thread count in the bedsheets.  But for almost everyone else they’re a great option.

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