In our last post, we got into how we navigate the (sometimes difficult) path of living who we are every day – not just situationally. We love this guest post from our friend, Shannon, because she addresses service – giving back – as an enduring mindset. Be sure to check out her site (details below). Her curiosity, thoughtfulness and mindful approach to living shine through on every page.
Travel is transformative, it has the ability to take all your conceptions of the world and rip them apart. It deconstructs everything you thought you knew, challenges your beliefs, and helps you grow into the person you’ve always wanted to become. It changes you, and usually for the better. I believe this to be the case for nearly any type of international travel—over the past four years the mere act of traveling has shifted my perspective on life in profound and meaningful ways. These are the personal benefits gifted to me by the global community once I left the safety bubble I had created around myself in the United States.
I gained so much. And as I saw the profound effect others had on me, I knew I owed the majority of my growth to the people I met at every stage of my travels. In 2008, I decided to set out on a solo 'round-the-world trip that would last about a year. In the planning stages of my trip, I knew I wanted to integrate social good into my travels but I wasn’t really sure how to do that—conventional volunteering through a company was very pricey, and in order to integrate it throughout the year I had to find smaller, inexpensive ways to support communities at the local level.
And one year slipped into the next, and I am still on the road. What started as a firm but unknown variable in my travels—serving others—has instead become the cornerstone of my life. I found a monastery in Nepal, a small socially enterprising coffee shop in Thailand, children from broken homes in Guatemala, and countless other causes and communities in every corner of the world. It’s hard to pin down why I decided to volunteer and focus on responsible travels, that first year I think it was more of a vague but grandiose concept of changing the world for the better.
Now though, I’ve learned that change is gradual, incremental in almost imperceptible ways, and sometimes my smallest actions had a larger effect than the grandest of my intentions. Traveling forced me to redefine what it means to serve others—because although there is a real value in gifting your time to something, I realized that service is also a mindset, it’s a way of approaching how you live your life beyond showing up at the soup kitchen, or donating a week to disaster relief efforts (both good things, don’t get me wrong!).
But in international travel, it troubled me that I was spending so much time on the road and merely hopping from project to project, with times in between that seemed entirely self-focused on visiting sites and passing at the surface level through many cities and towns. And that’s around the time I began learning more about social enterprises and the responsible travel movement. The idea that sometimes simply supporting communities through local-level tourism is the best type of service you can give. Social enterprises are for-profit businesses with a strong underlying mission that creates social, environmental, or cultural value within a local community (I explain it in more depth here). These businesses exist all over the world, and particularly in the developing countries where so many people, like myself, focus time and effort volunteering or financially supporting aid efforts.
As a traveler, I found I had the ability to best serve many of these places by infusing my cash into locally run businesses and any social enterprises I could find. These come in the way of coffee shops, restaurants, tour companies, massage parlors—finding the mom-and-pop shops and supporting their efforts was a new concept for me, and a way to constantly and effectively integrate service into traveling.
And this winding tale of mine, about how my idea of serving others has changed over the years, turns toward my current efforts. One of my key service ideas now centers on a project I launched in 2011—the project pools together all these seemingly disparate ideas of social enterprise, volunteering, and responsible travel. I realized that there were others who were likely also looking for simple ways to serve and travel. My newest site, Grassroots Volunteering, is a community-supported, free and open database of local social enterprises all over the world and small independent volunteer opportunities. And from this project grew my newest book, which was published last year about ethical international volunteering, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.
Traveling has had such a profound effect on me, but it was only once I started to look at the integration of service and travel that I found—though it sounds like hyperbole to say—a higher purpose of sorts. When I left to travel, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live the traditional career path prescribed in the United States, and was even less sure about what I would do instead. Now though I feel like I have found a way to continue serving while also helping and empowering others do the same, and for now, that feels like the right way for me to continue this journey.
Shannon O’Donnell has actively traveled around the world since 2008; she travels slowly and volunteers in small communities along the way. She recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her travel blog, A Little Adrift.